MF: Moving back, though it’s broader, is the announcement related to the MMO and how that impacts the business and the perception of the business. One of the things, looking at the release that went out on the wire, there was a quote in there from Games Workshop, and I know it wasn’t a THQ quote, but THQ issued the press release,”We are genuinely excited about the new direction that THQ has taken with Warhammer 40,000: Dark Millennium.” If you just talk about the “shift,” that’s one thing. Right below that, though, is where you announce that 118 jobs have been eliminated. 118 developers at two great studios are now out of work. If you looked online, there was a very visceral reaction from the development community that was, “Wow. How do you have this quote in there about being ‘genuinely excited’ at the same time you are laying off 118 people?” How does that look? What do you have to say to developers, who are at other companies, when you have this rough juxtaposition?
DB: If you’re looking at it on the surface, you could say that, but if you know a little about it or think about it for a minute, it’s a different story. That story is that the game has been in production for five years; five years of many developers working really hard, honing and building something. There’s a tremendous amount of content there. Let’s just take the Games Workshop piece, because there are two separate pieces here. The Games Workshop guys had been to the studio. They had seen the concepts for how all those assets are used in the vision for the new game, and they were genuinely excited about the new game. Those guys are gamers.
Now, let’s talk about the other piece. laying off developers is the worst part of my job by a lot. It is the most painful, horrible, sad thing that comes along, and I don’t know how, honestly… you never get over it. Let’s just say that it’s unbelievably disappointing. Those guys and ladies are tremendous people who have worked unbelievably hard, and all I could do is thank them for their service. That’s what I did. It’s a lot more fun to be on the growth side, when you are bringing new people on than it is laying great people off. It’s absolutely very, very difficult for me personally and for everyone here at THQ.
MF: Because, obviously, the development community is reacting to the surface part. They read that release and you’ve got this “genuinely excited” quote and the laying off of 118 people. Again, I know that there are two different pieces, but looking at the reaction from individual developers—people, not companies—those are people who are going to take that with them. As THQ turns around, and does turn toward that growth, do you see a potential problem attracting those individuals?
DB: It depends how developers look at it. They can look at it like… let’s say you’re a developer that loves MMOs and really loves this game, because there is terrific content there. You could also say, “Look at THQ as they struggled and compressed and compressed, they protected this team for years” beyond where some people would have said, “That’s really risky and expensive. They should get out of that business right away.” So there’s another story of the THQ that kept those guys and ladies employed as long as the absolutely could and did not ever want to make a change, but the market conditions, around MMOs in particular, were starting to influence a rescaling of it. Our own market conditions—the conditions of the company–with our financial status, at a certain point, at the very last point, we had to let those people go. There was nothing capricious about it. It was nothing that any of us wanted to do.
The people that worked on the game, especially for all those years, they saw us keep funding that and funding that and funding that, and doing everything we could to make it happen until we couldn’t anymore. Your question about would people like to come back and work here; I would like to believe that the best game developers gather around the games they want to build the most and the content they want to be involved in. Unfortunately, one of the hard things about the game development business, is that it is transient. Teams do get laid off, and people move around. One of the reasons that we all know so many people in the business is that we’ve all moved around from company to company and game to game. I like to believe that when we have the right game, the right team and the right place for individual developers, that will attract them. If they have nervousness about being laid off, I guess they’d be like everyone else.
THQ PR REP: I’d like to say that from an administration perspective, when we have an action of that nature at a studio, we do multiple things to help the employees. We did a career fair, at which 28 other gaming companies went to look at the talent that was affected. We have a full-time recruiter working with these guys. We have a massive email distribution list, where these guys are getting access to jobs in the Austin area, or the surrounding areas. All of these people are eligible, if they choose to relocate, to apply for jobs at our other studios. These guys aren’t getting dropkicked to the curb. We handle everyone with the utmost respect, and there is no malicious intent in any of these actions.
MF: I didn’t mean to imply it was the intent, but rather the perception, based on what I’ve been seeing from individual people (and not companies).
THQ PR REP: I understand what you mean about the juxtaposition in the press release, and what you are saying. However, when you talk about the Games Workshop license holder being “genuinely excited” about the continuation of a product versus the factual information of what we had to communicate to our stakeholders about the action and the “shift,” I think you guys are reading a little too much into it.
MF: I understand where Games Workshop is coming from, but THQ issued that press release. I wonder if a conversation between you and Games Workshop about tempering that language out of respect for the affected employees, or even including some of the things you just told me. None of that made it into the press release, which I think would have reflected well on THQ. All the things you are doing… I understand that there is a business and financial message that needed to be communicated with that press release. The fact that, as I’ve said, there are individual people who work in the industry who read that and had that reaction. I’m communicating what I’ve seen and saw immediately following. In fact, there was one person who cited that quote and the layoffs and called you guys “jerks.” It was harsh, but it was to the point.
THQ PR REP: You are talking about blogging and comments. If we responded to everyone’s opinion, then we would be doing that all day.
DB: I think there are a lot of developers that worked on Dark Millennium that would be pleased to know that their work is going to live on, and that the quality of their work has been recognized by the licensor. The repositioning of that work has made the licensor excited about the potential for the game. At the end of the day, that’s what we’re all here for. We’re here to make great games, to entertain people and to give them value for their investment in our games. That is ultimately the most important thing. I’d like to think that there are a lot of people who had worked really hard on that game for years, and are happy to see that their work is going to be played.
MF: We received confirmation that an Obsidian project was canceled in the same week that it was announced the studio had missed their Metacritic bonus by one point. They had to lay off people, as well. It appears, based on what we were able to find, that some of the staff affected worked on the South Park RPG. Obviously, that game is still moving forward, so you weren’t the publisher that canceled the project. It seems like your relationship with Obsidian, and the project they are working on with you, might have been affected by this. How do you deal with that when two other publishers making decisions affect a project you are working on?
DB: It had no effect. Just like any studio, when you downsize, you keep your best people. Think about it. If South Park becomes the lead sku in the studio, it’s just going to have all the most experienced people on it. It didn’t affect us in any way. Obsidian isn’t our studio. If people were removed from that team, they were replaced by more senior people. There was no negative, except for the negative of any studio having to lay off employees. It’s incredibly painful. It wasn’t a game of ours that was canceled there, and I do like Obsidian. I want to see them succeed, and I don’t want to see them stressed by not having enough games, but Feargus seems to feel that he has a pipeline of stuff coming in. So, the answer is, really, that it had no effect.
MF: Lastly, the Wasteland 2 project that they are working on after laying off staff, does that have an effect?
DB: If you look at what that is and the numbers involved, you’ll see, again, that it’s of no concern to us. Obsidian is not our studio. We’re partnered with them on South Park, and as you said, we believe they are the best studio to make that game. They’ve been great!
MF: Thank you so much for your time.