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A smart man once said, “I don’t have friends. I have family.” That man was Vin Diesel playing the character Dominic Toretto, and he was talking about the cast of the Fast & Furious films. But that motto is something I’d also apply to the characters in the Saints Row games.
Developer Volition, which produces those open-world crime adventures, is now working on something else, but it is bringing that family spirit along for this new ride.
Just prior to the Electronic Entertainment Expo trade show in Los Angeles earlier this month, Volition and publisher Deep Silver revealed Agents of Mayhem. This new shooter is a spinoff of the Saints Row universe and focuses on a G.I. Joe-like superteam that takes on global terrorists and supervillains. It is due out in 2017 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC. It is an action game, but Volition is also trying to ensure it builds an interesting world brimming with fascinating characters.
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Making lovable characters
In Agents of Mayhem, your team comprises 12 people from all over the world who each master different skills. You are taking on an evil organization known as Legion in the South Korean city of Seoul. This battle between Mayhem and Legion will put you, as the player, into missions where you need to fight, blow up, and rescue various friends and foes. During these challenges, you can pick three of your twelve characters and you can switch between them at any time during combat to capitalize on their different capabilities. For example, Hollywood is a narcissistic pretty boy who is great with an assault rifle. Hardtack is a Naval officer who rocks a harpoon as his main weapon. Fortune, meanwhile, is an automatic-pistol wielding Colombian sky pirate.
These characters play differently, but they also have their own strong personalities. And after Saints Row: The Third and Saints Row 4, where Volition demonstrated a talent for putting fun and intriguing characters in situations with and against one another, I’m hoping to see the studio pull that off again with its band of superheroes.
Thankfully, Agents of Mayhem project design director Anoop Shekar told me when I sat down with him at E3 that they are going for something similar here.
“We want to replicate that [chemistry] with this cast of new characters,” he told GamesBeat. “One of the things with Saints Row was, we didn’t start out wanting to do that. If you play Saints Row and Saints Row 2, the characters sort of evolved naturally.”
Shekar said that characters like Johnny Gat, a gangster from the early games who is now the face of the franchise, was a surprise to Volition. They learned over time that people loved and responded to him. In the third and fourth games, the studio embraced that. This time around, Shekar says that Volition is much more conscious about designing lovable characters.
“In this case, what we’ve done is we built our characters and our world to take advantage of that,” he said. “We think a lot of people are going to like Hollywood, but certain people are going to like [the sniper] Rama. Hardtack’s going to be a fan favorite for a lot of people. Some of our other agents might be a little more niche in appeal, but that’s good. Some people won’t like the other characters but they’ll identify with one in particular, and how they interact with the others.”
Of course, switching between characters means you will oly have one out at a time, but Volition is working to ensure they have plenty of opportunities to engage each other. Shekar says that they will banter back and forth during gameplay in the open-world part of the game. They will also hang out at your HQ where you can talk with them at any time.
An international family
Characters like Hardtack, Fortune, and Hollywood don’t just have different personalities. They come from different backgrounds as well.
The cast is diverse in both ethnicity and gender, and that harkens back to Saints Row. It was a winning formula for that game, but diversity has also helped push the recent Fast & Furious films to record box-office sales around the world. Furious 7, for example, made more than $1.1 billion outside of the United States, and many studios and film-industry observers credit the diverse cast for fueling that.
For Agents of Mayhem, Volition deliberately pursued a similar international appeal. That’s one of the reasons the studio set the game in South Korea.
“Seoul was a very deliberate choice for a couple of reasons,” said Shekar. “We wanted people to understand that this isn’t just an American game, or even a European and American game. We decided we wanted to set our first city somewhere outside of those regions.”
The same goals were behind the design of the Mayhem squad.
“We decided to make it an international force because we wanted to draw from all around the world and have people from all around the world be able to identify with these characters,” Shekar continued. “Not just people from America or Europe or whatever.”
And while the business of selling games globally hasn’t matured in the same way as the film industry, Volition has found through its many Saints Row games that it makes financial sense to go for that broad appeal through diversity.
“When we started Saints Row, inclusion wasn’t a big thing for us,” said Shekar. “I mean, we weren’t against it, but it wasn’t something we were thinking about. But as the series progressed, because of the customization aspect, people really responded to that. I could make a character that looks like me, who I care about, who I want to play. When people started responding to that, it became a big part of our brand. It was something we came to really care about.”
This time around, as Volition kicks off a new franchise, it is applying those lessons from the beginning.
“These agents have to represent a wide spectrum of types of people,” he said. “But they’re not defined by those attributes. They just have those qualities. They’re still their own characters with their own things they care about.”
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