Sitting at a banquette in the outdoor courtyard of a dark Los Angeles nightclub, Gabriel Jones, dressed all in black, and his friend Wendy, wearing a black camisole and jeans, are hunched over their drinks. Behind them, a lamp grows from a cinder-block planter, blossoming into red bulbs at the end of long steel stems. Jones has brought Wendy here to ask her how he can balance the demands of his career against those of his love life. In this weird little cavern of a club, he's at the heart of the new economy's emotional spin cycle, where labor and love continually merge with and break apart from work and leisure. He's a one-man referendum on the trade-offs that everyone faces in a hyperfast-growing organization. Work or life? Growth or comfort?
All of which is to say that this is a business meeting, although neither of its participants knows it. Jones, a 27-year-old video-game producer, has just been asked by Wendy if he plans to move to Vancouver for three months. The purpose of the trip would be to oversee one of the creative studios contracted by THQ during the throes of crunch time — that sleepwalking state in the final months and weeks before a game is released, when it is tested and refined around the clock. A thousand programming bugs need to be fixed. The pressures are immense. People on the Vancouver team have had nervous breakdowns. Others have quit. To finish developing the game, Jones needs to live full time in Canada over the summer. If he goes to Vancouver, Jones isn't sure what Krista, his new girlfriend, will do. Will she wait for him to return to Los Angeles?
"So what's your opinion on Krista?" Jones asks Wendy.
"How long have you been seeing her?" Wendy asks.
"About a month," he says.
Krista is in her mid-twenties, has long red hair and blue eyes, and is working toward a degree in forensic psychology. She's bright and beautiful, and she adores Jones. When they go out, she sits beside him and strokes his hand. It's not hard to understand why: A few inches taller than six feet, tanned, seemingly at ease with everyone, he looks like a young Travolta swaggering through Brooklyn.
"Have you slept with her?" Wendy asks.
"Not yet," he answers.
"Well, you're running out of time."
Growth in No Time Flat
Running out of time is a continuous state of being for someone who works at a company that is as successful and as fast-growing as THQ Inc. Headquartered on a sunny slope of the San Fernando Valley, in Calabasas Hills, California, in a glass-walled building that is surrounded by low, green hills and that offers no signs except one — the name of the building's chief tenant and owner, PIP Printing — THQ is about 20 minutes northwest of Hollywood. The company is still in stealth mode: It isn't famous, but it's on the verge of fame.
Last year, THQ shot up to third place on Fortune magazine's list of the fastest-growing companies in America: It earned $302 million in revenue and $33 million in net income. In a little more than five years, it has gone from 43 employees to 300. In the process, it has enjoyed a compound annual-growth rate of 156% in earnings, with revenue skyrocketing from around $13 million only six years ago to more than $300 million last year. It is currently the nation's fourth-largest video-game publisher, behind Nintendo, Sony PlayStation, and Electronic Arts. Over the past five years, what once was a funky little group of creative people has become a video-game factory, popping out roughly 13 new titles every quarter.
If everything goes according to the company's plans, it will continue its profitable growth and will double in size every three to five years. That rate of growth has already transformed THQ, and as the pace quickens, so will the changes. Old rules get tossed, time runs out, work life and personal life converge into a new and unrecognizable hybrid, and corporate gestures that used to mean one thing can mean the opposite. What once was a cozy family where everyone knew everything, where email was superfluous because all events were public knowledge, is now a corporation where silence has replaced easy, informal communications. To dispel that unintentional, inevitable silence, all kinds of processes have been put in place: reporting systems, voice mail, every form of technological knowledge sharing. And yet those processes don't entirely do the trick. Jones, for example, seems to feel as if he is overlooked by higher-ups within the organization. Although nothing could be further from the truth, that feeling is an inevitable consequence of rapid growth.
The psychology of corporate growth drives Jones's almost-predictable response. He has been trying to break through the organizational silence at THQ and prompt his superiors to tell him what he's worth. In late March, Jones handed in his resignation. It was a test: an organizational suicide threat. About two weeks later, company officials replied by asking him to fly to Vancouver in order to finish the Aidyn Chronicles — one of the longest, most intensive projects that the company has ever undertaken, a game that Jones has been producing since it was first developed in 1998.
If Jones's gambit was predictable, so was the company's response: Grow up. Finish what you start. Prove yourself. Then we'll talk. This was no idle career feint by Jones, nor was it a disciplinary move by THQ. This was a big deal. The company hopes that Aidyn will help vault it into the ranks of the most-respected video-game companies. The game is a mystical role-playing fantasy, the most difficult kind of game to make — "the biggest long shot of all," as Jones describes it. It requires a huge team: two producers, backed by eight testers, all of whom are dedicated to the game at THQ's Calabasas Hills headquarters, as well as 33 more people at its studio in Vancouver and freelancers on contract in Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York. Aidyn Chronicles has already developed a cultlike following that is based on little more than screen shots and game descriptions that have been posted on the Web — even though Jones estimates that nearly a thousand bugs in the game have yet to be fixed.
