Video game studio launches 'Saints Row IV' under new corporate ownership [Chicago Tribune]
(Chicago Tribune (IL) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Aug. 18--CHAMPAIGN -- Fade in: The president of the United States is striding confidently through the White House when an attacking horde of aliens blows a hole in the press briefing room and begins abducting senior administration officials. As the chaos grows, the leader of the free world mounts an enormous gun turret on the South Lawn and starts blasting alien spaceships out of the sky. And we cut to ...
Tuesday: The North American release of "Saints Row IV," which belongs not to an action movie series but to a video game franchise created in central Illinois. Champaign-based Deep Silver Volition is hoping that "Saints Row IV" will be the most popular installment yet in a series known for over-the-top humor and gleeful mayhem.
Expectations are high for Volition, which was acquired in January for $22.3 million by German digital entertainment company Koch Media after the studio's former corporate parent, THQ Inc., filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Volition is fighting to shake off the uncertainty of last year, but more important, it needs to make "Saints Row IV" a success in a competitive industry that has become as reliant on blockbusters as Hollywood.
"You have to have one hit game after another, and developing for console games was and still is incredibly expensive to do," said Joshua Tsui, president of Chicago-based independent studio Robomodo and a 20-year veteran of the local gaming scene. "People have certain expectations. You can't have a cheap-looking console game."
Annual U.S. video game sales have been falling for the last several years, but consumers still spent $6.7 billion on them last year, according to the Entertainment Software Association. "Saints Row IV" costs $59.99 for Microsoft's Xbox 360 and Sony's PlayStation 3 consoles. The PC version is $49.99.
Volition, which has about 200 employees, started developing "Saints Row IV" in late 2011. It is an AAA console game, the video game industry's equivalent of a blockbuster movie. Tsui, who has worked at Electronic Arts and Midway Games in Chicago, compared the process to making a film in the oeuvre of Michael Bay, the action director known for special effects-laden extravaganzas such as the "Transformers" series.
To keep fans engaged, video game studios have to keep raising the bar on narrative and visual complexity. That means improved graphics and a more immersive playing experience, all while bumping against the technological limitations of consoles, which are updated only after several years.
Video game studios such as Volition invest heavily in internal development tools to make each iteration of their game look and feel better, aiming to up the wow factor for players.
"At the end of the day, the consumer doesn't -- nor should they -- care about your limitations or what it takes to make a game right because $60 is $60," said Steve Jaros, Volition's creative director. "They can go and whatever they can get for that, that's your competition."
Agoura Hills, Calif.-based THQ Inc. spent $89.5 million on product development and another $191.7 million on marketing in its 2012 fiscal year. Volition does not disclose revenue, but THQ's annual report said "Saints Row" was the company's largest-owned franchise, accounting for at least 10 percent of the company's $830.8 million in net sales last year. The first three installments generated worldwide sales of more than 11 million units.
Like the popular "Grand Theft Auto," "Saints Row" is an "open world" game, meaning it creates a rich, virtual setting to explore (romance a pedestrian, drive a car on a crowded sidewalk) in addition to its more linear objectives (rescue your friends, kill the bad guys). The titular Saints are members of a street gang who inhabit a gritty metropolis teeming with rival thugs, innocent bystanders and everyone in between, all of whom are enveloped in the game's melee.
A hallmark of "Saints Row" is its outsize sense of humor, which often veers toward the ribald and profane, and is always ridiculous. Can the player outfit the protagonist in a big hot dog suit? OK! Is there a "dubstep gun" that, when deployed, plays electronic dance music that causes surrounding cars and passers-by to bounce in sync? Of course! How about a radio station that reads aloud the first chapter of Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice"? Obviously!
Not all gags made it into the finished game -- Jaros' proposal to have the gang members stage a production of Henrik Ibsen's "A Doll's House" in the third installment was roundly rejected. Even so, "Saints Row IV" raises the stakes by adding superpowers and aliens to the mix, while also drawing on cultural references from Shakespeare to "Leave It to Beaver." It's packed with inside jokes for fans of the franchise and tributes to other video games. One mission is played in the side-scrolling format of a classic arcade game, complete with clunky, pixelated graphics and tinny synthesized music.
"A lot of the DNA of the studio is just fun," said Scott Phillips, a Volition designer. "And all of our games have been (about), 'I really want to play this game that we made because it's so fun.' When the people making the game feel like that, it makes its way into the game."
Koch Media Chief Executive Klemens Kundratitz said his company wanted to acquire Volition for its Deep Silver video game publishing division because of the studio's deep industry experience. Volition came out of Parallax Software, a PC game-maker co-founded in 1993 by Mike Kulas, an alumnus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He spun off Volition as a separate company in 1996, and THQ bought the studio in 2000.
Koch Media already was familiar with Volition and "Saints Row" because it handled THQ's European distribution. Its winning $22.3 million bid at the bankruptcy auction trounced Ubisoft's $5.4 million offer.
"It's wild," Kundratitz said of "Saints Row." "It's full of parody of stuff going on in games, and it's all about having a great time and not taking itself entirely seriously."
Koch Media has matched the game's bombastic spirit with a marketing campaign for a $1 million "Saints Row IV" package that includes a space flight on Virgin Galactic, a Lamborghini Gallardo and something called a "hostage rescue experience." There is just one available for pre-order, and the company promises the promotion is real.
"They get our brand of insanity, and they enjoy doing strange things with the marketing campaign that most other publishers would never even think to try -- and certainly wouldn't have the kind of game where it makes sense," said Jim Boone, a senior producer at Volition.
Volition General Manager Dan Cermak said Koch Media's hands-off approach is a pleasant change from the uncertainty that dogged THQ and its studios last year. In late 2011, THQ released a drawing device called the uDraw GameTablet for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Poor sales of the uDraw led to a revenue decline and capital crunch at THQ, pushing the company into Chapter 11 in December 2012.
"THQ, because of their problems and because they were a public company, were very focused on the next quarter, the next quarter," Cermak said. "Strategy was not the long suit of THQ. I think Koch is much more strategic and has a lot more discussion about that."
"Saints Row IV" is gathering positive advance praise, with a score of 86 out of 100 on review aggregation site Metacritic at press time. Volition executives say the franchise has come a long way since they first pitched the game to THQ in 2003, showing a video compilation of violent clips from existing games and films that was set to N.W.A.'s 1989 song "F--- tha Police."
Cermak recalls the stunned silence from the directors at THQ, which at that time was a "wrestling and kids game company," he said. And in 2006, when Volition released the first "Saints Row" after a grueling development process that employees nicknamed "the death march," some critics and players panned the game for hewing too close to "Grand Theft Auto."
Volition responded by cranking up the humor and satire, making each of its next two installments more ludicrous than the last. The studio also invested in technology tools to make the development process smoother. Its efforts were rewarded in 2011 when "Saints Row: The Third" racked up four times the number of pre-orders as its predecessor.
"'Saints Row' was mocked by a lot of critics and observers before it came out because it looked like a copycat," said John Teti, founder and editor of The Gameological Society, a gaming site. "Nobody had any expectations for it. It turned out to have a sensibility of its own. ... And as time has gone on, it has really come into its own and ramped up the humor. It's become a satire, both of 'Grand Theft Auto' and of video game over-the-top ridiculousness."
Now Volition has to see whether its most ambitious adventure yet will produce gonzo returns.
"In 'Saints Row IV,' we are nakedly apparent on what our experience is," creative director Jaros said. "It is out there from the box art to the first mission."
(c)2013 the Chicago Tribune
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