We last saw THQ and Volition's Saints Row 2 back at THQ's Gamer's Day in April. After missing the game at E3 we caught up with associate producer Dan Sutton at an event in London to talk about how the game has been progressing since then and to find out how the PS3 version is coming along. Read on for Dan's thoughts on PS3 trophies, Home integration and a Saints Row MMO.
VideoGamer.com: I didn't get a chance to see the game at E3, so the last time I saw it was at Gamer's Day in April. How has the game come on in those months?
Dan Sutton: The biggest thing we do when we develop our game is have a base pass at the city, then we go back and polish stuff. So that was the biggest thing, we've gone in and polished stuff. I think the graphics have improved a ton since Gamer's Day. That's been one of our biggest focusses there. As a lot of people know, we delayed our game to focus on polish as well. That's just been huge, getting those extra weeks in there as well, and having the team just focus on art just took everything to the next level as opposed to where it was at at Gamer's Day. And beyond that it's just adding a lot of features in there. Improving our co-op as well, adding more multiplayer modes. We haven't talked about multiplayer. We're going to be doing that over the next month, having a multiplayer event where people can sit down and get hands on. It's been improving graphics, making sure the game's stable as well, and adding a few more activities in because we've had extra time.
VideoGamer.com: Was the extra time something that the team requested?
DS: Yeah I think it was. It was a joint thing between THQ and Volition, sitting down and being like "Hey, you know we got to make sure our graphics are top of the line, we have to make sure everything is completely stable, everything ships how we want it to be". We knew that with the time that they had there, we weren't off, we just asked I believe for a couple of weeks extension, but they gave us a few more than that just to make sure we had more time to polish. Yeah, so it was really a joint thing by both THQ and Volition sitting down and were like "Hey, we want to make sure we give a good game". And we saw GTA, and we had to be as good as that. So we needed the extra time to do that, and we did that.
VideoGamer.com: There seems to be this perception that with GTA and Saints Row it has to be one or the other. Can't gamers pick up both?
DS: I hope so. I noticed that too. It's weird because if you look on forums on any website, that's what you see: Saints Row or GTA? It's all the fanboys on both sides going at each other. It's actually kind of hilarious to sit back and listen to that. It's cool to have such a passionate fan base, that they go and attack the other one. I'm sure for GTA it's the other way as well. It's such a huge genre. You're paying 60 bucks, and I think with the open-world genre, when you're paying that money, that amount of money per game, you're getting the most game out of it. It's kind of weird because you'd think people would latch onto that more because it's like "Hey, I have more replay value, I can do whatever I want to in the city," but people just want to say which one is better. Some people kind of isolate that but I think people are opening up more to both. It seems, especially after GTA 4 came out, it's an absolutely beautiful immersive world. I think a lot of people saw in that the gameplay from San Andreas and Vice City wasn't there. It's definitely a slowed down game, they use cover a lot more. It's more realistic so you're not going to be able to go through walls, that kind of stuff. If you blow up a building you have 10 cops on you and they take you down. I think that's one of the things. Now you're getting the best of both. I think we're giving them a really cool hyper realistic world and GTA is a nice cool realistic world. With ours we just take gameplay to another level I think, and also co-op too, doing something different. I think they're going one way, we're going another way, and we're both going to have different feature sets.
VideoGamer.com: Why do you think gamers have these arguments, not just with GTA but with all kinds of games? And with games that are multiplatform.
DS: It's a good question. I do it myself too. I remember when there were the Madden games and the NFL games, those 2K games. I was always a huge fan of the 2K games. I loved those games and when they stopped making them I was upset. I don't know, I think people just like to argue I think. You saw that with fanboys. HD DVD vs Blu-ray, that was a huge one too, where people were going at each other. Even when the medium was gone you saw HD DVD people going "Hey, we're selling better now, we're coming back". I think it's just people like to argue. It's a fun thing, games are one of the things, sports teams, whatever it is, people like to argue. Sometimes there's not really a basis for your argument, it's just arguing for the sake of arguing. And when people argue with you it encourages you to do it more.
