While Sega continues to whore themselves out to every conceivable console, releasing the same compilations of old Genesis titles over and over again and continuously bleeding money, another publisher in dire straits is struggling to make ends meet by keeping their legitimacy intact.
THQ’s stock took a suicidal dive today, an expected reaction after pushing back the release of three of their biggest pending releases as well as revising their 2013 fiscal earnings forecast.
I feel bad for this company. They came to prominence at a time when having some licensed properties like Disney and WWE to use for game publishing was a guaranteed way to stay alive in the video game business world. THQ has never found a game that became a household name and could be exploited into a franchise to be milked every year. With nothing truly earth-shattering in the tank right now, we may be seeing the last days of a company who can at least say they did things their way.
THQ’s roots can be traced back to 1991, when they were first born out of a merger between Trinity Acquisition Corporation and Toy Head-Quarters. They left the toy industry completely a few years later to focus solely on video games. Most of these products were based on existing licenses, ranging from Rocky and Bullwinkle to Ren and Stimpy. As the turn of the millennium approached, THQ acquired licenses to what would become one of their biggest moneymakers to this day. Originally publishing games under the World Championship Wrestling banner, THQ then partnered with the World Wrestling Federation (now known as WWE) and put out WWF No Mercy on the Nintendo 64, a game still considered by many wrestling game fans to be the best ever made.
This was the trend for quite a while: wrestling and kids’ games. THQ branched into new territory with Summoner, a launch title for the Playstation 2 that received lukewarm reviews. They finally found a hot commodity with Red Faction, a well-tailored first person shooter set on Mars that may have found more life and sales had Halo not been released at the end of the same year. Destroy All Humans!, a fun open world take on 1950s monster and alien movies, sold a good amount of copies on the PS2 and Xbox during the end of their console lives. THQ also handled international publishing for Conker’s Bad Fur Day as well as distribution of the Sonic Advance series on the Game Boy Advance. These games brought in enough, but it wasn’t until they sought a Grand Theft Auto competitor on the Xbox 360 that they finally found something in which they could truly invest.
Saints Row was developed with the Playstation 2 in mind, but ended up making its debut on the Xbox 360. This worked out pretty well for both Microsoft and THQ, the former finally having a sandbox style game and the latter finally getting their foot in the genre’s door. What made Saints Row different from the rest of the “me toos” trying to capture GTA’s success, and what became especially obvious in its two sequels, was how seriously Saints Row did not take itself. There was no subtlety involved, and you could create your character and make him as exaggerated as you dared. The two sequels have embraced their silliness to an even higher degree and truly cemented themselves as a unique series that THQ should be proud to call theirs.
Unfortunately, it hasn’t been enough.
THQ lost the license to Ultimate Fighting Championship to Electronic Arts, whose own MMA franchise had tanked. The company was threatened with a stock delisting in February when their uDraw tablet arrived to minimal sales. Darksiders II was delayed until this past August, and despite selling over a million and a half copies, did not perform to THQ’s expectations, according to their conference call held on Monday where no questions were taken. The very promising South Park: The Stick of Truth has been pushed back until some time later than March of next year along with Company of Heroes 2 and Metro: Last Light.
No, it doesn’t look good.
What exactly are THQ’s options at this point? I am sure their directors and executives have been shopping the company around for some time, but I get the impression that somebody could have swooped in and picked them up by now. Perhaps after today’s bloodletting at the stock market, this is a much more viable option. Someone like Electronic Arts might do well to see if they can acquire a few properties from THQ; having Saints Row and WWE to themselves would add some serious firepower against everyone else.
The thing is, I don’t know if THQ will allow themselves to be sold off as just another business deal. Despite finding continuing success with WWE and Saints Row, they have never been content to simply sit on those laurels and let whatever money there is roll in. While they have plenty of licensed children’s properties remaining, they were the ones to secure the rights to the South Park game. It’s a risky move to make, because despite the proven fan base of South Park, it’s not always clear how many of them play video games, never mind how many of those gamers have played developer Obsidian Entertainment’s previous efforts like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II and Fallout: New Vegas. This is showing that THQ is not going to just sit around and let themselves be absorbed by the first gentleman caller.
What I like most about THQ is that despite knowing their perilous situation, they are not attempting to rush their upcoming games in a desperate attempt to rake in money. When Midway was on its last legs, Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe replaced what became 2011’s new Mortal Kombat. It was the final game Midway released before the company went bankrupt, and it can be argued that it was intended for MK vs. DC, with a Teen rating, to sell more copies than a back-to-basics gorefest like Mortal Kombat would.
Midway was wrong. MK vs. DC chalked up a shade under two million copies. Mortal Kombat (MK9 if you prefer) has sold three million, two million coming in the first month of its release. Score one for artistic integrity. I have never read any bad stories about the way THQ communicates with its developers, and that attitude has helped them remain afloat for as long as they have. Whatever happens to them, their business model should be a lesson to other companies out there. Just because a quick fix can be done does not mean it should be your first option. There is a chance that THQ could stay alive for longer and live through yet another storm. If they do, they can once again claim victory on their own terms. If not, they damn sure went out swinging.