We recently had the opportunity to sit down and chat with Jim Boone, Senior Producer at Volition, Inc. on Saints Row 4, and what an interview it was!
Simply put, Jim would probably be happy to just talk about Saints Row all day long, which I guess is lucky if you’re off on a press tour, granting interviews left right and centre.
Since we went on for about twice as long as my interviews usually last, we should dive right in, and read about various origin stories, “Awesome Week” and whether Jim would vote the Saints’ leader into government.
TSA: This part of game development must be very exciting for you.
Jim Boone: Yeah, absolutely! It’s the same with any developer, right? You work on the game for so long, when you cannot say anything about the game, and no-one gets to see it, or anything like that. As a developer, I think this is always our favourite time, when we finally get to put it in people’s hands.
We hope that people like it, but at the very least you can talk about it now, and people can check it out! So this is pretty cool.
TSA: You must have almost wrapped production by now?
Jim: We have yeah, in fact Sony America and Microsoft have both approved it, and it’s just Sony Europe where we had to re-submit to them.
TSA: Yeah, we’re a little bit difficult over here.
Jim: Just a little bit more stringent. It’s pretty par for the course, to be honest.
TSA: Not quite as difficult for Australia, though…
Jim: That is very true, yes! They… they’re… yes. [Laughs] It’s fascinating!
TSA: [Laughs] Alright, let’s wind the clock back a little bit to Saints Row: The Third, which was a big hit, but where did the decision to go for this really over the top style of game come from?
Jim: It was kind of a little bit of everything. The Saints Row 3 team was working on it, and they were coming up with a lot of ideas after Saints Row 2, and they had a bunch of different things in mind, and we were talking with corporate and Danny Bilson, who was the Executive VP of Worldwide Studios at THQ.
He was the one that was working with the Saints Row 3 team, and he was talking about the things that people responded to the most in Saints Row 2; the things that really set it apart was the over the top stuff. So he was the one that kind of started the notion of, “If you guys want to do that, then go for it. Don’t hold back!” That’s what people seemed to really enjoy, even with Saints Row 2.
Saints Row 1 was obviously a very serious game, right? And we definitely learned a lot of things from that game, but the things which people really responded to were some of those really irreverent and over the top things. There weren’t as many of them there, so the thought was to do more of that in Saints Row 2, where we have something like the Septic Avenger, where you’re spraying poop on cars. That’s pretty insane, but the people loved it, so why not just go for it on Saints Row 3?
TSA: Do you think this really helped you gain a big following? Because I know there is still often that little voice saying that it’s now become too silly.
Jim: Yup, and we see that too, and we totally get it. It’s a weird position to be in, in some ways, because it’s flattering that we made a game that they loved that much, and they really want that style of game again, but there are so many more people that seem to like the style that we’ve gone to even more.
Beyond even the business side of it, which in fairness we have to be mindful of, if we’re entertaining that many more people, then that’s the direction we want to go. We don’t just build it for ourselves, though we do and we have fun making it, but we ultimately want people to have fun with the game. We don’t take it seriously and it’s not high art; it’s just tons of fun, and that’s why we’ve continued in that direction in Saints Row 4.
“Why are you guys so silly?”
TSA: So you’re not going for the art angle? Good to know!
Jim: Well get the question all the time, and even other developers have brought it up, you know? “Why are you guys so silly? You’re not helping the art-form of video games.”
I look at it totally differently, because I feel that we are actually helping it. In the same way that, if you’re watching a movie like The Hangover, I’m not going to watch it and think that’s going to win an Academy Award, that it’s totally moving motion pictures into becoming pure art. It doesn’t mean that the whole breadth of motion pictures are not art, and I look at this the same way, that we’re broadening the definition of what it is to have a fun game. We’re silly and irreverent and I think that’s OK!
TSA: Obviously, Saints Row 4 quite famously started off as the Enter The Dominatrix DLC…
Jim: Right… well it was a little bit of both, because at the same time we were also working on Saints Row 4, so it was two different groups: a smaller group working on the expansion pack, and then a larger group on the full Saints Row 4.
TSA: How did the decision come about to merge these two projects?
Jim: That was when Jason Rubin ended up taking over at THQ, after Danny, as President. As he was getting a feel for everything, he came out and did a studio visit, and one of the things that he looked at was, because we’re not the biggest studio in the world, he looked at all the efforts we were making on Saints Row 4 and then this expansion pack. He just asked us plainly, like, “I kind of look at this, and maybe it makes sense for you to merge them together. What do you guys think?”
We just kept talking about it, and the more we talked, the more excited we were about that notion. There were so many things that we were doing in the expansion pack, taking things like super powers, that we were really proud of and we thought were going to turn out really well, but trying to do that in the period of time of an expansion pack versus having the proper amount of time of a full game? All of the polish you could put into it, to make it feel just right?
