I didn't have to spend much time in thought this year when trying to narrow down a personal pick for Game of the Year. It's Saints Row: The Third by a wide margin. The Volition-developed, THQ-published series started life in late 2006 as what was essentially a GTA clone, giving current-gen gamers the open-world crime drama that they'd been asking for. The 2008 sequel added co-op through the entire game, but it was otherwise a very similar experience.
Saints Row: The Third doesn't just flip the script; it completely shreds the thing. The series' latest rethinks established formulas in a way that sends a very clear message about what the dev team's overriding philosophy was: there's no such thing as "over the top." That's also basically what Volition told me during a recent post-mortem chat with producer Greg Donovan and lead designer Scott Phillips.
Our conversation started off on a confident note, with Donovan telling me right off the bat that the team sees Saints Row: The Third as their best effort in the series so far. "We wanted to not meet player expectations, but to surpass them. We wanted everything to be over the top," he told me.
After Saints 2, the dev team faced the obvious challenge of creating something entirely new in the next outing. For two full games fan had been exploring the city of Stilwater, and while there was enough new material in the sequel to justify the return trip, there was no way a third Stilwater adventure was going to work.
"After SR2, we breathed this giant sigh of relief when we saw that players seemed to resonate with the over the top gameplay," Donovan said. "We actually had a lot of conversations in SR2 on whether or not the Ronin should have their swords on their backs. Is that too realistic, will people care about that? And of course they didn't, and so it's like, 'Ok, great. This is the type of game we love to make, our players love this, so let's just blow everything out.'"
"So I guess from the start, [we decided] everything needs to be over the top, everything needs to kind of encapsulate the vision that the franchise has come to be known by at this point."
You've heard all of this before. If not for Saints 3, then for games like it. With any sequel, your goal is generally going to in some way involve refining the vision around what fans seem to be appreciating the most.
The difference in The Third is that it's not an iterative effort; it's less that ideas from the previous games are being built upon and more that they've been torn down to their foundations and rethought. Saints 3 doesn't necessarily lay out any bold, new ideas for the genre of open-world games. Rather, it presents a more refined take on the things that the series does best. Which is to say, filling gamers' lives with a parade of HOLY SH-T moments.
Familiar Faces With A Twist
For Phillips, the team's biggest win with The Third was the delivery of the story and the way it played directly into the series' longtime focus on nurturing player choice. Traditionally, Saints Row players are presented with choices that have, for the most part, nothing more than an aesthetic impact on the game. All of that stuff is still around in the new game, but the story also offers a surprising amount of variation as it unfolds over three roughly defined acts.
"We had a lot of customization options [in Saints Row 2] and we added even more in Saints Row: The Third," Phillips said. "I think the biggest place where we pushed that forward was the in-mission choices, where you kind of drive some of the changes to the story. And then at the end of the game you get two big, different missions based on what you choose to do."
Of course, it wouldn't have worked nearly as well if the open-ended narrative structure of the first two games hadn't been tweaked. Saints Row: The Third follows a a single narrative thread. Player choices tie knots in at different locations, but the Third Street Saints and their playable gang leader follow a very specific path from beginning to end.
"We did receive some internal and external feedback that when you're playing through just one mission arc in SR2, you felt like you were separated from what was going on in the world," Donovan explained. "Our take was that if you had one central narrative with choices within that narrative line, it feels like more of a cohesive, centralized piece of fiction."
In addition, there's also a much more light-hearted underlying tone to the unfolding story. Saints characters have always been sociopaths, and that's still totally true in The Third. The difference in this outing is that they're oddly likable and even, at times, sympathetic. Both of the Volition guys agreed with my assessment, pointing to longtime series writer Steve Jaros as the culprit.
Weaving A New Narrative
Jaros wrote the first two games in the Saints series in addition to this most recent one. His talents have developed alongside the series; it was clear enough to see in the move from the first game to the second. It's even more clear now with The Third. Jaros wasn't without help, however. Donovan praises his evolution as a writer, but admit that the creative team had a hidden trump card to help them as well: THQ Core Games boss Danny Bilson and his longtime writing partner, Paul De Meo.
Before Bilson started hawking games to people like us, he was telling stories in Hollywood with De Meo. They wrote Disney's The Rocketeer together, among many other things. Donovan told me about how he, Phillips and Jaros flew out to visit with the writing duo and receive the benefit of their experience.
"Scott, Steve and I went out there for a week after we had the script done, and we got their critique," he told me. "As developers, we tend to lose objectivity, so it was good to have them point out certain shortcomings that we could address. I think [the story's success] was a combination of Steve coming into his own on this one, fully getting the game and the tone, and then having that added critique from experienced script writers."
Phillips added that a lot of lessons were learned during the Saints 2 development that helped further inform how the changed tone of things took shape. "I felt that there were a lot of moments in the story [in Saints Row 2] that just didn't feel right. Where the player was doing things that I didn't want my player character to be doing."
"So with The Third, I was continually raising the point that, while they're crazy, while they're out killing grandmas and stuff, they themselves and the people around them, their fans, they still love 'em. It's just, those lovable old Saints. They're running over people, but they're good at heart. That was the kind of feeling that I was constantly pushing for us to get into the script."
Respecting The Three-Act Structure
The changed approach to the story doesn't stop with the more linear narrative. In previous Saints games, players were required to engage in various side missions in order to earn enough Respect to unlock the next story mission. It's a framework that was abandoned completely in Saints 3, largely due to feedback Volition got from players following the first two games.
"With Saints 1 and Saints 2, we heard from fans and from reviewers about how they felt like they were being very clearly forced to grind in order to play the next mission," Phillips explained. "Players definitely reacted poorly to that. So we just totally wanted to get rid of that idea."
"With the structure of the missions, it was about letting players play to what they wanted to do. It was clear [from feedback on previous games] that players want missions, they like the idea of advancing the story, of making progress, and we wanted to give them that."
From there, dealing with Respect became a simple question: do we change the way it works or remove it entirely? As Phillips explained, "I felt that it was a very easy switch to say [that] you still earn Respect, but if you want to get more Respect, you can get better upgrades, you can sprint longer, you have more health, you don't have to reload... all sorts of stuff like that."
It was in this line of thinking that Saints Row: The Third's City Takeover minigame was born anew. The series has always allowed players to spread the influence of the Third Street Saints throughout the city, but it takes on a whole new meaning when, instead of doing this to see more of the story, you're doing it to better equip yourself to excel within that story.
"We wanted to make it feel like, if you want to just go through the story and just plow through it and see everything that's gonna be exposed through it, then just go to it," Phillips added. "We wanted to give players more choice about how they progress through the game in Saints Row: The Third."
Be sure to tune in for part two of our Saint's Row: The Third interview with producer Greg Donovan and lead designer Scott Phillips tomorrow at 9 A.M. We'll discuss how the developers used their philosophies to bring their game to life and how they're going to keep the story alive with upcoming DLC and perhaps a new game. You don't want to miss it.