VideoGamer.com: Yeah. I can understand that, especially when it's an argument over rival platforms, where one side has one set of games and the other side has another set of exclusives, but with GTA 4 and Saints Row 2, everyone in the argument can buy both.
DS: People have their own opinions of what they want in the game. So if you have a feature that they want in the game, they're probably going to latch onto that more than they would another game.
VideoGamer.com: How much of a nightmare is it developing an open-world game? Is it the biggest challenge in game development right now?
DS: It's one of the toughest definitely, because you're doing so many things. You're throwing racing into a game, you're throwing in base jumping. Being able to go through an entire city, and see it stream in there and not to have load times at all. I think it is one of the toughest genres out there. That's why you see the development teams of GTA and ours just being so large compared to other games where you can get by with 30-60 people, as opposed to teams like ours where at times we had 120, 150 people. So yeah, I'd say it's definitely challenging, especially because you have a huge world that you have to do all these elements in and then just finding some of the bugs that are out there. It's always a challenge doing that, because sometimes you don't just have bugs that pop up. You have bugs where you have to play level 1, then play level 2 like this, then level 3 like this and then this bug will pop up. It's insane, the complexity when it comes to open world games, but it's also really fun because people feel a sense of accomplishment once they do that, as opposed to working on an FPS or racing game where you just have this kind of enclosed, one-dimensional type thing. Some of those, like BioShock, branched out and have all these different dimensions in there as well, but it's definitely not as complex as a huge game with tons and tons of features in it. I agree with that.
VideoGamer.com: I guess you throw lots of testers at it, just test test test test.
DS: Yeah, we have lots of testers. There was some criticism of the first one, they said it was buggy. You see those buggy Saints Row videos and GameTrailers having like five parts on the bugs of GTA. It's one of those things that's hard to test, but on this one we tripled our QA team. We have hundreds of testers working non-stop basically, just to get this done. We learnt from the first one that we need a lot more people testing this so we can make sure we can get it as clean as possible. It's definitely challenging. All the features in there, you have to test everything and make sure everything works together too.
VideoGamer.com: I can't imagine how difficult that must be.
DS: We pull our hair out a lot, because you don't know. People in an open-world game can play it like they want to, so they'll find little gaps in-between buildings, they'll go in there. They'll try to find everything. They'll go in the water and find really really weird places that you might not have even thought about.
VideoGamer.com: I guess if you've got a five part video on Gametrailers you know your game is popular.
DS: Very true (laughs).
VideoGamer.com: The game's coming to PS3 as well as 360 and PC. How are you guys finding PS3 development?
DS: I think because we had problems with the first one, from day one we knew how important the PS3 was. We knew how important it would be, especially in Europe. Any place outside of the US it's so important because that's where it's selling. So what we did, instead of porting the game later on, we started with the PS3 from the beginning. So we had a team working on the PS3 and a team working on the Xbox, which is something we didn't do before. I think a lot of teams just port way too late. They think it's going to be an easy process and port it over, and that's why you see a lot of games get pushed out there - you see features getting cut. With ours, as of right now, we have no exclusives when it comes to DLCs, as of right now, I don't know if that will change or anything like that, people are going to get the same version. Graphically it should be the same. We put them side by side and to us they look basically the same.
VideoGamer.com: Technically it's generally considered that the PS3 has more power under the hood than the 360, but we just don't see multiformat games looking better on Sony's console. Why do you think that is?
DS: Graphically, in itself it's a very very powerful machine. I think the problem is you have to teach programmers how to do that. We have very very amazing programmers on our Xbox team who when they get the PS3 in front of them, it takes them forever, because of the multi-threading they do with the Cell processor. It's just how complex the Cell processor is. As people get their heads around that it gets better and you get more parity coming out, but code has to be written in a certain way for that and it's a lot more complicated than it is for the Xbox. I think you're seeing development teams now ramp up. You get people who are dedicated to the PS3 and that's why you're getting equal graphics. You see some stuff on the PS3, like Metal Gear Solid, that push it very very firmly graphically, and I'm sure Resistance 2 is going to do that as well. I think you're going to see games that are developed for each console specifically, the exclusives, really push it that way still. I think the Xbox, even though it doesn't have as much hard drive space, is not Blu-ray, you still see that it's a very very powerful machine. I think that's why games like Final Fantasy are coming over to the Xbox. It's still, in essence, as powerful, and people have their heads around that. Maybe two, three years from now when they're very much into the PlayStation cycle you may see better games come out. We don't know. I don't think anyone's really taken the Cell processor to its full potential yet.
