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Big Huge Games Seeks Big Money Buyer

Monica Norton

Looks like a local videogame company's shift in focus to stay relevant in the Wii hasn't paid off.

Game publisher THQ said this week that it will shutter its Timonium-based subsidiary, Big Huge Games, if it doesn't find a buyer for the studio within 60 days. The California-based publisher acquired Big Huge last year, but is now trying to slash its expenses by $220 million.

THQ, best known for tie-in games related to pop culture entities like "SpongeBob SquarePants" or World Wrestling Entertainment, is also shedding two of its California-based game studios. The company has blamed the economy and weak holiday sales for the move.

Like many publishers, said Michael Pachter, an industry analyst with Wedbush Morgan Securities, THQ went on a spending spree in recent years and acquired several independent game studios speculatively in the hopes of owning the next big hit videogame franchise.

"They've just got way too much overhead relative to revenues," he said. "THQ is not going to go bankrupt, they are going to get rid of the studios that they think are marginal."

Founded in 2000, Big Huge is best known among computer game fans for a franchise called Age of Empires. The title was once well-known in the genre of "real-time strategy" PC games, in which players steer the development of virtual nations by the careful deployment of diplomatic and military resources.

Big Huge's founders are veterans of Firaxis Games, a local game company famous for its Civilization game franchise, a similar genre of computer game. Big Huge was not the first local game studio to be picked up by a major publisher: Firaxis was acquired in 2005 by Take Two Interactive Software, a publisher best known for owning the studios that make the "Grand Theft Auto" videogames. The Fairfax-based Mythic Entertainment was acquired by Electronic Arts in 2006.

Complex strategy games like Age of Empires and Civilization have never been bestsellers on game consoles like the Nintendo Wii or the Xbox 360. What's more, the popularity of computer games has waned as consumer interest in the Wii and the Xbox 360 soared. Games designed for use on computers have commanded a steadily shrinking chunk of the entertainment software market, which was worth about $12 billion last year.

So, last year, Big Huge Games founder Brian Reynolds announced that his company was changing directions in order to find a new audience on the Wii. Reynolds did not disclose any details about two under-development titles, but said his company needed the deeper pockets of a big publisher like THQ to develop them.

"Games these days cost a lot of money to make," he said at the time.

THQ and Big Huge Games did not immediately return phone calls late yesterday afternoon.

By Mike Musgrove  |  March 19, 2009; 6:44 PM ET  | Category:  Mike Musgrove
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Ensemble Studios makes Age of Empires. Big Huge Games' only contribution to the series was an expansion pack to Age of Empires III. What Big Huge Games is better known for is the Rise of Nations series, which are also real-time strategy games.

Posted by: bacchanalian | March 21, 2009 3:43 PM

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