The birth, death, and rebirth of extreme sports games

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BizarroZoraK

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Edited By BizarroZoraK

Bicycles, skateboards, and videogames were staples of my childhood, though the videogames took precedence over the others. Admittedly, I learned to ride my bike much later than my friends, thus I lagged behind them in terms of tricks. The other kids could pull higher bunnyhops and longer wheelies than I ever could. Fortunately, games like Dave Mirra Freestyle BMX gave me the satisfaction of doing crazy backflips and tailwhips at the press of a button. The same goes for skateboarding: my real life abilities amounted to nothing more than a measly pop shove-it, but in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater I was doing handstand primo slides and pulling out pizza boxes while getting tons of air in a half pipe. For me, extreme sports games were an amazing form of wish-fulfillment. They let me simulate flashy, creative stunts that I would never have the athleticism nor the courage to pull off in real life. I’ve lost interest in extreme sports themselves as I grow older, but I still have a great appreciation for the design of extreme sports games and the elements that make them so fun.

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What makes these games fascinating to me is that they are based around sports, specifically those of the freestyle variety, that don’t have rules. Skateboarding and BMX and the like are all about style, danger, and, as pretentious as it may sound, self-expression; none of these things are held together by a strict set of rules (at least not outside of competition settings). With that in mind, the ways in which developers design rules and mechanics around these otherwise fast and loose activities is what makes the games based on them so interesting. Sure, there is some intrinsic gratification to be gained from landing flashy, gnarly tricks, but designers need to appeal to your extrinsic motivations with specific tasks and challenges to test your abilities and make a fully fledged videogame.The Tony Hawk games might not have held everyone’s attention if players weren't tasked with collecting S-K-A-T-E letters, competing for gold medals, and out-skating their friends in a plethora of silly multiplayer modes.

Sadly, games of this sort are few and far between these days. The mid-tier of developers that made most of those games are almost nonexistent now, and extreme sports culture in general seems to be much less pervasive. Perhaps these games were just a silly product of a bygone era, a cheesy and antiquated sort of pandering to a younger audience for whom words like “extreme” and “radical” really resonated. Look, I love extreme sports games, but I’ll admit that it can be hard to see the genre as more than just a niche fad at best and an out-of-touch marketing team’s idea of “cool stunts!” at worst. The late 90s and early 2000s in particular seemed to have spawned plenty of cheap, pandering Tony Hawk knock-offs that tried to cash in on the popularity of extreme sports, and these efforts were usually disingenuous. The general (although now less frequent) association with low-brow, juvenile, Jackass culture probably doesn’t help matters either. As a result, these games are rarely taken seriously.

Still, the genre has served as the basis for some highly regarded gems; For instance, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 is sometimes discussed in the same breath as Ocarina of Time. Indeed, tons of great games are hidden under the goofy exterior and cheesy marketing of the genre, games that afford a tremendous degree of experimentation and self expression. It’s maybe the only genre where you can jump around and do tricks solely for the sake of jumping around and doing tricks, and when combined with some extrinsic goals, it actually feels rewarding. This unique design got me thinking a lot about the history of the genre and where the freestyle trick-heavy games we’re familiar with today gained their influence.

The pioneers

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The 2D origins of the genre can be traced back to games like 720º (1986), California Games (1987), and the Skate or Die series (1988, 1990). Featuring smaller levels, a limited trick list, and a charming but corny punk atmosphere, these games are primitive in comparison to modern extreme sports games. They fall more in line with the racing, adventure, and platformer genres. However, these titles still show a pioneering effort to offer freestyle-based gameplay within the technical limitations of the time. 720º’s trick list is limited to only spin maneuvers, but the game makes up for this with its nonlinear open world, consisting of a neighborhood full of ramps and skate parks. On the other hand, Skate or Die’s freestyle modes are constrained to a half pipe, but it adds several grinds, stalls, and handplants to the mix. Yes, the design of these games was archaic, but these baby steps did set the foundation for level design and trick systems in other extreme sports games to come.

Extreme sports games would rise to prominence again during the mid to late 90s, during which a confluence of cultural events would serve as a major point of resurgence for the genre. The inaugural X Games in 1995 pushed extreme sports further into the mainstream, with its place being cemented by the anti-establishment counterculture of the 90s that was common across all media. On the videogame industry side, polygonal 3D graphics were starting to gain their footing, thanks in large part to games like Super Mario 64. Naturally, extreme sports and videogames would join forces, often with a Generation X bent, to make for one of the coolest genres of the late 90s. Early titles to be part of this craze include 1080 Snowboarding (1998), Thrasher: Skate and Destroy (1999), and the undisputed master of the genre, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater (1999).

