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Going Bonkers: Volition on Saints Row: The Third

Volition lead designer Scott Phillips speaks to Johnny Cullen on bringing Saints Row: The Third's mental action to the masses, working with Hulk Hogan and Burt Reynolds, and much, much more.

Saints Row: The Third can be described in three words: Over. The. Top. And then add an adjective in there as an extra, such as bonkers, madness or chaos. Those pretty much sum up what Saints Row is all about, from the first game in 2006 to recent release of The Third. Having finished the game's story last weekend, I can safely say it is (insert over the top adjective here).

Last Tuesday, I spoke to Volition lead designer Scott Phillips on the phone, where we talked about its reception, the stupidity of The Third and the future of the series, as well as a bit on inSane.

VG247: How does feel to get the game out?

Scott Phillips: It's great. It's been over three years for me, so I'm really glad to finally be seeing people play it and hearing user and reviewer reviews and seeing what everybody thinks of the game. It's great to finally have it in people's hands.

What do you think generally of the reaction from the people that have bought the game so far?

I've been really happy. It's been really nice to see comments about how there's a lot of outrageous moments and the design of the game feels cohesive because that was sort of one of our big goals with the game, and so it was really nice to sort of see that come through and see people recognise that.

What do you think about the reviews so far? Is that something you generally agree with?

If I was going to review the game, I think I'd give it a nine. I think it's got issues, but I think in the overal scheme of things, I think what we delivered is an awesome package. Everybody has their own opinion, I think certain people focussed on certain things more than I or other reviewers would have.

But I think in general, the review scores I've seen, I've been really happy with. I think even the scores that are lower, the sevens and the eights, they have their point of view and I think they might focus on certain things too much. They're certainly welcome to their point of view.

There was a lot of people who've probably bought the game for PS3 and there was exclusive multiplayer content announced at E3 for the game, but that hasn't shown up. Can you tell us what's going on with that?

I don't know anything about it. Those sorts of deals are made way above my level with Sony and THQ, so I can't really talk to any detail to what that was or what's happened with that.

[THQ PR interrupted to confirm it would attempt to follow up on this for us. It's since been announced it would include a free digital copy of Saints Row 2 for PS3 in the US and Europe via a bundled online pass, for owners who picked the game up new.]

The biggest trademark of the game is that it's bonkers, beyond bonkers. It's crazy.

Yeah, I think over the top is definitely our tone, our feel for the game. Internally, we had a design montra of 'embrace the crazy, fun trumps all.'

That was something we carried through in everything we did, and I think it shows in the final game that we as a developer, everybody at the studio, has a blast making the game and we just get the ideas from everywhere. We do the best we can to deliver the craziest, most over the top experience possible.

I think so far everything we've seen has been that people have recognised that, and that's great to see.

There's probably a double-edged sword, though. Is there a worry that the over the top content might wear thin on some people or even spark some sort of outrage?

I think that's always a possibility. I think in a serious game, people might get tired of things being too serious. So I think that could ring true for certain people about Saints Row. But all in all, we've been completely clear and honest about what the game is, and the game we're trying to deliver and what we want people to experience. So I don't think anyone would be surprised with what we've delivered.

"If I was going to review the game, I think I'd give it a nine. I think its got issues, but I think in the overal scheme of things, I think what we delivered was an awesome package."

I think it's certainly a game that if you just want to have fun, have a blast and do some crazy stuff, Saints Row is absolutely that game. Open world as a genre, freedom and doing what you want to do is key to that genre, and I think we've taken that to heart and tried to let the player do whatever they want to do.

So a lot of it is you play how you want to play, and if you're going to do these crazy things, that's great. You really get into the game.

I have to ask because someone asked on Twitter when I was putting out a feel for questions. Who came up with the dildo bat?

