Joystiq Interview: Skate's EA Blackbox, new screenshots

When it comes to games not called Halo 3, EA's Tony Hawk killer, Skate, is most definitely near the top of our "most anticipated" lists. In our last preview, we dumped an unbridled amount of praise upon it and for a very good reason: it embodies the feeling of skateboarding more than any game to date. For those of us who've spent our lives skating, getting our hands on this title was practically a spiritual experience.

And so, we sought more information from the good folks at Canada's EA Blackbox and have returned with an in-depth interview with its creators. From online multiplayer to recorded films and why we won't be seeing female avatars, there's something for everyone in this Skate love-in.


Let's start from the bottom. Tell us what Skate is without using the words "intuitive" "unique" and "awesome."

Chris Parry, Assistant Producer - It's a little skateboard game we've been working on for while now that is instinctive, distinctive, and totally rad. How's that for a smart-ass way to alienate your readers? Just kidding. I guess the best way to answer that is Skate is a gaming experience that captures the visceral sensation of skateboarding. The innovative controls combined with an amazing new physics engine allow the player to feel like they are on a skateboard. The flickit control scheme is the best simulation to date of what it feels like to crack an ollie or flick a kickflip. The physics sell the feeling of rolling at the speed you desire, be it a controlled roll to throw tricks down on a bench to the "holy-crap-I'm-gonna-get'worked" feeling of gaining momentum as you tackle one of San Vanelona's many steep and gnarly hills. The physics and controls really allow us to deliver the exhilarating sense of accomplishment skaters feel when sticking that crazy trick or surviving that dookie-in-pants inducing hill bomb.

The combination of physics and controls (with a healthy dose of "living world" wild-card action) means that no two moments are ever the same. It isn't a rote memorization of inputs type of game. You will pull things that are truly unique ... er ... "original." And the best thing about those moments is that you can capture, edit , and then share them using our video edit system. You can re-live the moment and back up the smack talk with your very own video parts ... just like real skateboarding.

Where did the idea behind the dual-analog controls come from? Was there ever a button-based design in play?

Jay Balmer, Associate Producer - The controls design has been developing for the past few years and right from the beginning we were focused on using the two sticks to capture the feeling of skating. They were a key element of the vision that started the project and convinced us that we had something worth going after. The flickit controls were also one of the first things we started working on to capture all the info that's available through the sticks.

How will character creation be handled? Will it use the EA GameFace that we've seen in other EA titles? Will female characters be an option?

Jason DeLong, Producer - Obviously, we're inspired by the great create-a-character systems seen in games like Tiger Woods & Fight Night, but we've tailored our system to be more relevant to skateboarding. Needless to say, the user will have lots of freedom to create their ideal skater ... as long as their ideal skater is male. Sorry ladies, we're going to hold off on female create-a-character for now. There's plenty of gameplay there to keep everyone busy though.

How about licensed clothes? If so, what brands are we talking about?

Chris Parry - We've partnered with over 40 endemic skateboarding brands, from boards to clothes to shoes, and each will have clothing available in the game. I don't want to delve into too many specifics in fear of leaving someone out, but take a look at our huge list of skaters and be rest assured that all their board and shoe sponsors are rocking in the game as well as plenty of clothing and accessory brands .... But, we didn't limit ourselves to the obvious; we've got a few surprises as in store as well. Hint: we've partnered with Thrasher and The Skateboard Mag and we have a sick line-up of licensed music. We're pretty sure skaters that like to throw the horns will be stoked on how they can customize their kit.

So after you've made a character, you're going to want to trick out a board. How in-depth is the customization here? Is it just graphics and boards or can we fiddle with trucks and change the way it feels?

Jay Balmer - At anytime you can tune your board to how you like it by adjusting the tightness of your trucks and the hardness of your wheels. Loose trucks will give you quick turns, but they do get speed wobbles more easily. Tighter trucks will give you fewer speed wobbles, but they just don't turn as quickly as loose trucks. Tight trucks are good for the Mega-Ramp. Hard wheels are great for long power slides and soft wheels are good for sticking in corners, but they catch more easily when landing sideways. Of course, you can pick your deck, trucks and wheels. Then hit the skate shops to purchase new stuff or pick up packages from your sponsors once your hooked up.

Once we're out skating, how does the points system work and does it tell the difference between slick style and some jerk manualing from point to point and going nuts?

Jay Balmer - The scoring system evolved out of the skating; how different people skate and encouraging the skating that feels and looks good. It starts with the obvious points for tricks. Then the points for measurements come in, so a kickflip down a big stair set is worth more than a kickflip on flat ground, and holding a tweaked grab is better than doing lots of grabs. Like a good skate video, it's about putting together stylish lines with big tricks. Landing something good gets you time to set-up your next trick and keep your line going. The better the trick the more time you get, plus a bonus on your next trick if you do it before the time runs out.

We haven't gotten a chance to see too much of the city at this point, but how big are we talking about? Is that security dude in the last trailer really going to beat us up if we go where we shouldn't?

