THQ sets its sights on Red Dead Redemption, Skyrim

Saints Row the Third sold more than four million copies when it was released last fall to mostly positive reviews. But Jason Rubin, the recently appointed president of THQ, says he expects more from the developers who made it and the company that released it. More from Volition and THQ not because Saints Row the Third didn't sell, or didn't garner positive reviews, but more because he knows both can do better.

Saints Row the Third sold more than four million copies when it was released last fall to mostly positive reviews. But Jason Rubin, the recently appointed president of THQ, says he expects more from the developers who made it and the company that released it.

More from Volition and THQ not because Saints Row the Third didn't sell, or didn't garner positive reviews, but more because he knows both can do better.

"Why couldn't that be a Red Dead Redemption or a Skyrim?" he said. "I look at that title and I say, ‘Who cares what it is and why it got to be what it is? From that team we can make something that isn't embarrassing."

Ed's note: To be clear, Rubin isn't saying that he's embarrassed of the game or that he's not a fan of Saints Row or proud of Volition. What he's saying is that he hopes that despite my feelings, that the team can impress me in the future. I followed up with Rubin after this interview ran and he reiterated that, adding that he both loved Saints Row the Third and that he thinks the team is capable of more.

"Those two things are not mutually exclusive," he said.

Rubin, just seven days into his tenure at the beleaguered publisher and developer, says this in response to a very direct question during a surprisingly candid interview. The interview is his last of the week before rushing from E3 and Los Angeles to New York where he will kick off a series of in-person meetings with the people that make up the studios of THQ. They are meetings Rubin is holding to convince people not to jump ship, to give him and to give THQ more time to make things, in his words, "good for them."

"Why couldn't that be a Red Dead Redemption or a Skyrim?"

It's about half way through our interview, one in which Rubin talks bluntly about past mistakes of THQ, of the problems he foresees for the company, of the challenges he and THQ face, that I broach the subject of Saints Row the Third.

I haven't played the game, I confess to Rubin, because I wouldn't want to be caught playing it by my wife or my son. It would be embarrassing.

While most reviews for the game were positive, Edge Magazine seems to have felt the same way when they gave the game a relatively low score in their review, calling the title a "fratboyish endorsement of crime and female degradation, devoid of any conscience or commentary."

Saints Row the Third isn't a bad game, but it's not the sort I'd want to play, I tell Rubin. Then I ask him if he thinks that's an issue.

"That's why I am here," he said, after saying he wants more from Volition, "because of what you just said."

To be clear, Rubin isn't saying there isn't any room in his company "for a game that features a purple dildo," in fact he points out there are now two such games (the other is South Park: The Stick of Truth). But that sensibility isn't always a good fit for a studio.

"It works for South Park, but I'm not sure it does elsewhere," he said. "I don't think (Volition) chose to do what they did because they had all of the options available to them. It was the environment at the time.

"I know I can change that."

Rubin's vision for THQ, one week in, is already very concise. He knows exactly what he wants to do.

"I want to do unique things, however I don't want to do a lot of unique things," he said. "I want to do a small number of very directed, very thought-out, well-funded, well-lead titles that have a specific place in the market and have and opportunity for an upside."

To understand where Rubin wants to take the company, you have to understand where Rubin comes from and why THQ is struggling.

THQ's strife is most likely tied to a series of poorly received games they released which led to the company's stock plummeting. It dropped so much THQ recently had to do a reverse split to remain on the stock exchange.

"I'm not sure how that happened."

But the biggest blow to the company's stock was the uDraw GameTablet. The tablet peripheral was first released for the Wii in 2010 and then later the PS3 and Xbox 360. The company grossly overestimated the potential success of the device and when it failed to sell as expected, THQ took a $100 million bath. Early this year the device was discontinued, but the damage to the company had already been done.

Rubin wasn't at the company when the uDraw was released, but I asked him if he learned any lessons from what happened.

