As a small child, Danny Bilson played with rubber prop guns on the set of “Hogan’s Heroes” and “The Andy Griffith Show” while his father directed episodes. Forty-five years later, Bilson is still playing games in Hollywood, but now hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake.
As executive vice president of core games at THQ Inc., the 54-year-old former screenwriter is overseeing a business upon which the Agoura Hills video game publisher has staked its future. Once known for lightweight game adaptations of movies and TV shows such as “Cars” and “SpongeBob SquarePants” and World Wrestling Entertainment smackdowns, THQ is responding to market trends and a flagging stock price by transforming itself into a publisher of big-budget action titles.
On Tuesday, it releases Homefront, an ambitious action game about America under North Korean occupation that’s the first original project to be developed under Bilson. The game’s fate will be a measure of the wisdom of THQ’s decision to spurn veteran game industry marketers and product managers and put its fate in the hands of an executive whose professional achievements include screenwriting credits for “The Rocketeer” and the TV show “The Flash.”
“I’m bringing a totally new culture for this company,” Bilson said. “We’re not making manifolds. We’re making products to entertain people.”
With production costs of $35 million to $50 million and tens of millions more to advertise, Homefront is the most expensive video game THQ has produced. The company must sell 2 million copies just to break even, a company executive said. That won’t be easy. The video game market is flooded with similar “shooter” games from Activision Blizzard Inc., Electronic Arts Inc. and Sony Corp., all chasing the same young male gamers who spend their bottom dollar on food, rent and video games — not necessarily in that order.
Bilson followed in the footsteps of his father, Bruce Bilson, and his grandfather, the late Hollywood film producer George Bilson, and became a scriptwriter. Then a chance meeting on a plane in 1997 changed his trajectory. The man in the seat next to him was Don Mattrick, the head of studios at EA who is now chief of Microsoft Corp.’s Xbox business. “For me, getting to meet someone from EA was like someone at EA getting to meet someone from Hollywood,” Bilson said. “I was such a fanboy.”
Mattrick persuaded Bilson to become a consultant on several EA titles, including the Sims. “He’s extremely insightful about game design,” said Bing Gordon, who was Bilson’s boss at EA and is now a venture capitalist. Yet Bilson’s business acumen remains unproven. An attempt to start his own game studio in 2004 failed, forcing him to return to writing scripts and comic books. In 2007, he got a call from THQ asking if he wanted to run the company’s “core” game business, overseeing production and, soon, marketing as well. Bilson appears to relish his outsider status…
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– Alex Pham and Ben Fritz
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