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Opinion: THQ's Newfound Porn Obsession

Gamasutra Editor-at-large Chris Morris takes a look at THQ's use of adult entertainment stars in the promotion and voice talent for its Saints Row games, seeing risks for the franchise in the publicity stunt.
I know my way around the world of pornography. One of the perks of being an editor-at-large at several publications is you often pick up some interesting assignments. Among the ones I've been handed were a series of stories about the business side of the adult entertainment industry. It's actually an industry that reminded me a lot of the video game field – one that's very easy to judge on the surface, but one that's a lot more complex once you peek behind the curtain. That said, porn carries a lot of preconceptions, and tying your product to it inevitably brings risk. That's not stopping THQ from jumping in bed with a gaggle of porn stars and nude models as it tries to build buzz for Saints Row: The Third, however. Last week came word that, in addition to utilizing the voice talents of Daniel Dae Kim and Hulk Hogan, former porn queen Sasha Grey will join the game's cast as Viola DeWynter, one of the masterminds of the Syndicate’s financial empire. It was stunt casting designed to get headlines – and it worked. (Unfortunately, it was hardly groundbreaking. Fellow porn vet Tera Patrick did voice work and posed for a poster for a Saints Row 2 DLC pack two years ago.) If it had stayed there, it probably wouldn't be worth mentioning, but Thursday, THQ decided to up the ante, "hiring" a half-dozen Penthouse Pets -– including porn star Nikki Benz (pictured) -- to act as the game's "quality assurance" team. The release announcing this move is filled with the kind of predictable double entendres that make anyone who has advanced past the fifth grade roll their eyes -- the models will "dedicate themselves to complete customer satisfaction"; "the Saints Row Quality Assurance team promises to ensure a satisfying Saints Row experience whether playing alone or with a friend." Hur… naked girls. Not surprisingly, the Penthouse Pets will also be included in upcoming DLC for the game. Tying porn stars to Saints Row: The Third is kind of a natural, given that it's probably the only game coming out this year (or anytime soon, it's safe to say) that features a giant purple dildo bat as one of its weapons. It's a title that's completely over the top and proud of it. The thing is: The game actually looks like a lot of fun on its own merits. And by hiding it behind stunts like a parade of porn stars, the company could be discouraging some fence sitters from buying a copy. This is a game that even got unsolicited praise from Tomonobu Itagaki –- one of the development world's more controversial characters, perhaps, but one whose eye for quality is rarely in dispute. "I really liked Saints Row by THQ," he told Game Informer. "It really looks cool. The silliness of it all looks crazy, and I love it. I loved the trailer, too. There’s a guy in the elevator who’s smoking a cigarette. He’s walking with two girls, and he hands off his cigarette and kills the guy. Then he gets his cigarette back. I love that guy. I love the way he is. I think I’m gonna try to be like him someday." THQ is obviously taking a page from Rockstar's playbook with its porn patrol (porn queen Jenna Jameson voiced the character "Candy Suxxx" in GTA: Vice City). Still, that's an odd marketing decision since the company has worked hard to distinguish Saints Row as something other than a GTA clone. In the end, all of these hires are an obvious publicity stunt – and a well timed one, meant to drive young men to the THQ booth at Comic-Con. Ironically, at least one of the models the company will have there actually knows her stuff when it comes to games. I met Ryan Keely earlier this year at a dinner and we had a long talk about gaming (She's actually a very smart woman and has even done some work for IGN.) That won't matter to the people crowding the booth, pawing at models for a picture, of course. And it likely doesn't matter much to THQ. As I mentioned, I've got no issue with porn. There are some genuinely fascinating people who work in that industry. But using it as a marketing vehicle for a game, even an M-rated one that strives to be outrageous, is risky, and could hurt sales of a title that seems to be shaping up as a fun alternative to the shooter-heavy lineup this holiday. Perhaps even worse is the fact that entire campaign feel like an amped up repeat of something THQ tried with the last game. And in the marketing world, sequels rarely work.

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