Designed for style and substance

The importance of these early 3D titles (primarily Tony Hawk) and the standard they set cannot be overstated. In particular, they brought two critical elements to the genre: large, open levels and combo-based trick systems. With tons of new tricks like flips, grabs, grind variations, and manuals being added to the genre, and with all of them being relatively easy to perform on their own, there needs to be a purpose to use all these tricks. The solution: challenge players to string multiple unique tricks together in a sequence to earn high scores. This combo design incentivises players to be creative and utilize the entire trick list. Follow up that benihana with a heel flip, or pull a 360 shove-it before boardsliding on that rail, or combine all of that and more in several 20-trick combos. Or, if we jump ahead a little in the Tony Hawk timeline, spend 20 minutes tricking away on an enormous 6 billion point combo.

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Of course, the level design has to serve the combo system. Having expansive, nonlinear worlds is great, but again, there needs to be a purpose to the placement of objects therein. There has to be enough space to gain speed before hitting ramps and quarter pipes, and rails and ledges have to line up perfectly for grind sequences. The best levels in these games strike a balance between open nonlinearity and defined paths that facilitate the flow of the players’ combos. This sort of level design also shows its 3D platformer influence. The early Tony Hawk entries in particular take cues from games like Super Mario 64 with level design that encourages exploring every nook and cranny. There are plenty of secret paths that lead to collectibles and secret tapes.

When the trick system and level design come together properly, performing well in these games is the perfect example of style and substance, of creativity and flawless execution. There is no one right way to get a high score. Even when watching pros and speedrunners play these games, you may encounter wildly different playstyles.

Competition breeds innovation

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater was the wildly popular standard-setter, but it wasn’t the only game in town. Around the early 2000s, Activision would briefly follow up that successful venture with a line of other Pro Skater-likes based on BMX, snowboarding, wakeboarding, and even surfing. However, the real innovation came from competing studios attempting to chomp a piece of the extreme sports pie.

Acclaim and Z-Axis ditched skateboards in favor of bikes and rollerblades, having developed Dave Mirra Freestyle BMX (2000), which features complex trick mechanics that treat the bike as an intertwined set of systems, and Aggressive Inline (2002), a more-than-competent Tony Hawk clone with massive destructible levels and tons of objectives in each. Snowboarding was also a popular subject of the genre: EA Canada brought crazy tricks, eccentric characters, and ridiculous race courses in the form of SSX (2000), while Indie Built’s Amped (2001) remained a little more grounded, touting real resorts and huge nonlinear mountains. A few developers, most prominently Rainbow Studios, would also put a freestyle twist on the offroad racing game formula with games like ATV Offroad Fury (2001) and MX Unleashed (2004).

Some developers also advanced the genre by putting an increased focus on narrative. Neversoft would expand upon the simple story of a local skate rat turned pro gold medalist starting with Tony Hawk’s Underground (2003), while other studios sought to tell more outlandish tales. Sega’s Jet Grind Radio (2000) and Criterion’s AirBlade (2001) are a couple early examples of this, and they take the anti-authority angle of the genre to its natural extreme. Jet Grind Radio is all about using your rollerblading acrobatics to fight a graffiti-based gang turf war while dodging Tokyo-to’s police forces, and in Airblade you ride around on a prototype hoverboard while the evil corporation that built it chases after you. Obviously, these narratives aren’t exactly Mass Effect-esque, but they are more elaborate than usual.

Thanks to these gameplay and storytelling innovations, extreme sports games had truly moved beyond the primitive design of Skate or Die and 720º, and had firmly entrenched themselves in the gaming landscape as part of a wholly unique genre.

The king is dethroned

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While all these competing extreme sports titles brought their own unique twists to the established design, they didn’t hold a candle to Tony Hawk. The birdman’s signature game remained the frontrunner of the genre for years, garnering over $1 billion in sales across the entire series. In 2007, however, the long-running annual franchise had grown stagnant with the final traditional release of Tony Hawk’s Proving Ground, after which Neversoft would focus all their resources on the Guitar Hero franchise. This gave publishing juggernaut Electronic Arts the perfect opportunity to dethrone the king and release a new skateboarding game on the unsuspecting masses.