How should Jones interpret the Vancouver assignment? Is it a vote of confidence in him or a form of exile? He hopes it won't be THQ's final offer. THQ hasn't offered what he'd hoped for: a blank check to produce the video game of his dreams. Nor did he get a new job title. He got Vancouver. Rather than getting a promotion, he got one more chance to prove himself worthy of a promotion.
Jones's unhappiness and uncertainty wouldn't much matter if the future of the company didn't ride on shoulders like his. But it does, which means that both Jones and his decision represent a dilemma that is central to any company facing rapid growth: How do you keep your best, most crucial people happy when the inner culture of a company is changing so radically that the old ways of motivating, organizing, and measuring success no longer work?
Jones and his fellow game producers are the fulcrum of the whole operation. As Brian Farrell, THQ's 46-year-old CEO, put it: "The single most important thing for a company like ours is to marry the creative side with the business side." The shock troops for the battle waged among video-game companies are the game producers, the ones who stay faithful to the creative vision and the quality of a product while constantly eyeing costs and signing milestone payments to the people who create the games. In the figure of the producer, in the work of people like Jones, a company stands or it falls.
In December 1994, Jones was introduced to THQ by a friend. Jones was hired and lived a producer's life during crunch time: 18 hours of work, 6 hours of sleep, day after day, for weeks on end. He established what was a long-standing record for the most consecutive hours of work without sleep at THQ: 36. He worked so hard that his eyes would start to play tricks on him. He learned the business by working in the trenches, and he studied other games to learn how to "break," or solve, them. In the process, he learned how to make them. As a producer, he has put that knowledge to good use, "tuning," or sprucing up, timeworn titles into marketable new games.
"Easy to learn, hard to master," Jones says. "That's the fundamental rule — for the games and for the job."
Jones has earned his chops. He is one of the company's best producers. His first assignment when he took the job as a producer was to tune Madden '97 into Madden '98. It was a small investment for big returns and a key to THQ's success. He did it so well, so easily — tweaking the game simply by updating the player roster, by changing viewer angles, and by putting in a transparent menu scheme — that the game felt both familiar and new to users. And it made good money, even when newer, more-powerful platforms and video games were edging the old-platform games off the shelf. He did the same with other games, including Road Rash 64 and Nuclear Strike 64. And he's attempting to do the same thing again, with an original, one-off game built from scratch: Aidyn Chronicles. It will be designed for Nintendo 64, just as that platform seems to have died in the market — a gutsy move and a big risk for THQ. This game isn't being tuned into completion. It's a major, original, creative undertaking.
To complete the job, Jones, in a sense, must transform himself.
Jones isn't the only person at THQ who is struggling to make the kinds of sacrifices that are required by a new sort of professionalism. Making the transformation has become everyone's mission. It has taken place again and again, one person at a time, over the past five years.
The change began with Brian Farrell, who joined THQ in 1991, the year after it was founded, as its chief financial officer. He took the company through several harrowing years of losses — fighting for corporate survival, bringing the company through the valleys with high-risk financing from the banks and out into the bright light of its first huge success. Then, in 1995, as THQ's growth spurt began, Farrell was appointed CEO. What had once been a small and simple organizational village was becoming before his eyes a complex corporate metropolis.
"In the past, we knew who was getting married, whose kids were going to which schools," Farrell says. "It was an intimate sort of environment. But you have to get bigger, add more systems, institute more controls. A larger company can't feel the way it did when it had 30 people. Rather than fight change, you try to manage it."
In 1998, when Farrell realized that he didn't know how to manage that change, he hired someone who could. Jeff Lapin, 44, had run a number of different corporations, including House of Blues and Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc., a hotel ownership and management company. He has brought a wealth of tools and wisdom from his experience at those larger companies to his role as vice chairman of THQ. For Farrell, the adjustment has been simple and, in some ways, a relief. He has stopped managing and has started leading. He travels relentlessly now — meeting with shareholders, stock analysts, and business partners, as well as creating alliances, goodwill, and a public image that nurtures the company's growth. Lapin stays at THQ's home office, running things with expert skill.
Yet Farrell hasn't disappeared into his travel itinerary. He still wanders the halls of THQ when he's there — talking, encouraging, touching base with workers. He's still the leader, both inside and outside the company's walls. By his own behavior, by his own renunciation of old patterns and habits, the CEO has established a model for everyone else to follow: Narrow your span of control. Delegate. Give up cherished behavior. Let go of everything that you can't know or that you can't do. Do only what you can do best.
