While the Saints Row series is far from Volition’s only contribution to gaming (I’m a big fan of Red Faction: Guerrilla, myself), it’s certainly one of their biggest, and the series has shaped the direction of the studio for a long time. I played Agents of Mayhem for the first time at E3 last year, though my play session back then was far too short to get a strong sense of what I was playing. Going around with the game for the second time, it seems much clear how the sense of humor and style the team honed with the Saints Row games has carried over to Agents of Mayhem and evolved in the process.
I sat down with Agents of Mayhem Design Director Anoop Shekar to chat about open-world games, getting humor right in an open-world game, and knowing when too loud is too loud.
Volition began working on open-world games back when the genre was still pretty young, and it’s been a few years since the most recent game from the studio, Saints Row 4. In the time since that release, we’ve seen some legendary open-world games like Grand Theft Auto V and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt hit the gaming scene, as well as some potential future classics like Horizon Zero Dawn. Game development doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and game developers are almost always gamers, and I wondered what Shekar’s team had picked up over the last few years.
“A lot of people are getting good at doing [open-world] games, right? And there are a lot of similar elements to them. It’s exciting to see new ideas and new things we can look at. We can do a version of this or take one of those elements, so for us it’s more inspiration to draw from,” Shekar said.
In Agents of Mayhem, we can look forward to a lot more randomness around the game’s open world of near-future Seoul when compared to previous games from Volition.
“Open world stuff is constantly refreshing. There’s not necessarily an end to it. You can keep doing the same things over and over,” Shekar said. “Events can come up in different places, and about half of the open world fits that description of, ‘hey, that wasn’t there before.'”
“We’ve learned in our previous games about how people… experience the open world, what makes good locations,” Shekar explained. “We took those and put those into our rules set for where content spawns procedurally.”
But simply lifting different elements from other games isn’t a recipe for a memorable game, and Volition knows that, too. That’s where the studio’s now-signature style and look start to come into play.
“We have to establish and define our own identity,” Shekar said. “For us, what makes Saints Row good, we took certain elements of [it] and put them into Agents of Mayhem. The humor, the characters, the style, and presentation. Those are things we know how to do. We have to define Agents of Mayhem as something very specific.”
Where a lot of memorable open-world games feature story arcs with character progression and development, Agents of Mayhem isn’t about that. It’s more like G.I. Joe with F-words, and the humor and story blossom out of characters’ quirks.
“We took inspiration from old 80s and 90s cartoons and television shows – that’s our starting point,” Shekar told us.
Old. 90s. Oh god, my bones.
“But we wanted to make a game that’s like G.I. Joe,” Shekar said, but with Volition’s take on the idea of a terrorism-fighting organization like that one.
“That comes from characters and humor. So you take an archetype like Hollywood. He’s the Duke or Flint type character. If you compare them to [those characters], he’s not going to work in G.I. Joe. He only works in Mayhem, because we designed M.A.Y.H.E.M.,” Shekar said. That stands for – of course – “Multinational AgencY for Hunting Evil Masterminds.”
The different Agents you can play as – 12 in total – were created to a variety of different people.
“We found in our playtesting – we asked, who was your favorite agent? There’s no consistency across our playtesters because different people gravitate to different things,” according to Shekar.
“The point was to create agents that, while they might not have this deep arc, they have personal identification for a lot of people. I look at [a particular] character and I may not be that character, but I really like those things, I want to play as that character.”
“When we started getting playtest results that showed that diversity, that’s when we knew we’d succeeded in building the core elements of the game.”
With clear, diverse characters established, that gave the team room to explore how those characters would interact with each other and the rest of the world.
“All of the humor you see in Agents of Mayhem, it needs to have context. It comes from these characters, the situation, or the world,” Shekar explained. “So by creating this diverse set of characters with different goals, attitudes, opinions on things… just how they play off each other and react to things provided a lot of humor and context.” L.E.G.I.O.N., the “League of Evil Gentlemen Intent On Obliterating Nations,” brings the same sort of over-the-top humor to the game.
When the whole goal of the game, though, is to go over-the-top in every way you can, it can be easy to just sparkle glitter on everything, make it neon, and call it a day. Tuning the volume to keep players engaged is important. Shekar told us they hit those points a few times during the game’s development, and that they’ve been constantly tweaking things like the visual palette of the game to maintain a good balance.
If Volition can make good on the promises of Agents of Mayhem, we can look forward to a memorable game that both embraces the company’s strengths and history and looks forward to the future. And it has lots of swears in it.
Agents of Mayhem hits PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on August 15, 2017.