Saints Row‘s Santo Ileso is not built in a day, so we had to ask Volition about the work that went into it. Note that this interview article is separated into a Q&A Roundtable session, as well as a deeper dive into the creative process of this wonderfully wacky franchise.
Interviews have been edited for clarity.
Do also check out the hands-off preview write up on the game here.
This session featured the following members of Volition in no particular order:
- Damien Allen, Principal Designer
- Jeremy Bernstein, Lead Writer, Missions
- Brian Traficante, Creative Director
- Kenzie Lindgren, Associate UX Designer
- Jennifer Campbell, Writer / Narrative Designer
- Danielle Benthien, Associate UI Artist
What was your favourite part working on Saints Row?
Damien Allen: I loved working on this reboot as a whole. There’s so many fun and creative things that we’ve been able to make become a reality. For me, I work on the systems; traversal, things like that… I love the wingsuit, it’s been my baby for quite some time.
Jeremy Bernstein: I love working with the people, meaning my coworkers and these characters. I love being able to sit down with these characters, have them talk in my head, and have it be written on paper.
Brian Traficante: I love the tone of Saints Row, like the spectrum of what we can tolerate and put in the game is so wide, vibrant, and the conversations we have about ideas and concepts we wanna have are always so much fun.
Kenzie Lindgren: I totally love taking an idea from its conception and working out some of the most ridiculous ideas with my team members to turn into something unique, special and a lot of fun. I just love that creative process so much and Saints Row has so many opportunities for it.
Jennifer Campbell: I have to say I love it when all the assets are coming to idea, seeing this idea you thought might work, actually work, and that’s a great feeling.
Danielle Benthien: The world of the Saints, them living in Santo Ileso and building up this empire, it’s so rich and beautiful and it’s been amazing to see the team breathe life into it. It’s the combination of all of that.
Brian Traficante: And you can’t have a city in Saints Row that doesn’t start with an S!
If you could sum up the new Saints Row for existing and new players alike in one word, what would it be?
Danielle Benthien: ‘Fun’, I think. The characters, story, gameplay… it’s just such a treat from beginning to end, curated to how the players want to have their fun.
Brian Traficante: ‘Exciting’. I love how the game offers so many different playstyles and opportunities for players to insert themselves, choose how they wanna engage, enjoy, from the narrative to the open world, and the factions.
Jennifer Campbell: ‘Customizable’. I feel our character, weapon, vehicle customization is just so much bigger and advanced than we’d ever done before.
Kenzie Lindgren: ‘Unique’, not just because of the customization Jennifer was talking about. No two players will make the same decisions twice for every single decision in the game. They may get to the same end point, each in a slightly different way.
Damien Allen: ‘Powerful’. I personally won’t do many of the things I’d get to do in the game for various reasons, but it is fun to do them, feel the power and have that ability to do incredible things.
Jeremy Bernstein: ‘Self-made’, and I’m not just sucking up to Brian when I say that. It’s funny that we’ve been working for a long time when I saw the posters, the tagline, and I thought, that’s it, that’s everything. It encapsulates the story, our philosophy, and the characters.
What is it that makes Saints Row unique compared to other open world games?
Danielle Benthien: The first thing that came to mind to me was the customization, obviously. We give the player so much freedom to decide what they wanna do, how they, their weapons, their cars look like, how they wanna drive… it’s just ripe with choices that make every single player experience unique and I don’t think a lot of open world games have that much freedom to choose.
Jennifer Campbell: I think the humour sets us apart as well. I think we don’t take ourselves too seriously, with a joy in playing games we try to bring out. It’s definitely a tone that we kept throughout the games.
Jeremy Bernstein: I’d say it’s the fun. Just as Jennifer said, we don’t take ourselves too seriously. Tongue in cheek doesn’t mean it’s meaningless or has no value. There’s no apocalypse, not grim, dark, or gritty. It’s feel good, fun, and the humour is a big part of that. It permeates throughout the game: when you’re here, it’sto have a good time and smile.
Brian Traficante: I think it’s the empowerment, with the way I can manipulate things the way I see fit. I can go full Hulk, literally, or hop on to a dirt bike to a desert, upgrade my gun to a foam finger or laser pistol, or be a sad clown, go to the store, buy a football helmet, go to the Idols, it just goes on and on.
Damien Allen: We have such an immersive open world that we worked really hard on, that getting from place to place is fun. Whether it’s on foot, vehicle, wingsuit, helicopter, you’ll always be seeing things that you can hop on or investigate, explore, and we try as hard as we can to let the player see what they can do and go do it.
