News broke this week that 23-year-old game publisher THQ, along with all of its unsold studios, is no more. The company has played a key role in the industry since it acquired Prince of Persia and Carmen Sandiego publisher Brøderbund’s New Ventures video-game division for an undisclosed sum in September 1990 (although neither of those titles went to THQ—rather, they got a bunch of NES hits and misses).
While other sites rally to piece together memories of THQ’s best and worst moments, or write about what killed the once-big publisher, I thought we could take a different tack and look at how THQ’s image and marketing evolved over the years. Here’s a history of THQ’s logos and branding, contextualized around some of its key games and decisions.
Originally called Toy Headquarters, or T*HQ, Inc., the company was founded in April 1990 by Jack Friedman, the former president of LJN Toys Inc., with $1 million of his own money. The California company planned to produce dolls, action figures, board games, and electronic games—all licensed from entertainment companies.
Early efforts included Peter Pan board games and action figures, and a horribly-conceived, I-can’t-believe-this-thing-exists Vanilla Ice action figure that cost $150,000 (in 1991 money) to license. Their modus operandi was finding a trend or personality with mass appeal and licensing it as early and as cheaply as possibly—an approach they no doubt hoped would maximize returns and minimize losses on the hits and misses.
This method was backed by big money, thanks to a merger between T*HQ and Trinity Acquisition Corporation—a publicly-traded company formed to raise capital for some unknown/unrealized ventures.
Video-game licenses from Nintendo, 20th Century Fox, and Where’s Waldo? (aka Where’s Wally?) creator Martin Handford proved fruitful, with the 16-person company achieving $33 million in sales for its first full year of business. T*HQ soon dropped the toys entirely, focusing on the more lucrative game business.
T*HQ slapped its logo on the box and in the manual right from the beginning, as you can see in the Home Alone box art, but in-game you were treated only to a copyright disclaimer to indicate the company’s role in making the forgettable arcade-style action title.
This gave way to a static logo on game startup in Wayne's World and Fox's Peter Pan and the Pirates, with a simple "T*HQ, Inc." or "T*HQ Software" presents. There was absolutely no consistency—each game was different. It seemed T*HQ didn't know how to present itself in the video-game world...or maybe there was just no oversight.
By the time Ren & Stimpy: Time Warp dropped in 1994, T*HQ had its logo appearing in animated sequences at the start of each game. The Let’s Play video below shows the Nickelodeon and T*HQ logos getting pushed into frame by the titular foul-mouthed cat and dog. The image above that, meanwhile, comes from the prior Ren & Stimpy game, The Ren & Stimpy Show: Veediots!, where the two dance beneath a static, sterile logo.
More significant than the relatively-flashy animation, though, was the fact that T*HQ’s new logo had dropped the sterile “Toy Headquarters” in favor of a more streamlined look with white letters starkly contrasted to the solid blocks of black and red. A white border and a light shadowing effect gave it a dynamic quality, too, as if it were jutting out of the screen.
It was a product of its time, this mid-90s logo—positioned to seem just edgy and cool enough for the Sega kids while remaining friendly and approachable for the approval of Nintendo parents and corporate enough to be taken seriously by license holders. It also appeared in a 3D variant, tilt-shifted in the style of the 20th Century Fox logo, although Closing Logos mentions just three games that featured this twist on the formula.
T*HQ wasn’t always making games for the latest and greatest systems. Its licensed games sold much better on the Genesis than Super Nintendo, and as 32-bit consoles emerged it carved out a niche with the licenses for handheld and 16-bit systems.
The asterisk disappeared in 1997, as THQ began refining its image as a major game publisher (still entirely focused on licensed titles). The move coincided with—and was probably due to—the company reincorporating in Delaware (having previously been incorporated in New York). Meanwhile, the company netted huge profits from Nintendo 64 and Sony PlayStation hits WCW vs nWo: World Tour and WCW vs the World.
The “Inc.” then dropped from the THQ logo in 1998, as the company increased its output across licensed movie titles, wrestling games, handheld versions of big-money console licenses, and now also bowling, fishing, and motocross.
THQ made big moves at the end of the 90s. It founded a new subsidiary in Melbourne, Australia, primarily for handling distribution in the land downunder, and bought Descent: FreeSpace developer Volition for a pretty penny (around $20 million). THQ then announced that it would be a major partner with Microsoft on the Xbox console, and made moves to catch up to industry giant Electronic Arts.
