Friday 28th July 2017,
XP4T Brave.Bold.Banter.

Beautifully Stupid: The Story of Saints Row and Volition (Part 1)

Part 1 Non-slider

Greetings, XP4Ts. In a few months’ time, just as we’re loosening our belts and massaging our kidneys after the annual festive drink-’em-up, the monstrous Scottish beast known as GTA V will (hopefully) be arriving on our beloved PCs, in all its so-much-better-than-the-console-version glory. According to the already gigantic Wikipedia entry for this 50 Gb+ monster, that particular day of reckoning will be the 27th of January. I think we can assume that most of us who intend to get it are already clearing the space in our diaries, if not also on our hard drives. But did you know that just 7 days earlier, on the 20th, another ‘V’ will be releasing? I’m talking about the fifth instalment of Saints Row – a series that can rightfully be considered the only serious alternative to the bonny king of sandbox crime games.

Now, I can hear you all getting into a stew, choking on your energy drinks and knocking the Cheetos to the floor. ‘There is no alternative to GTA’, you shout, ‘It’s GTA or GTFO!’. This is often the response I get, and I don’t hold it against you (you bastards), because you’re probably not entirely familiar with the Saints Row games. ‘They’re the silly ones that let you beat people with giant dildos and fly around on jet-powered witches’ broomsticks’, you flap dismissively, stooping to rescue the cheesy snacks before the dog/baby hoovers them all up. Well you’re right, more or less. The original Saints Row was a quite straight-faced GTA clone, which was followed by a slightly less sensible sequel, followed by a third that hijacked the clown car and drove it off the cliffs of insanity into a ball pit full of grenades, a fourth that asked ‘What if The Avengers and The Matrix had a baby, and that baby was a slapstick comedy that looked like Blade Runner?’, as well as a soon-to-be fifth that will attempt to face-paint the Exorcist like a happy tiger, shove a lollipop in its mouth and send it off for a go on the exploding bouncy castle. But before that happens, I’d like to tell you a little bit more about the Saints, their Row, and about the lunatics making these games – as well as some of their other surprisingly well-known franchises…

Pictures: (L) www.joystiq.com, (R) www.metromodemedia.com

Original founders Mike Kulas and Matt Toschlog met while working on the first MS Flight Sim games.

Meanwhile, 21 years ago…

The lunatics in question are Deep Silver Volition. Volition began life in 1993 in Champaign, Illinois, as Parallax Software. Parallax was founded by Matt Toschlog and Mike Kulas, who first met in 1986 at Sublogic Corporation, where they worked on (amongst other things) the very first Microsoft Flight Simulator games. They later also worked together at Looking Glass Technologies on the Car & Driver games and Ultima Underworld (the game that gave the world texture-mapping, history buffs). Eventually, they came up with a 3-page pitch for what would ultimately become Descent, which the venerable Apogee Software Ltd. liked well enough to actually invest in. Toschlog and Kulas then left to form Parallax and get to work on Descent. The game used a custom 3D cuboid engine, based on ‘portals’, that only loads what’s needed on-screen at that moment. As Matt explained in a Planet Descent interview from August 2000, “I wrote the portal engine because it was the best idea I had for creating a large level while rendering as little as possible. I came up with the idea one day at Looking Glass when Doug Church was explaining how the engine worked in Ultima Underworld.” A DOS-based game made to run on 386 processors, Descent’s legendary full six degrees of rotation laser combat found better expression on 66 MHz 486 processors, and finally achieved its full glory with the advent of the first Pentiums. A working Saturn port was even developed, but ultimately never released. In those early days of PC gaming, when everything seemed new and amazing, Descent was greeted with open arms by the gaming community, not least because it shipped with a fully functional 8-player LAN mode, being one of the first games to not only offer multiplayer setup from a convenient in-game menu, but also ad-hoc drop-in/drop-out for MP games (previously, MP in games such as Doom had relied on all players being queued-up and ready to go before the session could be initiated). Descent finally released in March 1995 to commercial and critical success, and an expansion pack for their surprise first hit was quickly planned.

Without getting too far into Descent history, which could almost be a book of its own (did you know there were even plans for a TV series?!), Parallax’s second outing was Descent II, which grew from the aforementioned expansion into a whole new standalone product to be released one year later almost to the day, in March 1996. Like its predecessor, Descent II used a software renderer to throw astonishing 8-bit, 800×600 graphics on the screen. But with the extra space afforded by its CD-ROM (then still a relatively new thing for home PC users), each of the game’s six four-level areas had its own 256-color palette that could be applied to it. Post-release patches also added compatibility with exciting new hardware possibilities, such as 3Dfx Voodoo cards… Needless to say, Descent II was another big hit for the company. With two strong titles behind it and an experienced team in place, in 1997 Parallax split into two companies: Volition Inc. and Outrage Entertainment. Mike Kulas stayed at their headquarters in Champaign, Illinois to run Volition, while Matt Toschlog followed his fiancée to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to head up Outrage.

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About The Author

Old London geezer, now resident in the Polish hinterland. Linguist, committed Trekker, old-skool D&Der and gamer since the Colecovision was cooler than yo-yos...

  • Zloth

    You DO deserve the rack! Where’s the link to part two!? You’re going to make me edit the URL, aren’t you??

    • Ahh, Mr. Zloth! Thank you for stopping by. And sorry for the lack of linkage – I’ve updated all the posts now, to make sure they link back and forth to each other. Good spot! Have a chocolate cigar! 😀

      • Zloth

        Sweeet!

  • Pingback: Review: Saints Row: Gat Out of Hell | XP4T Brave.Bold.Banter.()

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