It's not hard to tell why Farrell's people love him — why they want to see him and his smile appear in a doorway. He is affable and soft-spoken, a CEO with integrity in his blue eyes. On his office wall, he has a drawing of the church in Interlaken, Switzerland where he and his wife were married with only their parents as witnesses — a human touch that speaks eloquently about the understated human tone that he sets for the company.
When Farrell realized that THQ had grown beyond his capacity to manage it the old way, he hired Lapin, who'd been on the company's board of directors since 1995. The two men were good friends. Lapin had run many companies, but he'd never taken a job as second-in-command. He was independently wealthy and saw it as a personal challenge to come aboard and to see if he could make things work. The styles of the two men were instantly compatible. Farrell could remain soft-spoken and be the nice guy with the creative vision, and Lapin could play the role of "man in black," the one who teaches people how to narrow spans of control, how to hire key professionals, and how to put in place professional reporting systems and work processes. He came in and smote what had been a scrappy, quirky little street-fighter of a company — and that company began to behave itself.
"With Jeff, we have more professional communication with employees, more meetings, more information flow," Farrell says. "We maintain discipline. We tell people to set out a plan, make a good one, and execute on it. Make the date. Make the date. Make the date. We tend to have fewer people doing the same task, and we ask those people to do more."
Lapin, Farrell's alter ego, sits in his own office, looking like the embodiment of the CEO's dark side. He wears a black shirt, which he leaves unbuttoned, wide open at the collar to show his chest hair. Lapin has hazel eyes and curly black hair: He has practically the same driver's license description as Jones — but with a dark tan and a sensuous face, a playboy's face, the face of a Hollywood agent (even though he manages his company more as a Jesuit would). Jones summarizes Lapin in a few sentences: "A man who doesn't pull any punches. He's the bottom line. Need the truth? He's the man to go to."
"I'd been on the board of THQ for a long time," Lapin says. "Brian needed to get out and be with shareholders and investor relations. He needed somebody to do operating functions. We split up the company. I got product development, business development, legal, and licensing. The company was being run almost as if it was a family — which was good, but it needed to become more corporate. Not too corporate, however. You have to give people authority, but you still need to have checks and balances. We manage by walking throughout the company as often as we can."
Lapin learned the hard way how to make changes with just the right touch. One time, he was hired to reengineer a struggling company. He went in and fired half of the company's employees during his first week. It was the right thing to do, but the way that it was executed was, well, like an execution. The lesson that he took away from that experience was only one of the many lessons that he learned by moving from one business to another. By working in various industries — hotel management, pharmaceuticals, real estate — he gathered a toolbox of universal management skills at a highly professional level.
"The most important factor in how bad morale is brought about within a company of this size is lack of communication," Lapin says. "The silence. Everybody thinks that something is wrong when that happens. This place is email-crazy. I answer email as quickly as possible — within two days. I'm still getting my fingers dirty with the people who actually generate the product and make money for the company. I like that."
To shatter that silence, Lapin not only put into place new systems for communication throughout the company at large, but he also made sure that top management officials met with one another regularly and shared more information than they had ever shared before — even though neither he nor Farrell attend many of those meetings. He also made it every department's responsibility to know about all of the other departments, and he created new paths for decision making: sequences, checkpoints, milestones. He taught his group of senior managers about the balance between delegation and empowerment, and about the need to keep track of projects, to monitor progress, and to offer guidance.
Breaking the silence in this way is the single most important way that THQ has attempted to manage its growth. And the company has written a number of other rules for success: Stay humble. Don't get greedy. Bird-dog return on investment. Quit trying to know everything. Hire the right people. Stick to the knitting of what the company knows. Put professional project management into place. Take big risks only when it's absolutely necessary to do so.
In many ways, Lapin's philosophy has meant that what used to happen spontaneously now must happen systematically. THQ has put into place systems that break corporate silence but that, in the process, pillage old allegiances. This is especially true in the way that people communicate now. Everyone knows everyone else's business now — through email and voice mail, stringent reporting structures, weekly meetings — even though everyone in the company no longer knows everyone else's name. The whole company used to gather for quarterly meetings in the kitchen. Now it has to rent the recreational center across the street from the office. What used to be a family tradition of watercooler confessions feels more and more like a violation of privacy. Suddenly, everyone in the company wants to know how you're doing, but in a way that isn't always comfortable. In the past, the producer and his key people might have been the only ones who talked about your progress, but now people in marketing, sales, and finance have started to pry into the process. Everyone depends on everyone else, and many supervisors and managers who know the most intimate things about your successes and failures can still be strangers.
