Volition has consistently created expansive, popular console and PC video games over the last two decades, but you won’t find this 200-person studio in a big city like San Francisco, Seattle, or Los Angeles—not even Chicago. No, you’ll find them down in Champaign, Illinois, where they’ve called home since 1996.
It’s rare to see a sizable game developer so far away from the usual game development hubs, or even outside of a large urban environment, but that difference is key to what Volition says makes them unique as both an employer and creator. As as their new game Agents of Mayhem proves, nobody else is creating raucous interactive experiences quite like Volition.
Agents of Mayhem, released Tuesday for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Windows PCs, presents a vast and colorful version of Seoul, South Korea—which you’ll both explore and promptly trash while trying to take down an evil syndicate. You’ll command an array of heavily-armed members of M.A.Y.H.E.M. (Multinational AgencY Hunting Evil Masterminds), who must stop L.E.G.I.O.N. (League of Evil Gentlemen Intent on Obliterating Nations) from… well, obliterating nations.
Despite the cartoonish terrain, Agents of Mayhem is absolutely violent: you’ll use all manner of firearms, explosives, and melee attacks to pummel baddies across the city as you hone special abilities, cruise around in vehicles, and scale buildings high into the sky. And you can swap between three different agents at any time, each with his or her own personality and loadout, much like you might alternate between weapons in another action game.
The game is both something familiar and something new for Volition, in terms of how it plays and also which fictional universe it exists within. Volition is best known for its Saints Row franchise—sort of a warped take on Grand Theft Auto‘s open-city action approach with a strange blend of dark and goofy humor, not to mention really out-there characters and plenty of vulgarity. Agents of Mayhem keeps a lot of that intact, and also maintains some narrative ties to Saints Row for die-hard fans.
However, publisher Deep Silver’s marketing pegs it more as a brand new experience, and for Volition, it was very freeing to approach the game that way. Developers say that they were looking for a chance to build upon their strengths while doing something that felt fresh.
“When Saints Row IV finished, we kind of felt like there was a good stopping point and a good opportunity to reassess where we were at,” says Anoop Shekar, the studio’s design director. Adds Volition general manager Dan Cermak with a laugh: “We did kind of back ourselves into a corner a bit with Saints Row IV. Once you’ve been ruler of the known galaxy, it gets a little harder to go to the next step.”
Agents of Mayhem was pitched with a campy, cartoonish vibe reminiscent of ’80s TV favorites like G.I. Joe and The A-Team, and “everyone got really excited about it,” says Shekar. One of the things they really wanted to do was focus more on character development than in past games, and offer players more meaningful choice thanks to the wider roster of playable heroes.
Of course, Volition’s edge is still intact. The Saints Row games were notably (and weirdly) hilarious, and Agents of Mayhem is loaded with quips and hilarious attacks that are sure to get a rise out of players. Cermak admits that humor in games is difficult, which is why he thinks it’s lacking in so many other titles. It has to be done right, and in Volition’s case, it has to have a certain tone. “It’s important that it’s not nihilistic, and it’s not there just to make fun of people,” says Shekar. “It’s all in good-natured fun, but it’s still funny.”
Games from Champaign
Between the sense of humor, over-the-top characters, and focus on urban, open-world experiences, Volition has gradually honed its self-described “special sauce” since opening in 1996—and it has done so from downtown Champaign. It’s an uncommon place to house a game studio, let alone one that employs about 200 people, but it plays into a different kind of mentality within the studio and its myriad creators.
Being the only significant game developer anywhere nearby has its perks: for example, Cermak says that Champaign’s mayor has deemed this week “Agents of Mayhem week” in town. “The whole town is really kind of turning out to support us. It’s really spectacular. It’s kind of special,” he says. “We feel that way, because people recognize us, they know us when we’re walking down the street. It’s not like there’s five game companies in a 10-mile radius.”
They admit that recruiting talent can be difficult, especially when it comes to getting people down to Champaign for a visit. But unlike some of the game development hubs of America, it’s possible to make a good living in Champaign.
“It’s pretty easy to tell a candidate who comes in here that you can raise your child here. You’ve got a 5-10 minute, maybe even a 15-minute commute, your child can go to a really good school, and you can buy a house here. That’s not something that most people in our industry can say,” explains Cermak, who says even lower-paid testers can fit that description. “We have testers who work for us here who own a home. That’s the kind of thing that we can talk about.”
He adds that about 80 of their employees have been at Volition for at least 10 years, so there’s real staying power, not to mention a strong sense of community within the staff. And that extends to the flexible work environment, as well, which lets employees take off for family obligations without pressure so long as the work gets done.
Champaign has been accommodating, as well, approving incentives to help the studio upgrade its facility and stay in the city and in the downtown area.
Volition’s original founder is from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, as are many longtime employees, but Cermak says that they haven’t been too plugged into the school’s ecosystem in recent years. However, he believes that UIUC is starting to show more interest in game development: a new Design Center is being built, and Volition employees will be giving talks in the coming quarter about how games are made and also how to get into the business.
As for Volition, Agents of Mayhem marks the release of something at least semi-new after a decade of focusing on Saints Row and now-dormant Red Faction franchise. It also marks the debut of their powerful new proprietary game engine, which is built from the ground up for vast, open-world games, and provides much better tools for creators.
With past games, Cermak says they had a game template that they “would change and then change and then change,” and so on and so forth, but were limited by the clunky tools and restrictions of the increasingly dated design. The new engine was not only built to empower Agents of Mayhem, but also Volition’s future. Now that they’ve had a taste of its power, they believe that they can build something even greater the next time around.
“Now we’re gonna push it,” Cermak asserts. “And we’re gonna make it make really amazing things. I think that Agents of Mayhem turned out really, really good, but I think we can do so much more with this engine. I think it’s going to be spectacular going forward.”