Interview: Volition’s Brian Traficante on an All New Saints Row and What to Expect

It’s been a while since Champaign-based developers Volition have been in the final countdown to a big release. After all, Saints Row IV released all the way back in 2013. But when I sat down to talk with Lead Artist and Creative Director Brian Traficante, the new Saints Row game was looming on the horizon, less than a week away, and I could sense the excitement surrounding this new take on a much beloved series. 

“We’re coming at it with a new approach” Traficante explained. “What is Saints Row today? Who are we as developers? What are the things we’re trying to communicate or we feel like are representations as entertainers and game developers?”

“Volition as a studio has grown and changed in the 12 years since we released four full titles. We have people at the studio that weren’t old enough to play some of those games that are now part of our decision making process so those are incredible opportunities to come at it and starting fresh was really the approach we embraced the most.”

Even mentioning how old Saints Row IV is now, you’re making me feel even older! I can’t believe it’s been that long!

I try to do away with Grand Theft Auto comparisons but it’s hard not to bring that up, because I think since Saints Row 1 that was the topic of conversation. But Saints Row has always been…zanier, I guess? It had that humor from the beginning. I went back to look at the gameplay to kinda refresh myself. 

I was reading some of the YouTube comments too, and I have to admit, at first I was unsure, but I’ve been playing it and I feel like this new Saints Row is closer to Saints Row 2 than people feel like!

Mmhmm! It is!

You were talking about the merging of the two, kind of a balance – what are the major points you were trying to hit to recapture that?

We had this very early saying on the project ‘ 2 + 3 equals 5,’ right? 

It was pieces of Saints Row 2, and some of the gritty narrative moments  –  just cruel on the streets,  literally fighting to expand their empire and have a piece of the action in the city, and then there are rocket turbine footballs that launch people through the skybox.

We looked at a lot of those parts of the past but we didn’t stay there very long. 

We were completely on a new grid for this Saints Row and it felt great. Tons of inspiration went  into all of that and part of that was looking back at where we’d been, what inspired us, what do we know fans have liked, and how do we pull off the impossible- making everybody happy!

There’s this huge divide between the first two games and the second two, and [we were] really just trying to ride that line between it and ultimately, give the player the power to choose which side of the line they want to play on.

 If you want to look like a tough criminal and have raw and gritty weaponry and turn on the violent takedowns, go for it, right, you can play the game that way.

 If you want to wear the 50 gallon foam hat, which is my favorite, and do takedowns that are Karate Kid inspired or wrestling maneuvers while driving the most incredibly weird food truck – I prefer an offroad hearse myself – but …go for it, right? 

And that was really the approach all along, is for everything new, what’s familiar, and for everything familiar, what’s new about it?

I get that, absolutely. I’ve really been enjoying my time with Saints Row!

I’m happy to hear that. And I’ll say on that same question, the band-aid came off with the trailer release. People that were waiting for …my saints I’ve had in a setting I’m familiar with – that didn’t happen. 

So the initial sentiment that was the loudest was concern and all the assumptions came out of that – but over the course of the campaign, the more of the game that was being released, the more of the familiarity of ‘that kind of looks like what I used to do in Saints Row” and ‘now that definitely looks like what I used to do’ – we’ve seen a large portion, the most significant portion of the reaction shift to ‘this absolutely feels like Saints Row and that’s what we had known. But it was definitely a journey to kind of start in a place and bring over through the marketing what the game really was. 

I really like the way the Saints even interact with each other, because in previous games,  they were almost ripping on each other, almost mean to each other, but now it’s almost wholesome in comparison and I wonder, did you do that on purpose? 

It’s not that they’re nice, they’re literally murdering people, and they’re criminals. But it’s more like a fun, happy murdering. It’s almost wholesome in a way!

You’re hitting two of the big themes of the game – crime and friendship – that’s been at the root of the game for all of them, but the definitions have shifted a little bit and on this one we’ve kinda poured into the differences on the friendship angle.

I love that they’re all part of a different faction living together, right?

That’s the bonds that really matter, and that’s what you get to experience. It comes through and they come together, the Saints, and that attracted us quite a bit with these new characters. They’re all criminals at the beginning because these are all criminal factions, but they haven’t become the Saints yet, they’re very individualized people, just like us, and they have wants just like us, and they can’t get the things they want, just like us – and that was really attractive to us to sort of expose that to the players, give them time to experience all of that, and then see them come together – and that’s very much what this game is about.

So you’ll probably wait a few more games before the world’s destroyed again…

See… inevitably we’re going to blow up the universe and all the worlds with it.

You know I would actually love to see that. Maybe in a few years you can have a multiversal crossover where old Saints meet new Saints…

Oh my God

That would be really great. 

That’s the beauty of Saints Row – our box is pretty large – if you stay true to what you’re experiencing, you can pull a bunch of levers and that’s what we’ve done, right? Like, 2, 3 and 4 are the best example of that. 

From a design standpoint, you did a really good job with Santo Ileso – making it a big playground with disparate areas that are separated from each other – what are your inspirations there , and what did you do to try to make it as fun as it is?

We love Stillwater, that’s one of our favorite cities we’ve built, and in terms of a location, a game location setting diversity, you could be in the downtown district, you can go over to the marina – that was difficult to build, and in Saints Row 3 we took a different approach- we kind of unified themes into like “steel!” right like “steel porn!” Like, it’s just gonna be all industrial.

