Sacred Ground: Bringing Back Tony Hawk Pro Skater
Activision didn't believe it made financial sense, but Tony Hawk and Robomodo are determined to deliver a fan favourite
Activision was reluctant to remake Tony Hawk Pro Skater for a new generation of players, concerned that sales would not justify the cost of development for a high-definition version of the classic game.
For Tony Hawk and developer Robomodo it was not only about delivering an iconic console game to a new audience, but also rebooting the brand following a fall from grace that eventually saw the much-loved series rushed out on yearly basis and saddled with plastic tat.
"To be honest, Josh (Tsui, president of Robomodo) and I pushed Activision to do it repeatedly until we laid it out that this can happen, in this timeframe, for this cost. It was a long battle," Hawk tells GamesIndustry International.
I pushed Activision to do it repeatedly until we laid it out that this can happen, in this timeframe, for this cost. It was a long battle.
Tony Hawk, pro skater
Activision was "mostly reluctant about development costs versus returns, it's understandable for a company that's re-releasing a game that has already been out," according to Hawk. "We knew that once people saw it in this light it would get the attention it needed."
But developer Robomodo was convinced it could keep costs down and deliver the game within a twelve month timeframe, by frugal use of older assets, original design from the series' creator Neversoft and by not messing with an original gameplay formula that struck gold 12 years ago and helped establish an extreme sports video game rush.
"There's a certain economy of scale when you combine what Neversoft has already done and as helped us out on, and our previous involvement with the franchise," reveals Tsui. "So that helped out a lot in terms of production times as well, we were able to be really efficient because of our history and assets.
"Going back to a mantra of 'don't screw up the gameplay' gave us a pretty big jump ahead as well."
Tony Hawk's Pro Skater HD will be released this summer, and combines the first two games in the franchise for release on digital console formats. It's essentially a love letter to the fan community, harking back to a time before iterations in the series reached double digits and became overcomplicated through design.
Pro Skater HD uses the old level geometry of the original games but is built using the Unreal Engine, meaning Robomodo had to balance new technology with the tactile feedback of the first two games.
"With the engine it wasn't a one-to-one translation, there were something's we had to translate from scratch and tweak because of the shift in engine. At the studio we constantly have the old game and the new game next to each other, with the designers going back and forth to make sure," says Tsui.
"Sometimes the math from one engine doesn't translate to the other, so we didn't want to trust the machine. We make sure we trust people's muscle memory, so getting people who were great at Pro Skater back in the day gives us feedback on whether something feels right or not, even though the math might say differently. That's been one of the biggest challenges of development, playing to people's memories."
There's a balance for the developers who have to design for memories that aren't necessarily true, says Tsui, with rose-tinted views of the older game influencing tweaks to the latest update, as well as sticking as close as possible to Neversoft's original design for Pro Skater.
"Everything in terms of placement, general curvature, the pacing of the game, is exactly the same. One of the things we wanted to make sure we adhered to was people's muscle memory of how they played game. We didn't want to go in and break this, this is sacred ground that Neversoft developed so that was our mantra: stick to the layout, exactly the same, but improve upon things that don't affect the gameplay."
"One of the biggest challenges is people haven't played this for a long time on PSone and people remember doing things that didn't actually happen. But if a player mentions something and we can put it in the game without changing the gameplay then let's do it. Little things like the character animation shifting body weight that wasn't possible 12 years ago; we added that realism that people thought was always in the game. If you're spinning in the air, the original was just like character rotation on a turntable. Now the skater rotates his upper body and then the rest of his body follows - it's these subtle nuances that make it."
While the pressure is on to please the fans, Tsui says his team is more relaxed about retail reception now that it doesn't have to worry about sales performance on the High Street.
In a lot of ways it's liberating. There's a lot of pressure when it comes to retail products, there's a certain scale that has to be met. With XBLA there's a scope that allows us to be more creative and worry less about a gigantic game
Josh Tsui, Robomodo
"In a lot of ways it's liberating," he says of digital distribution. "There's a lot of pressure when it comes to retail products, there's a certain scale that has to be met. With XBLA there's a scope that allows us to be more creative and worry less about a gigantic game, so it's a quality versus quantity issue."
The team also believe there's an opportunity with digital downloads to reach a new audience that doesn't have fond memories of the original games when they were at their peak on the first PlayStation, PS2 and Xbox.
"That's one of the nice things about downloadable games: it becomes more accessible for people who want to try it out and becomes closer to an impulse buy," offers Tsui. "Although it's considered an old-school game, players really like the controls and understand how to play the game right off the bat. Back in the day when they used to colourise new movies to get them to a new audience - it's nothing like that," he jokes.
"Skateboarding has come around in popularity and dads are skating with their kids, and the kids can't believe their dad knows how to skate or used to skate," adds Hawk. "That works with games as well. There are kids playing with their parents and they'll hopefully pick up Pro Skater. And for a few hours dad will destroy the kid, but give it a few days..."
A lot of publishers are jumping on the HD bandwagon, including Konami (Metal Gear Solid), Capcom (Devil May Cry), Ubisoft (Beyond Good and Evil) and Sony (Ico), but Robomodo is insisting it's doing more than tarting up the graphics of the game.
"It's not easy," states Tsui. "There are a lot of games out there that are HD-ing it up, but all they're doing is enhancing the graphics. We didn't want to do that, it's an important game so we need to finely craft on top of it."
"It's a pretty big job, a lot of people don't realise. Think of it as the frame of a house. You've got the framework but you've got to put up the drywall, you've got to decorate it, you don't want some game that looks like it's 12 years old, you want something that looks modern. To begin with it gets us about 20 per cent there but because we're using a different engine there's a lot of work that we have to do on top of that."