Oh, and there was a new logo too. THQ was a company on the move, and what better way to illustrate this than with a logo that’s in such a hurry to get where it’s going it’s leaning forward. The slanted logo looks like its forerunner stretched to twice its width. It clearly signalled THQ’s intent to slide in on EA’s territory.
(As an aside, it’s interesting to note that in mid-2001 rumors floated around the tech sector that THQ might buy Activision or Interplay, or that “a multimedia or entertainment giant” might buy THQ or one of its chief competitors—EA, Activision, Take-Two Interactive. How different the industry might be today if any of these had transpired in the early part of last decade.)
In games it appeared with a whoosh sound and an announcer calling out the letters in a way that seemed to my ears to be aping the EA Sports logo. It varied between glossy and non-glossy, with slick animations on any systems that could handle gratuitous use of compressed video and lighting effects. Sometimes the THQ website address faded in beneath the logo, too—a sign of the increasing importance of the Internet to brand awareness.
Officially, the logo stood unchanged for eleven years—from 2000 to 2011. But its portrayal in games and advertising evolved and varied from one title to the next. The blue flashing, slick electric number in the video below was used in many PSP games—presumably because that was branded as an “edgy” handheld for hipsters and too-cool-for-Game-Boys teenagers. Nothing’s edgier than whooshing sounds, blue light, and shiny things, right?
Soon it was normal for games to showcase the logo in flashy or boring animations, always fitting vaguely with the theme—SpongeBob Squarepants had the logo float upward underwater, WALL-E gave it the TRON treatment, Metro 2033 dirtied it in a metallic-futuristic fashion, and Ratatouille put the logo on a board that nearly falls on lead character Remy.
THQ had a reputation for shoddy licensed games and ports, but as the decade wore on this began to slip. THQ-published kids’ games improved in quality and ratings, while continuing to sell in crazy-big numbers, and the “core” offerings drifted away from just licenses into (mostly) well-rated original IP—thanks to the talented folks at Volition, Relic, Vigil, Kaos, and Blue Tongue. The company published and developed games for everyone.
But no amount of creative manipulation could make the aging logo fit with the image THQ was increasingly trying to foster. On January 12, 2011, THQ unveiled what would prove to be its final logo. The bold, sophisticated look was meant to “epitomize the change, innovation, and creative growth that are the cornerstones of the new THQ,” said THQ President and CEO Brian Farrell in an official statement at the time.
THQ had turned a new leaf. It didn’t want to speed and slide into top spot in the industry; THQ planned to grow and redefine itself as a leading innovator in an increasingly conservative industry. It needed to differentiate itself from Activision and EA, mostly, but also to get away from the world of licensed games—which had turned almost overnight from guaranteed money printing to dead on arrival (the reasons for this would make a great feature all on their own, but suffice to say it’s because of the glut of crapware on the Nintendo Wii).
From a design standpoint, there’s a fascinating contrast between the curved, bright red Q and the hard, dark lines of the T and backward-lowercase h, all set on a plain white background. Why is the Q red, though, rather than the T or H?
The new logo made its first in-game appearance in first-person-shooter Homefront in March 2011. Unlike previous THQ logos, this one was standardized across all products—only changing color for Red Faction (it may be, of course, that it was just too soon for wild experimentation with presentation of the logo). Internal studios had their sub-names in small type beneath the “TH” and the white background would occasionally be switched out for black, but THQ’s final logo was ironically its least creatively-employed since the company entered the world of video games in the early 90s as a strictly licensed-crapware publisher.
THQ died for many reasons. The Global Financial Crisis hurt the company badly, as did the high-profile uDraw disaster. The continuing struggle of the US dollar is surely a major factor, too, although the collapse of the market for children’s licensed games probably did more damage—not only through losing a reliable income source, but also because THQ pivoted into the very market that derided it for producing low-quality cash-ins (a reputation that was no longer deserved at that point).
The loss is tragic—for the huge number of employees and their families affected, for the fall of another big publisher with the money to chase AAA ideas, for the legal complications that will make preserving and continuing the IP and games that weren’t sold in the post-bankruptcy auction, and for the simple fact that the people in charge were trying to push out innovative and high-quality games.
In the end, THQ was too slow. Its branding lagged behind its internal goals and external needs. Its logo—a symbol of internal culture, ideas, and the company’s public-facing image—changed too late in the game, much like THQ’s business model.