All Mike "IdolNinja" Watson had to do was ask.
Watson and his fellow modder Thomas "Minimaul" Jepp have run a website dedicated to Saints Row mods for years. No matter that Volition, the developer of the open-world series, never officially supported their efforts. They did it without help and quite literally for the love of the games.
It's been a popular hobby. According to his statistics, the site has more than 36,000 registered users.
Recently, when Watson was in Los Angeles to play Saints Row 4, the forthcoming installment of the franchise that's due out for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 later this year, he got the notion to make a modest proposal to Volition. He asked for a technical contact he could ping with questions once a month or so.
The developers were receptive to the idea, so he put together a formal proposal. Volition's answer floored him. Not only did they agree, but Volition offered officially sanctioned modification help for Saints Row 2 and Saints Row: The Third as a test run for official mod support for Saints Row 4.
"It's been a pretty interesting experience."
That was only a few weeks ago, and the future has already begun to take shape. Polygon exchanged several emails with Watson and learned about the future of Saints Row mods from the man who took the initiative to ask.
Over the last week or so, Watson and Jepp have been working directly with Volition's studio manager of programmers Jeff Thompson and senior programmer Mike Wilson to develop the official Software Development Kit (SDK) for Saints Row: The Third.
"Our goal is to enable the fans to finally realize many of the custom changes that have been swimming around in their heads and quite frankly, we are excited to see what they will create," Wilson told Polygon.
The collaborative process has taught the former outsiders a new way of going about their work.
"It's been a pretty interesting experience since our modding workflow is very different from Volition's," Watson told Polygon. "For example, Volition treats all changes as a permanent part of the game, so their tools are hardcoded to work with a certain specific subfolder layout containing all the files. As modders, we try to keep all the original game files pure and work with copies of them from multiple locations."
Working with the developers and the game's original source files is an entirely different process than what they're used to. Now, they're effectively serving as Volition's testers, figuring out how to mod Volition's development software for public consumption. When they discover tools that need changed — for example, "certain tools expecting specific software that runs server side at Volition" — the Volition team recreates those tools without those requirements.
Watson is also at work on creating extensive documentation that will help modders from the novice to the experienced.
"Anyone who has ever used other games' modding tools will tell you that there is often arcane undocumented voodoo bullshit that they have to slog through to get everything working right," he wrote. "I hope to avoid these kinds of problems with easy to understand docs and tutorials that will be useable by artists and other non-technical users."
This documentation, he hopes, will also allow them to expand the Saints Row modding community.
"The work internally at Volition is very grassroots."
For now, the modders and the developers are fixated on delivering the public tools. In the long term, though, having access to the developers will allow them to incorporate customization options that were previously impossible. These include custom clothing and something that he never thought would be possible, which he described as the "holy grail" — DLC-only weapons available in free roam mode.
Up next for Volition will be software that allows users to package and install mods as ad hoc add-ons, instead of the current and comparatively draconian requirement to replace existing files with modded ones.
"The work internally at Volition is very grassroots, and it's great to see all the support we have internally and externally for modding," Volition's Wilson told Polygon. "We have representation from every major group at Volition and we are all working on exposing tools and documentation so a modder could go from 3D Studio Max to game with an amazing new creation. We plan to release tools and information over time, and it will all start with basic crunching tools to allow modders to package their new content back up for the game and information on several of the major file formats the game uses."
Then what? What happens after Volition and the modders hammer out the official modification tools? Mike "IdolNinja" Watson has big plans.
"You bet I do," he told Polygon. "My dream project is to port Stilwater from Saints Row 2 into the new engine along with all of the rival gangs like the Brotherhood, Ronin, and Samedi. This is an incredibly huge amount of work though and will likely need to be a massive team effort. But hell, if the [Grand Theft Auto] modders can put San Andreas into [Grand Theft Auto 4] without Rockstar's support, you better believe we're going to try with Volition having our back."
Prospective modders can join the team and help with Watson's dream project by signing up in the forums, posting publicly or contacting Watson or Jepp via DM.