Life after Agents of Mayhem: Where now for Volition?
Jim Boone returns amid layoffs at Saints Row creator
You can forgive Volition for not feeling particularly celebratory at the homecoming of its former long-serving producer Jim Boone.
Boone returns to the Saints Row creator as studio development director. He had been part of the Volition family for most of its life. He was there in 1994 when it was part of Parallax, working in QA on the publishing side on the likes of Descent and Descent II. He witnessed Parallax split into Volition and Outrage, and became a producer on the FreeSpace series. He witnessed the birth of Red Faction and Saints Row, acting as one of the company's main spokespeople, before leaving 18 months ago for a role at League of Legends creator Riot Games.
"Man, did I miss the guys," Boone tells GamesIndustry.biz on his return.
"I go pretty far back with these guys, even on the publishing side. As you can imagine, the kind of relationships that you form with everyone are pretty strong. I missed them. I loved what I was doing when I left. I kept thinking about what the guys were doing, slaving away on Agents of Mayhem... and it felt kind of weird that I wasn't part of that. So being able to come back, and work with everyone on the next step was pretty exciting for me. It felt like something I couldn't turn down."
Eugenio Vitale, Director of games development at parent company Deep Silver, adds: "Jim brings to the table huge competence and production experience, as well as maintaining a connection to the roots of Volition and to what made Volition unique. We hope this change will be received as a signal of commitment from our Volition and Saints Row fans."
Unfortunately, the Volition that Boone has returned to isn't quite the happy place it was when he left. The firm's latest effort, Agents of Mayhem, a sort-of-but-not-quite Saints Row game, missed the mark critically and commercially - forcing Deep Silver to lay off some staff in an effort to minimise the damage.
Boone doesn't start officially until today, but he visited the studio last week and the mood was clear.
"It was only a brief little whirlwind of being back last week, and it was a weird combination of emotions that you could just see on everyone," Boone says. "Obviously with the reduction, no one is going to be happy about that. You're not cheering the fact that some of your friends have been laid off. But there are a lot of professionals there who understand that sometimes these things happen.
"One of the things that I've always loved about Volition is that it's... we're all aware that it is a business, and that ultimately we need to sell units to make a profit, but the thing that always motivates the company is entertaining our fans. We're motivated by putting out a game that people love and get excited about, and talk to their friends about. That is the hallmark of the things we like about Saints Row series... seeing a lot of conversations around the cool things you can do in the game. We love to see the fan reaction, and I think that is what has hit everyone the hardest... obviously there has not been as many people playing Agents of Mayhem, it didn't strike the note and it didn't get that same reaction.
"We love to see the fan reaction, and I think that is what has hit everyone the hardest... obviously there has not been as many people playing Agents of Mayhem, and it didn't get that same reaction"<
"That's really tough for people to see. But in spite of all that, there is still a lot of optimism towards the future. I didn't see a lot of attitude where people were going: 'What the hell do we do?'. It was a feeling that we can do this, that we have quality people, and we just need to figure it out and move forward."
He continues: "It was strange last week, where I'm excited to be back and sad by some of the people that are leaving... it's a swirl of emotions to say the least. But it is exciting to be back, no doubt."
Boone says he's learnt a few things from Riot that he'll look to bring to Volition, particularly around maintaining the studio's strong culture.
"[Volition] has a lot of people that have been at the studio for a very long time," Boone says. "One of the core strengths about us is that everybody knows each other, families know each other, there's a lot of camaraderie from that. There's a lot of strength that is built in because we know how each other works. But, one of the consequences of that - and the fact we are in central Illinois, which is a couple of hours away from any city and it's therefore hard to recruit people - is that you don't get a lot of cross-pollination of different ideas, techniques and ways that other companies do things. The big studios on the coast, you get a lot more people coming in... you might have someone who came from Riot or Ubisoft or EA or any of the multitude of developers that are out there. And they might be able to bring a titbit with them and they can say: 'Oh, we had a problem like this and here is how we solved it'. A lot of our learning is almost self-learning, which has pros and cons. It might take us a little longer to work certain things out.
"So specifically from my point-of-view, now I'm coming from Riot, there will be some things I'll take with me. One is just the exposure to some of the latest processes, in terms of the ways we manage our products. But the big thing that I will take away from Riot is just the culture. They have such a positive culture where everybody works together so well. It's not that we don't have that at Volition, but I do wonder that maybe we take it for granted a bit more."
