I’d been in awe of Saints Row: The Third since I sat down with Volition to check it out at E3 last year, and after some alone time with the game, I came to the conclusion that Saints Row: The Third was nothing short of stellar.
Greg Donovan, Producer at Volition, was kind enough to answer some of my questions (and yours as well, those who tweeted me some). With all the news coming from the Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco this week, we figured we’ll break for a change of pace with this interview. Enjoy!
GameFanatics: First of all, SRTT was one of the most fun games we played last year. In your opinion, what is the hardest part of making a fun game?
Volition: Thanks very much for the compliment. From the beginning of SRTT’s development we set out to focus on fun and it’s always gratifying to hear from people who think we succeeded on that goal.
Your question is excellent. And really, really hard to answer. To begin with, I think it’s quite an endeavor to make any game. I mean, how do you accurately schedule and predict what is an inherently iterative process? And then how do you know whether or not what you think is fun is going to be regarded as fun and memorable and compelling by millions of players? If you know anyone who knows how to do this consistently, please send them my way…
I’d say the biggest challenge is working with the team and getting everyone on the same page – establishing a top-level vision that the team buys into and supports, and then letting the team work towards figuring out how to best execute on that vision.
One of the biggest challenges is to establish an environment that allows for as much iteration time as possible, knowing up front that in many cases the first implementation of any system or feature isn’t going to hit your targeted quality bar or fun factor. Good ideas can come from anywhere and nine times out of ten the initial idea isn’t fully realized until others have contributed at both the spec and implementation phase.
We are lucky in that we’ve been working on this franchise since about 2004, so there are number of people here who “get” the franchise and are always willing to push things to make each iteration better than its predecessor. It helps that Saints Row is an original IP where basically anything can happen; the team has a lot of creative freedom. That’s a great and rewarding space to be in when you’re working with inherently creative people who care deeply about the game they are working on.
GameFanatics: We gave SRTT a perfect score, a huge step up from the previous installment. You guys really upped the ante, which is something a lot of developers promise but not many deliver. What was the most satisfying part of the game’s release for you guys?
Volition: First of all – thanks for the perfect score. We noticed that and we thank you for it!
I’d say the most satisfying aspect of SRTT was in the overall execution. It’s not often that sequels fare better than their predecessors but so far this has been the trend for the franchise : SR2 outsold SR1, and SRTT is going to surpass SR2 soon, if it hasn’t already. And that’s having been out on the market for a fraction of the time SR2 has been available. This kind of success only happens when you have a game that continually improves upon its weaknesses and simultaneously manages to keep players engaged and interested.
The only way this trend happens and will continue to occur is if you have a studio and publisher who support the title unequivocally, and you have a team that cares passionately about the game and its vision. Luckily, we had both. To successfully pull off a re-boot of the franchise and see both players and press respond positively has been extremely gratifying. I think with very few exceptions, everyone at Volition feels that SRTT is the definitive Saints game in the franchise.
GameFanatics: Alright so GTA comparisons are pretty much inevitable, right? How do you guys handle it?
Volition: It’s not difficult to handle the comparisons. On the one hand it’s always flattering to be compared to that franchise. Rockstar certainly know what they’re doing and when our game is mentioned in the same sentence as GTA, you have to be flattered. On the other hand, as the SR franchise has evolved since SR2, players and press alike have come to recognize that SR is a very different game from other open world games. These days most of the comparisons between SR and other open-world games are just that – an acknowledgement that SR is its own brand of fun and offers players a unique open-world gaming experience.
GameFanatics: We know you guys set out to make a game that didn’t take itself too seriously, and for that we truly commend you all. Were there times where you had to check yourself when things were becoming too, dare we say, real?
Volition: Absolutely. One of the game’s main goals was to provide players with an experience that was decidedly over the top. We were constantly pushing ourselves to ensure that everything the player experienced was memorable, over the top and uniquely Saints Row. I think it was more common that we had to scale some ideas back because they were ultimately too over the top and didn’t cohesively fit into the overall vision.