"I did: don't create a drawing tablet right before they release an iPad," he said. "That's a pretty good takeaway. I'm not sure how that happened."

The relatively good news for the company is that after a significant price drop, they believe they will be able to get rid of the 1.4 million unit stock they had of the device.

"They sell through was very strong" last quarter, he said. "We think we will sell the remaining units by this holiday."
"We won't be burying these in the desert."

Rubin's own history is just as important as THQ's current issues.

He was still a teenager when, along with a friend, Rubin formed Naughty Dog. Over his career in the industry he worked on a variety of titles for a multitude of platforms. A key moment in his career when he made a leap of faith, shifting from developing games for cartridges to bringing fighting title Way of the Warrior to the 3DO on a CD.

"It wasn't a good console," he said. "It wasn't a good game, but it did fairly well."

Its relative success convinced Rubin of the ethereal nature of the media used to sell video games. And now he's convinced that there's another cartridge to CD change in store for the video game industry.

"It's going to be a lot of work."

Rubin wants to make sure that THQ is ready for that, not just by shifting to more digital titles, but by being aware of any upcoming sea changes.

"We need to make sure we're giving the opportunity for smaller, scrappier players to get into the industry," he said.
He also wants to make sure that THQ can retain the talent it already has.

In 2004, right before leaving Naughty Dog, Rubin gave a speech at the D.I.C.E. gaming summit criticizing publishers for not recognizing the people who make games. I asked Rubin during our interview if he still feels that way and if it will influence the way he leads THQ.

It is, he said, and he does worry about THQ's top creators leaving the company.

"I had that fear," he said. "The first thing I did when I started was send out an email to everyone in the company asking them to email me with their concerns and thoughts and to tell them ‘Give me some time, I'll make this good for you.'"

He said he was up for six and half hours that first night reading through hundreds of email responses, and he's planning on spending the coming weeks on a goodwill tour of sorts, visiting the studios in person to discuss the concerns of each staff.

"It's going to be a lot of work," he said.

Rubin is reluctant to call the series of meetings, which kicked off with a Thursday evening flight to New York, a goodwill tour.

"It's more of a meet and greet and to make sure we're all on the same page here," he said. "I'm going to New York, Champaign, Illinois, then Los Angeles, then Austin, then Vancouver, then home. I still have to plan a trip to Montreal, then meet with two external developers in Orange County.

Rubin said that the developers at 4A, the folks behind Metro Last Light, told him that he doesn't have to fly out to the Ukraine to meet with them, but that he's still hoping to.

"I really don't care how we got here, this is where we are."

While THQ already shed its UFC games property and closed its San Diego office, Rubin said that the rest of the studio's games "remain on the table."

That includes inSane, a survival horror game being developed in collaboration with movie director Guillermo del Toro. Danny Bilson, who left THQ the day Rubin started, used his friendship with del Toro to land the deal. But Rubin said that Bilson's departure hasn't caused any problems. In fact, he added, Bilson remains in touch with THQ.

"I believe there are an appropriate number of teams and people (to develop inSane)," Rubin said. "I've not yet seen it though, I'm only seven days in."

Working through some of the other games slated for development at THQ, Rubin called Metro: Last Light amazing and said they will make sure to market this second game in the series properly.

The company still has the WWE franchise and Company of Heroes 2 has had strong reaction, he said.

"Darksiders 2 is very interesting," he said, "but I think I can get that team to make other very interesting games."

And of course THQ still has Patrice Desilets, who left Ubisoft and his role as creative lead on the Assassin's Creed franchise to join THQ.

"We'll talk about what Patrice is working on when we're ready," he said.

These are the sorts of people, games and studios that Rubin is convinced will help reinvigorate his new company.

"We're going to concentrate on a small slate of titles and making sure we have the money to back them so the developers don't have to rush," he said. "I really don't care how we got here. This is where we are and I think the company is in a strong position."

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