In late August, via Gamescom 2021, Volition finally unveiled its latest and highly-awaited project, the new Saints Row reboot. However, after much anticipation from the fanbase, the reveal was met with much dissatisfaction for several reasons — both reasonable and not. Still, Volition has said that the team is “not backing down” from their artistic integrity.
I applaud them for that, and honestly, changing things now would definitely lead to further delay and terrible crunch time for the company’s staff. But that doesn’t change the fact that, for now, the game doesn’t put fans’ minds to ease. Especially after the lead mission narrative designer Jeremy Bernstein promises that the new Saints Row will be more “grounded” than previous ones. Looking at several questionable designs and business decisions Volition took I think the team is gambling hard with fans’ goodwill through this release. As such, I’ve compiled those decisions and reasons here. Here are four reasons why the new Saints Row could be Volition’s final game.
1. Polarizing Reception From Fans and Critics Alike
When the new Saints Row debuted its launch trailer it was quickly greeted by criticism from long-time fans. Now as I’m writing this article, the ratio in the Saints Row official channel is at 24,000 Likes and 51,000 Dislikes. Obviously, the numbers can be wildly different for the same video uploaded by different channels. But since it is the franchise’s official YouTube channel, it’s safe to assume that the video is watched by — and getting a reaction from — people who actually follow the series.
And it’s not just the loyal fans. Several gaming outlets are voicing their disappointment from watching both the reveal and gameplay trailer as well, with John Walker from Kotaku encapsulating the issue perfectly,
The most recently released footage introduces these new guys as, “a set of characters you’re going to want to invite into your living room every day.” I don’t want characters I would want to invite into my living room! Another developer says, “This reset let us add heart in a big way, and that’s like the number one thing about this game.” Nooooooo! Another: “They’re one hundred percent relatable.” What is happening?!”
Just like what Walker has pointed out, the characters don’t look the part. In one of the interviews, Volition staff describes one of the new characters, Eli, that Reddit likes to compare with Urkel’s fashion sense, as a person who “loves to podcast.” Is that really someone who reminds you of a legit, dangerous criminal? Even Pierce, the butt of every joke, still dresses for a drive-by if need be. Lin wouldn’t be out of place if she stars in the early Fast and Furious movies as a street racer and a heist crew member when the series hadn’t jumped the shark.
Meanwhile, both the default Boss and Neenah look too bland. And only buff-bodied Kevin seems to fit the settings (out of the gimmicky cat helmet).
Personally speaking, I’m fine with Volition giving us new characters. Being stuck with Master Chief for the sixth time and barely has ways to explore the other conflicts of Human-Covenant War without turning to supplemental books is one of the things I hate the most about Halo. But it seems the only people who understand Eli’s characters are just middle-class millennials stuck in their dead-end jobs dealing with their first-world problems like not getting high-speed internet access.
Open world games are dime a dozen these days. Toning down the “edge” too much is detrimental to what people are expecting from a gang-themed game. And honestly, discounting text-heavy RPGs, what game lets you play as a total psychopath like the Saints Row 2 Boss?
2. Running Out of Creative Saints Flow Juice
It’s not just the lack of purple on the box art or the main characters’ clothes. After all, Volition has said that in this Saints Row reboot we will once again take part in the rise of the Saints gang (probably without a reference to a Saint’s Row district, but who knows?). However, since Saints Row 3 I think the team just doesn’t seem to know where to aim for the franchise going forward.
In the first game, the 3rd Street Saints started as a bunch of ruffians trying to protect their neighborhood from gang warfare between West Side Rollerz, Los Carnales, and Vice King. Eventually though, throughout the first two games, The Saints end up turning into what they despised after getting rid of their competitors. They became the very thing that ruined Stillwater, something that both Julius and Gat mentioned in the epilogue of Saints Row 2 and the early part of Saints Row 3, respectively.
But that particular plot point (and Dex’s betrayal) never goes anywhere. Instead, we are treated to fight against a localized zombie pandemic, futuristic SWAT team, a hulking clone of your (not) dead friend, an evil alien empire in a virtual world, and culminates with wreaking havoc in the afterlife.
Talking with Polygon, Volition’s Chief Creative Officer Jim Boone admits that “there truly isn’t anywhere to go past” conquering Hell itself. And he’s not wrong. Then a total reboot for the Saints Row series is the answer. The problem is, it missed the mark.
