When people look at Champaign-Urbana’s greater contributions to the world, the first place one would probably direct their gaze would be the University of Illinois. That’s understandable, as its the city's largest employer and has produced an incredible number of Nobel Prize winners. But there’s another important contributor, and I’m not talking about the Kraft factory. There’s a slightly more hidden gem, one that supplies to a population that has only recently stepped out of their basements into a surprisingly pivotal role in our culture.
On the 3rd floor of One East Main Plaza rests Deep Silver Volition, the region's largest game developer since 1993. I recently sat down with Jason Scott, the head studio designer, to talk about the history of the company, its role in C-U, and more.
Volition’s current franchise is called Saints Row, and as anyone who’s played these games can tell you, they are in a class of their own. That’s clearly not a bad thing, as the most recent entry, Saints Row IV, has sold as many as two million copies since its release (almost everywhere, but more on that later) in late August. What makes the game so interesting? Well, within seconds of booting it up, I stole a car by jumping though its windshield, killed an alien with the power of dubstep and then super-jumped out of the car onto the top of a thousand feet tall building, as the in game radio played “The Safety Dance.” The game is set in the open world city of Steelport, which is basically a cross between the city from The Matrix and New York.
As for plot, the game begins with a Zero Dark Thirty parody which ends the the player destroying a nuke (while its in the air) and flying away with the power of sheer awesomeness as Aerosmith's “I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing” blasts in the background. Following this, our hero, who I customized to look reasonably like me, is elected President of the United States. All is well in a caricature of The West Wing (but with strippers) until the White House is attacked by an alien empire known as “The Zin.” The game soon thrusts you into the city of Steelport, and about an hour later you develop superpowers, which you can basically use to do whatever you want. Every subsequent Saints Row game since the original in 2006 has been on a quest to “out do” its precursor, in terms of both scale and sheer absurdity. But by not taking itself seriously in the slightest and fun gameplay, Saint Row revels in its absurdity, and keeps the player entertained at all times.
What’s even more interesting: the games are littered with allusions to Champaign-Urbana. One of the more obvious references was when a call from an alien spaceship carried the 217 area code, which the characters brush off as a telemarketer right before the earth explodes. Also in the games is Wardill Airport, an anagram for Willard, and both Dallas & Co. and Merry Ann’s Diner make appearances as Let’s Pretend and Smiling Jacks, respectively. Finally, one of the missions is named Saint’s Seven, although its more gangbanging than burgers and beer.
But this multimillion dollar franchise was in no way Volition’s first gaming outing. What is now Deep Silver Volition was once called Parallax software, founded here in C-U in 1993 by Mike Kulas and Matt Toschlog. The two choose the location because Mike had graduated from the U of I recently, and the strong tech community, but also because of the very low costs compared to the east coast, Bay Area, or Montreal (the most prosperous game development areas). They, and three or four employees, created the game Descent, one of the first truly 3D games. Scott explained that the new 3D gameplay was so different that it made some players suffer motion sickness. It’s not something we have to deal with today, but it really shows how revolutionary Descent was to the gaming sphere of the mid-nineties. Cases of motion sickness did not stop Descent from becoming a success, and the publisher to request a sequel, Descent II, which secured the company's status as a valuable developer. Following this, Toschlog decided to move to Ann Arbor and start his own studio, which become Outrage Entertainment. This split Parallax, and the team that stayed in C-U became Volition. Today, Outrage has been shut down after being acquired by the publisher THQ in 2003.
Back at Volition, the Descent franchise evolved into into a sci-fi shooter called Red Faction, and the studio as a whole was purchased by THQ as well. Then in 2006, Volition released the first installment of the Saints Row series, which had a much more serious tone, with players take the role of a gang member in the city of Stilwater. However, the game was severely, and as Scott admits, justly, criticized for its similarities to another massive franchise, Grand Theft Auto (which consistently makes headlines today). That being said, solid sales led to a sequel, which was released in 2008 and introduced some of the “wackier” elements the current installment boasts today. Saints Row II sold well, but also captured positive review scores, and was a genuinely really good game. Another sequel, SRIII, was released to critical acclaim and gigantic pre-orders in December 2011, right before their long time publisher THQ filed for bankruptcy.
In the world of game development, like in film or print, publishers and developers are very different. Scott explained:
In the videogame business, you generally have several different types of businesses. The first party, those are the companies like Microsoft and Sony, create the platforms that other companies develop games for, and they make some games as well. Then there are the publishers, companies like EA (Electronic Arts), Activision, they tend to be very large, they tend to have smaller studios within them [that make games], but the publishers will take care of marketing, PR, manufacturing, distribution, and sales — that whole side of the business. The developer, what we are, the studio — we make the game, the actual game, and the publisher takes care of promoting it, selling it, and manufacturing it.
Unfortunately for Volition, their publisher THQ took a serious blow after the failed introduction of the Udraw tablet, and filed for bankruptcy in 2012. When this happens to a gigantic industry player like THQ, the result can be catastrophic to the studios within it, and the bankruptcy did cause the demise of Blitz Games Studios, Digital Phoenix, and Koas Studios, but because of the profitability of SRIII, Volition was not closed and sold to Koch Media. This is how it gained the title Deep Silver, which is the video game division of Koch and current publisher of Volition. Scott explained that the acquisition did not disrupt game development as much as new THQ management in early 2012, which forced Volition to tweak their Enter the Dominatrix SRIII DLC (Downloadable Content) into Saints Row IV. Volition was the second most profitable studio owned by THQ, and was purchased by Koch in for $22.3 million on January 22nd, 2013.
The publisher swap wasn't the only hiccup Volition encountered this year. They also had to deal with the Australian government blocking Saints Row IV’s release in Australia in late June due to the frequent drug use and “Rectifier” weapon. Scott explained:
It’s not surprising. Australia, Germany, and Japan tend to be the more difficult countries in terms of their ratings. It's something that we’ve dealt with before in the past, just because of the nature of our games, we’ve had to. Oftentimes, it ends up happening that you make a special skew for that county, and based on what their concerns are we will go back and make changes to it. Now, ideally we get this in place beforehand, so that we’re not surprised and we can get the game out when we want to. It was a setback, but at the same time, what tends to be more surprising is why they ban something or why it gets a very high rating.
Volition did eventually fix this problem, and released an edited version for Australian audiences that does not include the “Alien Anal Probe” (I didn’t make that up) and one of the missions. However, if Australians want the US version, it can be purchased digitally as well.
What's next for Volition? In the short term more expansions to SRIV, but Scott did reveal that they working on games for the new next-gen consoles that just launched. A voice actor recently tweeted that he was doing the voice work for a “new Saints Row game,” but this may be the mentioned DLC. Regardless, the company is poised to continue to be a big player, both in the gaming industry and C-U's landscape.