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FAO Volition/THQ, Re. Saints Row Marketing

An open letter

Dear Volition/THQ,

I'm really looking forward to Saints Row: The Third. While I didn't much enjoy the original Saints Row, Saints Row 2 was one of the most entertaining open city games I've played, and by the looks of the trailers for the third game, it's heading even further in the direction of anarchic fun that so delighted me. So I really want to ask you to reconsider your current marketing strategies.

This weekend you announced your "quality assurance team" for Saints Row: The Third, in the form of Penthouse Pets Heather Vandeven, Justine Joli, Heidi Baron, Shay Laren, Ryan Keely and Nikki Benz. You accompanied this with puns that suggested sexual interaction with the player, such as their involvement promising "to ensure a satisfying Saints Row experience whether playing alone or with a friend".

I understand that the development team, and the game itself, believes in the philosophy of equal opportunity offending, where all targets are considered fair game. While I take issue with this way of thinking - as I believe it ignores the hundreds/thousands of years of subjugation of very many distinct groups, be they by race, gender, sexuality or wealth, from a position of predominantly white, male, middle-class luxury - I understand this is the perceived justification behind the antics that accompany the series' publicity.

My SR2 character.

I think such publicity betrays the content of the game itself. When I played Saints Row 2, I played as a strong, confident Hispanic woman, who made up one of extremely few such female characters in all of gaming. And while of course the game contained depictions of women as gormless bikini-clad bimbos, they were among a cast of other strong women, and as such appeared in context as a parody of a particular group. Not a particularly brilliant parody, nor perhaps an entirely helpful one, but certainly one within the above-mentioned philosophy.

However, despite the variety within your games, the notion of women being anything other than a transporting mechanism for breasts seems to be absent without. Attending the surprisingly wet and chilly E3 this year, and finding that the car park's sponsorship by Saints Row: The Third included a group of shivering models in purple bikinis required to perform the service of washing your car for you... well, it rather stuck in my craw. The sight of those poor women in their skimpy swimwear, in the middle of LA's grimy, grey interior on a grimy, grey day, did not endear me toward your game.

SR2 offered some confusing choices.

Your lead producer, Greg Donovan, states that the Penthouse models have been hired because of "a number of key factors". These are:

  • their passion for Saints Row
  • their sense of style and Saints Row attitude
  • their desire to give every player a unique, over-the-top, unforgettable experience

"In the end," he continues, "their selfless efforts are going to put a lot of smiles on a lot of faces."

I do not know if any of the models listed are fans of Saints Row. I have no way of knowing. It would seem, to me, a large coincidence if all these Penthouse regulars happened to be into the games. Not impossible, certainly. But I'm still going to go out on a limb and guess that their "passion for Saints Row" may not have existed before their first pay-check. What is less ambiguous, however, is the suggestion that their alleged involvement in the QA process of Saints Row: The Third will result in some sort of sexual gratification for the player. I would contend that their involvement at this level of the game's development could carry over the sexual suggestions implied via their being people who regularly pose naked for pornographic magazines. It seems also worth questioning whether their participation is entirely "selfess". Are they not being paid for their work? This would seem like serious exploitation were it the case.

It seems from your recent press release that you intend to release DLC in the future that features these women. You say this is "a rare homage to the dedicated developers charged with quality assurance," which you say has previously been a "thankless" job. This does seem a touch insulting to your genuine QA team, and also concerns me that this marketing angle will indeed be influencing the game.

Where are all the muscly men in the ads?

I am not convinced that through these marketing techniques, which some may consider somewhat exploitative of and disrespectful toward women, accurately reflect your game, nor promote it in a useful way. While I do not doubt that there is a significant contingent of potential players who will be attracted to damp, servile women in bikinis, or porn stars pretending to work on the game, I can say that as one person I find myself put off a game I'm otherwise extremely excited to play. You do yourselves a significant disservice when your marketing suggests your game is unsophisticated, masturbatory material, when it is in fact wild, anarchic mayhem and gleefully violent nonsense.

Yours sincerely,

John Walker

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Saints Row: The Third

PS3, Xbox 360, PC, Nintendo Switch

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John Walker avatar

John Walker


Once one of the original co-founders of Rock Paper Shotgun, we killed John out of jealousy. He now runs buried-treasure.org