How Saints Row: The Third dropped its undercover narrative for something more over the top.
Development of Saints Row: The Third began in October 2008, the month Saints Row 2 shipped, but only 20 percent of the new team had shipped a previous Saints Row title. Not everyone had a defined idea of what Saints Row was. Scott Phillips, Design Director of Saints Row: The Third, explained the false start and "aha" ideas that led to the game being published in November of last year.
Tone had been an issue for the series. In Saints Row 2, you could run around naked and surf a car, then drag around a man from a car and mercy kill him. The tone wasn't consistent. They wanted Saints Row 3 to produce the same feeling throughout the game.
What was that feeling? Should it be gangsta or gangster? Over the top or true to life?
For the first six months of development, Saints Row: The Third was about an undercover agent, played by you, infiltrating the Saints gang. The design focused on morality choices: find a bale of cocaine and you decide whether to turn it in to the FBI or give it to the Saints. The team liked the idea. But, as Phillips says, it wasn't Saints Row.
The team was confused, lacking confidence in the vision. They needed a solution soon as possible.
At some point early on, brainstorming meetings began to pivot on a new design mantra: "Embrace the Crazy; Fun Trumps All." "Over the top" became the buzzword of the project. At team presentations, they'd review big ideas, so the team had to answer why or why not something fit. They also got out of the office with movie outings, seeing movies like A-Team that matched the tone they wanted. The tone began to coalesce.
Designers put together tone videos, mashups of footage from various movies, like Shoot Em'Up and Bad Boys, to show the team what the player should feel like while playing Saints Row: The Third. The designers wanted to create "Holy Shit" moments like those in the films. "Things you would remember forever," Phillips said. "Water cooler moments." Things like skydiving through a falling airplane or riding a two ton ball down a skyscraper. What they didn't want was missions where you drive from one place to the next. What he called "FedEx" moments.
Most importantly, Phillips said, was the decision to pre-visualize everything. Pre-visualization is a rough draft that can be shown to team members and a skeptical publisher. "Showing [people] something, makes it a lot easier to get them being your idea." Two years before they had completed the introductory level, in which the player fights off helicopter from an airlifted bank vault, there was a pre-visualization available to show the team and the publisher.
Phillips notes on other important ethos for Saints Row: The Third. "One of the lessons coming out of Saints Row 2 was I didn't want the player to be a dick," said Phillips. That job was reserved for the dildo bat.