GAME VISION: Jacques Hennequet
The original idea for Saint’s Row came from a small group of people at Volition (Aaron LeMay, Lida Tang, Matt Boynton, Dave Samuel and Chris Helvig). The proposal was for a “Gangsta-rap sandbox-style First Person Shooter, featuring Snoop Dog & Dr. Dre”.
Early work was just starting when I joined Volition in the fall of 2003. The team was very small, less than 10 people. The project was not officially green lit by THQ yet, but we had approval to take things to the next step at the studio level. The high level design evolved fairly quickly into a third person action/driving hybrid steeped in Hip Hop culture, based on Respect, in which you tried to take over the city and bling up your character and vehicle. The vision of the game moved toward an exaggerated, over the top, music video feel rather than a realistic one.
We immediately chose the Xbox 360 as our development hardware. We saw a great opportunity to bring this type of gameplay to Microsoft’s platform. Multiplayer was also something we agreed upon very early. It was not a simple proposition, but everyone thought it was essential.
We developed what we call a “vision trailer”, the trailer that was used at E3 in 2005, and officially presented the project to THQ. The game was controversial because of its subject matter and because of the existing GTA series. Fortunately we had the support of our parent company, THQ, and the project was given the official go-ahead.
It is worth remembering that this was in 2003. GTA San Andreas was more than a year away and we had no idea of what it would contain. The color chosen for the player’s gang, green, also pre-dated San Andreas by a year.
The emphasis on open world gameplay was always there. We wanted to develop a game that was less linear than most and gave the gamer a great deal of freedom. We initially wanted to forego any type of story for the sake of freedom, but decided after a while that gamers would still want a story arc and story elements, and would feel lost without them. This was easier said than done. We gradually came up with the four story lines and the concept of Respect unlocking Missions. We spent a good deal of time defining the Activities: how they interacted with Respect, how you triggered them, what kind of progression they offered, etc... This part of the Design was ongoing through most of the cycle.
It was around this time that one of our designers, Alvan Monje, came up with the name “Saint’s Row” and we all liked it immediately.
The team size started to grow and the studio hired a number of people to deal with the project which we knew was bound to be a difficult one; trying to create a game of this type for the first time, on a totally new platform, is not an easy exercise. Among the people who joined the Saint’s Row team early on was a young tester, who took our writing test and did very well. His name was Steve Jaros. We decided to entrust him with all of the game’s dialogues, and I think everyone agrees that he did a remarkable job.
San Andreas and its content was an interesting topic for us when it was released. There were definitely hard questions to answer on how it affected us. In the end, we decided to move ahead as planned, confident that we were building substantially on the genre and that gamers would appreciate that. It came down to respecting what they’ve done for the genre but realizing that the features we were delivering, along with being the first game of this type on next-gen was a huge deal.
Time was beginning to pass more and more quickly. We lined up a great cast and started the recording sessions. We were also negotiating the rights to a lot of music content, with the help of a company called Cornerstone. We identified our main Hip Hop consultants and started showing them our dialogue, design, clothes, the radio stations etc… Their feedback was very positive and very helpful.
Meanwhile development of the city was advancing rapidly, as well as AI programming, two key elements of the game. The city was an enormous undertaking. The level of detail on buildings is so much higher than for last Gen that our Environment Artists really had to work extremely hard to put it all together.
We wanted the AI to really improve on existing games in the genre. This called for some tough work from our AI gurus Chris Helvig, Nick Lee and David Ansager. Our city feels more alive than any I’ve seen before. We also recorded over 30,000 lines of dialogue that our NPC’s can use to provide comments that are relevant, rather than always repeat the same lines.
The emphasis on character creation had also grown. We realized that it was a lot of fun to create your own character and watch him appear in the story lines. This was made possible because all our cut scenes are done in real time, and our extensive character creation set makes this feature even more interesting.
From the very beginning of development, we decided that we wanted a cast of excellent actors with great voices, but also people who were not overexposed. Our goal was to have the gamers notice our actors and ask, “Who is this? I know this voice” and then go “Oh yeah, great actor/actress” when they realized who it was. I remember us wondering exactly what actors reactions were going to be to being in a game of this nature. Discussing the project with agents was definitely a nerve racing process. One actor we approached actually turned us down, but fortunately, all our other first choices accepted.
There were some interesting moments during the recordings. For example, Daniel Dae Kim was concerned that we might expect him to play a stereotypical Asian character with all the attendant exaggerations. Fortunately, we were able to tell him that we had no such expectations. I think he was relieved. Asking African American actors to use the word “nigger” was also not an easy thing to do, but it is definitely part of the gangs’ slang. They understood this and agreed to it, once they realized that we used the word in a completely different and non-racist context. The recordings went very smoothly and we ended up with very good performances. We have some great key characters and a couple of incredibly despicable villains (David Carradine and Clancy Brown, who both did an amazing job). We ended up giving the “Carnales” actors in particular a lot of latitude to ad lib quite a few sentences in Spanish, to create a more spontaneous and authentic feel in their dialogue.
Today, we are close to finishing the game. It is amazing for me to look back at early tests and see how far we have traveled. I think that we have remained faithful to our original vision as much as possible. Above all, Saint’s Row is a lot of fun to play. It has been a long and hard cycle. A large number of people have put great efforts into creating this game. It is now my hope that the public will receive Saint’s Row well and that the team’s efforts will be rewarded. I think both will turn out to be true.
Source : Press Release via TeamXbox