Saints Row developer Volition recently did an unusual, brave thing: It showed off the buggy bones of a cancelled PSP game called Saints Row Undercover. Then it made the prototype available for anyone to download and play on a PSP emulator.
Saints Row Undercover started life as a PSP port of Saints Row 2. It gradually became its own game with its own story involving an undercover cop tasked with investigating civil war between the Saints. Twenty story-based missions were planned out and a playable prototype was developed, but Volition wasn't happy with how the game was turning out.
Saints Row Undercover was scrapped, and the PSP dev kit the project was parked on was locked in a closet to die. But secrets surface, and Volition's associate video editor, Josh Stinson, dug up the dev kit while pawing around the office.
There was some serious discussion about what ought to be done with the Saints Row: Undercover prototype. Volition's "Inside Volition: Saints Row Undercover" goes into detail about the ensuing arguments for and against letting the public see a buggy, unpolished work-in-progress.
Developers understandably want potential consumers to see polished concept art and perfectly-sculpted environments and character models. But as Volition's community manager Mike Watson correctly points out in the Inside Volition video, buggy prototypes and rough sketches are the "meat and potatoes" of game development.
"If framed in the right way, that stuff is really interesting," he says.
It's easy for fans of any creative work to clamor for access to the rough stuff that gradually leads up to the finished, sellable product. And some creators aren't shy about laying out their earliest ideas. But generally, going public with unrefined ideas -- even if those ideas eventually led up to an end-product that's celebrated -- can be stressful and embarrassing. It's a bit like standing naked in a town square. Regardless of how liked you are, you're going to get some weird looks if you bare everything you have to offer.
Volition was uneasy about showing off the prototype for Saints Row Undercover because what's there is as basic as a game gets, and the early concept wasn't blossoming as well as originally hoped. Regardless, the studio acknowledges that Saints Rows fans probably want every speck of series information available to them, so they steeled themselves and did a stream of the prototype on January 28. Then they went further and made the demo public the next day.
That takes a certain measure of guts, and Volition deserves applause for valuing its community -- and video game preservation as a whole.
If only other game companies adopted a similar attitude towards its own prototypes. Star Fox 2 for the SNES deserves to be more than a ROM stitched back together by dedicated fans.