Hello again XP4Ts, and welcome back to our look at the history of the developer of GTA V‘s closest competition, Deep Silver Volition. (Part 1 is here). This week is something of a long middle section, so grab yourself a fresh cup and make yourself comfortable…
Before we press on with the events of 2006 and the first Saints Row’s release, we need to address the elephant in the room. Yes, that friendly pachyderm, eavesdropping happily on our conversation about open-world, sandbox crime games is, of course, Rockstar’s (née DMA Design’s) Grand Theft Auto. The GTA games had been a thing since their debut in 1997 as top-down tabloid-bait on the PC and the original PlayStation (not to mention a Dreamcast port for GTA2 in 1999), but of course it is the 3D sequels that we’re thinking about here. The first of these was 2001’s seminal GTA III, which (amongst plenty of spinoffs, multi-format expansions and DLCs) begat Vice City in 2002, San Andreas in 2004 and 2008’s Jean Reno simulator, GTA IV. Of course, we are now living in a world in which GTA V is a thing, and with the ‘proper’ FPS mode and lashings of other boner-inducing technical goodness the PC version will be enjoying, one can only imagine that it’s going to be, as GTA III was, a defining moment in both the series and gaming in general.
Building a Better Burglar
Inevitably then, the Saints Row games stand in most obvious comparison to the GTAs. Although GTA III predated the first Saints Row by a good five years (just going by release dates), and also had the weight of two full sequels on its side, SR actually introduced a number of elements that are now standard in all such games, including GTA IV. Chief among these is a GPS navigation system and a mobile phone ‘hub’ that serves as an all-in-one quest log, map, wallet and inventory, etc. Even SR’s gang system, where NPC gang members could be recruited off the street to accompany you on your travels, found reflection in the then-current GTA title, San Andreas. Volition were also in the somewhat enviable position of being able to look at a solid set of classic games and say, ‘How can we make this better?’. One of the things that they felt could be vastly improved was the integration between the open world, ‘living city’ game space, and the cut-scene-driven narrative arc. In the GTA games and their five years of mostly shoddy knockoffs, the two were largely separate, with story missions standing independently of the sandbox mayhem. So Volition came up with ‘Activities’, that tie the SR games’ sprawling narratives to their free-roaming sandbox action. These are represented by icons dotted about the city streets, which initiate various sub-missions and mini games, such as assassinations, drug trafficking, pimping, hoeing, insurance fraud, protection missions, street racing, car theft and all manner of other criminal mayhem. Successful completion of Activities earns the player cash and Respect, the series’ other key concept, which then unlocks further story missions (as well as new abilities and various bonuses). Sometimes, a story mission will itself also unlock a new type of activity. Another benefit of this feedback between sandbox and scripting was that multiple main story arcs could be introduced simultaneously, giving the player even more choice in how they went about tackling the various different gangs in the city and becoming the dominant outfit. Coupled with the series’ extensive options for generating income (property purchases, district control, good old-fashioned muggings), this has the effect, over the course of an entire play-through, of giving the player a strong sense of being in control and of having ‘earned’ the right to advance the story by objectively growing increasingly stronger and becoming more of a presence within the game world.
At any rate, the original Saints Row did its job sufficiently well, and – crucially – sufficiently differently from GTA to receive a warm critical reception when it released as an Xbox 360 exclusive in August 2006. For Volition, it had been another difficult experience, with echoes of Outrage’s Descent 3 management issues as the studio swelled from about 60 employees following its move to larger premises in 2004. Two years later, another 60 employees had been added to the Saints Row team alone. There were also technical headaches: “…Saints Row was dependent on new technology. The game would be loaded from a DVD, and the game developers weren’t sure how fast it could be loaded. “We were working on prototype hardware,” Kulas said.”). Backed by a star-studded voice cast, including Keith David, Mila Kunis, Michael Clarke-Duncan, Tia Carrere and Michael Rappaport, it was praised by some for improving and expanding on the GTA formula (especially for eliminating in-game loading times, and for a fluid, accurate combat system – something the GTAs have always struggled with), and criticised by others for (predictably) a lack of originality. But with a then-record 350,000 downloads of its demo from the Xbox Live Marketplace in its first week of sales alone, it made THQ happy enough to want a sequel. Work on a planned PS3 port of the original was scrapped in 2007 in favour of full-time development on SR2, which would again go to the X360, but also, excitingly, to the PC. Saints Row was coming home.