Skate (2007), developed by EA Black Box, stood out from the crowd by taking a more realistic physics-based approach to its design. Instead of using fighting game-like button inputs to pull off crazy combos, Skate’s ingenious “Flick-It” trick system uses precise right analog stick gestures for most of the board control, while the triggers and buttons control the individual limbs of the skater. For first-time players, this control scheme will feel unwieldy, but it's probably supposed to feel that way. It’s supposed to emulate the difficulty of performing tricks on a skateboard by making you take into account nearly every facet of the trick: the height of your ollie, the speed at which you flip the board, the angle at which you approach a rail, etc. Once you’ve mastered these physics and control nuances, you’ll feel perfectly in tune with your skater, and something as simple as a kickflip to tailslide will feel unbelievably rewarding. Personally speaking, it’s one of the most tactile control schemes I’ve ever used in a game of this complexity. And I’m not the only one who loves it: Roll7 recreated this control scheme in a paired down 2D form with OlliOlli (2014), and many future indie projects (discussed later) are employing their own analog-heavy input systems.

Skate also sought to capture the artistic and expressive pursuits of skateboarding culture in a way that feels much more sincere than past efforts. This ridiculous intro video in particular is a nice summation of unhinged delinquency that defines the culture, taking inspiration from some of the goofier parts of popular skate videos like Flip’s “Sorry” and Girl’s “Yeah Right!,” just to name a couple. Of course, the skater’s desire to capture their skills on film extends into the gameplay, as most of the Career mode revolves around taking photos and recording video footage of specific tricks and lines. The inclusion of a photo/video editor and online sharing features helped establish a community that was less concerned with achieving high scores and more interested in pushing the boundaries, breaking the laws of physics, and being creative. Pretty much the same pursuits of real extreme sports athletes.

A fall from grace and a long hiatus

Sadly, Skate’s mostly uncontested reign at the top did not last long. Skate 2 (2009) and Skate 3 (2010) kept fans happy for a while with some much needed refinements to the Skate formula, and Skate 3, for better or worse, became a popular subject of many glitch-laden Let’s Play videos in the years after it’s release. This weird surge in popularity even led EA to reprint new copies of the game in 2014, thus feeding ravenous fans who have been flooding all of EA’s social media channels with “#skate4” comments. Despite all this, EA has remained silent on the future of the franchise (this tweet is the extent of their messaging on the matter), having not mentioned Skate at all during their recent E3 press conference.

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In the meantime, Chicago-based developer Robomodo tried resurrecting the Tony Hawk franchise following their lackluster peripheral-based efforts, Ride (2009) and Shred (2010). Unfortunately, their attempts to return to the old school design were largely unsuccessful. Pro Skater HD (2012) and the disastrous Pro Skater 5 (2015) were panned by critics and fans alike, the latter of the two games likely serving as the death knell for the once beloved series. With THPS dead and Skate nowhere to be found, the future of the extreme sports genre is uncertain.

Perhaps this hiatus of the extreme sports genre has lasted so long because games like Grand Theft Auto V have filled the gap. Beyond the obvious Stunt Jump challenges, Rockstar’s sandbox opus offers the right sort of physics engine and open world freedom to allow for sick trick potential. YouTube has no shortage of GTA V stunthighlightvideos showing off players’ physics-bending creativity with the game’s vehicles. GTA V seems to scratch that extreme sports itch specifically because it is not an extreme sports game. Even more so than Skate, the “extreme” parts of GTAV involve defying the laws of gravity and using the game’s vehicles in ways the developers probably never intended. That pursuit to constantly raise the insanity bar is what makes real extreme sports so awesome and unpredictable. In a weird way, it seems fitting that Grand Theft Auto would be the torchbearer of sorts for the genre in the absence of Tony Hawk and his contemporaries.

Tightening up the trucks again

Not willing to let the genre die just yet, independent teams the world over have been making exciting strides toward resurrecting extreme sports games, albeit currently in a limited capacity. For those looking to experience this resurrection in tangible, playable form, look no further than BMX The Game, from Barcelona-based Barspin Studios, and SNOW, a snowboarding/skiing game from Swedish developer Poppermost Productions. However, be prepared to deal with the quirks and glitches that come with early access projects. BMX The Game, currently in an early pre-alpha state, has some issues with wonky physics and input delay, but it has the potential to capture the same rewarding realism as Skate. SNOW is much more feature-complete in its open beta, and while it suffers from similarly weird physics, it boasts plenty of huge mountains to ride and a more accessible trick system.