[laughs] I think it was either a mission designer or our prop or weapons artist. It was originally gonna be a side weapon for a mission later on where you wrestle Killbane, the leader of the Luchadores. And we'd have all sorts of ridiculous weapons, you're hitting him with a urinal, a giant shark, stuff like that.

So the dildo bat was just another one of those weapons.

And then as soon as our weapons artist took it and ran with it, he made it the most detailed, over the top dildo we could possibly imagine. Once we all on the development team saw it, we kind of recognised that players are going to want to play with this, have fun with this. The response from everyone has been overwhelmingly positive, I think there's people smacking their head with, 'oh my God, I can't believe we're doing this.'

But, those people at the same time, I think, are laughing about it, and that's the whole point. It's there to have fun. The whole game is about enjoying yourself, and I think that weapon really personifies that excellently. Just have fun with the game, don't take it too seriously, just enjoy yourself.

Is there anything glaring that you couldn't really put into the game due to time or tech constraints?

There's a huge laundry list of things we couldn't put into the game, mainly because of time. Technically, yeah, there's certain things during the beginning of the game, during the bluesky phase where you're just spitballing ideas where we come up with a lot of stuff that's not going to happen at all. So we work through the process of working with the programmers and the artists to try and make sure we can do what we set out to do.

I would say my personal thing I always stick with for lost features was having dogs in the game. We had enemy dogs for maybe a week. They were working, they were a pretty fun prototype. But in the end, we didn't have the program or animation time to make it happen. I think they would have been a great enemy and a great addition to the game.

You could do some fun stuff with that, pimping out your dog and various other stuff. But ultimately, we didn't have the time to do it, so maybe in the future. But there's always tons of things we can do because of time, so we try to pick just the best and the stuff we're most excited about.

Awesome. Pimping your dog. That's just awesome. So The Third's got a big celebrity list, like Hulk Hogan and Burt Reynolds. What was it like to work with them?

I think our audio guys and producers who went out to meet them had a lot of fun, and I think the actors - Hulk Hogan, Sasha Grey, Burt Reynolds - all did an excellent job. I think they all came in, they wanted to deliver on what their characters were.

Watch on YouTube

Professor Genki - The face of
Saints Row: The Third.

I'm personally disappointed because I didn't get get to meet them, I didn't get to go to those sessions. But everything I hear was that they were fun to work with, and I think people like hearing those characters in-game.

And it really has, at least with guys like Burt Reynolds and Hulk Hogan, a nostalgia factor to it. But it's fun to have them in game and have a recognisable person.

Why do you see the need to work with stars? I mean, typically, Rockstar shied away from working with celebs when it released Grand Theft Auto IV compared to the previous GTA games on PS2. Was bringing in celebrities part of achieving the craziness and madness of Saints Row: The Third?

I think to some degree it is. I think with a guy like Hulk Hogan, that sort of WWE over the top wrestling personality definitely fits along our genre and our tone of what we're aiming for. I think, obviously, when we have a handful of well-known celebrity actors, the vast majority of our voice actors are skilled, SAG actors, these guys come in and that's their day job. I think they do a fantastic job, our player-character voices are fantastic and I'm really a fan of all of them.

I think we definitely try to get voice actors that fit our characters. I think Killbane is a perfect example.

We had thrown around a bunch of names, wrestling guys and different guys. Because he's a giant wrestling guy who wears a Luchadore mask, the obvious connection that THQ has to the wrestling would make getting someone from there an easy bet. But in all reality, when we started listening to different voice actors, we found the guy we have is fantastic, and our writer really pushed for him to be Killbane. I think he turned out fantastically.

Another fun fact is the voice of Phillipe, one of the bad guys of the Syndicate, is actually the creative director here at Volition, Jacque Hennequet. So he turned out to be the best French-sounding Belgian we could find, even out of SAG.

So it was pretty awesome to get him, weird to see him in a meeting and then hear him in the game as the villain.

How much freedom has THQ brass given you with the game? It seems to me they've given you a fair chunk of it anyways.