It was very exciting to everyone involved. What might have felt fun would be really fun, once you’d been through and finished polishing it up. We would only have had that opportunity if we’d been able to bring it to a full game, and the same thing went for the missions.
There were a few missions that were able to be brought over to Saints Row 4, but there it was the mechanics, more than anything else, because the story was totally different. Story-wise we had to take a step back and rework it, but having those core mechanics and being able to take the time and take it to the next level was really cool.
So basically, just working with Jason Rubin and him giving us the ability to do it, which was pretty cool.
Returning to Steelport
TSA: Do you think that there is that feeling from fans that due to the re-use of Steelport it’s just a hold over from the DLC?
Jim: Yeah, it’s interesting. We’ve obviously seen from a lot of the fans out there, that the people are feeling that, without having seen all of the game, that it’s just an expansion pack and not a full game.
That part I’m OK about, because I think that once people see the full game, I’m confident that they’ll see that the amount of content that we have is actually larger than that of Saints Row: The Third. So I’m quite confident that no-one will mistake it for DLC or an expansion pack.
But with reusing the city, that’s one that I find a little puzzling, because we reused Stillwater in Saints Row 2. I’ll admit that a lot of us in the studio were very fearful, like “We’re reusing Stillwater again, are people going get pissed about that?” and people weren’t! We didn’t get criticised at all for that.
So I sometimes wonder if it’s the fact that people know there was an expansion pack, and so they make some logical assumptions that it must mean that’s why we chose the same city? We were already doing that in Saints Row 4, because we had already done it in Saints Row 2.
TSA: So, the decision for Saints Row 4 was already to reuse Stillwater?
Jim: Exactly right… no, you mean Steelport.
TSA: Steelport! [That’s what I meant to say – Tef]
Jim: I know. They’re both close enough, I do it all the time too. Don’t worry about it!
For Saints Row 2, the reason why we didn’t [create a new map] wasn’t just so we saved development time, but we wanted to apply that to doing co-op and adding flying. So that’s why we needed the time to not have to rebuild everything, and to bring forward those major new features.
That’s why in Saints Row 4, with the super powers, it made all the difference. We didn’t want it to just be a situation where we added a couple of powers and it feels very thin and not like a full super powered game. We needed to be able to do things, like being able to navigate through the world and being able to jump on the top of buildings.
Now, can the AI follow you on that? Can they spawn on rooftops? Well they have to, because we didn’t want it to just be, “I just jumped to the top of the roof. I win! You can’t follow me!” That would be a pretty boring game, if that happened.
TSA: [Laughs] Like Star Wars Episode 3, and the “ Now I have the high ground.” moment?
Jim: Oh my god. Exactly! Let’s not do that in this game!
So by being able to reuse Steelport, it gave us the ability to do those sorts of things, and that was pretty important to us. I don’t blame anyone yet for having said it just feels like it’s an expansion pack. Until you see the breadth of everything, you just don’t know!
Friendly fire turned off
TSA: In among all those words…
Jim: [Laughs] Yes! I prattle on. Forgive me!
TSA: [Laughs] You mentioned co-op play briefly. Have you done anything special for those who like to play co-op? I played the entirety of Saints Row 3 with a friend.
Jim: That’s awesome.
So it’s handled the same way, where it’s drop in and drop out, and you can play the full campaign together. Then we’ve got two new activities which are specific to co-op. Cat and Mouse, which was in Saints Row: The Third and we’ve brought back, but now being super powered is amazing.
Then there’s another one called Death Tag. So, imagine that you join and we’re each assigned our own individual super power, and then we just go at it. Then it changes to the next power…
What we’ve seen in our testing is that people will have a lot of fun just turning friendly fire off, and then just using super powers against each other like crazy. It’s awesome!
We’ve seen it to the point where people will just not play the game, not doing open world or missions, and all they’re doing is just, “I’m using super powers, and I’m going to kill you in as many ways as I can figure out.” It’s awesome to watch.
TSA: With the super powers and within testing, have you seen that many people are using powers exclusively? How have you tried to balance that?
Jim: We’ve seen it in two different areas.
So, with navigation, we’ve definitely seen more people use the super powers to navigate than vehicles. There are still people that swear by vehicles though – that’s the way they want to play the game, and the game does not prevent you from doing it.
TSA: Stopping for lights…
Jim: Yeah, exactly! The good thing is that you’re in a virtual world [within Saints Row 4], so when you’re in a vehicle and want to keep it, all you have to do is hold down on the D-pad, and it will save it. Then when you call it back out, it will just pop you in it wherever you are. The same for a flying vehicle. Because it’s virtual, the collection is so much easier.