Most of all, Lapin taught people how to hire and fire, how to let go and say good-bye to employees who are faithful and good but who don't want to grow with the company. And that is precisely the situation that Gabriel Jones is in. Lapin's regime has impinged on Jones's life and his work, and now Jones must decide whether to adapt and stay or to leave THQ and work for a smaller organization. Lapin has drawn a line in the sand. Jones, and others like him, must walk across it — or walk away. Unlike many people who have left the company, whether or not Jones crosses that line is largely up to him. It's a matter of choice.
Big Opportunities, Big Temptations
How Jones has arrived at this point stems directly from the nature of THQ's rapid growth. Last year, the company brought in Scott Krager, a 35-year-old game producer, who had experience as a television-sitcom writer and who came with big credentials from managing an in-house creative staff at Activision, a company in which many producers are MBAs. THQ hired Krager away from Activision, gave him the title of executive producer, and asked him to lay a foundation of business processes — weekly reports, milestone checkpoints, forms, procedures — in the game-production department. He also brought with him his own secret creative dream: a game called Evil Dead, which he had been pitching to people at Activision without success. Evil Dead has since gone into production at THQ. Krager's dreams are coming true on all levels: He's getting both the job title and the game.
Jones watched all of this from his own office, and it changed him. He became restless. With the company growing around him, Jones was forced to grow as well — despite himself. He began to question his own career. Krager had left Activision on good terms. He hadn't been angry, and he had been perfectly willing to stay at Activision — if his bosses would have made him an offer that he couldn't refuse. But they didn't. So he moved to THQ, where he got everything that he wanted. As Jones puts it: "I'm learning everything from Scott. I'm just doing what he did."
It's easy to see why Jones wants to emulate Krager. There may be some envy behind Jones's resignation, but there's also a little hero worship. Krager is bearded, boyish, friendly, and full of energy — but "friendly" and "full of energy" could describe almost anyone in the company. He worked on successful games, such as one of the sequels to Pitfall and Interstate '76. He's seen, from the inside looking out, how and why the video-game industry rivals the movie industry in total revenue.
"The early games were created by one person who did everything," Krager says. "Now a game is created by anywhere from 5 to 300 people. It takes a movie crew — no, a movie production." He sits in his spacious office, which is decorated with oversized movie posters from Star Wars and The Shawshank Redemption. He's quick to enumerate what he did when he arrived at THQ and to compare his current workplace to Activision. "When I got here, it was a seat-of-the-pants culture — all improvisation. I was amazed at the lack of foundations. Still, to get out all of those products and to be profitable? It was mind-boggling. We created clear job descriptions. We established a set of basic responsibilities for producers to follow. We added the role of assistant producer. We scheduled regular status meetings. We created a series of milestone checkpoints that must be passed before a creative team gets an advance-on-royalties payment. And we do a thumbnail status report on all products, so that everyone in all departments knows where things stand."
Krager is also quick to give credit to his people, including one of his best producers: Jones. And, for his part, Jones has taken initiative on several fronts. Recently, for example, Jones told Krager about a dream of his own — a racing game that would knock out both PlayStation's Gran Turismo and its Gran Turismo 2, the reigning racing-game franchise, the supreme masterpiece of all racing games.
"Our producers, such as Gabe, work with developers in driving the design," Krager says. "Storyboards, voice-over scripts, level designs — everything goes through the producers. The producers are the carriers of the vision."
The Explosive-Growth Blues
Jones and his girlfriend, Krista, sit on a maroon, velour-upholstered bench at Scotland Yard, a Scottish pub where people actually smoke inside the bar. The walls are covered with memorabilia from Scotland: soccer-team pennants, wooden cutouts of bobbies wearing helmets. Krista hangs on Jones's shoulder, her hand on his hand.
In a way, this too is a business meeting. His career is the main topic of conversation: Jones would like to know, for sure, whether Krista will join him if he moves to Vancouver. He talks about the racing game that he dreams of creating — about how racing games have just the right amount of variability and structure, a perfect balance for game play. A racing game's logic is clear, its physics are exactly those of the real world. A game like the one that Jones dreams about is the ultimate test of getting it right. The problem is that reality costs money: To get a racing game tuned to perfection, you often have to pay licensing fees to every name in the game: race tracks, automakers, race-car sponsors. Reality costs money. For THQ, it's a major investment and a huge risk — an even larger risk than Aidyn.
Jones wants to know how often Krista thinks she'll come to Vancouver to visit if he goes.
"A weekend now and then, maybe," she says.
