Volition counting on success for 'Saints Row 2'

CHAMPAIGN – When "Saints Row 2" goes on sale Tuesday, Volition Inc. employees in Champaign will be eager to hear how it's received.

More than three years of work went into the high-action video game, and stores are expected to sell "millions and millions of dollars' worth," though company President Mike Kulas wouldn't be more specific about projections.

Work on the game began July 1, 2005, with a small core team, and eventually 165 people were involved in the development, Kulas said.

"Saints Row 2" is a sequel to "Saints Row," a game about gangs operating in an urban environment that was released Aug. 28, 2006. That game sold about 2 million units worldwide on the XBox 360 platform.

The sequel, which has far more options for players, will sell on both the XBox 360 and PlayStation 3 platforms, and a version for PCs is being developed in Poland.

Kulas said that at one time, the first weekend of sales had to be good for a video game. But in the "open-world action genre" that "Saints Row 2" is in, the first seven to 10 days of sales generally give a "reasonable" idea of how the game will fare, with the first 30 days providing a "good idea," he said.

"I'd feel really, really bad if it failed," Kulas said. "People worked two, up to three, years on this and we want to have a commercial success. It's hard for me to imagine it being a failure."

Volition's parent company, THQ Inc., "made a big bet" on the game and expects sales to be "very high," he said.

"If we don't sell a ton of units, I'd be disappointed," Kulas said.

The game features three new gangs and one new "uberantagonist," plus dozens of missions, said Greg Donovan, producer of "Saints Row 2." The fictional city of Stilwater, where the action takes place, has grown since the original "Saints Row" came out, and players can now make use of private jets, speedboats, helicopters, monster trucks, fighter planes as well as dozens of other vehicles. There's even a car called "the Danville."

Gangs, factions and cash-hungry corporations all figure into the setting of Stilwater, where the player – a member of the Saints gang – is back to reclaim turf after having been in a coma five years since the original "Saints Row" took place.

Multiple players can play "Saints Row 2" competitively, with as many as 12 people playing in teams of six.

"Saints Row 2" features a variety of characters with voices supplied with Hollywood talent, including Neil Patrick Harris ("Doogie Howser, M.D.," "How I Met Your Mother"), Jay Mohr ("Action," "Gary Unmarried"), Michael Dorn ("Star Trek: The Next Generation") and Jaime Pressly ("My Name Is Earl").

Plus, players can "customize" themselves, controlling how their character appears and acts in the game. They can use a "gender slider" to make their player anything from a very masculine male to a very feminine female, affecting the way their player walks and even taunts others.

The music library accompanying the game includes indie, hip-hop, reggae, classic rock and world music, among others.

The game's Web site says "Saints Row 2" is rated "M" by the Entertainment Software Rating Board. According to the board, such games should be restricted to players 17 and older because the themes may involve blood and gore, intense violence, sexual content, strong language and use of drugs.

Here's how some features of the game are described on its Web site: "Demand your respect: protect yourself with human shields, throw rivals into oncoming traffic and zero in your nut-shot using all new fine-aim controls."

But Kulas said he's not worried that the game, which includes human shields and pedestrian throwing, will be criticized as being too violent.

"The depiction of violence is so over-the-top, I don't think any reasonable human being could see it as serious," he said.

The game developers make no pretense of offering an authentic hip-hop, urban experience, he said. The goal isn't to be realistic, but to give the game player "as fine experience as is possible," he said.

Besides, Donovan pointed out, most video games aren't realistic.

"Other games are set on Mars," he observed.

Indeed, several early press reviews use the terms "zany" and "over-the-top" in describing the plentiful action and multiple options the game offers.

Other big game releases are scheduled for this fall, such as "Fallout 3" (developed by Bethesda Game Studios), "Fable II" (Lionhead Studios), "Gears of War 2" (Epic Games) and "Dead Space" (EA Redwood Shores) – but Kulas said none of those is considered direct competition.

"Saints Row 2" is expected to retail for about $59.99. Kulas figures it should sell well during the holiday shopping season – October through December – as well as January, when kids will put their holiday gift cards to use.

Typically, 80 percent of units sold come in the first six months after a game is issued, Kulas said.

"Nothing is truly recession-proof, but this has high entertainment value," he said, noting that players can expect to play for 20 to 30 hours if they want to experience all the game's features. Plus, everyone in the family can play, which means users can get a lot of playing time for the money.

Kulas said the video game industry has so far weathered a soft economy.

"This August over the previous August was not that great," he said. But the year as a whole was looking pretty good, he said, and video games are still increasing their penetration into homes.

He said it's likely sales outside North America will account for perhaps 40 percent to 50 percent of "Saints Row 2's" total sales.

Meanwhile, Volition is working on another game, "Red Factor: Guerrilla," that should be released in the first quarter of 2009. That game is a sequel to "Red Factor 1" and "Red Factor 2", released in 2002.

Kulas said Volition produces games fully aware that sequels may lie ahead.

"We never assume that the games we do are the last in the line," he said.

About 80 people are working on "Red Factor: Guerrilla" right now, Kulas said, and about 20 people are working on two other projects in early development.

Altogether, Volition employs about 325 in Champaign, including about 250 full-time employees and 75 part-time testers who check the games for quality assurance.

Even today, the company is looking at adding to its staff. It currently has positions available for a project manager, senior designer, senior programmer and senior technical artist, and it's encouraging people to apply for other positions not listed, such as associate producer, nonsenior programmer, game designer and artist.

Volition is also looking at taking additional space at One Main Plaza, if space frees up when the M2 on Neil complex is completed across the street. That complex is scheduled to be ready for occupancy in early 2009.

"Timing-wise, this will work out well for us," said Kulas, who is a co-owner of the One Main Plaza building. Volition occupies the entire third floor and two-thirds of the second floor at One Main Plaza.

'Saints Row 2'

Description: Action-adventure video game in which a former member of the 3rd Street Saints gang awakens from a coma and tries to rebuild his gang to reclaim the fictional city of Stilwater. Rated "M," restricting it to players 17 and older.

Features: High level of customization for the player's character. Range of new weapons, including chain saws, submachine guns, flamethrowers and use of human shields. Activities include drug trafficking, demolition derby, helicopter assault – all in battles against rival gangs, police, FBI and the Ultor Corp.

Release date: Tuesday

Price: About $60

Developer: Volition Inc., part of THQ Inc.

Web site: www.saintsrow.com

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