GDC 2012: What makes a Saints Row game, anyway?
The Saints Row franchise has always been known for its ridiculous scenarios and silly features, and while these elements have played a crucial role in the series so far, Volition design director Scott Phillips says they have made the series' tone incredibly difficult to define.
At GDC 2012 on Thursday, Phillips gave a postmortem presentation on the recently-released Saints Row The Third, where he explained that the team's greatest challenge was figuring out what Saints Row was supposed to be in the first place.
Looking back at the 2008 release Saints Row 2, Phillips explained that Volition's production strategy previously boiled down to: "Lets put everything we can think of into the game."
While this approach certainly gave the title variety -- with activities ranging from sewage cannons to brutal manslaughter -- it made the game feel quite disjointed.
"The tone was not very well-defined in Saints Row 2… inconsistencies were all over the place," Phillips said. "We wanted to be consistent, while maintaining those crazy scenarios [the series is known for]."
But what content would be appropriate for the franchise, and what pushes the envelope too far? Even Volition wasn't sure, particularly since the development team changed dramatically after Saints Row 2.
"By the time Saints Row The Third shipped, only 20 percent of the team had shipped a past Saints Row title. This meant that people didn’t have that automatic knowledge of what Saints Row is," Phillips said.
When development for Saints Row The Third began, Volition tried a number of different game concepts, and at one point the game was a choice-driven adventure game about an undercover agent. While Phillips said the concept was interesting, the team decided it just didn't feel like Saints Row.
When Volition scrapped that idea, however, the team didn't know where to go from there. "People didn’t know what to do. They weren’t sure what they were making, they had a lack of confidence in the vision."
The key to finding that tone, said Phillips, was visualization. The team devised a "tone video" that blended movie clips and songs that would explore the various themes the game might cover.
The final tone video included over-the-top action films such as Bad Boys II, Shoot 'Em Up, and Hot Fuzz, and it was these films (along with Motley Crue's Kickstart My Heart) that helped define what the team wanted Saints Row The Third to be.
"It helped greatly. I still get psyched watching [that video], and that’s what we wanted the game to feel like," Phillips said.
By this point, the developers had an idea of where they were headed, but the game itself still hadn't defined its own unique personality. That's when the team stumbled upon one of the game's silliest (and eventually most marketed) features: The infamous "dildo bat."
"Initially it was just one bullet-pointed weapon in one mission spec out of 30 mission specs. It wasn't a big part of the game," Phillips recalled. "But the artists went crazy with it… and made something that was even crazier."
When Phillips first played with the weapon in-game, he thought to himself, "I feel like I'm playing something unlike anything else -- we know what Saints Row is now."
The takeaway from this situation, Phillips said, is that studios need to let every team member take ownership of their ideas and creations. The bat only came to be because the game's artists wanted to make it something special -- Phillips said Volition then tried to carry that mentality all the way through development.
When it came to deciding exactly what content would make it into the game, however, the team ran into some real problems. Like Saints Row 2, the team wanted Saints Row The Third to include a vast assortment of features, missions, and mechanics, but managing the game's scope proved quite difficult.
The team had plenty of ideas, "but the thing is, what is the right amount of stuff to add?" Phillips said. To start, the team detailed everything they wanted to include, and simply trimmed down the game's specifications from there.
"We dumped everything we wanted to do on our schedule, and we started cutting things… and we ended up killing about 4,000 man-days of scheduled work," Phillips said.
He pointed out several features that never made it into the game, such as a free-running parkour system and traditional cover mechanics, and while he thinks it's best those features aren't in the game, he would have liked to cut even more.
"The thing was, we didn’t have enough people, we were taking people from other parts of studio, from THQ…" There was just too much work for the 100-man development team to handle.
"We should have cut more…and admitting you have a problem is the first step," Phillips said. "The only problem is, it's really hard!"
The good news, Phillips said, is that the team now understands exactly what it means to be "over-the-top" in the context of Saints Row, and he expects that tone to carry forward in any future (but as yet unannounced) titles.