He didn't expect otherwise. But he needs a Plan B, and he isn't sure about how significant a role Krista will play in it. In the old days, when THQ was small, there would have been no Vancouver. His work, his passion, would have been at THQ's former location, in that mice-infested office next to a pet cemetery. Such personal complexities would never have entered the picture. He could have had both his job and Krista. Now, sure, he could follow through on his resignation immediately and stay in Los Angeles, but going has its perks too. Aidyn is one of the best things that he and his coworkers have ever done. It has been a nightmare, but making this decision has also become a way to continue moving toward his dream — despite the detours that have sprung up around him.
"We're already past the first deadline date on Aidyn," he says. "This product is going to be big. There's nothing better than broadsiding a major competitor. But we've got big problems, and now panic is setting in. The question was, Do we throw more money at the game, or do we kill it? Sometimes, I wish that we had killed it. But my people love the game. I love the game. A couple hundred thousand dollars later, the question was, Who do we send up to Vancouver to make sure that the money is well spent?"
Jones has one mantra in his life now: Security, stability, success. Going to Vancouver is the path toward achieving all of those things. He knows what it's like to live on the margin, and he doesn't want to go there again. He dropped out of high school in the 10th grade. He worked at Wherehouse Music. He worked at Mail Boxes Etc. He knows the tune to the minimum-wage blues. He once lived homeless for a month on the streets of Hollywood, sleeping on a secluded roof until a 33-year-old woman took him in. He doesn't want to climb a fire escape to go to bed ever again. He doesn't have to anymore. But, in exchange for that security, he knows the tune to the explosive-growth blues too. People who work for a company that's growing as fast as THQ is have to get used to a different kind of homelessness: They can't put roots down in one job or one place for long.
For now, Jones seems to feel at home sitting here at Scotland Yard with Krista by his side.
On the Verge of Greatness
THQ is building momentum for big moves in the future. As Germaine Gioia, 39, THQ's vice president of licensing, puts it: "On a bicycle, grinding it out in a middle gear, you eventually kick it into third. We kicked it into third gear a while ago, but we're still not in fourth gear. We're hitting our stride, though. We see the path ahead."
Yet, on the verge of greatness, THQ has become like a glistening, dewy spiderweb: Pluck one strand, one corner, and the whole web sheds droplets of water. You can't incubate an idea or a project in secrecy anymore. A project belongs to everybody before a day of work has ever been spent on it. Everybody has to know about it, from start to finish. Everything has to be coordinated and aimed toward "the date."
The date always looms now at THQ. A vast network of planning surrounds every video-game title. The company books television-advertising slots 10 months ahead; it pays $50,000 in advance for an end-cap display at Kmart; it builds and executes marketing plans in the final months before a product launch, which means that it must finish a game by or before the deadline date. Advance-marketing expenses don't get refunded. If you don't hit your deadline, that money's lost. The game has to get out, even if it's flawed. Otherwise, you lose. The bigger the game, the bigger the loss. Everything builds toward the milestone, the deadline, the drop-dead date. And so far, THQ has always hit its dates.
As THQ struggles to develop its own original titles and to invest the serious marketing money that such work requires, its business risks have become far greater. Heavily marketed original game titles represent a major gamble for a company that has been known as one that never takes risks, never spends a lot of money, never calls attention to itself. THQ used to thrive by doing the same old thing — by being true to the game play, loyal to the feel of an old "franchise," an old game title — while still changing it in the kinds of key ways that renew those titles for another year. In the process, THQ became known as a bottom-feeder, a burglar, and a rebuilder — a cheap "tuner" of used-up games, a video-game chop shop. Its motto could have been something like a paraphrase of lines from the Statue of Liberty itself: "Give us your leftovers, and we'll turn them into a feast."
But then, about three years ago, Farrell, the company's CEO, decided to take a big risk on a Nintendo 64 game — THQ's second professional-wrestling title — and he went to the banks to borrow money. The gambit was a nail-biter. He bet the company on a chance that the gamble would pay off big.
"We were scrambling in 1996 to put together financing for this awesome project," Farrell says. "We had to lean on the banks to fund this high-cost cartridge. We had to make the bank into a believer. We needed between $15 and $20 million."
Farrell got the money. Then he spent it. And it paid off. THQ produced a legitimate, original hit — WCW vs. NWO World Tour — followed by a string of successful, original wrestling and sports titles. Now the company is on the verge of becoming known as a maker of new games that go toe-to-toe with those of far more famous rival companies. Last year, at a trade show, a woman from THQ's marketing department created some point-of-purchase display cards that announced, with the wisecracking kind of humble pride that is characteristic of THQ culture, "Our games don't suck anymore."
