Strategy Informer met up with Lead Designer Scott Phillips and Lead Producer Greg Donovan from Volition for some extended hands-on time with Saints Row 2 and a nice chat about hot dog suits, sewage and laughing your ass off. And all with absolutely no bling in sight.
Strategy Informer: GTA IV’s your obvious competitor, even though the games are poles apart. We were going to ask how you’ve managed to differentiate Saints Row 2 from Rockstar’s game, but you’ve already demonstrated that by showing how anarchic you’ve made SR 2.
Greg Donovan Lead Producer: We had no way of knowing. Those guys weren’t going to tell us, and frankly I think it was better we didn’t know. It was better for us to just move ahead and not worry about it. We knew it was coming out and well, it’s hard for me to figure out why we’re compared to them (GTA IV) – there’re a number of open-world games out. I think it’s just because San Andreas and Saints Row were urban environment games and I think that’s it. I think this one (Saints Row 2) is the one that will really prove that it is not a clone. Thematically and stylistically, the way you play the game, the pacing - it’s all completely different. And I think the end result is better for players. Open world is a genre; it's not the 'GTA' genre. I'm not disparaging their game - I actually think it’s quite good.
Strategy Informer: Do you think that these comparisons are invited due to the style of the first game?
Greg Donovan: Absolutely. What’s really odd to me is way back when GTA III came out, and then True Crime came out within three months of each other; the press were so excited about it. “ Two open-world games! This is great, this is great!” and then that kind of enthusiasm didn’t happen with Saints Row after San Andreas. I don’t know why.
Strategy Informer: Not the most original question perhaps, but which aspect of Saints Row 2 are you most proud of?
Scott Phillips, Lead Designer: Co-op as it’s been the hardest but most rewarding element of the game. Relatively early on we figured out we needed to do something big and co-op was obviously a new and up and coming thing, that in open-world games hadn’t been done until that point. So, we had to learn a lot about the technology, about design as well because it’s paving new ground across the board. And I think compared to other co-op games, what we’ve done is above and beyond what other games have done and so I’m really proud of it. It was a difficult road but I’m really glad we did it and it turned out great.
Greg Donovan: We knew it was going to be fun, but we didn’t know how much fun. Scott said he’s going to play the game after release and usually the designers are the first ones to get sick of it and that’s very, very telling of the co-op mode. On a micro-level though, I think my personal favourite (aspect of the game) is diversions as they make you feel like you’re always engaged in the game.
Scott Phillips: My favourite individual element in the game, I’d say is throwing. I just love grabbing people and throwing them into light poles, over bridges…
Greg Donovan: Scott’s sadistic!
Strategy Informer: Do you think having a bit of a sadistic streak has helped you come up with some of the more inventive ways of dealing with pedestrians and enemies perhaps?
Scott Phillips: We just think about what’s going to be fun, but we often hear crazy ideas from people that when we get them in-game and it really works, you’re just like: “Alright. You were right. This is a blast.”
Strategy Informer: Was there anything that you wanted to incorporate into the game that never made it for whatever reason?
Scott Phillips: There were a couple of activities that we really wanted to get in. One of them specifically involved the player acting as a sniper and we tried really hard, we really wanted to get it in, but time and schedule meant it just didn’t work out.
Greg Donovan: At the top level, I think we got everything in that we wanted to. Competitive multiplayer and co-op were very important for the game as they’re chock full of gameplay. The inherent nature of development is that you never get all of the specific features in the game, in this case certain activities and diversions. Sometimes something just doesn’t pan out because it’s not fun. Overall though, I think we pretty much nailed what we wanted to do.
Strategy Informer: Are you looking at DLC as a possible opportunity to add some of these specific features that you had in mind?
Greg Donovan: Well, you need to provide meaningful gameplay for downloadable content like mission packs rather than piecemeal stuff, so instead of trying to retrofit gameplay that didn’t make it in, we’ll let the developers come up with something new, fresh and innovative. We are planning DLC, but the specific details haven’t been released yet.