Kenzie Lindgren: For me, when you’re going round the city with your customized character, no matter where you go there’s always something to be discovered. Every time you think you know what to expect, something appears and you don’t know what happened, and I just love that aspect of the game and the city as a whole.
What can you tell us about the story?
Jennifer Campbell: It’s about a group of friends, working in jobs that don’t make them happy. So, they decide to become their own bosses, create their own criminal empire. We follow them as they get a foothold in Santo Ileso, how they grow and clash with all the different factions already there.
So, were there any parts of the story that you had to cut out?
Jennifer Campbell: Of course, as it is with any project. It starts big, then you whittle down to the essence. A lot of the things we cut we don’t completely throw them away, keeping them for maybe DLC, the next game, or even a completely different franchise if it really doesn’t fit in Saints Row.
What are some of the biggest cinematic influences that you have for this Saints Row reboot?
Brian Traficante: We spent a good amount of time looking at films we thought would help us express the game in development and understand better the choices we wanted to make and how to do them. We actually had a three film graph from left to right, left being where things were pretty violent, dark and gritty, and to the right, where the things are the most absurd.
John Wick was on the left side, and you can see that in the executions, takedowns, that get violent. When push comes to shove, the Boss is gonna fight back. On the far right, though, we have a film like Hobbs & Shaw, where people seem almost superhuman, reflected in the exaggerated actions of Saints Row. The center is Baby Driver, which we felt was a good middle point in terms of how we wanted the game to feel.
Tell us a bit more about the personalities of the rival gangs; colours, styles, etc.
Jeremy Bernstein: We have three rival factions.
First, we have Marshall Defense Industries. They’re a private military corporation, which pretty much makes them the most evil thing in a Saints Row game, ever. A very high tech faction which uses a lot of gadgets, advanced weaponry and tech that gives them a lot of control over the battlefield, with lots of weapons with interesting abilities. Atticus Marshall is the head of the company. Their crimes aren’t ‘central’ to Santo Ileso, it’s global, and we see the tip of the iceberg in the town with their protection rackets, harassing people in the name of keeping the wealthier districts of the city safe.
Second, the Idols. They’re sort of a group of Joker anarchists who want to burn down the system. They’re not clear with what they’re gonna put in its place, except burning everything associated with it. Their leaders are six shadowy figures known as the Collective, wearing these big masks that anonymize them completely. The Idols are a numbers faction with a lot of them trying to overwhelm you with sheer volume. It gets fun in combat as one tactic you could do is scaring off the weaker ones.
Then, we have Los Panteros, the somewhat most grounded of our factions. A typical Saints Row gang, all about muscles, car culture and led by a man named Sergio who’s determined to be kingpin of the streets. They’re built on force and muscle, wanting to get in close with shotguns or melee weapons.
It’s a really fun mix in terms of feel and combat when you’re fighting them.
About the Idols throwing the best parties, I think we can safely say they have a Specialist known as the Raver, so it’s right there in the combat profile.
What does Saints Row do to meaningfully evolve the open world, crime genre that hasn’t already been done in previous Saints Row games?
Brian Traficante: I know right? We’ve done everything, so how do we do more?
The Ventures are a new component that help evolve the open world, particularly when the Saints form their own empire. The player has to go out and do the legwork to build these ventures, speaking with the managers, and of course, there’s gonna be problems cropping up. The player gets to decide how to handle the Ventures that come in four different tiers. You don’t have to do all of them, with a lot of opportunity to decide what kind of crew or reward you can get in the city.
How do you help those people wandering off too far from the suggested track, or being too overwhelmed by choice in the game?
Brian Traficante: One of the things we try to do is be careful with requirements for open world, or Critical Path. We don’t put a deep amount of content that the player must engage with. You do the shallow part, then choose if you want to proceed further. You don’t have to do it all – but I’d recommend to because it’s really fun – but you can fast track through most of the “Crit Path” and open world.
Jeremy Bernstein: We don’t really worry about players straying off the path because we don’t really have a lot of path. It’s part of the game: do it in whatever order or way you want.
Kenzie Lindgren: I’m one of those players who gets overwhelmed easily when there’s too much to do, or two many requirements. One thing I like about Saints Row is that it may push you along a certain path, but you’re basically free to do whatever you want as the path is what you make of it.
Santo Ileso looks amazing to drive in. How has driving evolved over the series, especially the off-road? How do you make the vehicles differ from each other?
Damien Allen: While the off-road feels great, it is off-road. If you try to take the fastest, sportiest car off-road, it’s not gonna feel great. We added an upgrade to give every car off-road so you can do that if you want. Anything you see, you can try grab for your own vehicle, and they all feel and handle differently with weight. It’s gonna feel unique as you’re smashing vehicles in car combat.
