Volition Talks Saints Row IV, The Death of THQ and Next-Gen Consoles

While at E3, I got a chance to sit down with the incredibly nice and candid Jim Boone, Senior Producer for Saints Row IV at Volition Studios, and speak with him about the latest sequel in the over-the-top franchise, as well as find out about future development on the Xbox One/PS4 and what it was like during the collapse of THQ. Also, make sure to stay tuned to PSLS, as we will be having a full preview for Saints Row IV this week.

Were you the Senior Producer for the previous Saints Row games?

I was on Saints Row 2, but I wasn’t on 1 or 3. So, I guess I’m doing the even numbered ones.

How long after Saints Row 2 did you start development for Saints Row 4?

It was at the very end of Saints Row: The Third, a couple months before that was finished that we started working on Saints Row IV. So it has been a few years now that we have been working on this one.

Was there any difficulty trying to develop a game for an audience that was still adjusting to Saints Row: The Third?

A little bit. The biggest issue with it was when we were working on Saints Row: The Third, and thinking about all the things we had done in it and how crazy and over-the-top it was. I think the biggest thing that a lot of people were thinking on our side was, what the hell do we do next? Like how do you go further than this? We’ve got clones, you’ve got missions to mars, you have helicarriers – like what the hell else is there to do? Then when you take a step back and start to relax and recover from finishing the game and everything, now suddenly ideas start flowing, and the first big one for us was superpowers. That was the one that started it all, because we loved the thought that we could use superpowers – where you could do things that worked well with our core mechanics. Driving around is awesome, and you still can, but, the ability to also super jump and glide through the air to get where you want to go – it is just a fun way to change things up.

The same thing with combat. If I wanted to take out my gun, I can still shoot, but, I’ve also got these powers where I can pick someone up and use TK to launch them. It’s cool. It just changes the mechanics up by doing that, but once we did that, then we realized that if we are still just fighting gang members – how are we going to balance this game? It’s like you are a god in the world, with a bunch of gang members coming at you – they don’t really pose much threat. So, we decided to strike up the notion of ‘what if we do aliens? What if aliens invade?’ They have a bunch of technology, they have their own super powers and things like that.

The presidency was the last one to come, and that was just us being goofy. Thinking about how its logical in a demented way… in Saints Row you are just trying to join the Saints, then you ultimately become the leader of the Saints, then a pop-culture Icon, so, why not become president? It seems like the logical next step.

Did you have any issues developing the fourth title in the series, while still finding ways to keep the game accessible to new players?

We spent a lot of time trying to balance that stuff out, what we did was a combination of things where we brought people back all the way from the first Saints Row even. So, as an example, Ben King, who is the leader of the Vice Kings and hasn’t been seen in Saints Row 2 or 3, is he’s your Chief of Staff in Saints Row IV. What we tried to do was that if you are a long time fan of Saints Row, you will be like ‘oh shit that’s Ben King, that’s awesome,’ but if you never played Saints Row before it is just, ok, there’s this cool new character named Ben King, and he seems to have had some relationship to the Saints. But we try not to do it in such a way where you feel like, ‘ok, I don’t know what the hell is going on, I don’t understand any of this’. We try to do a lot of those types of things, and its been difficult to balance, but I think we have done a really good job of trying to strike that balance between paying it off for the people who do know, but not losing people that have never had a chance to play this series before.

You talked about being in development for Saints Row 2 and and Saints Row 4, and 1 and three were handled by a different team…

There are members of the same team – one of the things with Volition is that we go back and forth with different team members because we were also working on the Red Faction series at the same time. So what will happen a lot of times, is that team members will go back and forth between the project – just to get a change of pace from not just doing the same thing all the time.

Would this mean that there could be a team working on Saints Row 5 right now?

[Laughs] Nothing to announce like that, but, obviously we are always looking at whatever the next thing is going to be, and we definitely have some people thinking about ‘what is the next thing? Is it a Saints Row?’ Who knows at this point? A lot of our studio has just been so focused on Saints Row IV and getting it out the door. At this point it is just more high level brain storming, just what is next? We don’t even know.

Have you looked at the next-gen consoles?

Not much, we obviously have been following it like everyone else in our industry, checking the specs and everything like that. We are dying to get our hands on this stuff and dig into it, but not as much.

Were you on hand at the press conferences and what were your thoughts on the differences between Microsoft and Sony’s unveil?

We weren’t, because were in the middle of Saints Row IV stuff. But, of course we are all gamers at heart, never mind just being developers, so we are pouring over all of that stuff as it is coming out. We have been hearing it along the way of course, when we were with THQ, obviously we were being informed of where things were going, what kind of specs were out there and the same with Deep Silver. So, from a hardware standpoint, we’re kind of being kept up to date on that sort of thing, but, it’s one thing to be kept up to date and it’s another thing for it to be ‘there it is!’ Now we know, so that’s pretty cool.

Were you expecting there to be such a big difference in the pricing models between Microsoft and Sony?

Honestly, its a little surprising. It’s been a little interesting to me because this seems like the first time I can remember where both consoles are coming out at the same time. So, it’s been fascinating to watch how they are kind of going at it. It isn’t at all surprising, but it is fascinating to watch because both sides have their distinct message and the way they want to do things. It will be interesting to see which one has the momentum and which one maintains it. But, in a lot of ways, to be honest, I feel it is really good for the industry – because you feel like if they are competing with each other that way. Ultimately, they are trying to do things that are going to innovate on their individual platforms.

From a developer standpoint, that is awesome, because it gives us a chance to dig into it and come up with new ideas. Of course we are going to do the obvious things, like things are going to look better and things are going to be prettier and everything, but I’m more interested in [knowing] what are the exotic things we can do with these platforms, and the fact that they are pushing each other is hopefully going to make things more interesting along those lines.

With Microsoft including the Kinect 2 with the Xbox One, but the PS4 not being bundled with the PS Camera. Do you think that will be an issue moving forward in regards to developing things that could utilize that functionality?

It is going to be interesting for sure, it’s one of the challenges you have when developing games. How do you do it in a way that will maximize one platform, but not necessarily at the cost of the other one? I’m looking forward to digging into it and figuring that aspect out. Ultimately, I think its all good in a sense that these are now choices we can make as a developer, and from what I’ve seen, it’s not like Microsoft is saying you must – fill in the blank. It’s just here’s this thing that is there, and if you want to use it, great. That is the same with Sony, here are these items and if you want to do it.

So, I like to have those kinds of options and we can just look at it and see what makes sense – a lot of it is also simply ‘how much would it take to develop for something like that?’ If it something that is really easy, then maybe its ok if it is just for one platform vs. the other, you could use some of the more customized features with the individual platforms and see how it goes.

Since the acquisition by Deep Silver of Volition, how has that affected the development of Saints Row IV and the studio as a whole?

We have been lucky to be honest with you, it was a pretty sad time with THQ going away. We had been with them for quite a while now, had a lot of friends over there and everything like that. But once we got to the phase where we were starting to be shopped around, we kind of had a feeling that, based on the success of Saints Row IV, we weren’t worried about being out of business or anything like that.

What we were concerned about was if someone was going to come in and maybe try to change our culture or change our game, and with Deep Silver it has been awesome, because they haven’t changed anything. Like, the game we are doing is literally the game we conceived of, with no changes whatsoever. So it could not have gone better from our perspective, and that we just keep getting to do exactly what we wanted to do with the game.

So, it will be the same moving forward?