VideoGamer.com: Is there a console that's better suited to what's going on in Saints Row 2, with the AI, physics and large open city?
DS: It's tough, because as I said we're doing both simultaneously. I don' think we compromise, but I think both of them are handling our needs as of right now. Who knows. That could change when it comes to Saints Row 3 if we go after that and do that one. Right now it seems like what we want to do we're able to do on both platforms. We're not being limited by one. We're not pulling a feature out because we can't do it in the other one. Who knows, a couple of years down the road, maybe we find that people have wrapped their heads around the PlayStation or they see the Xbox and are like "Wow, we never knew it could do this". It just depends on how smart your programmers are.
VideoGamer.com: With the PS3 version are you looking at including trophies?
DS: Yeah, we're looking at that right now. They just announced it. My favourite thing on Xbox is Achievements. I'm one of those achievement whores who goes through and completes games for points. So yeah, we're definitely looking at supporting that right now. Since it just came out we're in talks with Sony about that. Sony I believe is mandating it starting next year, coming after our product, but we want to support that as well. I'm not sure if it's going to be day one or coming later. I know games like Uncharted are actually doing that as well. If it's possible we're going to do it. We've had talks this week about what exactly our achievements are going to be.
VideoGamer.com: How are you guys going to approach it? Are you going to mimic the 360 achievements or have unique trophies on PS3?
DS: I think Sony is trying to push for unique. At least with my talks with the lead producer on some of that is Sony wants, they don't want them to be mimicked, they want to have special achievements in their version. So that's one thing they're pushing on that, and they're saying that if you're developing something on PS3 we want you to have exclusives for us.
VideoGamer.com: So from your point of view, making a multi-format game, you have to think of twice as many.
DS: Yeah, you really do actually. I'm sure there will probably be some that overlap, just because there are some fun achievements that you want to do on both, but yeah. It's a different system too. There's like gold, silver, platinum type trophies too, so there's going to be top level achievements. I guess you have that on Xbox too, with 60 point ones as opposed to 20 point ones. Yeah, there'll definitely be different achievements for both.
VideoGamer.com: And what about Home?
DS: I'm actually not sure on where we're at on that to tell you the truth. Sony keeps delaying that and pushing it back, so if it's a possibility I'm sure we'll look into it. I think right now our focus is what we're going to do with our own downloadable content as opposed to worrying about Home until they actually bring that out and show us what it can do.
VideoGamer.com: Gamers are certainly getting annoyed that it's not out yet, and from your point of view it must be frustrating that you've got a game coming out and you're not sure when it's going to be ready.
DS: Yeah, you want to have that in front of you, like a complete version, to see how it can integrate. Right now, seeing as they're still working on it, it's something that we'd have to look at as a patch. I don't think they've even released a date yet.
VideoGamer.com: In principle, the idea behind Home, how do you feel about it?
DS: I think it's cool. It's a cool system to do, getting your avatar in there, going round and visiting certain games. Maybe getting exclusive features if you go into the Saints Row room, wherever it's located in the Home world. Overall I think it's cool to integrate some of those features in there. Once we see what the final product is we can start developing towards that, whether it's in Saints Row 2 or Saints Row 3.
VideoGamer.com: What about a demo? Demos for open world games seem to be particularly difficult. Is a demo for Saints Row2 possible?
