Saints Row IV is set to be big, bonkers and silly beyond words, which is fine by us. We've fired the black hole cannon. We've grilled Volition's design director. To get the final world on the next guilty pleasure, we sat down with Associate Producer Kate Nelson at a recent preview event to discuss Volition's overall vision for Saints Row IV, how it evolved from a DLC pack and whether it can please fans left disappointed by Saints Row: The Third.
Jonathan Lester (Dealspwn): Thanks for talking to us, Kate. I've just played through Saints Row IV's introduction, which lampoons practically every military shooter ever made. Would it be fair to say that you feel games are taking themselves too seriously these days?
Kate Nelson (Volition): [laughs] There's room for all types of genres or directions, I think. In a lot of ways, I would like to see some less serious games, but for now Saints Row has a really good place. We're in a really good spot, because we do like to inject humour into our games!
Dealspwn: There's certainly plenty of laughs. So, we've come from the crack house to the oval office. And we have superpowers now. Was this escalation just natural progression for you guys?
Kate Nelson: We wanted to make sure to keep the momentum that we had in [Saints Row: The Third]. For a while we were thinking, “oh my gosh, how are we going to possibly top where we left off in Saints Row: The Third because of the over-the-top nature that it had and because you're a celebrity?” To use your words, the natural progression for us was, “okay, you're the President of the United States.” You'd think that would be the most interesting part of where Saints Row IV went, but we were like, “no! Alien abductions! No, wait, simulated world!”
We started pushing ourselves because we really liked the mechanics that superpowers brought, we really liked the gameplay we were getting there. It's so fun, and it did fit the universe, but we had to make sure that it's within an environment that still made sense logically. Like an alien abduction simulation.
Dealspwn: I see, though you might have used the phrase “made sense” in an exciting new way!
Kate Nelson: Heh, yeah.
Dealspwn: So how difficult was it to balance the new powers and some of the insane new weaponry like the Black Hole Cannon with the traditional Saints Row experience?
Kate Nelson: That's actually a really good question and our designers will really appreciate that! What we had to do was make sure that we brought in an enemy that really suited the use of superpowers. If we had the same kind of combat and the same enemy AI that we had in previous Saints Row games, you'd blow them away for sure.
So what we introduced were several different alien types that need to be approached with superpowers in different ways. As an example, there's one you need to hit with a super-powered ability before you're able to destroy it with guns. We started to play with that, so we do try to mix up the gameplay to match the powers, and make sure that the guns and new superpowers blend really well together.
Dealspwn: Do you think that players will still use cars and vehicles when we can... erm... run faster than sound and jump over office blocks?
Kate Nelson: [laughs] That was one area we were concerned about. But gliding and flying is so much fun, we didn't want to take vehicles away, we didn't want to take away the option, but we believe that most players will at this point be flying. But you'll still have the ability to drive a UFO, Orb Tanks or cars. So we didn't remove that, but knew that with the introduction of sprint and glide, they'd probably be doing that more.
Dealspwn: Speaking of flying, I suppose that you had to design Steelport with the third dimension in mind, since we'll often be seeing it from the air. Is there a lot to do on the rooftops and in high places, and how have you gone about designing the city with verticality in mind?
Kate Nelson: It's interesting you brought that up. Gameplay in Saints Row II or Saints Row: The Third, we didn't do a lot with rooftops or verticality, so now we're making sure to use them. We will spawn enemies on the rooftops, and they will have the ability to spawn in on you so when you're there, they can properly follow you. We do take that into consideration.
Also, as far as collectibles go, you can sometimes find things on rooftops. We have some gameplay that's introduced for jumping and flying and moving around the city; special activities that are catered specifically to those powers.
Dealspwn: Do powers have their own progression system?
Kate Nelson: Yes. Each power has several upgrades you can take, that enhance its ability. It can start off with a standard ability, and then can take it in a completely different direction.
Dealspwn: Oh, you're going to have to give us an example!
Kate Nelson: Have you seen the elements? You can take your power and alter it with an element. There's an additional element where you can further upgrade it, so maybe your force does a certain amount of damage when you run into something, and then you can add more. So sometimes its incremental changes and sometimes it's a complete shift or addition to what an ability can do.
Dealspwn: How will we earn these upgrades?
Kate Nelson: You'll use data clusters that you find throughout the city. The thing we really like about that is the more you run and jump around the city, the stronger your running and jumping will become. It directly feeds into your powers, along with your blast and your stomp ability.
We really like it because it's a system that fed itself.
Dealspwn: We like the sound of that. So, we've had some big Saints Row news this week, in that Johnny Gat's back!
Kate Nelson: Yay!
Dealspwn: … how?!
Kate Nelson: Unfortunately we don't want to say how yet. We can't say how, but we are excited to say, “he's back,” and I don't think people will be disappointed. We were listening to our fans and this is one area where people would not have it! They were very upset with what we did with Gat in Saints Row: The Third.
Dealspwn: I guess that you can do anything in a simulation...
Kate Nelson: It opens a lot of doors.
Dealspwn: We also got a look at the voice cast this week, which includes Worf... sorry, Michael Dorn, and NPH. How important is Hollywood voice talent to Saints Row, and games in general?
Kate Nelson: I think it's very important. When you have top talent, the talent we are working with, they're able to bring a little bit of their personality and their ideas into the lines. Our writing team is very awesome, and the way that we do recording sessions can be freeform when necessary to really bring that in. We have several recording sessions throughout development as the game changes so we can bring people back and make it stronger, so that's another aspect that really helps our game feel right and the narrative feel right.