As someone not from the United States, I can instantly understand and be immersed in straightforward “gangbangers simulators” in the vein of GTA: San Andreas and Saints Row 1 and 2 because I was a teenager when I played them; lots of teenagers wanted to be seen as “street-wise” and “hardcore” and video games is a place to safely express that part of their psyche.
Although both games took place in fictionalized America, the drug and violence-ridden ghetto culture epidemic is a real issue that happens around the globe, with many facets of media portraying both the high and the lowest of low of being involved in such condition. It still presents a familiar struggle that everyone from India to Russia could, to some degree, relate to.
Like how people jumped ship from GTA IV because they don’t like the shift of visual and theme from San Andreas. The Saints Row reboot could easily fill another gap left by people’s dissatisfaction with GTA Online and lack of GTA 6 news. Instead, they made something that is almost indistinguishable from newer Far Cry games aside from the camera. And if it became its own saga, can it refuse to go down the same, zany, over-the-top path its predecessors took? I doubt it can if the company is making “Saints Row 3/4 but not edgy.”
3. Putting All Eggs in One Purple Basket
Ever since Saints Row 4, it seems the sales of each title are in the slumps. Saints Row 2 managed to ship 3.4 million copies and Saints Row 3 raked in 5.5 million sales. Saints Row 4 though, is said to have sold more than 1 million copies in its first week but Volition didn’t disclose any sales figures since then. There is zero mention about Gat out of Hell’s performance as well, which doesn’t instill much confidence.
While Saints Row is a pretty popular IP, it’s not like it’s the only well-known game series that Volition has under its sleeve, seeing as it also made Freespace and Red Faction. Sure, the licenses went to Nordic Games when THQ went bankrupt, but after Koch Media bought its parent company in 2018, Volition should be able to utilize both series again.
But there is another issue: today’s Volition hasn’t proved itself capable of working on something other than the crime-themed open-world game. When the company tried doing something relatively new, it bombed pretty hard. The Saints Row spin-off starring Pierce and Gat with different roles and a bunch of colorful new characters, the 2017 Agents of Mayhem, only managed to sell 300,000 copies for a year and no one has heard anything about it since. Not to mention the last entry to the Red Faction series to date, Armageddon, was a commercial failure.
Obviously, the Saints Row name is their only saving grace. But what if it became (another) flop?
4. Taking Epic Store Exclusivity Could Mean There’s Not Much Faith in the New Saints Row Sales Performance
After Epic Games’ internal document became public no thanks to the whole Epic vs Apple debacle, it shows that the Unreal Engine creator is actually hemorrhaging money from their exclusivity program. Quoting PC Gamer, Epic’s lawyer admits that the company has lost hundreds of thousands of dollars and doesn’t expect the digital store to be profitable until 2027.
Epic lost around $181 million on EGS in 2019. Epic projected to lose around $273 million on EGS in 2020. Indeed, Epic committed $444 million in minimum guarantees for 2020 alone, while projecting, even with ‘significant’ growth, only $401 million in revenue for that year. Epic acknowledges that trend will continue in the immediate future: Epic projects to lose around $139 million in 2021. […] At best, Epic does not expect EGS to have a cumulative gross profit before 2027.”
Although it is a good thing that developers are getting paid upfront for their deals (with up to $10 million for something like Control and much, much more for Borderlands 3), on the other hand taking Epic Games exclusivity could mean that publishers and/or developers aren’t confident in their game’s launch performance.
Instead of relying on the quality of their games, critics’ reviews, and the player base’s word-of-mouth for the first few weeks, they just grab Epic’s moneybag and run with it, so to speak. Not to mention that Tim Sweeney’s company loses $330 million in un-recouped costs from several of the developer’s minimum sales targets. This means Epic is burning money while some games barely — or didn’t even get — anyone to buy and play them. It’s obviously bad for both Epic and any developer partners in the long run.
Despite expressing all these opinions here, the thing is that I don’t think the majority of people who play games actually care about all this drama. As long as it looks good and doesn’t have major technical issues (like toasting your graphic card, as an example), most AAA games today should be able to push a decent number of copies that will keep the developer’s office light on. The open-world genre is still as popular as ever anyway. And if all of this stuff doesn’t matter in the end, both Saints Row and Volition can still keep fighting on for the foreseeable future.
Do you believe that this Saints Row reboot could make or break Volition? Do you think it still could turn into a big success? If not, do you think Volition can still make new, interesting games without relying on the Saints brand? I sure hope my skepticism will be proven wrong when the game launches on February 25, 2022. Let me know what you think in the comments.