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GDC Europe: THQ's Whiteford On Building Red Faction For Digital Download

At GDC Europe on Monday morning, THQ's Don Whiteford discussed learnings from his rebranded THQ Digital studio, revealing its debut XBLA/PSN title, top down vehicle combat title Red Faction: Battlegrounds.
At GDC Europe on Monday morning, THQ Digital creative director Don Whiteford discussed the publisher's burgeoning specialization in the digital space, discussing learnings from his rebranded THQ studio and revealing its debut XBLA/PSN title, top down vehicle combat title Red Faction: Battlegrounds. Whiteford, who runs Juice Games (Juiced), now renamed THQ Digital Warrington, explained several rebrandings and stages of evolution for the traditionally retail-heavy publisher, of which his UK studio is a notable part. The UK-based creative director revealed that his developer's racing title Juiced sold around 5 million copies, previous to Juice Games' 2006 acquisition by THQ. Following this, his English studio started to develop new AAA games, Split Shift Racing -- a racing title with some unique asynchronous features -- and Stormbirds, a third-person flight action title. However, as the retail market started to change, THQ realized it needed to also set up or convert into studios that concentrated on digital. So these products were culled back -- and for THQ Digital Warrington, which now has around 40 people, Whiteford notes: "We've abandoned boxed products entirely." Whiteford showed an impressive CG combat trailer for the now canceled Stormbirds, with an Ace Combat vs. Crimson Skies type approach to the jet combat genre, noting "for the price of this [concept trailer], we can now produce an iPad or iPhone game." Things have changed majorly, even at the large studios. He commented that in today's market, "Certainly we won't be pitching any more $20 million [budget] games" -- and with large teams, 2-plus year development cycles, "costly bench time" in between products, and staff turnover, the AAA console space was not always a good place to be for Juice. So right now, THQ Digital Warrington is running on teams of three to 15 people, with up to a year for production on their games, and faster prototyping, reduced overheads, and zero bench time, without leaving people between products for longer periods of time. Whiteford suggests that learnings from big projects -- including agile methodology -- do scale down well to smaller digital games. And digital studios at big publishers can make use of famous, internally owned IP and game engines, as well as digital assets from older games. Tackling idea generating for the digital space, the THQ Digital creative director recommends careful nurturing across the whole company, with focused brainstorms using both already-constructed ideas, voting on concepts, and final pitches. He showed videos of rapid prototyping within the company, using tools like Box2D for physics, and wackier concepts still -- showcasing YouTube-like demonstrations instead of the complex CG demos they used to spend much longer on. Inspired by ex-Juice Games employees who went on to create hit PSN pool title Hustle Kings, THQ Digital looked closely at Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network, and said "margins were looking very healthy in this space" if you can go cross-platform and have a successful title. But for THQ, the revenue from a digital console game is still not a massive amount of money. So what's the point? Whiteford suggests a key part of this is expanding THQ's most important brands -- building awareness and loyalty for the company's core brand products. He then revealed a companion product for THQ's key Red Faction franchise, Red Faction: Battlegrounds, a topdown car, mech and rover combat title for Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network with up to four players on the same screen. In addition, various achievements in the game -- which was built by a core team of just four people -- will unlock unique elements in Red Faction: Armageddon. THQ Digital Warrington has three titles in development, including another digital product supporting a major THQ franchise and a new original IP digital title. The studio joins multiple studios within the publisher making online and downloadable titles, including THQ Digital Phoenix (formerly Rainbow Studios), as large publishers try to push aggressively into the digital space. It's also expanding its Montreal studio -- in association with Canadian government support involving tax breaks -- to add digital manpower.

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