Saints Row IV Interview - We Couldn't Make Dragons Work, Explain Jim Boone and Scott Phillips
Written Tuesday, April 02, 2013 By Lee BradleyView author's profile
Saints Row is back and it’s even crazier than ever. The fourth entry in the series aims to dial up the fun with a reality-altering new location, insane new weapons and crazy super powers. But not, as we find out in this interview, dragons.
Read on for our chat with Saints Row IV’s senior producer Jim Boone and design director Scott Phillips, as we discuss the fallout from THQ’s collapse, Volition’s sale, and the studio’s hopes for the most insane game in history.
So, it’s been an interesting few months - with the collapse of THQ and the sale of Volition to Deep Silver. How has it been for you guys?
Jim Boone: I don’t think it was ultimately too bad. It was a weird process for us in the sense that... it was a little bit different for Volition than for the other studios, in the sense that we were well underway with Saints Row IV, we had lots to show.
THQ also had the Clearlake bid [Clearlake, an investment company, bid to buy THQ as a whole and keep the publisher as it was], so our thought was we’re definitely going to get purchased, we’re not going to be out of a job. Unlike some of the other poor people at THQ.
What we were concerned about, what I think the whole team was reacting to was - who will purchase us and what will that mean for us? Is it gonna be some other group that comes in and wants to change our culture and our process and everything.
So it was nerve-wracking. It was a weird process just having all these publishers coming in and... you’re sharing all of your innermost secrets of the games and the budgets and everything to them. So that was a unique experience, I would say.
But once Deep Silver came in and took over, it was like the first or second day right afterwards, the CEO Klemens Kundratitz came over to Volition and we’re kind of in the middle of nowhere in Illinois so for him to actually make the trip and talk to everyone was really awesome.
And it went really well. It helped a lot because people had the chance to see and hear from him and he was saying all the right things. But then since then it’s been awesome in the sense that they have not asked us to change our culture or our processes.
They haven’t asked for any changes in Saints Row IV and that part in particular was good because we know we’re a different kind of game. A lot of other people might not understand it and they might say, “Really? Alien super powers? Do you really wanna do that?”
But then you guys are the big ticket studio from the THQ thing, with the biggest franchise. So you had a certain amount of safety, right? It was unlikely they were going to change much.
JB: Yeah, it was like a different kind of stress for us because it wasn't like some others who were wondering ‘Am I still going to be employed?’ But at the same time, because we’re in Illinois we were so isolated and we had a certain level of autonomy, so you never know what’s going to happen when someone new comes in. Does some of that autonomy go away?
We’ve been a studio for quite a while now, with our own culture and our own way of doing things, so we just didn’t know. So we were feeling worried about what it would be like, but I would say that for the majority of people at Volition it’s been business as usual. Since Deep Silver has taken over, nobody has realised a huge difference. Which is perfect, in my mind.
So let’s talk about Saints Row IV. Am I right in saying it started life as an expansion for Saints Row The Third?
JB: Yes. Well, yes and no. Actually, we started work on Saints Row IV right before Saints Row The Third was finished. And then we also started on the Enter the Dominatrix expansion slightly after Saints Row The Third was finished.
Basically, there were a number of elements that we were working on in Enter the Dominatrix that we didn’t really feel we’d have enough time to balance and really expand on your abilities and everything. So being able to put that in a full game was really big for us because there was a lot of promise in it.
You could see that it was going to be amazing but we wouldn’t have enough time to do it right with an expansion pack. And so being able to bring it into the full game was huge.
And also what we’ve done is, with the Enter the Dominatrix pack itself, there was still a lot of ideas that we think are really cool. Some really over the top ideas. And when we were talking about, what we plan to do with that is actually do a Director’s Cut of Enter the Dominatrix, of those elements that we didn’t bring over and do that as a future DLC pack for Saints Row IV.
So people will still be able to see some of the things we had in mind for Enter the Dominatrix, but in a different way.
The feeling I got from watching the demo was that it had the kind of ideas people usually try out with PC mods. Fun, crazy stuff that wouldn’t usually be in a proper game because it couldn’t be justified in the narrative, or within that world or whatever. But you guys seem to have given yourself enough freedom that you can do whatever you want.
Scott Phillips: Most games seem to look at it like, ‘Ok here’s our story, here’s our setting, let’s fit within those and we gotta throw out a lot ideas because they just won’t fit our keys pillars.’ For us it’s the flip, it’s the reverse.
For us it’s ‘Alright, what’s the coolest stuff? What are people gonna want to play?’ And then let’s work out a way to make the story fit all that stuff in so we can have all that great gameplay. Because for us, y’know, ‘fun trumps all’ is sort of our mantra. It needs to be enjoyable, it needs to make people laugh and have a good time first, before anything else.
That creates a certain amount of pressure though. Because if you create a strict world, it limits what you can do. It focuses you. With Saints Row it’s like you’ve got a blank canvass. Is that hard?
SP: I don’t know if that makes it easier. It makes it easier to say everything we have logically fits within the box we’ve built. Whereas for us, the key number one question is, ‘is it fun?’ And if its not fun, it doesn’t matter how well it fits, it needs to be fun first and foremost. It does bring pressure sometimes, like figuring out how, like when we were prototyping a dragon or something...
Wait. Saints Row IV has dragons?
SP: We don’t have them in the final game, no. I wish we did. It was one of those things that I told the team - a lot of people asked how are we gonna fit this in the game and I was like, ‘Don’t worry, if it’s fun we’re gonna find a way to make it fit.’ But it didn’t work out.
But with this game we have a really great premise that allows us to do what we want to do. And that was one of the key things that helped us keep the insanity up.
With Saints Row The Third Scott previously said that Volition only really got a handle on the game when you came up with the dildo bat. Any similar experiences with Saints Row IV?
SP: That was one of the ‘Aha’ moments, I called it. There were moments during that game when we as a team lock onto what fits the game for us. On Saints Row The Third that was - as much as our producer Greg Donovan would disagree with me - the dildo bat was a moment where everyone on our team recognised the level of absurdity that we wanted to hit with the game, the fuck-it-fun-factor that we were going for.
And even if they may not have liked it or wanted the dildo bat as a weapon in the game, they recognised it as like ok, ‘We get where we’re going and it’s going to be something unique.’
Was there a similar moment for Saints Row IV?
SP: I don't think as much, because the team understood from the outset.
We did so much work on the tone in Saints Row 3 that when we got to Saints Row IV it was kinda like ‘Ok, we have all that, we built it, we know what we have to make. So the tone wasn’t a big ‘Aha’ moment.
There were ‘Aha’ moments, I think, with some of the super powers. I think once we started coming up with those, for me, when we started seeing telekinesis and when we started seeing the super jump, that’s when we all looked at it and said, ‘Woah, ok. This is going to be wild.’
That was the press reaction when we saw it in the demo too. Everyone went ‘Wooooooah.’ That must be nice to see people reacting like that.
SP: Absolutely. Especially as it’s the first time we’ve show it off. It’s been a crazy few months, lots has happened in terms of the studio and now that we’re getting the game out there it’s great to see a positive reaction. We’re really excited.
Saints Row IV is out on August 20th in North America and August 23rd in Europe. You can read our first impressions of the game here.