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LOS ANGELES — Let’s face it: When space invaders attack the White House with kill-o-zap rays, you really want a chief executive who flips the “Oval Office secret arsenal” switch and goes a’gunning for alien ass shouting, “You f**ked with the wrong POTUS!”
That’s just what you get in Saints Row IV. It only gets more insane from there. I sat down with senior producer Jim Boone to talk about how his game would carve up sacred cows into prime rib, starting with how his team had to build on a game famous for its giant purple dildo melee attacks.
GamesBeat: Everybody thought maybe you topped out with Saints Row the Third, that you couldn’t make it any crazier, that you couldn’t take the gag any further. So … you went a little further this time.
Boone: We did. Yes, we did. It’s funny — the design director on the last game tells the story about how when they were a couple of months away from finishing Saints Row the Third, he said, “We’ve probably taken this about as far as you can possibly go. There can’t be anything crazier or more over the top than what we’ve just done.” Then you finish the game, and you take a step back to collect yourself. You start thinking. Suddenly, things like superpowers start coming up.
But if you have superpowers, who the hell do you fight? If I’m picking up someone and throwing them with telekinesis, what’s a gangster going to do against that? So what if we have aliens? Then the aliens can have different abilities. Yeah, that makes total sense! Then what about the player? What’s going to be? He already took over the Saints. He became a pop icon. What do you do with him? How about he becomes the President of the United States? That seems like the right trajectory for him. We pretty quickly realized that now we could go really over the top.
GamesBeat: So … Saints Row V?
Boone: I feel like we’re in the same boat. We’re saying that there’s nothing left. How do you go further than this?
GamesBeat: You could get into some Flash Gordon stuff. You gotta go conquer Mongo.
Boone: Hey, exactly. That would be the next step.
GamesBeat: You don’t start off as the president, do you?
Boone: Correct. We have our origin mission that sets up how you become president.
GamesBeat: And then it’s five years later.
GamesBeat: You got re-elected!
Boone: Yes, you did! Everyone loves you after all! [Laughs]
GamesBeat: Is there a way you could go too far in Saints Row? Is that even possible?
Boone: We’ve talked about certain things like blatant racism. We don’t want to have anything like that in the game. Sexism — I know this might sound strange given some of the things we do in our game, but we try to be very fair. You can play a man. You can play a woman. We try not to put things in situations where you might feel too uncomfortable. Those are kind of the only areas where we look and say, “No, don’t want to go there.”
The threshold is pretty high as far as something that wouldn’t make it in. We gave the team a week. We called it Awesome Week. We told everyone, “Do whatever you want to do this week. Preferably something that’s not even in the game right now. Come up with crazy ideas.” We had people come up saying, “What if we do a dragon you can hop on and fly around and it breathes fire.” In a week, they were able to prototype it. It was very crude, but functional. You won’t see it in Saints Row IV — it was strictly just an issue of time. But we were convinced. “We’ll find a way to make that dragon make sense in this game.”
GamesBeat: How big is the map?
Boone: About three kilometers wide, roughly. We’ve tried to do a lot more when it comes to verticality. We’ve got a lot of things where you fight on top of buildings, climb these strange alien towers, or collect clusters on all of those.
GamesBeat: You’ve explained how superpowers have evolved behind the scenes. How do you get them in the game?
Boone: The Steelport you see there, that twisted version of Steelport, is actually a giant simulation. That’s the fake world, as opposed to the real world, which you’ll find yourself in during certain missions. The Zin — the aliens who’ve invaded the Earth — slowly conquer one planet at a time not just by killing people, but they also abduct people and try to indoctrinate them by breaking your mind in these crazy simulations. But because it’s a simulation, that gives you the ability to twist the rules and develop these crazy superpowers. Some of them are things where you’re given a superpower. Other ones you get by doing side missions and quests.
GamesBeat: Presumably at some point you’ll leave that simulation and won’t have superpowers anymore.
Boone: Exactly right.
GamesBeat: So how do you keep the crazy levels high without them?
Boone: That was a challenge. We didn’t want the player to ever feel like, “Wow, I don’t have superpowers anymore. This is kind of boring.” Instead, we want them to say, “Holy shit. I have a giant mech now.”
GamesBeat: During the open-world segment, I just started creating mayhem and destroying everyone with the dubstep gun. The cops showed up. You’re not president in the simulation, right?
Boone: Yeah, exactly.
GamesBeat: I started getting Zin gunships flying in, and then some kind of crazy-ass creature dropped in to beat me the hell up. What was that?
Boone: That’s called a Warden. Like the prison warden. This is the simulation’s way of trying to calm you down and get you under control, by bringing out their version of a superhero. This guy has superleaping also. He has telekinesis, where he can pick up objects and throw them at you, or stomp and send the big concussive blast. He’s a pretty worthy foe. He’s going to test you.
GamesBeat: Tell me about a moment when you really felt in your gut that Saints Row IV was becoming the game it’s meant to be?
Boone: The one that’s coming to mind is probably something we can’t share right now. We’ve got a lot of characters that are returning. We have certain scenarios with them. Your [White House] cabinet all gets abducted as well, right? They get put in their unique versions of the simulation, and so you have to go break into their simulations and pull them out. You also have an opportunity to do a loyalty mission for each of them. Then they also get superpowers in your simulation.
There is one particular loyalty mission that is fantastic. It’s the sort of thing where fans of cult movies will definitely recognize it. There will be many people, I’m sure, who will just enjoy the mission because it’s a lot of fun and have no idea what it’s referencing, but for those people who get it, you’re going to love it. That was a moment for me, when we started talking about that, that’s like, “Oh, my god. This is amazing.”