Jones was a key figure in THQ's tuning operation. Now he's a key figure in the company's coming-of-age — the man in charge of Aidyn, a game that is meant to compete directly with the sequel to Zelda for Nintendo 64. Jones's role is a little bit like that of a movie director who hopes that the film he's shooting will broadside Terminator 2: Judgment Day during the first week of the renowned sequel's release. Nobody is saying that THQ would be incapable of such a feat. With recent best-sellers like WWF SmackDown!, THQ has generated raves from industry reviewers, gamers who are eagerly anticipating the game's release, and the business press. People everywhere acknowledge that the company has become an emerging power in the industry.
Aidyn, a long shot to begin with, still has many intractable problems, including all of the debugging that still needs to be done in Vancouver. But its biggest problem may be Jones himself. Those in the company who could decide Jones's future aren't quite sure what he wants: to keep producing games or to move up into an executive position. Back when the company employed only 30 people, none of this would have been an issue. People didn't think about promotions or about corner offices. Now as Jones watches others succeed in ways that only a growing company makes possible, those concerns have become central in his life. He often asks himself, Where is my job going to lead me?
Back when THQ was a village, somebody might have sat down with Jones and simply said, "Go to Vancouver, and we'll have everything that you want ready and waiting back here when you return." But now, THQ doesn't work that way. And four months from now, nobody knows how the company will be structured, let alone what will be waiting for Jones when he returns. THQ used to be a team. Now it's a company. As it grows, many people within the company will likely remain strangers to one another — even though people try to keep the memory and the spirit of the village alive. But there's something distinctly new here now: Jones is trying to change himself at the same time that the company is changing, to make personal changes as the company is making professional ones. And whether he can make those changes is just as crucial for the company as it is for him. Jones himself represents a gamble by THQ. A talented, dedicated game producer is extremely hard to find—especially one who already has 20 months of producing Aidyn behind him.
Learn to Change, Learn to Win
Other people at THQ have learned to change and have learned to win according to the new rules. Others have done already what Jones is struggling to do. Still others have created a path for him to follow. Germaine Gioia, vice president of licensing, is a CEO's dream. She is full of energy and laughter and self-deprecating wisdom. She has changed herself as the company has changed. More than any other employee in the company, she knows what Jones is going through and wants to help him decide his future, but she knows that she can't. She can't force him to go through the kind of personal surrender that she went through when Jeff Lapin arrived to run the company. At the time, she was doing both marketing and licensing, bartering what were akin to street deals with other companies. She spent next to nothing on the agreements, which went something like this: "We'll put your shoes on the front of every game box if you get us a point-of-purchase display in every Foot Locker." That sort of thing.
Gioia is the personification of why THQ is succeeding in making the transition from a small, creative shop to a growing corporation. She sits at her desk with a small haystack of black brooms leaning in one corner of her office, evidence of some past presentation, and she blurts out the most candid things without a second thought. You can't help but marvel at her honesty—because, mostly, it's at her own expense.
"I joined the company back around 1993, when it had about 30 people," Gioia says. "All of the marketing that we'd been doing was guerrilla marketing. We didn't have money. We pulled ourselves up by our own bootstraps. When Jeff first came here, I was in tears on a few occasions. I was questioning myself. I thought I would get fired. He would ask me, 'Did you go to that rodeo?,' 'Did you get the Nielsen ratings?,' 'Did you contact that athlete for that usage?' His most common words were, 'You what?' We were penny-ante criminals getting something for next to nothing. We were supposed to be in the big time, but we were little burglars—and proud of it."
It was a dramatic shift in culture. THQ hired an in-house attorney to work on its licensing deals and contracts. Gioia learned how to work at a higher, faster level. She learned how to identify the people who should be hired and those who should be fired. She let go of her marketing responsibilities and focused on her licensing duties. She created a structure where the company could safely start to spend serious money, taking bigger risks for bigger returns. Gioia survived—and then thrived—by adopting a role of absolute humility, assuming in every case that the new regime could show her a better way to do things.
"When Jeff arrived, it was like a meteor had dropped on this planet," she says. "He's my hero. He's a hero to a lot of people." She accepted that nothing but silence came from Brian Farrell's office, and she paid attention to what came from Jeff Lapin's. She lived through the growing pains, at times feeling unworthy because of that new silence, but she gutted it out.
"My attitude was, I'm going to go along with this guy, or I'm going to be fired," Gioia says. "To this day, I rarely speak with Brian. He is not the center of the earth anymore. Whenever Jeff says, 'Hop,' I make sure to ask, 'How high?' He has put the right people in place. For his birthday last year, the entire company made masks by stapling pictures of Jeff's face to wooden paint stirrers. Jeff almost always wears black. So we all dressed in black and held the masks up to our faces. Then the whole company gathered in a conference room and sang 'Happy Birthday' to him. He was moved."