After the initial setting, the direction, getting the story going, I think THQ really left us to our own skills and devices on the gameplay side. We've made, before Saints Row 3, three open world games, so I think they recognised that we had a pretty good base in building open world gameplay. So once we had that direction, they would check in.

They have processes where they'd see the game every couple of months, or every year, we'd give them a big presentation of, 'here are the big features we've put in, here's where the art stands, here's the direction we're going,' so they could check in and see what we're doing.

But yeah, by and large, THQ's been fantastic about working with us working on this project and really letting us build the game that we wanted to make, which has been fantastic.

Where do you see the open world genre going after the release of The Third and of course after GTA V?

I don't know, it's an interesting question. There's kind of an interesting divide between the sort of Call of Duty, heavily scripted, very short, very linear experiences that they're selling 20 million units a year versus the more Saints Row, Red Dead, LA Noire, Prototype, those sorts of games.

I have a feeling there maybe some divide where some group goes heavily scripted and another goes the Skyrim route, where it's just, 'here's this open world, now go crazy with it.' So I don't know, I think there's a lot of different opportunities. Personally, I think what Skyrim's done has been great. I loved Oblivion, I loved Fallout 3.

So I think I'm personally a fan of that sort of thing of letting the player loose in the world and occasionally giving them huge moments. But by and large, letting them experience this world we built for them. That's what I would prefer, but who knows what the next five or ten years are going to hold.

I do have to ask this. Are you concerned in any way about Grand Theft Auto V?

No, we've been messaging a lot on Saints Row: The Third and even back to Saints Row 2 that we're a very different game. We're in the same genre, we're the same type of game, but we are not GTA. And I think with Saints Row: The Third, we're starting to hear from fans, reviewers that we have created our own niche. We are not GTA, we are not a clone, we are our own thing.

"I have a feeling there maybe some divide where some group goes heavily scripted and another goes the Skyrim route, where it's just, 'here's this world, now go crazy with it.'"

That direction of over the top has been set very early on from Saints Row 2, and I think Saints Row: The Third reset that direction and reenforced that we are over the top and we that sort of fun, guilty pleasure sort of game. I've seen the GTA V trailer. Those guys can really build a world, they are fantastic at that.

I have to say I struggled to get through GTA IV. After it got to 15-20 hours, I started to get tired of it.

I think they are fantastic at creating worlds, and where I think we excel above them is creating fun gameplay. So I think we're different games, and I think there's room in the genre for both games and I think there's room in players libraries for both games.

So where does the Saints team go from here next?

The only announced project we have right now is inSane. I think, depending on, of course, review scores and on sales of Saints Row: The Third, you can logically assume there might be future projects in that franchise.

We’ll see. There’s nothing I can say, but I think everyone can assume what will happen based on the success of Saints Row: The Third.

I want to quickly follow-up on inSane, if I can, when do you think we'll start seeing more of that?

I don’t know. We have two floors in the building, and they’re on the other floor, so I don’t get to see what they’re doing too often. I get to see concept art, that’s for sure, and I think the concept art's looking fantastic.

THQ PR: Johnny, we're here to talk about Saints Row. When we're ready to talk about inSane, you'll hear from us.

Finally, I want to raise this possibility: a PSN and an XBLA game with just Professor Genki. What about that?

I'd love to make that. I think Genki has been fantastic. It's been very surreal for me because I was in the meetings when we were brainstorming that concept and those ideas and where we came up with it. And everybody in the room was just laughing their assess off and having a blast. So I'm really excited with how Genki's been received.

We brought the Professor Genki suit to several of our press events, and I think the reaction's been great. I think everybody likes this ridiculous, over the top Japanese style cat, which is great. I'd love to see a PSN, Xbox Live game sort of Smash TV-esque, but I don't get to make those decisions. Who knows what we'll see, but I'd love to see it.

Saints Row: The Third is out now on PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.

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