With the news that their pieces have mostly been bought by different groups – a Volition here, a WWE license there, with Vigil being left on the side of the road with a “take me” sign like a 70s era ottoman – the death of THQ is official, notable only in how surgical it was. It’s a day of mourning for those at THQ’s developers – many of whom were acquired in the overreach that eventually doomed the company – for people who deserved a better fate.
However, it’s not a day of mourning for THQ itself. Their executives were clueless and largely ineffective, the company was a prime example of most of what was wrong with games publishing for years, and their bloated carcass’s inevitable death should be celebrated.
Throughout the 90s and most of the 00s, THQ was known for one thing, primarily: crappy licensed titles. They purchased Broderbund’s video game division in 1991, and immediately had the company behind the likes of Choplifter, Raid on Bungeling Bay, the original Prince of Persia and Karateka immediately put out the abominable Peter Pan and the Pirates, a licensed property from a cartoon of that era. Continuing that trend, they proceeded to pump out licensed product regarding the World Championship Wrestling (WCW) franchise, SpongeBob Squarepants, Home Alone, and Where’s Waldo. The vast majority of these games were terrible, to the point where their hits seemed more like accidents than anything else. For every WCW vs. NWO: World Tour, there was garbage like WCW Thunder, Quest 64, and other licensed drivel. In the midst of countless games featuring A Bug’s Life, Finding Nemo, Bob the Builder and whatever cartoon was popular on Nickelodeon, they actually came out with their first original hit: Red Faction, a first generation shooter for the PlayStation 2, in 2001. They also found a wrestling pattern that worked, releasing the first two WWF Smackdown! titles (PSX) and WWF No Mercy (N64)1 within a year of each other.
Their pattern of an odd hit like Full Spectrum Warrior being surrounded by crap like WWE Crush Hour and anything with the name “Bratz” in it, continued until the latter part of the decade, when something amazing happened: they started putting out some legitimately good games. Their acquisition of Volition in 2000 paid off with the sublime Saints Row 2, proving that they could do Grand Theft Auto better than Rockstar. Both Darksiders games were outstanding. The Warhammer 40,000 games were all pretty good themselves. UFC Undisputed showed potential as a solid franchise in a sport desperate for one. Even Red Faction: Guerilla, a game with a moderate reception, was a great update to the franchise. Even more amazing for a company so used to trolling out safe yet terrible licensed fare, they started to take risks. UDraw might have been a commercial flop, but it showed that a new THQ was starting to emerge, one that wasn’t afraid to take a few leaps of faith. Homefront was also a risky new IP that didn’t do well, but showed guts while also exposing a flaw with AAA publishing in the modern era: one hit could seriously hurt a company, as THQ’s stock took a 26% plunge after Homeland’s failure at retail.
Of course, the “new” THQ also had a bad side, one that showed just what they thought of their customers. At a time when they became desperate for revenue, they went on a full-on crusade against used game buyers, taking Electronic Arts’ Project Ten Dollar and throwing it into every single game they could. Brian Farrell, the company’s CEO, became the public face of this jihad, comparing used game buyers to pirates. These statements alienated gamers that THQ needed on their side, and though numbers don’t exist to show how the policies hurt or helped, the sheer gall of insinuating that people trying to save a few dollars on expensive gaming purchases in the middle of a massive recession were no different than people outright stealing product caused so much ill will towards THQ that it might have been the final nail in their coffin. THQ’s last gasp effort to raise money ended up perverting the Humble Indie Bundle, taking along for the ride a group of people who were helping THQ by going against everything that they, as a company, stood for, further alienating paying customers. Everything THQ touched in their final few years turned to trash, as they started absentmindedly closing developers, many of whom were putting out outstanding games in spite of the pillocks who were in THQ’s boardroom.
There are many people, and even whole companies, who stand as being victimless in this whole mess. Vigil Games, developers of Darksiders, didn’t get bought in today’s auction, causing immediate job losses. Others went for below market value2, and THQ investors are complaining that the peace mail sale hurt their returns. World Wrestling Entertainment is owed $45 million by THQ, which they will never get back. This doesn’t even go into the developers that were shuttered pre-chapter 11, such as Digital Warrington, Kaos, and other subsidies too numerous to name. Sadly, as is the case with big business, the people responsible for this mess will move on, unhindered. Brian Farrell will land on his feet. His lieutenants will all land on their feet. The cycle will continue.
Couldn’t happen to nicer people, or to a nicer company.
Don’t let the door hit your ass on the way out, THQ.
1 – Arguably the best wrestling game of all time, if one ignores anything made by Adam Ryland
2 – Apropos of nothing, but people making fun of Homefront selling for only $500k are underrating the IP. That’s a steal for Crytek, if they actually do anything with it.