Yet more immediately, Boone's task will be to try and lift the studio following its recent disappointment, and work out Volition goes from here.
"At least in the immediate term, as you might imagine, there is going to be a lot of analysis," Boone acknowledges. "We will be taking a look at Agents of Mayhem and working out the kind of things went well, and what we need to improve on. I don't think it's a secret to say that it didn't meet what our expectations were. So our initial steps will be a lot of self-reflection of the types of things we want to improve upon. Because we are certainly capable of doing great products that people love, so it's not a question of talent or whether we have it in us to do great things... we've been doing that for a long time.
"Whenever we finish a game, we always conduct our big post-mortems about all the things that went really well, and what we can improve on. With AOM it is absolutely no different, but it might be a little bit more intense."
The game's critical performance was disappointing, although not entirely damning - there were some more positive scores out there. The biggest worry, however, must come in its commercial performance. That will be disappointing to a Volition team, which has always punched above its weight in this department - after all, this is a company that can release an open-world action game just a few weeks before GTA V and still sell millions of units.
Working out why it failed to reach a large audience is a complicated one. Agents of Mayhem was both a new IP but also clearly (and deliberately) connected to Saints Row. Did we just witness the age-old tribulations of launching a new IP in a hostile marketplace? Or are we seeing some fatigue around Saints Row?
"It's such a good question, and candidly it is one of the very questions we are going to have to be talking a lot about," Boone says. "I don't want to say too much, because I don't have a lot of insight, perspective or analysis. I can only share my perspective from the outside looking in.
"I can see how consumers might have looked at it and gone: 'Oh, it's a new Saints Row game. Oh no, it isn't. Is it? I'm not quite sure'."
"The fact that it is a new IP, in this day and age, means it can be hard to get the right kind of attention. At the same time we had just enough of that Saints Row trimming around it, that I can see how consumers might have looked at it and gone: 'Oh, it's a new Saints Row game. Oh no, it isn't. Is it? I'm not quite sure.' I don't know if that contributed to it or not, but it is interesting to think about why it didn't strike the right chord. I sometimes wonder if the material just didn't capture people's fancy in the right way... was the tone just not right? It is a really weak answer, but I have the same question that you do, and I am anxious to dig into it with the team, who have spent a lot more time than I have so far on it.
"I suspect, given how it did ultimately, that it was a combination of several things."
Back in 2013, during one of the many PR interviews he gave around Saints Row (to Official Xbox Magazine), Boone warned about the struggles of AAA game development. He cautioned that $100m budgets and $60 games will inevitably lead to more studio and publisher closures.
Volition has never been that type of company. It is an economical studio that creates AAA games on a more realistic budget. Yet it's not some small indie studio that's capable of carving great success from relative low sales, either. Boone's ultimate objective - just like we're seeing from numerous other developers of a similar size - is to work out where it fits in this modern games industry.
"I suspect that there is no one way to go about it, or one specific solution," Boone concludes. "The bit that goes through my mind, more than anything else and is one of the things that excites me about coming back to Volition, is that in a lot of weird ways, we have spent quite a while going up against people that out-spend us by an inordinate amount of money. It's staggering when you look at the size of the teams and the different games that we go up against. But we still manage to be quite successful in spite of all that.
"We try to do things that are difficult to emulate from other games, or perhaps - for some reason - other studios just don't want to do. For example, if you think of Red Faction and the geo-mod engine we had in the first game [which enabled users to destroy and reshape environments], that was unprecedented technology and even right up to Red Faction: Guerrilla, you still didn't see any other developers doing that. Then we started to see other games doing it, like the Battlefield series and Just Cause... it started to trickle in. But my point is that this was something that was fairly unique. From a gamer standpoint, they were able to look at that and find it interesting enough to go out and get the game.
"When it comes to the Saints Row series, that's a game that's fun, that's silly, irreverent - you know Saints Row - it's not the sort of experience that you can get anywhere else. It gave us the ability to be competitive and put out a product that people really responded to, even if we weren't quite the equal of some of our competitors in terms of budget.
"That is the recipe to what we have got to keep doing. In what ways can we be smart about the bets that we take, and are there things that we can do that gamers want, but just aren't getting from the other games that are out there? I think we have done a pretty good job of that in the past, and I see no reason why we should veer away from that at this point."