Strategy Informer: Some of the diversions are pretty outlandish. What would you say is the most outlandish thing in the game?
Greg Donovan: The most outlandish thing?
Scott Phillips: I’d go for either streaking or Septic Avenger (diversion mini-game where you drive a Sewage Truck and douse the streets with faecal matter). A lot of people talk about that one.
Greg Donovan: I’d say some of the human shield quick kills might be considered outlandish by some, but yeah. Probably Septic Avenger and…
Scott Phillips: The hotdog suit. Some of our customisable outfits are definitely out there, but once you get them in-game and you’re laughing your ass off…
Strategy Informer: Was making the game overtly humorous one of your central objectives when you started working on the game? Was that the idea?
Greg Donovan: No. I would say what we wanted to do was promote the extra activities and the opportunity for humour there, but we knew that based on some of the comments we got from Saints Row 1 that we wanted to execute a more serious storyline. My position is that this allows players to play how they want. If you want to go through the missions only and get through a really serious storyline, you can do that. If you want to play in a sandbox and experience some of the humour, then that’s available too. Or you can mix and match.
Strategy Informer: Do you think many players will choose to adhere strictly to the serious storyline and ignore the quirky costumes and so on?
Scott Phillips: Absolutely. People can play how they want to play and I’m sure some people will want to play that way. It just varies from person to person.
Greg Donovan: It’s pretty interesting to see how different people play. Even when they talk about different patterns and how they progressed, it’s always very, very different. I mean Scott’s the kind of person who will always end up making a really crazy custom character.
Scott Phillips: Well, I thought I would but then I started playing the game and I liked having a reasonably cool looking character. For some reason though, every character I choose is a female and I always dress her up nice: make her into a little model running around the world. Prior to the game coming out, I always said that I‘d want to run around naked as a big, fat guy. I thought that’s what I wanted to play as, but it just didn’t turn out that way.
Strategy Informer: I suppose being able to change your character at any time allows you to drastically change the way you approach the game too.
Greg Donovan: Well, it’s called the plastic surgeon. For about five hundred bucks you can change your character’s appearance. It’s a suspension of disbelief, but let’s be honest, it’s a videogame.
Strategy Informer: For players who may have missed the first Saints Row, are they going to be out of their depth in understanding the narrative?
Greg Donovan: Anyone who hasn’t played Saints Row 1 isn’t going to get lost. From the very beginning we knew we were going to have to overcome that challenge. We’re coming out on PlayStation 3 and Saints Row 1 didn’t come out on PlayStation at all, so you basically get a quick overview of what happened in the previous game. In the first couple of missions you’re very quickly brought up to speed just through some light exposition. It’s not very detailed, but having said that, for the people who did play Saints Row 1, you’re going to see a lot of nods to it. There are some returning characters and certainly, if you want you can go to the church (the gang’s hideout in the first game) in the Saints Row district and listen to audio files to get a dose of what happened.
Strategy Informer: Maybe it’ll encourage players to seek out the first game if they haven’t already.
Greg Donovan: If they want to, great! If they want to go out and buy it, that’s fantastic, but we want them to buy Saints Row 2, obviously.
Strategy Informer: Now I know you’ve only just finished Saints Row 2, but do you have any ideas for Saints Row 3 in mind?
Greg Donovan: (laughs) Well Saints Row 3 hasn’t been officially announced yet, so we can neither confirm nor deny that we’re working on it. We would like to obviously, because we think it’s a very popular franchise, but as far as the direction we want to take - right now the sky’s the limit, but you should really talk to the designer.
Scott Phillips: We’ve got tons and tons of ideas coming out of SR 2. I mean, coming out of any game you know things you want to make better and in addition to that, we’ll wait until players put their comments out and collect that stuff and start working on it then, I guess. Hopefully.
Greg Donovan: I would have to say that we haven’t ruled anything out.
Strategy Informer: Great. Thank you for your time!
Saints Row 2 is out for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC on October 14th in North America and October 17th in Europe.