WP: Who has the honor to speak with us? State your name, rank, and occupation!
I'm James Tsai, one of the lead designers of Saints Row 2.
WP: When did you start working on Saints Row 2? Did you start before you finished Saints Row 1? Or did you kick around the idea of a sequel after you completed it?
JT: Absolutely. It's been the plan from the very beginning to make Saints Row a franchise, so we began Saints Row 2 more than a year before Saints Row 1 was even on store shelves. We had that advantage of being able to see what they were doing in terms of technology, what they were doing in terms of design, what their art was looking like so we could establish our own art and design styles, figure out what they were doing with the story, and really get a head start on that right away. The scope of planning that's gone into Saints Row 2 has been pretty massive in terms of coordinating with both the Saints Row 1 team and just making all the stuff for a game that large.
WP: The story was pretty intricate in the original, and it looks to be just as intricate in the sequel, but we've got to ask, who thought it was a bright idea to nearly kill off the protagonist at the end of the first game, and are we going to see something like that again?
JT: Saints Row 2 will definitely have its share of surprising moments in the story, but I don't want to say whether we're going to do anything that would be a cliffhanger of the scale that you saw at the end of Saints Row 1, at the risk of doing a spoiler. It's not my intention to have players play this game and get pissed off at the ending, but the whole essence of ending Saints Row 1 on a cliffhanger wasn't a spur-of-the-moment decision. It also wasn't something that was planned from the very beginning. It was something that kind of came up along the way when they just realized that we were going into Saints Row 2. We needed to make a very compelling story but one that is still accessible to people who haven't played the first, so we have to bridge that gap between people who did play the first, those who didn't play the first, and create a good entry point. It also creates some mystery, and we found that the cliffhanger really was one of the best ways to do that. I was working on Saints Row 2, and when I found out that they did that on Saints Row 1, I was pretty surprised myself. That's what you guys are leaving us with the story? OK, we'll go with that.
WP: We've been playing Saints Row 2 for a little while, and there are lots of little improvements — grabbing a human shield, dual-wielding weapons — that weren't in the original, and you don't realize it until you go back to the original and try to do those things and recognize that they're missing. How did you guys approach including those upgrades? Did you go with Saints Row 2 and decide that this is what the game should have? Did you look at the original and feel that these features were missing? Or were these ideas that simply didn't have time to get into the original?
JT: Figuring out the feature set, especially with characters in Saints Row 2, was really a combination of all of those things. Some of it was looking at the combat system in Saints Row 1, really talking to fans, reading their feedback that they sent us via e-mail or on our message boards, and really seeing what they liked and didn't like, and realizing that these are improvements that we can and should put in. Some of it was your classic design analysis, just play it for hours and hours and look at the situations where it works and the situations where it doesn't work, and address those problems. Some if it was just personal taste as well. Everybody on the Saints Row 2 team loves action games. You just wouldn't be making a game like this if you didn't love that stuff. As designers, we were able to talk to the artists and programmers and find out what they really wanted to see, and put all that stuff in. When it came down to deciding what we were going to improve in the game, it really again was a combination of taking information from as many sources as possible.
WP: You talked about characters, so we've got to ask about DJ Veteran Child played by Neil Patrick Harris. How much influence did his character from the "Harold and Kumar" movies have on the DJ Veteran Child character?
JT: All of us at Volition that saw him in "Harold and Kumar" thought that he was the best part of the movie. There's no denying that. "Poon handler?" Come on, that's brilliant, and you can't top that. With the character of Veteran Child, we were actually striving for more of a contrast with his earlier role. Obviously he did Doogie Howser, and it would be great to have Neil do something that's completely different from that and embody some of what we saw in "Harold and Kumar." We had no idea that he had such a cult following. After we announced that he was part of the game, the response that we saw on the message boards — I mean, we have a lot of great actors in the game, but everybody just zeroed in on Neil. It's been great having him aboard, and it's been great to see fans react to that.
WP: Were the voiced characters created specifically for their actors, or did you create the characters first and go to cast the actors afterward?
JT: In Saints Row 2, we definitely had the general ideas for the characters down first because we had our story that we wanted to tell, and we knew that certain characters are needed to service these roles in the story. As far as the personality quirks and the way the characters are expressed in cut scenes, a lot of that does come back to the voice acting, how do they say things, what are their mannerisms, you try to anticipate what they're going to do. You also have some leeway when you're doing the lip synch in the cut scenes, so definitely, it's kind of a two-way street. You have the base role for the characters, and the actors were great about reading who the characters were and coming in prepared for the roles and understanding what we wanted to do with them, but also letting them infuse some of their own personality into it and put their own spin on the characters as well.
WP: For Saints Row 3, who would be your dream voice actor? Is there anyone you really want to work with?
JT: I definitely have a few actors that I would like to see in Saints Row 3, and it has absolutely nothing to do with my personal taste or personal desire to meet these actors, so if Rachel McAdams or Jessica Alba were to be involved in Saints Row 3, I don't think I'd be complaining too much. In all seriousness, we haven't even begun to look at casting for a future game at this point. It's really up in the air, and there's a lot that could happen between now and then.
WP: On the production side, what, besides promotion, was involved with hiring Tera Patrick on as a producer? Did she actually have any effect on the game and look at it? Or is she more of a spokesperson for the game?
JT: Tera Patrick brings a really cool edge to Saints Row 2. After getting her aboard, we had a lot of interest from people who had not really given us a chance before, so in terms of what she did for the game, it was just great having her aboard because we were talking to people who had never seen us before. Her role with the franchise, we don't really have anything nailed down long-term. We're in talks, looking into things such as DLC, but a lot of those things are pretty amorphous right now.