In early pre-production, we quickly found that individual team member’s interpretations of “over the top” were extremely varied. Consequently there were a number of times when some ideas needed to be discussed at a larger level to determine if that idea really fit into the overall picture of what we were doing. But these discussions are inevitable and healthy, and often times were a catalyst for other ideas or improvements upon existing features or proto-types. But as a rule of thumb, at least in preproduction, no idea was ever completely discarded without further discussion unless it was patently offensive to a singular group. Otherwise there were no limits.
GameFanatics: The weapons are incredible and, aside from dropkicking pedestrians or doing the “superman dat hoe” into a vehicle, they’re one of the most fun elements of the game. One of our Twitter followers want to know why it’s not possible to dual-wield penetrators?
Volition: Being able to dual-wield penetrators would have been a blast. Honestly, that’s an idea we didn’t entertain and I’m making a note to improve at asking our fans for suggested features. Dual-wielding penetrators is definitely something we can keep in mind for future games.
GameFanatics: On a more serious note, with the giant dildo being not only an in-game weapon but a collector’s item, what kind of reception were you going for, or was it just for mere shock value?
Volition: The penetrator’s popularity was somewhat organic. I recall a very specific email where I sent the weapon and model spec to our Agoura offices, inquiring whether or not it… would cause issues. The response back was a simple “THAT’S AWESOME!” I interpreted this as a signal to move forward. Once we got it in game, the team thought it was great. Here was a memorable weapon that was actually fun to use and was useful as a melee weapon. And from there, marketing and PR started revealing it to outlets. From that point, it started to take on something of an infamous reputation. Whenever we demoed the game, people always asked to see the penetrator in action.
We never consciously set out to make something simply for shock value. We’re simply designing gameplay we feel is going to be fun for players and fits with the Saints.
[Spoiler alert] GameFanatics: Seriously, whose idea was it to kill Johnny Gat?
Volition: Some say there is no definitive proof that Johnny Gat is dead. The Saints had a funeral for him, but we never did see his body in SRTT, did we? It’s been great to see all the speculation as to whether or not Mr. Gat really is, in fact, dead. The next DLC pack will have something to say about this…
GameFanatics: In line with the previous storyline-related question how tough was it to balance an open world, sandbox-type game, with a legit story?
Volition: It’s extremely difficult to balance any game, and open-world games provide its own challenge. Think about it – in open world games you have a model where players can for the most part play the game however they want and do whatever they want. You don’t have the usual gating or limiting factors that can help with tempering player progression.
In SRTT, we scaled difficulty based on where the player was in the story as opposed to their current level, rank, or weapon upgrades. The purpose was to make it so players who wanted to spend time on city takeover and earn upgrades could choose to do so… and then be much tougher than other players (players who didn’t spend as much time in city take over) later in the story, thus actually getting to use their upgrades and feel more powerful against enemies in later missions. We didn’t want to constantly rebalance the game based on level since doing so would essentially punish players instead of rewarding them for spending time outside of missions.
Story-side we changed the overall game flow from SR2. SR2 had separate storylines for each gang and we saw that this flow created some breaks in the narrative for players. Although it’s open-world, SRTT has one main story arc. There are gameplay and progression choices within that arc, but there is a singular plot and narrative development in this model. This was a much needed change we all feel helped make for a better story in SRTT.
GameFanatics: Another Twitter question, the plane in the water by the airport, proof of Johnny’s death or LOST reference, or both?
Volition: Well, it’s certainly not a reference to LOST. At least I don’t think it is. It’s possible that the artist who worked on that area was a fan of the show and was influenced by it, but it was not a conscious part of the art direction. It’s just set dressing and I’m sorry there isn’t a deeper story to it. As for Johnny’s apparent death, I’m not going to talk about that any more…
[Spoiler alert] GameFanatics: Ooh, we see what you did there! Okay, so zombies, what inspired them?
Volition: Who doesn’t want to fight against zombies? Look at it as practice for what some say is a very possible way for the world to end. We also wanted to get some of that SR2 Zombie Uprising feeling into the main SRTT game, and this was a great chance to do so. Plus zombies are awesome.