So, for navigation definitely more people use super powers, but then in terms of combat, they were specifically built to be used in conjunction with weapons. You don’t have to switch from using a weapon to super powers, because they’re on two different buttons.
I’ll give you an example, where you will blast someone with freeze, and then you’ve got the machine gun already loaded, so you just start blasting guys and they just keep shattering as you shoot them.
So people just use them in conjunction which each other, which is more like how we wanted it to be, and that’s what we tend to see it as. So that part has been pretty successful.
TSA: I believe you balance things out with a cool down effect on the powers?
Jim: Right, and there’s something we do with that, one of the things which is a little more subtle and takes people a little bit of time to notice: the D-pad will switch between the four offensive super powers that you have, and there’s a recharge on each one. So I could freeze people and then switch over to Stomp, where there’s a concussive blast. I don’t have to wait for a recharge [on that], so I can chain them together and everyone instantly shatters.
We don’t make it so hard that you have to, but if you want to, you can use those powers together, and you can do some pretty cool things by doing that.
The limits of imagination
TSA: It’s sometimes feels like maybe you’ve reached the limits of imagination. What’s left in the bag for Saints Row 5?
Jim: [Chuckles] God, we talk about that a lot! We’re at the point where we’re just about done with this game, and we’re starting to think about what comes next. Is it even a Saints Row? We don’t know!
But the thing we’re always talking about is, and my Design Director likes to tell this story a lot, which is that at the end of Saints Row 3 that was what we were saying then. You’re a pop culture icon, you have clones in the game, you’ve travelled to Mars… what the hell is left?
Then you recover a little bit from finishing the game, and then you start coming up with ideas like, “Hey, what if we have super powers?” and “What if we have aliens to challenge the player?” or “What’s the player going to be? How about President?”
So, asking me right now? I can’t imagine what we could do beyond this, but I’m pretty confident that if we go this direction we could come up with some stuff.
TSA: Do you think the leader of the Saints is a good President? Would you vote for him or her?
Jim: You know, it’s funny. OK, so… yes, I would.
The reason why I say this is because, as most Americans feel, we’re not particularly pleased with our politicians. At a bare minimum he couldn’t do a worse job than the politicians we have now, but at best, I think he could do a much better job! So he would have my vote!
TSA: For Saints Row 3, there were some performance issues on PCs running with AMD chips.
Jim: Yes. We’ve fixed it! It’s funny timing that you ask this, and it was maybe three weeks ago that we finally fixed it. It was the most complicated bug that you could possibly imagine. I mean, we had AMD helping us try to fix it…
TSA: Was it just some bizarre bit of code?
Jim: It had to do with the multithreading, and the order in which the instructions come, and this is way beyond my understanding, but something to do with a certain operation coming at the wrong time. Finding out that this was what was going on, we had some of our best programmers trying to figure it out, and it was just unbelievably complicated, but we just recently found it.
So it looks like it’s fixed, and we’re all happy, and AMD too! It wasn’t for a lack of everyone trying, because obviously we didn’t want it to be that way.
TSA: Finally, has any idea ever been cut from this game?
Jim: [Laughs] That’s one of my favourite questions!
So, the answer to that is yes, but necessarily for the reasons you might guess.
The quintessential example for this would be on Saints Row 4, we had a week which we gave the team, and we called it “Awesome Week”. We literally gave the team a week to work on anything they wanted – don’t worry about the schedule, or tasks, or anything like that, just come up with anything you want and have fun with it.
There was a group of people that came up with a dragon, which you could ride and could breathe fire on the enemies, and they actually got a crude prototype working in this week!
And it’s not in the game, but the only reason why is because of technical reasons. We didn’t think we had enough memory for the character slot to do it the right way and make it look good. It wasn’t because we couldn’t find a way to put a fire breathing dragon into Saints Row.
So that gives you some small insight into our insanity, if you want…
TSA: Well, what about a bizarre 2D sprite dragon?
Jim: Ha! Now that would have been awesome!
Have you seen some of the little clips of our 2D side scroller?
TSA: I don’t think I have yet, no.
Jim: Oh, just wait until you see it. We’ve shown just a few tiny clips of it in our previous trailers, so we’ve got you covered. The way we do it is “Smoke and Mirrors”, in that it’s all using our 3D engine, but the guys spent a while on it and it is unbelievable. It really looks like a 2D sprite based beat ’em up!
TSA: Using lots of filters and shaders, and stuff?
Jim: Exactly right, and it’s fantastic.
TSA: Excellent. Thank you for this interview!
Jim: Absolutely, it was my pleasure!
Thanks again to Jim Boone for taking the time to talk to us. Saints Row IV is set for release in the UK and Europe on the 23rd of August, and in the USA on the 20th.