While we admit to preferring the old Nordic Games moniker, we’ve now gotten used to the amalgamated THQ Nordic name. After all, it’s actually the least of the changes made in recent years.
Now a distinct part of the headline-grabbing Embracer Group, THQ Nordic is today the parent of no less than fifteen studios, as well as having many more titles on its slate from publishing deals. And that number of studios seems certain to rise further, with the Embracer Group showing no sign of slowing down in either acquisitions or expansions. THQ Nordic alone has expanded by four studios over the last 12 months, and that’s during a global pandemic.
With so much going on, we thought it was a good time to speak with THQ Nordic boss Klemens Kreuzer, and find out how he’s managed the constant growth and where he sees his arm positioning itself both within the group and the broader industry.
Despite its name, the whole Embracer group seems happy to let its various parts operate at arm’s length. Whether that’s THQ Nordic as a part of Embracer, or the creative independence of the studios that exist under its umbrella.
“When we acquire studios, we do it because we strongly believe they are good at what they are doing and how they are doing it,” Kreuzer points out, adding that “they have almost every freedom on the creative side.” Instead he sees THQ Nordic’s role as keeping things realistic.
“Of course, as a publisher, we sometimes have to hold them back when they come and say ‘we’ll make the new world 12 times larger than in the last game’. In these instances, we might ask them to only do it three times larger and get it done before we all go into retirement!”
Although of course, THQ Nordic, with a wide range of licenses and IPs at its disposal is most involved in deciding what projects should be pursued. “When it comes to the question ‘what will they develop next’, we sit together and discuss all options,” Kreuzer explains.
CONFIDENCE AND SUPPLY
So with all those options, and all those studios, where does Kreuzer see THQ Nordic sitting in the market, and does its expansion show a confidence that the market will both continue to expand, and continue to spend on a broad range of games, rather than clustering around a few games-as-a-service titles?
“We see an increased amount of interest among players for our own games, in addition to keeping an eye on industry data demonstrating that the gaming industry is growing every year along with the game-playing audience,” replies Kreuzer, with an eye to the demographics of the situation.
“The young players from the early ’80s are now in their 40s and 50s, and the term ‘silver gamer’ has only been around for a couple of years. We are certain that more people will start playing in the coming years, especially with evolving markets, stronger hardware and increased accessibility. The demand for content will only continue to grow,” he states confidently.
He’s very happy to see the latest hardware too. “Finally, they are here!” Seeing the new consoles as another part of that growth, one that his teams are already busy working on exploiting.
“We are really curious to see what our studios can achieve with both of these very powerful platforms and are already working on some games for PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X|S that will be released in 2021 and beyond.
“A new console generation will also be beneficial for PC players, too,” he adds. “Stronger hardware on the consoles means less limitation on PC games, as well. We look forward to this new generation of console hardware and believe they are already having a strong impact on the market, exciting gamers worldwide.”
The new hardware has come alongside other evolutions in the console market, most notably the biggest push the industry has ever seen to create a subscription service in the form of Game Pass, while streaming services such as Stadia and Luna test those waters.
“They are great additions that are here to stay but we don’t think they will replace traditional distribution in the foreseeable future,” opines Kreuzer. “These programs are in need of new content every month. When I browse through Amazon Prime or Netflix for film content these days, there are not many interesting movies, for my taste at least,” and we can’t argue with that.
“So, in my view, the more game streaming services are out there, the more content they will need. And THQ Nordic is delivering content.”
And it’s delivering content in ever larger quantities. 2020 releases were numerous with a distinct flavour at making the most of existing IPs and licenses, although not without a fresh sense of creative vision.
Destroy All Humans! and SpongeBob SquarePants: Battle for Bikini Bottom – Rehydrated, were both fairly straight and successful remakes. While the western-strategy IP Desperados was rebooted by Mimimi Games in Desperados III. THQ Nordic pulled a similar trick with Airships Syndicate’s Darksiders Genesis, taking the game successfully into a new, isometric, hack and slash genre. Meanwhile the reworking of Gunfire’s Chronos into Chronos: Beyond the Ashes removed the original’s VR requirements, opening the title up to a big new audience.
Looking ahead, THQ’s exciting new IP BioMutant is now expected in 2021, while new acquisition Purple Lamp continues to improve The Guild 3 in early access. Plus the return of helicopter combat IP Comanche is as yet undated, but will launch into early access first.
In terms of genres and audiences there’s an incredible variety there, so is there an overarching strategy?