Driving’s one of my favourite aspects of the game; whether it’s just screaming down the road or a slow one to see all that Santo Ileso has to offer.
Since you can steal cars from rival gangs, can you also get their weapons and special attacks for yourself?
Kenzie Lindgren: There are some instances where you can steal their weapons.
Damien Allen: Throughout the game, you can get weapons as rewards or by purchasing, with many but not all carried by the other factions. Abilities the Boss has are unique to them, with their own style that’s gonna be fun and over the top.
Are we gonna get those weird weapons that we’ve come to love in the series, and maybe even more?
Damien Allen: For sure. In the presentation, you got to see the Pinata Gun and the Thrustbuster. The Thrustbuster is a lot of fun: you can attach it to people directly, like the world’s worst football handoff ever, or throw it on vehicles, people and see them fly around. It also has a really fun upgrade once you can do its associated Challenge which I’ll leave as a surprise because I think it’s pretty cool.
Are there any UI customization options i.e. reticule, map size, etc.?
Danielle Benthien: Yes, the customization is expansive. I know a lot of people have been asking about health bars, GPS on the streets, which can be removed. The mini-map can also be removed entirely, or resized. Reticules likewise can be changed.
Can you tell us anything about the accessibility options in the game?
Kenzie Lindgren: We’re not quite ready to reveal too many specifics about the accessibility menus yet, but we have more options than any other previous Saints Row games. You’ll find a lot of settings related to difficulty, motor, visual, and hearing. We also have full support with Tobii Technologies, ability to use virtual keyboard, tap / hold toggles, and that’s just scratching the surface. There’s even more that we can’t wait to show you.
This session featured the following members of Volition in no particular order:
- Damien Allen, Principal Designer
- Jeremy Bernstein, Lead Writer, Missions
- Danielle Benthien, Associate UI Artist
When it comes to working on a big game like this, how did you work around COVID?
Danielle Benthien: I’m very impressed with our studio. As soon as the shut down happened, they made sure we could have all that we needed in order to make Saints Row happen. The whole team worked really hard to make up for the fact we could no longer work in person, and there were certainly challenges; keeping in contact and making sure we didn’t lose the energy we had when working in the office. The UI / Art team met up everyday: setting up calls and maintaining that connection was very important to us.
Jeremy Bernstein: We had a similar thing with the writers, having regular meetings over Teams just like being in the room together. The very interesting part for me was that I started this job right at the beginning of COVID, not getting to step into the office for 18 months which was a very strange experience on my end.
Damien Allen: Yeah, I’ve been very impressed with the IT team. Personally, one of the most difficult things for me, working with the systems team, I often hand over my controller and ask them how it felt. I could send them information and get the feedback, but it wasn’t that 2-second back-and-forth. Outside of that, we were able to do a lot of the technical aspects in creating the game, making sure we communicated – even over-communicated – to make sure things didn’t fall through the cracks.
You called this your biggest and best playground yet. I’ve heard from video essays that ‘open world’ games would be inevitably compared to Elden Ring in terms of how you built and distributed things, so how did you work on your open world?
Damien Allen: I think we did it gradually. We have this incredible space with our artists and level designers really build this playground up, putting stuff in, layering it. We talked about some of the systems in the game that allow players to continually add to the space with content. It’s not about getting it dropped on you all at once.
As you get through the game, you get to see the world come to life, so to speak. We called it our biggest playground, but it doesn’t mean it’s an empty space. It’ll be fun to go, ‘oh, more!’ as you continue.
I like a certain amount amount of linearity because I get overwhelmed when there’s More, so could you describe further some of those ‘straight lines’ so to speak?
Jeremy Bernstein: We have a Critical Path, as we call it, which is the main storyline consisting of a string of missions that proceed in a mostly linear fashion so you can follow that through line. I think you’ll like how we’ve done it, because when we introduce a new piece of gameplay, the side quests become this hand-off moment. So, it comes up, and you can go ahead and do those, and come back to the “Crit Path”.
The Ventures are part of the Crit Path, as we wanted you to understand how these Criminal Ventures work. We introduce the gameplay loop, and you’re free to lose yourself in it. The Crit Path is basically to hold your hand to guide you to these side stuff.
Some fans were concerned that you were straying ‘too far’ from wacky and serious, so how did you strike that balance?