GameFanatics: How hard, or easy, is it to make downloadable content for a game that is full of so much awesomeness already?
Volition: It’s never easy making games and you need to consider DLC as separate games. Our goal on SRTT was to improve upon the DLC model we had in SR2, which amounted to releasing DLC missions about six months after SR2’s launch. That timeframe was too late for our fans. To correct this we established a separate SRTT DLC team who started working on DLC missions once all of the on-disc missions were at an alpha state or better.
The DLC team was faced with the difficult challenge of meeting deadlines that coincided with releasing packs starting at sixty days after launch, and they also needed to cram in as much over the top content as possible with distinct memory and technical limitations. So yes, developing compelling and memorable DLC content is very much a challenge for developers. The advantage we have is there is no shortage of ideas when it comes to content, and a large part of the team’s focus was on improving on what didn’t work as well as we would have liked on SR2 and SR’s DLC.
GameFanatics: We know Saint’s Row 4 has already been ousted, and Danny Bilson mentioned in an interview with G4 last year that it was going to be “wilder.” How wild is too wild? Do you intend to keep pushing the envelope or is there a limit?
Volition: Well, Danny’s in a position where he can talk about our future games with impunity. All I’ll say is that Volition is good at making Saints Row games (we’ve been doing it for more than eight years now) and there’s no shortage on ideas. We also know where we can continue push and improve the franchise at both the story and mechanic/feature levels.
We feel the franchise has established its own identity and now the goal is to keep pushing and improving upon what makes this game resonate with players.
GameFanatics: How many Volition employees roll to work with kneecappers on their cars?
Volition: Ha! If kneecappers were an available real-world modification I’m positive you’d see a number of them in our parking lots. There are a lot of gear-heads at the studio who like to pretend they are racecar drivers when they aren’t at work and I’m sure they’d love to customize their vehicles in the spirit of Saints Row if traffic laws allowed it.
GameFanatics: How many Volition employees are wrestling fans? The WWF reference in the Killbane plot was genius!
Volition: There are a number of die-hard wrestling fans at the studio. The writer (Steve Jaros) is one, which explains the professional-wrestling influence in the Killbane story arc. And our lead animator (Zach Lowery) is another, which explains where so many of the over the top animations had their influence. In fact, Zach used to wrestle in the amateur wrestling circuits under the pseudonym of “Sexiest Man Alive”. I’m not kidding. Given this influence, many of our motion-capture actors needed to be well-versed in professional wrestling moves.
GameFanatics: That’s pretty legit! Ok, who do we have to talk to get a Game Fanatics branded pimp cane in the game? Seriously though, the customization in SRTT is beyond incredible. Hmm…this isn’t really a question.
Volition: The pimp cane was a huge favorite in SR. Maybe we’ll bring that weapon back in some form or another in future games.
GameFanatics: Who’s the resident Whored Mode champ at Volition?
Volition: I believe that would technical designer Kevin Yanes. He played a large role in Whored Mode and his skills are rather intimidating. That’s the wrong world… he’s more like a savant. You ever think you’re good at a game and then you see someone play who’s really, really good and puts you to shame? Kevin’s like that. I believe he was the first person at the studio who played through the entire game on the hardcore difficulty setting and it didn’t seem like it was too hard for him. I’m also sure that there are some folks in QA who could give Kevin a run for his money. Maybe we should set up a contest and see who the best Whored Mode player really is…
GameFanatics: We’re down for that, world Whored Mode champion would be a killer resume booster. We should also join forces and make Professor Genki’s Super Ethical Reality Climax show a reality, what say you?
Volition: I’m definitely game when it comes to anything PGSERC. As they say, have your people call my people and we’ll do lunch.
GameFanatics: Seriously, you guys have been awesome, thanks for your time!
Volition: Thank-you! Always fun to talk about the game with players who enjoyed it.
Make sure you guys like the Saints Row Facebook page, and follow @VolitionInc on twitter!