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Speech balloons are his newest thing

Times Staff Writer

As the entertainment world rushes headlong into the digital realm, Jason Rubin has gone in the other direction.

Rubin made his career developing technically complex and visually dazzling video games, including “Crash Bandicoot.” This month he dived into comic books, a medium as firmly grounded in pen and paper as video games are in zeros and ones.

Oh, and he made a small fortune in between by co-founding Flektor, a social networking website. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. bought it in May for more than $20 million.

The 37-year-old entrepreneur’s unorthodox path blazes new ground in the creation of entertainment, jumping between analog and digital just like the young consumers who buy his products.

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“It’s just entertainment,” Rubin says.

With video games, it’s an interactive world that lets players explore, choose their actions and tell their own stories. With social-networking websites, it’s a virtual world where people present themselves however they please. With comic books, it’s a fanciful world of big gestures, super-villains and saturated colors.

“The fact that Jason can adapt so quickly and create products that people want makes him a new-media person,” says Chris Kantrowitz, Rubin’s close friend and a former game developer. “At the same time, he understands how to tell a story and fire up people’s imaginations.”

It helps that Rubin, who lives in Los Angeles, belongs to the same demographic as his audience. He is young and single and enjoys plenty of disposable income. Like many in his core audience, Rubin cut his teeth on “Star Wars,” which he saw when he was 8.

“I knew I wanted to create universes after I saw that,” he says. “It set me on my path.”

Growing up in Potomac, Md., Rubin knew his parents would not spring for a costly movie camera just so their rambunctious son could try his hand at making films. Instead he begged for a computer.

On his 13th birthday, he got his wish: an Apple II.

Around the same time, Rubin befriended Andy Gavin in Hebrew school. The two sat in the back of the class, traded computer magazines and swapped programs they had written or downloaded.

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At 15, they formed the company that would eventually become Naughty Dog Inc., named for a stray named Morgan that Rubin had adopted. Naughty Dog’s first computer game, “Ski Crazed,” sold more than 1,000 copies and opened the way to several other titles that Electronic Arts Inc. published, including “Keef the Thief” and “Rings of Power.”

After graduating from the University of Michigan with a degree in economics, Rubin created “Way of the Warrior,” a gruesome fighting game that was pilloried by parents and lawmakers for its over-the-top violence. The bruising experience persuaded him to make games that were rooted in fun rather than gore.

In 1996, Rubin, Gavin and their team of artists and programmers created “Crash Bandicoot,” a pollution-fighting cartoon marsupial.

Naughty Dog signed a deal with Universal Studios to create three games in exchange for funding and office space on the studio’s Burbank lot. It was a great investment for Universal, which landed the rights to a game franchise that ultimately sold more than 30 million copies, making more money for Universal than many of its movies have.

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Rubin and Gavin negotiated the rights to 15% of all “Crash Bandicoot” game revenue and 25% from sales of related products, giving their company enough capital for a spin-off. They invested $4.5 million to create a franchise called “Jak and Daxter,” which also became a bestseller.

“Naughty Dog has never released a bad game,” says Geoff Keighley, editor of Gameslice, an online industry news site. “Only a handful of developers have managed to pull that off.”

Rubin and Gavin sold Naughty Dog to Sony Corp. in 2000 for an undisclosed sum. After staying for the contracted four years, Rubin and Gavin struck out on their own again.

Kantrowitz introduced Rubin to MySpace, which was replacing Friendster as the hottest social-networking site. Rubin created his own flashy page that attracted attention: His Hollywood friends, including actor Danny Masterson and actor-director Jon Favreau, asked him to redo theirs.

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Rubin saw a need for fun, easy-to-use tools for making cool MySpace pages, and he talked Gavin into helping. The result was Flektor, a free service that lets people add hundreds of funky special effects to the media they post on MySpace and other sites. It went live in April and was sold to News Corp.'s Fox Interactive the next month.

Rubin always had a knack for making money from his crazy ideas, says his dad, Stephen Rubin. His father recalls a fundraiser that Rubin orchestrated during his senior year in high school: Jell-O wrestling matches, including a sold-out bout between the school’s principal and two cheerleaders. It raised thousands of dollars.

“Jason sheds a tremendous number of ideas at a high velocity,” says Gavin, who over the years has been the technical side of the duo. “I try to capture the best ones and figure out how to make them work at a practical level.”

Rubin’s latest venture is a monthly comic book mini-series called “Iron and the Maiden” that went on sale Aug. 1.

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Technically, it’s about as far from video games and the Internet as you can get. Drawings are made by hand, then sent by FedEx to colorists and letterers. Unlike with digital files, in comic books there is no such thing as a backup if the original is lost.

“As a digital guy, it was shocking,” Rubin says. “Comic books are made the same way they were 60 years ago.”

But he pursued the project the same way he made games. He plowed tens of thousands of dollars of his own money into the company, hiring the best designers, colorists and drafters he could find.

“I work with people who are more talented than me,” he says. “That’s been my mantra from the beginning.”

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And he made sure they all got credit. Their names get the same prominence on the comic book’s cover as his.

For Rubin, credit is a big deal. He lobbied game publishers a few years ago to give more recognition to developers. That made him unpopular with many game companies, which feared that doing so would encourage poaching by rivals.

It’s just one of many controversial stances he’s taken throughout his career. For example, he made a splash when he said marketing the ultra-violent “Grand Theft Auto” to minors was the equivalent of selling them cigarettes.

“Sometimes he’s controversial,” Keighley says. “But he’s usually proven right.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Self-starter

Who: Jason Rubin

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Age: 37

Education: University of Michigan, ’92 (bachelor of arts in economics)

Current title: Chief executive and chief creative officer, Flektor Inc.

Career highlights: Co-founded game development studio Naughty Dog Inc. Created a comic-book series called “Iron and the Maiden.”

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Hometown: Potomac, Md.

Favorite game: “Doom”

Favorite movie: “Star Wars”

Hobbies: Snowboarding, playing video games

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Personal: Single. But committed to Jo, a 1-year-old mutt he rescued from a shelter.

alex.pham@latimes.com


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