BMX The Game and SNOW aren’t the only indie projects on the horizon. Project: Session garnered tons of attention last year with this flashy trailer, prompting plenty of excitement for a true return to skateboarding games. Developer creā-ture studios makes its inspirations very clear, promising an elaborate dual analog control scheme, a multiplayer-friendly open world, and an emphasis on self-expression. However, Project: Session aims to be even more pure than Skate, as it will not feature any scoring system whatsoever. Elsewhere in the indie scene, On A Roll is another Skate-like that looks to apply the analog/physics concept to inline rollerblading. Details on this one are sparse at the moment, but this early gameplay footage looks exciting, as the game appears to be adding some Tony Hawk-style combo craziness into the mix.

Speaking of, there are several dedicated fans working to keep the THPS dream alive with a comprehensive Tony Hawk’s Underground 2 mod. Known as THUG Pro, the mod aims to be the ultimate Tony Hawk experience, with developers working to add nearly every level across the entire series. The mod also uses a new online system to replace the now defunct Gamespy servers, making THUG Pro the most popular online space for long-time Tony Hawk fans to gather together and put their skills to the test. While THPS may no longer exist in any official capacity, it’s nice to know that diligent fans have taken the reins from Activision to preserve possibly the greatest series in the genre’s history.

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And the extreme sports revival isn’t just happening in independent hobbyist circles. Ubisoft closed their E3 press conference this year with an impressive showing of Steep (2016), a snow-based freestyle game that will let players descent giant, perilous summits via snowboard, skis, parachute, or wingsuit. With an emphasis on larger-than-life jumps, dangerous crashes, nauseating first-person camera views, and the ability to share those experiences through free-roaming multiplayer and social media-enabled replays, Steep intends to capture the GoPro craze and the butt-clenchingly intense head-mounted videos it has spawned. Whether or not Steep lives up to its ambition remains to be seen, but from the outset it’s encouraging to see a big publisher dedicate a significant portion of their press event to showing off the game and to see it tackling the genre in a really unique and modern way, rather than just banking on nostalgia.

Modernization will likely be the key to keeping this weird, niche genre alive in the future. That initial extreme sports craze can’t be recreated, and it won’t work to simply rehash tired ideas and old tricks. If these future projects are any indication, developers have learned that they need to focus on a specific audience and take advantage of new technology and modern design philosophies to grab anyone’s attention. With advancements in physics engines, open world level design, seamless multiplayer, and maybe some VR experimentation (seriously, can you imagine playing Steep with a VR headset?), the next few years could be really exciting for extreme sports game fans. Personally, I just want to pull off 1080 spins and backside noseslides again without having to boot up 15 year old games to do so.

Special thanks to the people who posted in this old Reddit thread and helped me collect my thoughts on this topic.

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Darth_Navster

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Fantastic retrospective! I'm definitely someone who finds real life extreme sports tiresome due to the "association with low-brow, juvenile, Jackass culture", but the video game representations of those sports are still crazy fun for me. Lately I can't tell whether I stopped liking the genre due to lack of quality or if my preferences changed (probably a combo of the two), but with stuff like Steep coming out soon I can't help but perk up a little at the mention of the genre. Here's hoping someone makes a competent Tony Hawk style game for me to sink my teeth into. And no, Skate doesn't count!

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supermonkey122

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Great post. I loved Tony Hawk games as a kid and still play Skate 3 every once in a while.

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BizarroZoraK

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@darth_navster: Hey, thanks for reading and commenting! I think a lot of other people have similar stories of becoming detached from the genre, largely because of the over-saturation of the early to mid-2000s with tons of game publishers trying to recreate their own Tony Hawk success story. Regardless of the quality of those games, I think players just got tired of that concept really quickly. But now the genre has had some room to breathe, which puts it in a great position to make a comeback and serve as the basis for some really exciting games.

As to whether we'll see any Tony Hawk-like experiences anytime soon, that remains uncertain. With so many developers focusing on physics and analog-heavy control schemes, it seems like Skate is more fresh in everyone's memories. Also, unlike Tony Hawk, the last Skate game left a much more positive impression on the gaming populous. Still, I'm sure a developer will come along wanting to do right by the Tony Hawk series. At least I hope so!