Gioia learned to let go of the ways that she had done things, even though she had been proud of those ways. She parted with the traditions of hustling in favor of more professional procedures. Not everyone could make such changes. Those people who couldn't adapt found homes elsewhere. Some left, went through the changes that they needed to undergo, and then returned to THQ. Almost anyone who has left the company has been welcomed back upon returning. No one denies that something wonderful was lost in the process of hyperfast growth, but the wonder of what's being gained is only now beginning to emerge.
"We have a management retreat where we are given a bottle of really fine wine," Gioia says. "We used to be so happy when we would sit and drink that wine. And then we lost that tradition of happiness somewhere. People weren't giddy anymore. We had been a tiny little family. Was it fun to come to work! It was just a lovely place to be—a unique experience. The whole company knew everything about everything, but communication wasn't sophisticated. It was as simple as a person screaming to someone else over the partitions. Not everybody can do everything anymore, thank goodness. I remember when Jeff Lapin looked at me and said, 'Not everybody's going to know everything anymore. Gone are the days.' It was sobering."
In Jones, and in others like him, Gioia sees a key to THQ's future. "Gabe's a good example of a guy who's not very happy," she says. "He doesn't need to leave in order to stay close to a product. He could go to Heavy Iron Studio or Pacific Coast Power & Light, one of our internal-development subsidiaries. The tough thing for guys like Gabe is that they need to make the change that I made. Producers need to be suits now, in a way. We went from lean and mean and isn't-it-incredible-the-way-we-spend-no-money-and-get-things-done to suddenly making a lot of money. People who grew up in video arcades and who started as testers aren't the right people to be producers anymore. A producer needs to be articulate and polished, because it's a pivotal, extremely key role."
It's clear that Gioia and others believe that Jones can make the transition. But will he choose to do so? The company needs him—but he may not need THQ.
Decision By a Hair
What Jones would decide to do shouldn't have been a mystery to anyone at the company—that is, not after he cut his hair. When Jones announced that he was going to cut his hair, betting pools sprang up. He would do it. He wouldn't do it. He had dark-brown, wavy hair that hung past his shoulders. His hair was a chick magnet in nightclubs, a badge of solidarity among the creative staff in the studios. He had worn his hair that way for 11 of his 27 years. Getting shorn was a major life decision for him. It wasn't just a haircut—it was an amputation.
The process went in stages. First, he got his hair cut to a shorter but still-long length. Then he had it shorn to its current, more fashionable, dress-for-success length. A stylist once said to him, "You could get $12 an ounce for this hair." Jones likes to make his decisions in stages, but he doesn't stall forever. Eventually, he decides. His hair is short now. He decided to become a new person when he cut his hair, and from that, a whole series of other choices and decisions became inevitable.
Learn As You Go
At Vodar, a small, chic club in Santa Monica, Jones has one last after-hours career mission to complete. He needs an alternative to THQ. He needs to know that if he wants to, he can choose to stay in Los Angeles so that he can continue to see Krista. He needs to have the opportunity to choose—if only so that, if he goes to Vancouver, he won't feel that it was forced upon him. Within THQ, he has no options other than Vancouver, so he must find his options elsewhere. Paradoxically, he has to flirt with infidelity in order to be true to THQ.
Vodar amounts to a standing bar, a few banquettes, a sheet of water trickling down a tiled mosaic behind the bar, a large painting of a face that bears a striking resemblance to the Shroud of Turin, and nothing but a red lightbulb above the front door. Jones is sitting with a fellow video-game producer and a young, wealthy executive from another game company. Essentially, this meeting is a job interview. Maybe there's something for Jones at the other company. Maybe not. Even at midnight in a club, rubbernecking at women, Jones is hard at work.
"We're delaying our IPO," the executive says. "It's a lousy time to go public."
"Do you have any openings in acquisition at your company?" Jones asks him.
"I couldn't pay you enough," the executive says. The answer is a kind way of saying that Jones isn't 'acquisitions material.'
"I don't know if I want to move to a new company just for another producer spot," Jones says.
The executive leans over and whispers to Jones, pointing to a pair of women at the bar. "They're clocking us," Jones says in response.
"See if you can get them to come over," the executive says.
It's a qualifying assignment, a way for Jones to prove himself worthy of being hired at the company. Jones orders drinks and has them delivered to the women. Sure enough, the women approach—the executive leans over to Jones and says, "That's what I call business planning"—and chairs are commandeered. Everyone sits around the table. One of the women has dark hair; the other is blond. The blond is a producer for Fox. The brunette is a television reporter for NBC 4 in Los Angeles. As Jones flirts with the reporter, he puts his hands together, palm to palm, in front of his lips, and leans toward her. The questions that he asks are the same ones that he is asking himself about his own life at THQ.
Think back. Of all the stories that you've done, which one was the most . . . which one made you happiest?" he asks. "Which one are you most proud of?"