Dealspwn: Can we expect any more celebrity surprises?
Kate Nelson: I expect surprises!
Dealspwn: Awesome, sounds good to me. Now, we couldn't help but notice that Saints Row IV shares several major themes and gameplay elements with Enter The Dominatrix: the canned DLC pack for Saints Row: The Third. Not limited to superpowers and a virtual world. How did this DLC influence development, or did Enter The Dominatrix evolve directly into Saints Row IV?
Kate Nelson: I know it was a concern, a huge concern, early on. I think now, at this point, people are very clear that this is a full game. It is not a DLC! The way that it happened was when we were working with THQ, there was a shift. Jason Rubin took a look at what we were doing with Saints Row: The Third, and was like, “this is way too awesome, this idea is way too solid, this has to be a full game.”
So we were given more time and resources to really take those ideas and put it into a game that is, in every way, stronger that that original concept. So yes, we had the superpower concept, but now we're able to add more, add upgrades and really blow them out to a degree that a full game deserves.
The same with the narrative. Yes, it's a simulation, but it was a very different... I don't want to do spoilers, but it was different. A lot of the themes are the same, but the story is completely new, we had to re-record a whole bunch of... it's not a DLC any more.
Dealspwn: That's good to hear. Will we perhaps see the Enter The Dominatrix story return as DLC for Saints Row IV?
Kate Nelson: Yes, but we haven't fully talked about our plan yet. [We learned today that it will be included as part of the Season Pass - Jon]
Dealspwn: But there is a plan?
Kate Nelson: It's going to be very similar to Saints Row: The Third in terms of the amount of content, and I believe we're going to be talking about it soon. But we're so busy with Saints Row IV, we're moving on to DLC. The disc is good now.
Dealspwn: You've mentioned the story and narrative a couple of times. Often, when we run Saints Row stories or articles, some fans comment to say that they were disappointed with Saints Row: The Third's storyline in comparison to Saints Row and Saints Row 2. Will Saints Row IV have a strong storyline tying it all together?
Kate Nelson: Yes, I think we had some opportunities in Saints Row IV to help fill in some of the gaps of The Third. In addition to filling out the story, we have some throwbacks to previous games in the series. So I think, in general, players are going to be very happy – especially fans of the franchise – with the content that is yet to come. It's really exciting!
Dealspwn: Speaking of these fans of the series, what do you have to say directly to series fans who feel you've perhaps gone too far towards the silly end of the spectrum?
Kate Nelson: I think the direction that we've ended up in with Saints Row III and IV is the right place for the franchise. At the heart of what Saints Row is, it is an open-world experience, it is a sandbox experience where you have access to toys and abilities to explore and have a whole bunch of fun in the world. That, to us, is the core of Saints Row. The fun that comes along with experimentation with your co-op partner, that comes through customisation, still with a strong narrative and the ability to choose what you do when.
Those elements are still intact and we've had to make difficult decisions throughout development in terms of what should we be focusing on. We have been listening to our fans, and Saints Row is more popular than ever with the direction that we've gone.
I know that some people would like to see the previous direction, but when fans play this version they'll see that we're trying to do right by our previous games.
Dealspwn: Sounds good – to be perfectly honest, I personally like the fun-focused direction you've taken. And, erm, there is that other crime sandbox game out there. Do you feel that the more serious direction that Rockstar took with Grand Theft Auto left the door open for you in some ways?
Kate Nelson: I think now we're positioned to be differentiated enough from GTA that players looking for one experience will go to that game, and players looking for our experience will come to ours. I think both can now live in the same space, and that's okay!
Dealspwn: Fair play! And you're releasing first, which can't hurt. Speaking of, with these new-fangled next-gen consoles just around the corner, were you ever tempted to repurpose Saints Row IV for the new hardware?
Kate Nelson: For Saints Row IV we were already enough in progress on current-gen with our current technology, that our focus was on making sure that the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions were up to spec; that's where our player base currently is. At the time, we weren't announced yet, we didn't quite know what the consoles were doing! The timing of it, it worked out better to focus on current-gen.
Dealspwn: That's definitely fair enough. Since we're running short on time, we'd better make with our final question that we always love to ask: what, in your opinion, is the most badass and profoundly awesome thing that players can do in Saints Row IV?
Kate Nelson: [Laughs in surprise]
Dealspwn: Right? It's a good one.
Kate Nelson: We have a superpower that can be upgraded to the max, that is the most badass and awesome thing that you can do. I don't think we've officially shown it, so I challenge players to find it!*
Dealspwn: Okay, so what about things that you can tell me about, other than this awesome superpower that you should totally reveal right now. I won't tell anyone, honest.
Kate Nelson: Let's see. Again, it has to do with the superpowers. The telekinesis ability is really fun, it's one of my favourite things. You can throw vehicles, you can throw people, you can throw people in vehicles. In co-op, you can, with telekinesis, throw things back and forth if you want to. So I'd say it has to be some sort of cooperative superpower effort.
Dealspwn: Funnily enough, that's almost exactly what your design director [Scott Phillips] told us a few months back, telekinesis all the way!
Kate Nelson: Really?! Haha, we do love our telekinesis!
*I hate to ruin a perfectly good challenge, but Nelson subsequently confirmed to me that the power in question is the 'Death From Above' attack that lets you aim at a target area while airborne before slamming into the ground with devastating results. The higher you are, the more outrageous the result.