DS: It's possible to make, yes. We haven't said if we're going to or not, but it's definitely possible. We did it for the first one and it was really really good for us. We're definitely looking into doing that. Our main focus right now is making sure we get the game looking hot. After that we look into getting a demo out during out Microsoft submission time or PlayStation submission time. Usually with game companies you submit to them a couple of months before the final product and you have time between there to decide if you want to or not. I think it depends. PlayStation owners would definitely like to see it and have hands on, because it really sold the Xbox for us, having a demo I think. Especially as PlayStation hasn't had a hands-on, it would be beneficial. We're definitely looking at doing that. It's on our radar right now. It just depends what the big bosses at Volition and THQ decide. I think there are studies that came out like two or three weeks ago where they said that actually demos don't help sales. Which is tough for developers, as we want to give it to people too. With our game we have a fun enough game and a sandbox experience that people are only going to buy it because of that. As long as that stays the same we definitely want to do it.
VideoGamer.com: I guess it's a sequel, so the brand is already out there. It's not a new ip where you have to develop trust with consumers.
DS: GTA is lucky because they had that whole mystique behind it. They didn't have to release a demo, they didn't have to release gameplay stuff. They didn't have to do anything at all when it comes to that. With us, we know what we are, we want to show off the fun stuff. That's why you've seen the "would you rather?" trailers, the Gary Busey stuff.
VideoGamer.com: You mentioned DLC earlier. What kind of form could it take?
DS: In Saints Row 1 all we gave people was clothing packs. We're going beyond that for this one, I can't say that much right now. We're looking at the possibility of doing multiplayer maps, we're looking at the possibility of doing another mission arc as well. Those are the things that we're discussing right now. We have a team working on that. We're kind of keeping it a secret right now, but it is going to be a lot more than clothing packs. We're definitely looking at something a lot bigger than that.
VideoGamer.com: How does the game differ when playing in co-op? Can't people just run off in different directions?
DS: That was a big challenge with our streaming system. That's why we had to re-write our code for the second one, because now you can run around on one side of the city while your friend is on the other side, like in Crackdown, and on top of that be able to fly throughout the city and not have all the hiccups you'd see in a game like that. We haven't limited it at all. It's untethered. You can go any place. You can do anything you want to. When you play missions together they change. When you go to one of our strongholds, your partner can go upstairs and do something, you can go downstairs. Your objective might be to go downstairs and do something. We try to add replayability by at least changing the missions when you're playing in co-op. So there'll be achievements as well for co-op specific stuff. You see both your custom characters in cut scenes. Activities and missions do change depending on if you have one or two people.
VideoGamer.com: So steps towards a Saints Row MMO then? Is that something you've considered?
DS: We have to think about that. I think we want to continue on with the type of game we have now, but an MMO, it's a different type of game. I don't know if we'd detract people or embrace people. We have to put some research out there and see. I think we want to keep continuing to do offerings like this as well, where you have self contained stuff, but if there's a market for that, you know. It seems as though GTA has discussed that. There's that APB game that's going to be an MMO. If the genre goes that way, we might go that way as well. It depends on where stuff goes.
VideoGamer.com: The game obviously has hours and hours of gameplay. You look at what people are doing now with GTA 4 now they've finished the main storyline. What kind of things to you think people will be doing in Saints Row 2 after a similar amount of time?
DS: I think customisation knocks it out of the park for us. You're going to see people I mean, we have some ridiculous stuff in the game. You can create your own celebrities. You can create yourself. Some of the costume options as well. People can go around and make a zombie play, with a YouTube video of the city using the zombie mask we have in the game. Or have hot dog suit people running around the world as well. There's just so many options like that. I think the game itself, you have a long single-player version, but the multiplayer is so much fun. And we have the co-op. I don't know what people are going to do. Just look at YouTube to see how many videos of GTA 4 are up there and how many videos of Saints Row 1 are up there. It's just going to explode because of all the new things you can do in this one. Custom game types, custom cribs. You're going to see people do ridiculous stuff in our game. Absolutely ridiculous stuff. I think it's limitless. You have car enthusiasts who can just go and try to make the coolest car. Show boaters can make the coolest characters and share those online with their friends.
VideoGamer.com: Thanks for your time.
Saints Row 2 is due for release on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC this October.