Jeremy Bernstein: It’s a very difficult balance to strike. At the end of the day, it’s all about having fun, not taking ourselves too seriously, and keeping a bit of nudge-nudge that’s always be a part of Saints Row that we’re never gonna let go or lose sight of. If anything, the hard part is preventing it from getting too wacky, and easily gets so absurdist that nothing ever matters.
It always come from a good place: you have something funny, you keep adding to it, and all of a sudden, it’s absurd for its own sake. We try to be absurd with a grounded heart, to make a relatable, real emotional connection that underlines the absurdity.
Your friend’s been kidnapped and they’re gonna kill him and you want him back. Then, you’re dragging a guy around in a port-a-potty and using him as a ball-and-chain to destroy their camp towed to the back of your car which is inherently absurd. It’s both a ridiculous, over the top moment, with that ‘grounded in reality’ that we’re striving to do.
Is this balance of grounded and wacky the a reason why you didn’t call this Saints Row 5 instead?
Jeremy Bernstein: There’s many reasons why we decided with a reboot. I mean, where do you go from here after all the crazy of the last few games? Pulling it back with a reboot was one of the more attractive options.
Will we get to see the family friendly purple bat?
Jeremy Bernstein: Nooope.
Danielle Benthien: There are a lot of wacky weapons besides the Penetrator, as we called it. When revisiting and rebooting the franchise, we wanted to have everyone be able to put themselves in the game to laugh and have fun with us.
Damien Allen: One of the things a reboot allows us to is try new things, like you’ve seen the Thrustbuster, Pinata Gun. The Quantum Aperture isn’t a weapon but an ability that lets you shoot through walls and even does additional damage. We wanted the player have fun with over the top things and not just be things we had in the past.
Following up on that, I really wanted to know how you tried coming up with all these wacky ideas?
Danielle Benthien: I think it more or less goes like, ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if X Y Z?’, and someone will go, ‘That’d be awesome’, and it snowballs from the talk and concept art.
Damien Allen: Sometimes we just open it up to the studio as a whole to come to us with ideas. The wackier the better, and it’s a lot of fun to see the range. We always have more ideas that we can feasibly do, so we try hit the ones we can do, and the ones everyone falls in love with.
What criteria do you have to trim down that crazy?
Damien Allen: I would say that depends on which part of the project that you’re working on, be it story, gameplay or visuals. There’s always gonna be some cool idea that doesn’t work when you prototype it, or maybe you could take one step further. Each department’s gonna have their own metric. The Thrustbuster was an example of that: we came up with it early and it’s been a staple of the wacky weapons, and the upgrade for it was added not too long ago that takes it to another level. I can’t wait for people to see that and go, ‘Oh that’s really cool!’.
Danielle Benthien: I think we’re really lucky as a studio with so many talented people that we’re never aching for ideas. Having to pare things down is a better problem to have than nothing at all. As Jennifer said at the roundtable, anything we can’t use we figure out the essence and maybe recycle it later down the line.
Jeremy Bernstein: We had a situation with the writers where I absolutely loved a pitch where it was like, ‘I don’t think it’s technically feasible or wise for these reasons, but let’s hang onto it and see what we can do, change or take inspiration from’ and come up with something that people will see someday. It’s that very process that makes it awesome.
How long do you normally put into such ideas before you decide enough is enough before you scrap it?
Jeremy Bernstein: Ugh, it varies. Sometimes you see where the problem is right away and you power through anyway to make it work, or other times, you wish you let it go. When you find something you believe in and can’t let go, you go along for the ride and the risk, and you have to try it.
Damien Allen: We have such a wide pool of talented people and sometimes, it takes looking through a different angle to have it work as we hope.
Jeremy Bernstein: One of the great things we have about getting in new talent is getting these fresh ideas and new ways of looking at things for new solutions and great ideas.
Is there a cut off point for these ideas?
Danielle Benthien: That leads us into pre-production, with dates and timelines we have to follow. It’s a lot of budgeting and being realistic. If we had all the time to create, it would take even longer and the game might never get released if we keep adding to it.
Jeremy Bernstein: There’s an old saying ‘games don’t get released, they escape’. If you don’t have a deadline or due date, you just keep fixing it and making it better. Eventually, you just gotta let it go, that’s production stuff.
In that case, are there any potential hints for future content / DLC?
Jeremy Bernstein: All we can confirm is that there will be DLC. (Ed. note: I tried, guys.)
And with that, I hope that you have a better insight into the work that goes into creating the Saints Row franchise as a whole. My bias certainly showed when it came to agonizing over the creative process, and I wish the team best of luck with managing the fickleness of the muse, and the technical issues that comes with realizing them.
If you haven’t already, check out the write-up of the Saints Row hands-off preview here!