Yet another AAA publisher bit the dust today. After over 20 years in business but several of those spent struggling and a Hail Mary saving throw that a bankruptcy court ended up rejecting, THQ was officially carved up into pieces and sold off. Most of their successful studios and IP ended up at new homes (though many not at all where I expected) and a bunch of other beloved but dormant IPs like Red Faction and Homeworld will be auctioned off for much less at a later time. The auction raised only a fraction of what they needed to pay off their debts and even the biggest bids on many of these properties and teams were stunningly small, plus they have received no offers for the very talented Vigil Games studio or the Darksiders IP. Not that many years ago, all of this stuff would have been snatched up in a heartbeat and for a lot more money. Few stronger signs have ever been shown that the AAA industry doesn’t have much cash to spare these days.
I know and preach that businesses are not anyone’s friend and they are not something to get emotional over but I can’t help but feel sad at THQ’s demise. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of this failure is squarely on their shoulders and in particular, those of Brian Farrell whose years of inept leadership got them here. Relying on licensed properties for too long, focusing on quantity over quality and worst of all, the uDraw, were all done under his watch and even when it was most important, he refused to step aside and let smarter people try to save the business. He deserves to never work in video games again, though he made so much money even as the ship sunk that I suspect he will just retire after this. Despite it all, they had gotten well under way to transforming themselves from a licensed shovelware peddler into a decent mid-tier core publisher that put out largely quality games and had a bunch more in the pipe. I think if the economy wasn’t so poor and they’d been given enough capital to see out Jason Rubin’s vision, they could have become a force again. Unfortunately, we’ll never know now. Through all the mistakes and stumbles, I was still really rooting for THQ as they seemed to understand a facet of game creation that the likes of EA and Activision had forgotten. For lack of a better term, THQ’s games had soul and you could feel the passion that went into them.
With each passing year, we have fewer and fewer companies making and releasing the kinds of AAA experiences that are still my favourite way to game. There’s only a few publishers left, most of them are making their stuff in-house and almost all of them are in the red. There are no new independent AAA developers starting and most of the ones left are dropping dead or switching focus at an alarming rate. There’s more doubt than ever before that the new generation of console hardware may not be enough to reinvigorate things and that this type of gaming is simply not a viable way to make money unless you have a name like Call of Duty on your package. Even then, a couple of wildly successful franchises cannot sustain an entire platform. The thought of the majority of gaming becoming based off the current concepts that are popular in the mobile and indie scenes makes my heart sink. I feel those arenas as they are now represent a huge evolutionary step backwards for gaming and many of the design tenants and especially the business practices are not what the medium needs to evolve.
There’s a lot of blame to go around for the state of AAA gaming right now. Corporate leadership that is in many ways clueless and in other ways incredibly greedy. Short-sighted investors that don’t understand what’s necessary for long term success in a creative medium. The platform holders clinging to hardware well past it best before date and trying to make consoles about everything except playing games. The “enthusiast press” which seems to relish tearing things down these days rather than you know, being enthusiasts. And to top it all off, we have a world economy that’s still in far worse health than politicians want people to believe and the industry’s about to ask people to spend hundreds on new consoles when many are still neck deep in Apple’s fashion trend. It’s a recipe for uncertainty and doubt and I have plenty of both but there’s one key group that deserves a lot of the blame but which is rarely talked about here: Us, the gamers.
When you boil everything right down, we as a group are some of the worst customers any industry can ask for. We bitch, complain and fight about everything. We are full of mysogninist, racist, homophobic children that pollute forums and online communities. We shun and denigrate anyone who dares to try to get into games and isn’t as good at them as we are. We demand better graphics, longer campaigns, more multiplayer modes and customisation options yet still expect AAA games to cost the same amount or less after inflation that they did 30 years ago. Assuming of course that we don’t just steal them out of some warped sense of entitlement. And worst of all for the industry that tries to accommodate us, we scream for things that are different and innovative and most of us just end up buying Madden and Call of Duty for the millionth time while fresh ideas like Sleeping Dogs, Darksiders and ZombiU are ignored, lose money and end up collecting dust. Meanwhile, a company can crank out another soulless mobile Skinner Box game and have a much better chance of at least not losing any money, if not making a tidy profit. If you were trying to plan the future of a video game company, which would look better to you as a businessperson?
I of course speak of gamers in very generalised terms. Obviously we’re not all like that and I’m not lost on the fact that I speak from a privileged position where I can and do spend a lot of money on games. I get that many don’t have that luxury (especially now) and have to choose where their gaming dollars go much more carefully. But consider that if even 10% of the people who bought Call of Duty 9 this year bought Darksiders II instead, THQ might still be hanging on. If 10% of the people who bought Madden this past year bought Sleeping Dogs instead, it would have been considered a success and not a failure. We don’t get to bemoan the massive consolidation and constriction of innovation happening in the AAA space right now while also feeling like we don’t have to do our part to keep it going. Games are an incredibly high risk industry and getting more so by the day. It’s a business and it needs to make money. If we aren’t going to do our part to support the types of games we all claim we want to see, we aren’t going to get them, that’s just reality. If you don’t want to just see the shelves full of Call of Duty derivatives, then stop buying only Call of Duty and give something else a chance to impress you with something new.
Industries need customers or they can’t survive and grow. There’s a lot of us out there who still love AAA gaming and don’t want to see everything slide into the mobile sinkhole. But it’s up to us to make AAA gaming attractive and to support the kinds of things we want to see whenever we can. If you’re one of the many people bemoaning the death of THQ today, think about how many of their games you bought in the last year when they needed you the most. If we’re not going to be part of the solution, then we are automatically part of the problem. Either we create the market for what we want or it will cease to be, it’s as simple as that.