"I guess it would be the one in Palm Springs," she answers. "They have seasonal workers, migrant workers, who come up and work in the fields. I did a story that showed their lives against the standard of living in Palm Springs."
"What is it that drives you?" he asks. "What is it that you would really want to do?"
It's the thorniest, most central question in Jones's life right now. "I used to want to work for one of the newsmagazines," she says. "Dateline. Do more in-depth stories. But I'm pretty happy doing what I do now."
"I grew up in a house that had a lot of video games," the Fox producer says. "We had an actual arcade game right in our house."
"I don't like video games at all," the TV reporter says.
"I don't watch the evening news at all," Jones says. "I'm bored with the news." The two grin at each other. Jones's options seem to get more various with every hour of his life. Life just gets more mysterious, as if it were a game in which the closer you get to winning, the harder the rules become to discern. But Jones is a quick study. He learns as he goes. Easy to learn, hard to master.
"So that's what drives you? Keeping people informed?" Jones asks the TV reporter again.
"Being there to tell a little bit of the truth," she answers.
Everyone exchanges business cards—a tireless Los Angeles ritual. The crowd has thinned out. It's late. Nobody stays out past 1:30 am in this city. It isn't Manhattan. After the women leave, the executive leans over to Jones and says, "Very nice. Call me next week. I'll find a job for you if you want it." Mission accomplished. Jones's options are open. Now he knows that going to Vancouver will be a free choice. He won't be pressured to move away. The move won't feel like a form of exile. Jones's confidence in himself has never been stronger.
"I've got every 15-year-old's dream job—aside from fireman, policeman, or rock star," Jones says. "Making games has to be it. But I want more. Would I like to be a VP? No. Would being an executive producer be a necessary evil? Maybe. I've resigned. Will this bother them? Do they want me? They've got a lot of time to do what they want with me." He pauses and then adds, "Someday, I'm going to be running one of these companies."/p>
If Krista wants to see him every weekend, that's her choice. Jones will move to Vancouver and finish what he started. Maybe it will get him promoted to executive producer when he returns. Maybe not. But it's the way that his world works now. So much room to grow. So many sacrifices, so little time.
"In Vancouver," he says, "I'll be the first one at work in the morning and the last one to leave every day. I'd rather be doing the art. But that's just the way it is. It took me five years to know what I know today. I can make sacrifices that others aren't willing to make. I can go without sleep. I can cut my hair. I can move away. I can put aside my craving to do the creative, artistic work myself."
Most of all, what he's sacrificing is the feeling that he used to have—the feeling that he was at home at THQ, that it was a place he understood completely. Now he will always be in a place that's a little bit mysterious, a little bit strange. Jones spots a man he knows who works on another floor at THQ.
"You see that guy at the end of the bar?" Jones asks. The man is middle-aged and dark-haired, and is nursing a drink. "He works at THQ," Jones says.When Jones is asked what the man's job is at THQ, he replies, "I have no idea." Then Jones starts to move across the room to shake the stranger's hand and to introduce himself, one more time, to a new way of life in a new kind of company.
Epilogue: Starting Over, Going Forward
It's two months later, and Gabe Jones is on the phone from Vancouver. "I've left THQ," he says. "I've decided to join h20. This way, I'm starting with a little company and building from the ground up. We employ maybe 30 people, but it's hard to tell how many people we have at any one time because so many are temps. Everything is changing. It's scary. Every move that you make here is very, very critical. They fought to keep me at THQ. I can't say they didn't. Jeff Lapin made the effort to keep me on board. Communications could have been better. There may have been some misunderstandings. That's what happens when a company grows that way. I misread some of his efforts to keep me on board, I think. It was a question of staying at THQ or taking the opportunities elsewhere." Now that he's made his decision, is Jones sorry that he left behind the life that he might have had at THQ?
"No. I gave five and a half years of my life to THQ," he says. "I have no problem with any of those people. They're nice people. It's just the way things work now. I made the right decision. We're rebuilding this little company. It's an opportunity to create a top-notch studio from the ground up, to do a total retooling of the place. Everything will change here—the office, the desks, maybe even the name."
Gabe is still walking across a crowded room and offering his name to people he doesn't know. He's still chasing that illusive drea—the same one that he had at THQ, but in a new setting. There's no turning back. He's quick to dispel any illusions about recovering the past. What about his hair? Now that he's starting over, reconnecting with a small, fast-growing outfit, will he regrow his hair? "No," he says. "It's gone for good."
David Dorsey (email@example.com) is a best-selling business author and a novelist. You can contact gabriel jones by email (firstname.lastname@example.org), or Visit THQ Inc. on the Web (www.thq.com).
A version of this article appeared in the October 2000 issue of Fast Company magazine.