Chris Parry - The city of San Vanelona is absolutely huge. We're timing the fastest line from the top of the suburbs to the heart of downtown and it takes around 10 minutes. And we're talking about someone that knows where they're going at full tilt boogie - no slams, no stopping to hit up spots. The city is so big that those of us playing the game full time are still rolling around behind buildings to discover new spots, pools, and gaps. Its nuts how big the world is. The hugeness will really come into play when players start posting their videos and photos online. Skaters will be finding new spots, then showing off their finds with sick footage of what they do there.

As for security, yes, they'll give you a smackdown if you skate on property where they're patrolling. That's part of the fun. Sneak in, scout their patrol routes, take care of business by throwing down something good, then bounce. The art of hit and run skate attacks will definitely be part of SKATE.

Now that the Halo 3 Public Beta is finished, the kids have gotten a chance to fiddle with creating their own saved films and uploading them from friends. This is a big feature in Skate as well, so how will EA be going about the creating, saving and uploading of video content?

Jay Balmer - We've seen and heard a lot of talk about films and videos from many games, Halo 3 included. So far they have all been replay systems that use saved game data. These replays can be saved, shared, watched at any speed, from multiple angles and effects can be added. We are doing that. However, these can only be shared with other people who have the same console and the same game. We are taking those edited replays and actually rendering videos on the console and then uploading the videos to a website so that anybody can see them from anywhere. The videos can be watched directly on the site, voted on and downloaded for further editing, to post on other sites or just to save on your computer. It's something that just hasn't been done before.

Could you tell us a bit about multiplayer? Will players be able to make saved films out of multiplayer sessions?

Jason DeLong - We'll be supporting up to 4-player multiplayer locally on the same console and up to 6 players simultaneously online. Players will be able to view, save and create footage that they've captured in multiplayer sessions.

Is there split-screen?

Jay Balmer - Nope. We found it was more fun to watch each other play than to be playing split screen and constantly asking each other "did you see that?" Our focus became making party games where you take turns and get to watch each other. Its just more fun, especially the wipeouts.

Activision has recently announced their ninth annual Tony Hawk game, Proving Ground. Would you like to comment on the irony of the situation or the feature set of this years game?

Jay Balmer - It could be very ironic. Both games are about skating so there is always going to be huge similarities and there is always going to be head to head comparisons, but we're focused on getting it right and that focus is really paying off. You just have to feel it, and we'll prove it to you.

We know that the Skate team has said in the past that reality is their biggest competition, but really, it's the Hawk. That said, let's name a positive influence from the series and a negative that needed to be thrown out the window for a game like Skate.

Jay Balmer - That statement is super true. Reality is our biggest competition and our measuring stick. Especially now, when most people can only check out the game through pictures and videos and not by playing it. But to answer the question, the series showed that people like a good skating game and that it was time to throw out combos with massive multipliers to encourage quality over quantity.

Skate features a lot of great, real world skaters. Did you ever approach any and have them go, "No way, man! I gotta star in Tony Hawk 9!"

Chris Parry - No. Not one. And that really speaks to the strength of the project we're working on. We lined up a few heavy hitters early on by putting some pretty raw demo builds of the game in their hands. They bought in as soon as they picked up a controller. Once the word got out about our vision for the franchise, our commitment to celebrating and respecting skateboarding, and the innovative gameplay and controls ... things got pretty easy. And the great thing is, we've been getting calls ever since from lots of pros about getting in the game, some that have even been in other games. There are a lot of deserving skateboarders out there and we're more than happy that more skaters are getting their due respect in the video game world.

Speaking of licenses, EA Trax, baby! Any bands in particular that will be contributing to the soundtrack?

Chris Parry - We're doing a lot to innovate in the music department and EA's amazing music heads have been 100% behind what we're doing. They get the integral role music plays in the culture of skateboarding and have done everything they can to support our efforts. The innovation starts with where and when you hear music. We're dropping some original scored pieces into the world in places where you'd expect to hear music and also in some out of the way places that we may want to lead the player to explore.

Of course we'll also have your music player option, but we've decided to take a bit more cinematic approach to licensed music in game. Our licensed tracks were chosen with input from the pros, quite similar to how they would choose songs for their real life video parts. It's not the normal action, extreme to max mix you might expect. As for some bands we've got stuff ranging from Eric B & Rakim to Bowie to Bad Brains and back. Finally, as alluded to in the brands question above, we'll have some goodness for the hesh skaters as well. [Update - The full soundtrack was revealed shortly after this interview.]

Finally, if Skate is a smashing success, what are the odds that this will turn into the annual money maker. What I mean is, do you think you'll be making Skate for the rest of your natural life?

Chris Parry - Annual money maker? That's up to the marketing and biz wizards to figure out. A franchise that stokes gamers for years to come? Hell yeah, that would be the goal! We really believe we're onto something special with the controls and engine we've created, and everyone that touches it seems to agree. We just want to make sure we can take it as far as we can to realize all of the crazy things we've dreamed about but haven't been able to throw into Skate. Having said that, we're cognizant that we don't want to get ahead of ourselves. Let's get people good at really skateboarding and enjoying the feeling, the rush, the sense of accomplishment, and then we can dream more about what's in store for Skate.