We got a lot of feedback that people missed that diversity, so that was a big target early on – letting you feel like you’re in different parts, even though it’s the same city.  It’s a fictionalized theme park, is our approach, but as you move through the city it feels different.

We wanted to create a very diverse feeling of things, and then it’s surrounded by this desert, something we’ve never done in a Saints Row game, so what is that like, to go out and drive through a stream. Where does it take you? Or go up to a butte and wingsuit off of the top, or take a helicopter over here. 

So yeah, we wanted all of that diversity to the world, we wanted all of these different pieces to contribute to the feeling of being a member of this world and just in terms of just open world, that city being an important character that is meaningful.

Since we’re still on the topic of the open world – you don’t have to reveal any spoilers, but what I love about open world games, sometimes, is those, hidden super-secret, not actually part of the beaten path parts- is there anything like that there? 

The team thrives on Easter Eggs.They absolutely love to put a thing out there and not even tell anybody. Like, we find out through QA testing or somebody’s just sharing something in a team meeting and you realize like, ‘Oh! I didn’t know we did that, that’s pretty amazing!’

So yeah there’s plenty of fun things to find, there’s lots of references to our past and past games, those teams just – they embrace that. 

We have some of the best branding in any of our games,so it’s fun just walking around reading some of the world branding and the movie posters- Shotgun Chimp is one of my favorites.

All of these things come from some of the most incredible minds, like wit, clever humor seeded throughout and then there are there are two ways that the world will change in terms of your gameplay opportunities- there are discoverables, and they can only be found by exploring the map and when you get within proximity then they’ll pop up on your minimap and you can actually engage in that gameplay.

So we are encouraging players to go find these things, and of course the criminal ventures are a new spin on the activities- you have to build a venture, choose the lot where you want to put it in the city, and then that will populate your map with more gameplay and you do that 14 times, so your map is going to get full of lots of new things, and that’s also what I liked about that was the opportunity for the player to kind of direct it themselves and have at it at their leisure.

If you wanted to do that quickly, then load your map up and you can have hundreds – a sea of icons and have fun finding these things, but if you’re like me, a completionist, I don’t like too many things, I like to finish them as I find them – then I feel it’s much more manageable. So we tried to give players that option. 

What parts of Saints Row are you most proud of personally? What’s your favorite part?

Customization has surpassed my expectations,and that’s team driven. 

Sure, our high level goal was `we want incredible customization’ and we’re gonna fulfill this expectation of allowing them deep customization options. We want players to express how they want to play the Saints Row games, and then these teams, these experts, these incredible creative people, just knocked it out of the park. 

They turned limits into possibilities we didn’t think we would have. They turned challenges into more options than we had planned. It’s phenomenal. I love the customize anywhere – like in the middle of a fight, I’ll pull my phone out and throw a cowboy hat on ‘cuz I just want to feel like a cowboy in this fight, and if you get shot, you’re thrown out of the style or you try to change and you didn’t realize you’re in the road so you get hit by a car, or a ped, you get naked and a ped walks behind you and they’re like “Ew!” cuz you’re standing there naked, and all those unexpected moments come from those customizations and just the number of ways between vehicles, weapons, clothing, body, even at your HQ – it’s – I’m incredibly proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish in that feature. 

Yeah, it’s super fun! Thank you so much for talking with us about Saint’s Row

Finally, This isn’t really a Saints Row question, but I’m a Volition fan myself and real quick…are there any old Volition games you’d like to see come back, like old games that aren’t being worked on or maybe games that you want…

Like everybody I’m a Red Faction nerd, man. Like, I started my early PC gaming on Red Faction 1 and 2 modding and Guerilla took it to another level, and I worked on Armageddon and then – we don’t talk about Armageddon – no that’s not true, we’re proud of everything we’ve done! We’re proud of EVERYTHING

I gotta say Guerilla is my favorite but yes Armageddon is, it’s unfairly maligned. 

It’s – it made different choices. It is what it is. But yeah, Red Faction is near and dear to me as a gamer, fan, and as a member of Volition. It’s a hat I wouldn’t mind wearing again someday. 

Oh my God yes absolutely please more Red Faction

I talked to somebody else at Volition a while back, can’t remember his name right now, but I was begging him to bring back Freespace because  I was a huge Freespace fan. But you guys don’t have the Descent IP anymore. 

Yeah. 

But something like that, like maybe add the space shooting DLC to Saints Row

There’s an internal joke, any time the team is asked anything, ANYTHING, FreeSpace 3 is the first answer anyone will type. ANYTHING. It goes on forever. 

It’s been bugging me for decades. I can’t die without seeing a conclusion. 

Well, we’re there. It’s the first response. It’s like “hey so what do we want to do about …” and it’s like FREESPACE 3… 

Awesome.

We truly enjoyed our time with Brian Traficante and are excited to dive even deeper into the world of Saints Row when it releases tomorrow! Make sure to check out our review and let us know in the comments what you think of the game once you take to the streets! 

Antal Bokor
Antal Bokor

Antal is video game advocate, retro game collector, and video game historian.
He is also a small streamer, occasional podcast guest, and writer.

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