Saints Row: The Third

Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Genre: Action
Publisher: THQ
Developer: Volition
Release Date: Nov. 15, 2011 (US), Nov. 18, 2011 (EU)

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'Saints Row: The Third' (ALL) Developer Interview with THQ EVP Danny Bilson

by Adam Pavlacka on Oct. 31, 2011 @ 12:00 a.m. PDT

The Syndicate, a legendary criminal fraternity with pawns in play all over the globe, has turned its eye on the Saints and demands tribute. Refusing to kneel to the Syndicate, you take the fight to a new city, playing out the most outlandish gameplay scenarios ever seen. Strap it on.

WP: Who has the honor to speak with us? State your name, rank and occupation!

I'm Danny Bilson, and I'm the executive vice president of core games at THQ.

WP: Saints Row: The Third is obviously the third entry in a successful franchise. When Saints Row debuted, people referred to it as a GTA knock-off. THQ and Volition have gone out of their way to make sure that the series had its own definition. Over the years, what did it take from the business side to really define Saints Row as its own property and get people to stop comparing it to its competitors?

DB: Well, I would say the answer would not exactly lie on the business side; it would lie on the creative side in terms of what the team has done with the game. I look at Saints Row as a send-up, a parody, a comment on all of the other big, open-world crime games that have come before. Personally, I love those games and play them top to bottom, but some of those have become very believable in their own reality — almost like the Martin Scorsese version of a game.

This one has gone much more, for me, to the underground comic book version. Everything about Saints Row is built for fun and gaming and player enjoyment, or as the executive producer would say, "It's all about going over the top." If it's over the top, it's Saints Row. In game terms, that translates to fun, and it's separated. It's almost like the other games have gone more straight cinematic, and I can't in any way criticize them. I play them all and really love them, and this one's gone really gaming, gamer, fun factor, wild, crazy and customizable.

I think that's one thing that I really love about Saints Row, that your experience is very ownable. Based on the character that you create to start with, that kind of defines the tone of the game. If you're playing it with a straight sort of, let's call it Al Pacino "Scarface" guy, it's going to feel completely different than if you have a muscle man in a dress with curlers and kabuki makeup.

The emergent humor, humor that comes out of the mechanics. The mechanics are put in the game, and what the player does with them creates memorable moments and humorous moments that are just emergent, and I think a lot of the scripted stuff is really funny as well. It is one of the funniest games ever made. At the same time, it's also epic. It's epic in scope and epic in its adventure. I think that Saints Row is Saints Row, and it's not anything else.

WP: Speaking of gaming getting more serious, do you think that's coming from the developers or the industry as a whole? You don't see as many games these days that just focus on pure fun. What do you think has caused that shift in the industry over the last 15 years or so?

DB: I do like to see our art form tell a great story. I don't think there's anything wrong with that. I teach game writing at USC [University of Southern California], and I always encourage my students to tell the next generation of great stories through this medium.  I don't think it's a problem, per se; I think it's an opportunity. Any game developer will tell you that the mechanics come first, that the gamer experience, the interactivity — all that comes first. I just think the business has matured, and it's an opportunity to show a creative point of view and tell a great story in games along with a great gaming experience.

Now, we're talking about big console, epic games. I think there's a whole other sector that's developed that has very little to do with game fiction. It's back to the old ways on the mobile, social game, so there's something for everybody.

There's nothing wrong with the more cinematic development of these epic experiences because I do think, whether it's Saints Row and it's epic comedy or "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" kind of epic or a competitor's phenomenal games, a great epic experience is really the only thing that's going to work financially in the marketplace. You have to give the user a lot of value for $60.

WP: As a company, how does THQ evaluate if a game product is worth moving forward on? A year or two ago, Saints Row Drive-by for PSP was canceled. More recently, the Saints Row Money Shot project for XBLA was going to tie into Saints Row: The Third, but it was also shelved. How do you determine when to forge ahead?

DB: It's similar to any other entertainment business. We have a group of executives — in core, particularly — who are all gamers who experienced product in the marketplace. You just know, just like any gamer who buys a game, you know what's good and what's not, ideally. In the case of Money Shot, it will be on PSN as a Sony offering, and I'm pretty sure it's free.

It's the eternal question: How do you decide what you're going to make?

What I tell people is, for everything I go through in this job, of managing the P&L [profit and loss], working with finance, working with marketing, working with production, and all the complications of making games in the modern world, which is really hard and really hard to make great games. The thing that gets me up in the morning is the ability to say, "Let's do that," or, "Let's not do that." The biggest reward of my job is to say, "Can we make the games that we want to play the most?"

WP: On the marketing side, how do you message to parents that Saints Row: The Third is a fun game, but it's not a game for their 12-year-old child?

DB: Well, I think we have this wonderful organization, the ESRB, which rates games. If it says "M" on the game, it means Mature and 17 and above. That's what it's there for; it's there for parents to know what, in the general sense, may or may not be appropriate for their children. Now, the great thing is, this is America, it's a free country, and the whole globe has these rating things, PEGI in Europe and the UK and things like that. Those provide a great service of guidance for parents of what may or may not be appropriate, and then it's up to individual choice. Does Saints Row become the forbidden fruit that every kid wants to have because of what's in it? That's all cultural and depends on the family, household, community and all of that. It's great that we have the ratings board to protect the parents who don't know.

WP: What was the moment in the Saints Row: The Third pitch that made you want to give the green light to this particular installment in the franchise?

DB: Well, this one's easier because the previous games have been tremendously successful, financially. I believe the last one has sold over four million units lifetime. So it makes it a lot easier to green-light a sequel. The question is, what are you going to do with that sequel? What's going to be the unique position of the sequel that's different from the one before it? Why do we absolutely need to buy it? Why is it a new experience? The presentation was: The Saints have made it. They're on top of the world. They're a brand. That gave us the ability to parody a lot of things in popular culture around celebrity and branding and things like that you'll see in the game. That was sort of the jumping-off point, and the position for the game is the Saints are royalty. That's why the logo looks like that as well.

WP: THQ's been one of the early partners in providing content to OnLive, a new streaming system. When it works, it's great, and sometimes it doesn't quite have the graphical fidelity because of the compression. Game developers and publishers are always worried about how things are presented, so what was it that made you guys jump in? Why OnLive? Why now?

DB: I think it's a fantastic platform to expose our games to a wider audience. It's really that simple. Someone who experiences Saints Row, for instance — and I'm just using that as an example because it's what we're talking about today — will be encouraged to experience other aspects of Saints Row, whether it's to go out and buy the console game to have for themselves, or buy the next one. It's really about building our franchises, and the only way to do that is to expose them to a large amount of people. There's not tremendous risk; there are so many ways that people experience games outside of the premium buying it for $60. Used games spread the content across a wider audience also, so you hope that the audience grows. When the next one comes out, they all line up to buy it at premium price the first day.

WP: So you're not one of those game publishers that thinks used games are the worst thing to happen to the industry?

DB: I really can't comment on that.

WP: Fair enough. Is there anything that we haven't talked about that you wanted to add?

DB: If I didn't say it before, I think that Saints Row is a unique and incredibly fun game that's unlike any of the other phenomenal games this holiday season. It'll have its own place in the lineup, and I hope it's on people's Christmas lists — over 17! (laughs)


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