WP: Does she have a character in the game?
JT: We're looking at a character for her in the DLC at this time, but we don't have anything concrete to definitively say yes or no because a lot of that is still in the planning stage right now. But she and her husband are big fans of the game, and we knew that working with them was going to be really cool, so we wanted to start that relationship.
WP: Back to Stilwater itself, what was involved in essentially aging up the world, keeping it familiar without breaking it, and adding graphical polish? Did you guys take the base model for Stilwater from Saints Row 1 and modify it? Did you start completely from scratch? Aside from the map layout, is there anything left over from the first game in the second, or is it all new from the bottom up?
JT: Changing Stilwater from Saints Row 1 to Saints Row 2 was pretty large technical task. For starters, we had to completely rework our streaming system. In Saints Row 1, our streaming system was a little more rudimentary in that you could only load two chunks of the city at any given time. We actually had to limit the rate at which the player could traverse certain areas, so revamping that was our absolute number-one priority. We had to make sure that we had this upgraded streaming system so we could do the cool jets and boats and vehicles that we wanted to put in. In that regard, we were able to bring over some of the Saints Row 1 geometry to begin with as a base, but it's a completely new rendering setup so we had to make modifications there and break it up in different ways so that it was loading in different ways. Then we went through the process of just building completely new areas and really changing the city around. I mean, we've built entire districts that go under the city, we've expanded the entire city out to the west, and we really have taken the proverbial wrecking ball to certain areas and changed them completely. If you look at the Saints Row district itself or the North Shore by the Marina, these places are completely unrecognizable. There are new buildings everywhere, the neighborhoods have a completely different feel, we've added interiors … it was just a massive undertaking from both a technical and artistic regard.
WP: Along the technical lines, was there any point when you hit a really tough problem and had to backtrack? Was there an interesting development story? What sticks out in your mind as being a really tough problem to solve?
JT: I think a lot of the really tough problems were from a gameplay level. We definitely had some trouble with some early prototypes of activities. I think we had 75 different activity prototypes that we wanted to do for new gameplay mechanics, and a lot of these were just complete dogs. We were sitting there and just trying to make them work, trying to polish it, and it wasn't working, so we just made the decision to discard them. In that regard, some of those problems were ones that we never solved. We just knew that it wasn't going to be fun, so we didn't want to spend any more time on it. We wanted to make sure that we were only putting fun things in this game.
Co-op was a new thing that we were doing on the tech side. The Saints Row 1 engine was not co-op enabled, and it wasn't exactly co-op friendly when we first got into it, so there was some massive rewriting of parts of the engine, the writing of new parts to allow that, a lot of network code that had to be written to allow two kids to talk to each other online or through system link and handle all of this.
Artistically, the new streaming system and getting that in, making sure that the art and the programming for that was all square. There was just so much to do.
WP: Switching over to the character creator, we know it's very flexible, we've been playing around with it a bit. What were some of the well-known characters that you were able to replicate back at Volition?
JT: We've had quite a few threads in our newsgroups where people would post images of characters that they've created in Saints Row 2, and we've seen a lot of them. We've definitely seen The Joker from the Batman series created a lot, we've seen the Blues Brothers, you saw us put presidential candidates in one of our recent trailers, you really can create almost anyone. My favorites are virtual avatars of myself or I've created a virtual punk rocker girl that I love to use. Everybody loves to do different things. One guy made Scorpion from Mortal Kombat with a paintball mask. The number of things that you can do with our character creator is really amazing.
WP: Now that everything's been revealed and all of the major secrets are out, what's the one part of the game that you really enjoyed? What would you want to tell the community that is one part of Saints Row 2 that is really awesome and they have to check out, a favorite part, favorite mission?
JT: There are a bunch of our missions that are really fun in co-op, but my particular favorite one is one where you are riding in a car and you and your co-op partner are protecting the car from pursuers, and you both have rocket launchers at your disposal. It's a pretty long sequence, with a lot of pursuing vehicles. It's just a lot of fun. You have these cars just come up behind you, you're shooting at the driver with your guns and then switching to your rocket launchers, you're watching these cars go flying up in the air. You're seeing them collide, and with the Havok physics simulation that we have going on and the natural variance of gameplay in an open world, it never plays the same way twice. You'll see cars set on fire, you'll flip it through the air, smash through picket fences and knock down half of the pedestrians walking by, you'll see them flip over you, explode past you. It's tremendous to see the potential for destruction with a friend in the game.
WP: Is there anything about the game that we haven't talked about that you wanted to add?
JT: We're really proud of Saints Row 2, and we're very excited to be bringing it to people. It's coming out October 14th, and we encourage everyone to come check us out on saintsrow.com on our message boards. We're always on there, so you can talk with us as developers. Post questions, and we'll answer them. Really have fun with the game. I think people will really be blown away at how much fun our co-op and multiplayer are and how cool our story is.
Saints Row 2 is set years after the original Saints Row in a Stilwater both familiar and strange. The explosive conclusion to Saints Row has left the player wounded, betrayed and thirsty for revenge, and now it's time to take back the city that has forgotten him. A sequel to the first open-world title on next-generation consoles, Saints Row 2 features all new customization options, including gender, age, voice, crib and gang customization. The sandbox just got larger with a totally transformed and expanded city of Stilwater, offering all new locations to explore with new vehicles, including motorcycles, boats, helicopters and planes. Saints Row 2 will be playable online in 2-player co-op through the entire single-player campaign or in the all new open-world competitive multiplayer mode never before seen in the genre.
Saints Row 2, developed by Volition, Inc., will be available for PS3, Xbox 360, and PC on October 14, 2008.
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