Pulling together a collection of developers from EA Chicago with extensive experience on a number of fighting titles, Robomodo formed from a position of strength by signing with Activision for its first title. And it wasn't a simple first title either, with Activision trusting the team enough to reboot the Tony Hawk franchise.
Now the studio has finally come clean with the project, director Josh Tsui spoke to GamesIndustry.biz about working on the extreme sports franchise, developing software alongside specialist peripherals, and why the prototype board is the "Darth Vader of skateboards."
Q: You were part of Electronic Arts at the Chicago studio, part of a big corporation and big development community, but how is it being independent again, to be free again?
Josh Tsui: I wouldn't say we were free and I actually enjoyed working at EA a lot and EA Chicago in particular. It actually felt like an independent studio back when it was still around. But at the same time, with Robomodo, it does feel nice to be an independent studio and be masters of our own destiny. If things go great we take all the credit, if things don't go great its because of ourselves. That's the motivation to have, you know the reason why something didn't work out, the reasons why things do or don't work.
Q: Do you feel secure enough because it's proving to be tough times for a lot of development studios, independent or otherwise?
Josh Tsui: That's one of the reasons why I feel better about being independent. In terms of security in many ways I control how secure my job is and if I do a great job I know I'm going to be secure. If I don't do a great job then I'm not going to be. There's a lot of people I know who work for all the big companies and I would not say they feel any more of less secure than I do. It has nothing to do with the size of the company at all, it has everything to do with how talented you are and what products you're working on.
Q: The last time we spoke, you couldn't talk about what you were working on – but now you're working on one of Activision's biggest franchises. Was that a daunting prospect taking control of such a prominent franchise?
Josh Tsui: It was probably one of those ignorance is bliss things. We know it's a big deal, and when they brought it to us – and coming off some of the work we had done before – we knew we could take it on. We've never done an extreme sports game before but we knew the talent of our team. When they first brought it to us we didn't blink twice, we said we're going to take it and work on this board and software at the same time. With that said, as we're working on it, we realised, wow, not only is this a big franchise, but it's got Tony Hawk's name on it. And the more Tony got involved with us, the more we started to feel that we have to live up to his expectations.
Q: Obviously you're working with Tony Hawk, but was there a renewed emphasis on that collaboration as it's a reinvention of the series and it's going to be released with a brand new peripheral?
Josh Tsui: We've been working very closely with Tony. It's ironic because we're in Chicago and he's in California and you would think there would be less chances to meet up but he's told us that he's been working on this game more than he has on any other Tony Hawk game since the first. The thing is, Tony is a total tech geek, a lot of people don't realise that about him, so he loves the board. When we first started showing him the prototypes of the board we gained his trust. Ever since then he's been working with us, making sure we're authentic with skate culture. And he's also respectful of our background and knowing when to let us have a say in things for videogame and tech purposes.
Q: What's was the early feedback like at E3 this year, as it's the first time you've shown it off publicly?
Josh Tsui: The early feedback has been fantastic. We've done a lot of user testing back at our studio in Chicago so some of the stuff we've been seeing hasn't been too surprising, it's consistent with what we've been seeing. One thing that surprises us was how fast people have picked up on the game. When people see the board a lot of people are a little apprehensive at first. For the first round they do okay on it. And we thought to ourselves that it will take three or four tries for people to get really warmed up. But we've been seeing after about the second try people get their legs and they've been able to shred it out pretty impressively.
Q: Is there a barrier you need to break down with consumers? I look at the peripheral and I understand what it is and I need to step on it, but I also feel a little intimidated because I've never controlled a game like that before, and there are buttons and sensors on the side too. Where do I start with that?
Josh Tsui: The thing is that the board is very low to the ground so we've never had anybody fall of the thing. If you feel like you're going to lose your balance you need only take half a step and you're standing.
The other thing is the board we've shown so far is like the Darth Vader of skateboards, it's not the finished peripheral. We're going with a white board which is more consumer friendly. It's much more iPod-like for want of a better term. With the white one people inadvertently step on it, but they don't do that with the black one. That's part of the industrial design of the board, to make sure people know it's a skateboard, but it also looks friendly. We want people to see it as a cool gadget as opposed to “what is that black monolith on the floor”.
Q: It must have taken a rethinking of how you design a game too, right? Because you're not only designing software, but you're designing a peripheral alongside it...
Josh Tsui: One of the best decisions we did very early on was to understand that the board and the software have to be developed at the same time, you can't do one with out the other. We've seen a lot of after market products come out, that they say will work on any Tony Hawk game or snowboarding game or whatever, and they always end up being really, really bad. So we determined that right away, and basically made sure they are developed together and every part of the game design had to hit the pillar of a person standing on a boar to begin with. We had to think that way.
So instead of a big open world structure to the game, we have discrete levels, it's almost like skate parks. You're not on a street looking for gameplay, there's gameplay right there for you. Traditionally Tony Hawk games had rapid fire button-mashing, one thing after another. But for our game it's very much like real skating so once you've done a trick on a bench you'll need to rest up before hitting the next one. So all of our layout for the levels are designed very deliberately for that type of board play.
It also comes down to how can we innovate, how can we change it up? People have seen the game for so many years, and we can still hit the core gameplay, but is there something else that will enhance it? That's the type of strategy we brought to Tony Hawk: Ride.
Q: Do you think the price of the finished game – complete with peripheral – might be a barrier to users hoping to buy the game?
Josh Tsui: No, I don't. For one thing, it's a very enhanced piece of machinery. This is the most advanced peripheral on the market. It really is going to usher a next generation of controllers for games. The other thing is that this is an advanced piece of software and hardware put together – this is a full package – and when people see how tightly integrated it is, what a great experience it is, people will pay the right price for it.
And the other plan is that in terms of return on investment, obviously our concentration is on Tony Hawk's: Ride, but there are big plans for many different types of games for it. Most definitely. There are the obvious ones like snowboarding and surfing, but even ourselves internally, we have a list of games that we know we would like to put on there that aren't the obvious games that people are thinking about. There's a lot of surprises in store. We look at it less of a peripheral and more of a platform itself. If you have a guitar, you can only play guitar. Starting of with skateboarding that's very rich and deep but it inadvertently became flexible so it can be used for lots of different types of entertainment.
Josh Tsui is director Robomodo. Interview by Matt Martin.