Stories of 2012: THQ and the death of gaming’s middle tier

THQ and the death of gaming's middle tier

THQ left it late. Days before Christmas it announced it had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, the last resort of an ailing US company, in order to ditch its $100 million debt and sell its assets to the highest bidder. It was a fitting end to a year in which it became clear that, at retail at least, anything less than unqualified success can spell disaster.

The middle tier almost took THQ down with it, but the publisher’s troubles stretch back far further than January 1, 2012. Its transition from purveyor of licensed kids’ games to a publisher which aimed its wares squarely at a core gamer audience never really succeeded, and it was the critical and commercial failure of 2011 shooter Homefront, and the unmitigated failure of the uDraw tablet, that truly set the wheels in motion for THQ’s decline. That was put into stark relief by several former staff who, in January, wrote to THQ’s board of directors demanding four men on the executive team – CEO Brian Farrell included – be fired for “chronic and constant mismanagement”.

Farrell stayed in place, but 240 staff were let go before the month was out, and THQ was given until July to raise its share price above a dollar lest it be delisted from the Nasdaq stock exchange. Farrell, in what seemed a clear attempt to regain investor goodwill and retain his position, agreed to cut his basic salary in half. There were more quarterly losses, of course; there always were. Then another 118 jobs went as the in-development Warhammer 40,000: Dark Millennium ceased to be an MMOG and became a singleplayer game, and THQ stock hit a 52-week low of 45¢.

THQ and the death of the middle tier

Warhammer 40,000: Dark Millennium, once an MMOG, is now "a premium experience with single and multiplayer gameplay, robust digital content and community features"

In May, after another stonking quarterly loss, came further signs of desperation. THQ cut its losses and dropped Devil’s Third after seemingly realising that a new IP from Tomonobu Itagaki, a controversial developer of resolutely hardcore Japanese action games, was unlikely to be the multimillion-selling success story it so desperately needed. Danny Bilson, the former Hollywood scriptwriter who led THQ’s planned charge to the hardcore market as EVP of core games, left on the eve of E3. Jason Rubin, co-founder of Uncharted developer Naughty Dog, was brought in, appointed president in a clear move for some core gamer kudos. Rubin’s first order of business? Closing THQ San Diego after UFC, seemingly seeing which way the wind was blowing, took its official licence off THQ and gave it to EA. Rubin insisted there would be no further studio closures, and little wonder: there weren’t many of them left. The closures and cuts paid off, for the suits at least, with a slender profit announced in August.

With Saints Row: The Third one of the few good performers on THQ’s slate it was little surprise that Rubin made the call for a planned expansion, Enter The Dominatrix, to instead become a standalone sequel. Darksiders II launched to middling reviews and disappointing sales. Guillermo del Toro’s planned InSane trilogy was canned.

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