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How a Canceled 'Saints Row' Game Found Its Way to the Internet

Making what was once unknown playable to the masses.
Image: Unseen64

There's a certain mystique that surrounds games that are cancelled. People inevitably want to know what could have been, what they were missing, and why these seemingly good products never made it to market. Every so often, an early-in-development version of one of these games will leak out onto the internet, usually from someone who worked at a developer, publisher, or media outlet decades ago who no longer worries about any sort of legal issues coming back to bite them in the ass.

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Some of the cancelled games we've been able to get our hands on in this fashion include a Steven Segal game, a weird NES action/brawler starring a wrestling superape, and an action game about the California Raisins. Getting the opportunity to actually play these games, often in an unfinished state, provides a very rare opportunity to glimpse into the behind-the-scenes process of game development: oftentimes you can get a feel for why someone might have opted to pull the plug.

It's unprecedented, however, for a still-active developer to openly release a ROM or ISO of a cancelled game onto the internet itself—especially one from a big-name franchise. But that's exactly what developer Volition did late last month when it put the cancelled PlayStation Portable game Saints Row: Undercover out for anyone with an internet connection to download and enjoy.

In case you're not familiar with it, the Saints Row series plays very much like Grand Theft Auto, meaning you're running around an open city, stealing cars and shooting bad guys. But if Grand Theft Auto always had a good sense of humor, Saints Row is straight up slapstick, with vehicles that spray poop out of a hose and a dubstep gun that makes enemies dance before they die.

Saints Row: Undercover dates back to 2009. It was developed during the window between Saints Row 2 and 3. Originally conceived as a port of Saints Row 2 for the PSP, technical limitations eventually transformed the game into its own beast with an original storyline that connects Saints Row 2 and Saints Row 3. There's a lengthy, 122-page design document and a text walkthrough available to read for those who want to get all the details of the proposed story and features of the final game.

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Image: Unseen64

"Saints Row Undercover was still in an early prototype state when it was cancelled," says Volition community manager Mike Watson. "There were a handful of basic playable missions with temp subtitled dialogue, and a basic open world that was based on the map from Saints Row 2. The game physics were also very rough, with any kind of collision resulting in NPC [non-player character] animations breaking and vehicles losing control."

The game's design docs were created within Volition, but given out to a contracted developer as guidance.

"When a third party studio works on a Saints Row title like this, we'll generally have someone from our production group oversee the project while the rest of the studio works on our own titles," Watson continued. "The Producer from Volition involved in this project saved the Game Design Document and walkthrough on our network, which we discovered when searching through our archived project data."

The release of the unfinished game was done in cooperation with Unseen64, a site that documents both cancelled games and changes from early to final versions of released games. At the end of a YouTube stream showcasing the game, Volition surprised everyone by pointing them to a page on Unseen64 with several download links and instructions for how to use a PSP emulator.

"Volition contacted us some time before they revealed the game, to ask if we could help them have an archive page with all the info about it," Monokoma, the Italian webmaster of Unseen64, told me. "That way [game info] would not have been lost or scattered around the internet. Initially it was just the design doc, the walkthrough and some screens… I guess people at Volition knew about us already, as we published a few articles about other lost Saints Row games in the past and they trusted us enough to get in contact and organize it all."

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The code for the game was discovered on an old PSP "devkit"—a set of tools, usually purchased at great expense from a console manufacturer, that enable development and testing of games for particular platforms.

"This devkit looks like a PC, but has the same internal hardware as a retail PSP, and includes extra features like VGA and RCA outputs for capture, and a DVD-ROM drive so you can burn DVDs of your latest builds to play and test," Watson explains. "The attached PSP looks like a regular retail unit, but with a big cable coming out the back that hooks into the devkit. This attached PSP doesn't contain actual PSP hardware inside it, but is rather just a screen controller and speakers, to which the devkit itself sends audio video and network data. There are also special dipswitches on the devkit that a developer can utilize in their game to enable and disable debug features and external input devices like a keyboard."

It was less the devkit than the devkit's contents that proved interesting, however. "A DVD-R labeled in permanent marker simply as 'SR PSP 9-8-2009' was found in the optical drive of the devkit, and we simply created an image of the disc [an ISO] which we then released to unseen64.net to preserve," says Watson.

Image: Unseen64.

One question on my mind was the legality of it all—Volition and publisher Deep Silver are still working with Sony, producers of the PSP hardware. Was there any potential blowback for releasing an unfinished ISO and telling fans to emulate it? "As far as I know, they asked all the legal questions before releasing it," Monokoma continues. "There were worries for sure, but since the game was theirs, Sony would have not interfered in any way."

"All the recognition goes to Volition," Monokoma said. "We just acted as an intermediary to have a reliable place in which to host the info and files."

In an environment laden with NDAs and secrecy, the openness with which Volition is showcasing Saints Row: Undercover is truly exciting to gaming historians. "After this awesome move from Volition, I really hope that more and more developers could follow their example and make it easier to preserve lost games," Monokoma said.