“We will continue to bring different games, tailored for different audiences. The typical SpongeBob-player might not want to play a game like Desperados III. As a company, we think it’s a big risk to just ride one horse into battle. That’s why we have a whole cavalry!”
“In 2021, we will continue that strategy,” Kreuzer notes, mentioning BioMutant as well as “new racing games such as the next MX vs ATV and more!”
“Our scouting teams are just looking for great experiences,” he explains. “Although THQ Nordic has made some remakes in the past and created new chapters in established, beloved franchises, we also like to experiment and create new franchises from scratch.
“Just think of This Is The Police, Little Big Workshop from our friends at HandyGames, or Biomutant. Whenever we meet a studio with a great idea that fits into our plans, or someone looking for a strong publishing partner, we are eager to take the chance.
And making the most of those chances isn’t limited to western markets, with THQ now also present in Japan:
“THQ Nordic Japan is doing great,” he tells us. “The goal was and is to expand our sales in Japan and the neighboring countries with boots on the ground. We found it quite hard to establish a reliable business in Asia without professionals from there, who know the market as well as we do in Europe or the US. With THQ Nordic Japan, that challenge is now a thing of the past.”
NO EMBRACING (FOR NOW)
Sadly while that challenge may be in the past, the biggest challenge of recent years is set to roll on well into 2021. So just how has the pandemic affected so many aspects of THQ’s business: its studios, its launches, its catalogue sales, and the lack of events going forward?
“Like every publisher out there, 2020 has given us a lot of challenges and a lot of opportunities,” he explains. “I think we’ve managed to overcome all the challenges very well so far and, of course, some lessons were learned.”
Those include: “We’ve met all requirements for our people to work from home easily to ensure that productivity is at ‘in-office’ levels. This of course required investments in new hardware and upgraded internet connections, as well as establishing new routines.
Enforced working from home is a mixed blessing, one that has become onerous now but still should provide long-term benefits, there have been clear upsides for publishers from the pandemic.
“We’ve taken advantage of the opportunity to entertain more gamers spending more time at home. We’re very happy to have delivered an incredibly fun and diverse portfolio of new games during 2020 but we also worked hard with our console partners to create promotional opportunities that helped refresh some of our catalogue titles in players’ minds.
“I am very proud of the entire organization,” he tells us. “They have truly risen to the challenge. We are prepared if we have to stay home for longer but, of course, we cannot find a proper replacement for a coffee with colleagues in the kitchen.”
NEW YEAR, NEW COLLEAGUES
And some of those colleagues are so new that they’ve not yet worked together in one building under THQ Nordic ownership. Those include Purple Lamp, based in Vienna, which joined the team in November 2020. But despite the obvious problems the team worked on multiple projects and releases over 2020.
So what are THQ Nordic’s plans for the studio?
“We’ve known Purple Lamp for quite a while now. Back when the studio was called Sproing. Now, we are working together on The Guild 3, which is still in Early Access. We also released SpongeBob: Battle For Bikini Bottom – Rehydrated with them earlier this year.
“This was one of our most successful games in 2020 and our company’s history. Purple Lamp really did a fantastic job there. We managed to make a lot of fans very happy and the user scores are outstanding. This success made the acquisition a very easy choice. Purple Lamp’s experience and professionalism makes them an ideal developer for future licensed games.”
But it’s not just buying in new talent, this year it also founded new studios in the shape of Pow Wow (Vienna) and Nine Rocks (Bratislava). Kreuzer puts those moves in context to its existing partnerships and to acquisitions.
“We’ve made great games in the past with both partner studios and internal studios,” he notes. “Grimlore Games in Munich for example just released the second standalone expansion to one of our core franchises, SpellForce, and has managed to bring this RTS-RPG legend back to the screen in a really compelling way.
“Setting up a new studio requires a bit more patience. But once you are done, you have a handpicked team that lives and breathes their franchises and projects.
“Buying an existing outfit has also proven fruitful for us and it’s obviously a faster process in terms of getting the team ramped up on a project. Piranha Bytes, for example, has so much experience in creating open world games like ELEX and we were really happy they decided to join our THQ Nordic family last year.
“Both of the newly-founded studios have started to work on one or more projects already and we will be happy to share more news in the next year.”
There’s no doubt that THQ Nordic will have plenty to share in 2021. With a very veritable army of mid-sized developers under its wing, it’s now well placed to provide content for the ever-growing market – whichever platform they might decide to want it on.