What exactly happened to Vigil Games' Warhammer 40k MMO Dark Millennium Online? Former THQ big cheese Danny Bilson reveals what went on behind closed doors at THQ. Ultimately, we know we happened.
Bilson joined THQ when Vigil's MMO was 18 months in the works, but it played second fiddle to Darksiders. EA's failure to get Warcraft numbers with BioWare's SWTOR was a big factor.
Already the purse strings at THQ were pulled rather tight but then "the wheels came off" for the publisher in December 2011. The MMO markets were already mutating.
With the sudden financial hit and the likely hood of the traditional subscription fading, THQ decided that its original plan for Dark Millennium Online was too big a risk. "What happened was, in December of 2011 is sort of when the wheels came off for THQ, and there was a tremendous loss of money in the uDraw situation as well as some tough releases during that year. By the end of the year we had to make cuts,” explained Danny Bilson.
MMOs are notoriously expensive to develop given their scope and the infrastructure needed to keep them running, as well as keeping teams working on support and new content all the time. “I wanted to see what was happening with MMOs, because it was taking years to make and I was kind of anxiously waiting to see what would happen with the Star Wars MMO at EA, to see if the subscription model is over, or whether it would still work,” he said.
THQ had been toying around with various models for the MMO but when Star Wars: The Old Republic "wasn't instantly doing huge numbers and building towards World of Warcraft”, it sent up a red flag to THQ that subscriptions weren't a sure thing anymore and were they really willing to gamble on a different model?
“We knew that weren’t going to be able to go subscription, and then we lost a ton of cash that year. There was no way we could gamble on the big bet like an MMO,” lamented Bilson.
Developer Vigil didn't want to abandon the project and so THQ said it was to be reworked as a multiplayer RPG. “I think we were calling it Inquisitor; I can’t remember for sure. They started to design a game that was going to either be free-to-play or pretty low priced point of entry, that was basically going to be a digital PC title with lots of add-on content."
“We were going to take some of the great stuff they had and redesign it. I remember some things that I really loved, like each player would have their own capital ship and your friends could have quarters on it. You collected all your stuff from your adventures on your ship, and you could customise it," he went on.
“Then it was much more like a Borderlands kind of game. It was a four-player co-op jump-in jump out, go on these missions with your friends. I was really excited about that. With the commitment of that year we felt we could finish that game and ship it within that year, which would have been summer of 2013. It would have been last summer.”
Bilson, in his last months at THQ, found himself up against fellow executives who wanted the Warhammer 40k title to just be scrapped. “They felt like, ‘Well, we wrote it off; we cancelled the game; we wrote off the investment; we don’t wanna invest any more in it.’ We had some really heated conversations over it. But ultimately I respectfully did what my boss and some of my partners wanted which was to let it go completely," he recalled.
“There was a lot of game let go there that was pretty great. The combat system was really fun; it was fast, it was exciting. The art was really great, the world was coming along. I thought it had tremendous potential."
“I was really disappointed when that second iteration that we were calling Inquisitor got cancelled. That was on a Friday, and Monday – I believe the next work day – I left THQ.”
He agrees the project "didn’t make sense" as an expensive MMO.
“I think that business was over, but I thought the refactoring of it did make sense and that was what I was disappointed about. I think that we, as a team, probably held on to that longer than we should have,” he said.
“In the state that we were in, if that could really hit, it could change the company. Our models weren’t crazy, it had to just work and it could really have helped our company. Brian Farrell and myself and some of the other execs probably held on to that longer than we should in the hopes that it would be a big hit for us."
“But what the team built down in Austin was really exciting and I was very inspired by it. During the whole four and a half years I was there I felt the content they were building was really excellent.”
Today Star Wars: The Old Republic has abandoned its sole focus on subscriptions, and World of Warcraft has continued to march toward micro-transactions with services, cosmetics and utilities. Developer Vigil Games was defunct as of January 2013, and was almost bid on by Crytek but they decided it 'didn't fit' their portfolio. However, Vigil co-founder David Adams and much of the studio's former staff are today working at Crytek USA.