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THQ's Bilson: 'If You Want To Design Games, You Shouldn't Be An Executive'

At the IGDA Leadership Forum, THQ's Danny Bilson described why games should be creative-led, not marketing-led, and why executives shouldn't be signing off on games' features after the green-light process.
Danny Bilson, EVP of core games for publisher THQ (Red Faction), is a bit of a two-fisted executive. He came to THQ to revitalize its creative ventures, and to do that he didn't just sit around and hope for the best - he took control of the marketing and product development divisions, and made them work together. Building on his career in games (Electronic Arts), and film/television (The Sentinel, The Rocketeer), he decided to make this core game group creative-led. "I've been really lucky at THQ," he said as part of his IGDA Leadership Forum talk on Friday in San Francisco. "I came in as creative director, and I came in to raise the quality of the games in general," which he notes was a pretty big opportunity. "By and large they built their business on licensed Game Boy games," he added, saying the company wasn't particularly known for its excellent titles. "I didn't come in here to make SpongeBob." "I walked in there, and I'll be frank, I said 'this is all opportunity. There aren't a lot of creative leaders here, so I can maybe get something done!'" Bilson lamented those execs that want to sit there and make sure everyone signs off on a project before they let it go. That kind of system does two things. "It waters down a concept, and it costs a fortune," he says. "It costs a fortune for all that iteration! If we just said 'here's the idea, let's go!' we'd just move forward and get it done." "Why does today's build have less in it than two years ago?" he asks, referring to a meeting he had regarding a bloated project. "$15 million to make those changes? How do we save costs in this business? One way is to get creative vision and drive it! And not make every [executive] love every barrel and crate." Ultimately, money-wise you are a bit beholden to your stockholders, he admits. "But there's only one way that I know of to make the stock go up," he says. "It's to make a great game. What is your customer responding to? This gets lost in all kinds of nonsense." "I want [the creators'] vision," he adds. "That's what creative management is. It's enabling talent to get their vision through," not about forcing them to react to market needs. Titanic and Star Wars famously tested terrible, and were predicted to tank. Games have to be led by creative. "I don't really believe in collaborative art. But people say 'well we've got 200 people!' There has to be one vision though, and it has to be communicated to all those people. All those people have the ability to create within their disciplines." "There was this gag in the past, where [marketing] would make a forecast," he said. "The forecast would dictate the budget. And the budget dictates the features and what you can do in the game. So they can change the forecast to manipulate what they want. Why are the non-artists in charge of the art? Makes no sense to me." Forecast isn't revenue, Bilson says, but marketing and sales treat it as though it's a real thing. Bilson likes to call them out on it though, saying "you're making it up!" "I don't think games should be directed from corporate in any way," he concluded. "If you want to design the game, you should get in the studio. You shouldn't be in the corporate headquarters, and you shouldn't be an executive."

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