THQ's Last Light

THQ’s Last Light: What Might Survive the Publisher’s Death Throes

On December 19th, big-time game publisher and studio stable THQ revealed its terminal financial state by filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Will any of its franchises and brands survive the next year? Read on for some background and a breakdown.

First off, THQ has been treading water for some time. Some of its franchises, such as ‘Red Faction’, have missed so badly that they were shelved well in advance of the current Chapter 11 proceedings. Others, such as ‘Darksiders 2′, have sold well, but not well enough to offset the publisher’s leveraging and unreasonable sales targets. Beyond suffering from hit-and-miss AAA games is the money pit that was ‘Warhammer 40,000: Dark Millennium’, which spent years as an ill-fated MMO project.

While it may be another month before we get something more definitive about THQ’s direction, we know that through the Chapter 11 proceedings, the publisher’s $100 million debt won’t prohibit operations. Furthermore, $50 million in funds channeled through the Clearlake Capital Group will allow game development to continue.

But what does “Chapter 11” mean? What will happen to the games you’ve been expecting and the franchises you love? And what about the people and teams that make them?

The most important thing to understand is that Chapter 11 does not mean the end of the THQ story or the end of the titles you love… Our Chapter 11 process allows for other bidders to make competing offers for THQ. So while we are extremely excited about the Clearlake opportunity, we won’t be able to say that the deal is done for a month or so.
- Jason Rubin President of THQ Inc.

Already, Ubisoft has reportedly made a bargain-bid for THQ. Its goal would be presumably be to get hold of THQ’s various franchises (IPs), with a secondary ambition of obtaining the remaining THQ studios: Vigil, Volition, Relic and THQ Montreal.

So, as we watch THQ peter out, we may either only see one or two advance projects actually make release, or possibly the entirety of its line-up may get new life in the hands of a stable publisher.

With all of that in mind, here are the franchises in play and their current odds of continued development, as I rate them.

First, let’s look at the licensed franchises:

South Park: The Stick of Truth

On the one hand, THQ continues to swear that the Obsidian-developed ‘South Park’ title will not be typical licensed-based fare. With a spring release date, and a brand whose appeal could be made clear even to a venture capitalist, ‘South Park: The Stick of Truth’ should make release in spite of THQ’s turmoil. Future sequels should also be safe from the fallout.

Warhammer 40,000

This seemed settled when it was announced that SEGA and Creative Assembly had secured the ‘Warhammer’ license. However, ‘Warhammer 40k’ is a separate license. It seems unlikely that anything ’40k’ related is in production right now, so that leaves the license as a kind of asset. Unfortunately, ’40k’ fans shouldn’t hold their breaths. A new title is likely years away.

WWE

The long-standing series has been developed by YUKE’s Future Media Creators, an independent Japanese studio. For series fans, this is a tricky situation, since THQ owns the franchise. New ownership could attempt to switch to another developer (basically just change ‘WWE ’13′ to ’14 with the slightest updates), or the franchise and license may wind-up in limbo and skip a year.

Next, we have THQ’s own IPs:

Saint’s Row

THQ had actually been trying to develop ‘Saint’s Row 4′ alongside some kind of ‘Saints Row 3′ expansion or standalone title, before folding the two projects together. On the one hand, the game is likely set for a fall 2013 date, making its release promising. On the other hand, the last year of development for a ‘Saint’s Row’ game is the most expensive due to the amount of testing required. An entity interested in a quick buck on the last of THQ’s titles might find ‘Saints Row’ too expensive to fund, or otherwise cut the budget so far as to produce a buggy mess. A buggy release could kill the brand’s cachet, but anyone after THQ’s IPs likely plans to make more ‘Saints Row’ titles.

Darksiders

‘Darksiders’ is probably THQ’s biggest IP, but it’s also currently in peril. ‘Darksiders II’ fell well short of sales expectations, and its developer studio lost a key component in creative director Joe Madureira. Nevertheless, a ‘Darksiders III’ could be produced and sell over a million copies, but would need something like twenty months of development to be consistent with the series’ quality. The franchise may wind up shelved for a year or two before returning.

Company of Heroes

If funding came down to a choice between ‘South Park’ or ‘Company of Heroes 2′, you can bet that the PC strategy game would be extinguished mercilessly. Fortunately, that’s highly unlikely. ‘Company of Heroes 2′ could likely be finished (rushed out) well ahead of its planned late spring release. Furthermore, the brand and gameplay is suitable for a Free-2-Play style game, a notion likely to occur even if the IP has to change hands a few times.

Red Faction

Gone are the days when the first ‘Red Faction’ appealed to players with its “Geo-Mod” destructible environments. The brand would seem to be damaged goods for the foreseeable future, and it would take a serious rehabilitation for another entry in the series to make sense to anyone.

Homefront

Not the ‘Call of Duty’ or ‘Medal of Honor’ competitor that THQ had hoped for, ‘Homefront’ still managed modest sales and all-important brand awareness. ‘Homefront 2′ is in hands of Crytek, which suggests a technically beautiful game at what must be high development costs. Anyone looking forward to the continuation of this franchise should be prepared for it to ultimately become lost in a cost-cutting measure.

Metro 2033/Last Light

Supposedly, ‘Metro: Last Light’, the sequel to ‘Metro 2033′, is right around the corner. It’s close enough that it may actually play a large role in THQ’s future, since its success could mean the difference between a sell-off of pieces and a rebirth across the line. The game has solid hype already, but if its ownership changes hands just before release, paltry marketing could stunt the title’s release day sales.

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