Karthik Bala and Dan Wallace from Vicarious Vision discuss American Sk8land's features, their brisk development schedule, late-night collaboration with Nintendo, and Mr. T.
Planet GameCube: I'm here with some folks from Activision/Vicarious Visions…
Karthik Bala: That's right, Karthik Bala, CEO.
Dan Wallace: Dan Wallace, Producer.
PGC: And we're here for Tony Hawk's American Sk8land, with an 8!
DW: That's right, with an 8! (laughter)
KB: Sk8land! I mean, people who remember the eighties—some people don't remember the eighties 'cause they weren't born in the eighties. Other people don't remember the eighties because they were doing stuff in the eighties that makes them not remember (laughs). But some people do remember S-K-8.
PGC: And that goes along [with the game] because there's a lot of retro, cheesy 80's-style humor in this game. You want to talk a little about the story mode and some of that humor?
KB: Dan, go ahead!
DW: Yeah, the story mode is completely written for the Nintendo DS, it's unique to the DS….
PGC: You have a lot of voice acting…can you talk a little about that?
DW: Yeah, we went and recorded brand new VO recording with Tony Hawk, and he did a great job. He has fun with this kind of thing, and it's all for this game.
KB: Yeah, the pro skaters came in to record in the studio, including Tony Alva, who's covered in movie The Lords of Dogtown. He's like the father figure of skateboarding, and so there's a lot of 80's retro-punk feel to the game. The cut-scenes are really funny, it really plays out like a cheesy 80's Saturday morning cartoon. Some folks remember the Mr. T cartoon—I remember it vividly—and it's a lot of that…it's just funny material. And it's just so random, some of events that take place within the story. You know, it's just very lighthearted humor, and it works really well into the structure of the game, because, quite frankly, the structure of the game doesn't make a whole lot of sense. You have this punk skater kid who has been discovered by Tony Hawk, [you] go out west to California, and you're trying to revive and rebuild this abandoned, destroyed warehouse which was once called American Sk8land, a famous skate park.
You're trying to rebuild it, and from a development standpoint we're wondering, "Why would Tony Hawk want to get this kid to go around trying to rebuild this park, put all this effort into doing it?" Well, we're doing it, obviously, for the game. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense in real life because Tony's got so much money he could just do it. Anyway, we had a lot of fun with the script, and Tony had a lot of fun as well.
DW: One of the recurring themes of the story mode is Tony Hawk's transportation. You're a kid cruisin' around on your skateboard, trying to scrounge up money from bums so you can build skate park pieces in this warehouse to refurbish it. And Tony's there alongside, but he's cruisin' around in tricked out helicopters and speedboats, and they're all stylized with these cool red flames…and he's got this bus…. Everywhere he goes he basically smashes another vehicle in his cut scene. It's fun, it's recurring, and it's very tongue-in-cheek.
PGC: The skate park is more than just a plot device, though—you were telling me earlier about the customization. Can you talk a little about how it can be customized?
DW: In the beginning of the game you have this warehouse that's all beaten up, and there isn't much to skate. It's pretty much empty and broken down. Through the story goals you earn money and impress the pro skaters in the game. When you progress through the game you unlock portions of this park, and you have an opportunity to spend your money on different pieces, and so there's a great deal of customization. There are thousands of combinations of skate parks, and the game finishes in the skate park (that's the last level), and for every user it's going to be a little different because they will have made different choices and will have configured the park differently.
KB: There's about a thousand different combinations that you can build for the park, so everyone's park is going to be a bit different.
PGC: Now, not everyone has played Tony Hawk. I'm new, and you just showed me some stuff. Can you explain how you're trying to appeal to both hardcore and new guys like me?
DW: Certainly that was a big goal of ours. Tony Hawk's been around for a long time. It's evolved from a really simple set of tricks in the first game to, now, an enormous set of tricks. A lot of the game is about making these really long combos that are fun and exciting. Basically, as you link a combo together, the system in the game becomes more and more difficult, and so you put a lot of pressure on yourself as an individual to try to make longer combos.
But for somebody new to the series to be able to pick it up and do something like that is really kind of…unrealistic. So we've got two different modes. [We've introduced] the rookie mode, where the core game mechanics still exist, but it's just a lot more forgiving. Through our story mode and missions there are tutorials that train users to have fun from the beginning, and then eventually develop these skills that really make it exciting and [allow them to] play alongside the best players in the world.
Also, if you go onto DS online, you can look at the high scoreboards and download and watch replays from the best players in the world, or maybe just your friends if you want to view [them]. And it actually plays back right on your DS. It shows you every trick and exactly how they set that million-point score, which is a great way to learn as well.
KB: Yeah, so not only do the best players show off, but new players can [also] see what the game is capable of. I'm not a great Tony Hawk player, especially compared to our designers and many folks within VV, and I'm constantly looking at some of these replays and saying, "Wow, I had no idea you could do that!" That just makes me want to learn how to do that. It's a really cool system in terms of design, and we've repeatedly gotten feedback from folks who've picked up the game and played it and felt really good. They felt like they were accomplishing something, they were feeling like rock stars themselves. They were having a good time with the game, and it was a surprisingly shallow learning curve.
PGC: You've done a lot of handheld conversions to the GBA, but this is a fully 3D game. What kinds of challenges does that pose in level design? Were there any challenges you had to overcome in terms of the approach to designing, say, Hollywood or Downtown?
KB: So, uh, this project was a huge challenge. Dan can talk about some of the details, but most of the project came together in about a seven-month period, and everything had to be built from the ground up, including the 3D engine, all of the skater physics….Everything was being built kind of in parallel, and our designers are really so good, it wasn't really until alpha, about five months into the project, that all of the gameplay physics and tricks and mechanics came together. But the designers had to build the levels in parallel, not having the final physics, and that's really a tricky thing, especially for a game like Tony Hawk. These guys are so good, right down to the meter they knew what was going to work and what was not going to work.
It was pretty amazing, but it was a really big challenge, because this is an original product. It's not a port of the console game, it's built from the ground up with level designs, the game had to run at 60 frames per second, and we had such lofty goals, so it was really tough. It was a very experienced team that really understood Tony Hawk, the gameplay, and had a clear understanding of what they were trying to build.
PGC: You also had to scramble to get the WiFi….As I understand, it was a late decision that you said, "we want to do this." How difficult was that, what did Nintendo do to help you out, and what are your hopes for online play?
DW: Well I hope that everyone who buys this game goes online with it. There's really no reason not to. The service is free, there's thousands and thousands of free hotspots all over the world, or all over the United Stats, actually. I think there's, like, 6,000+ hotspots in the United States.
KB: In the U.K. they announced 7,500—for England!
DW: If you own the game you can likely walk to a hotspot and connect for free. There's nothing more than just pressing a couple of buttons in the menu and you're online, and you can take advantage of our expansion content, you can play head-to-head against other players instantly and easily. I hope that every tries it, and I hope that everybody that tries it enjoys it.
As far as scrambling to get it together, certainly we wanted to be out there at the launch of the service, and to make that happen required a tremendous amount of cooperation and coordination, and a lot of people really giving their best effort. Without the quality of people on my team and at Nintendo working together as a unit to make this happen, it wouldn't have happened. We owe a lot to…. (laughs)
KB: It really was a collaborative experience. We were working with people at Nintendo of America and NCL in Japan, and so there were more than one late-night conference calls at, like, midnight on a Sunday night, while we're trying to figure out how this is all going to come together. This is new, this is bleeding-edge technology, and we're figuring it all out as we go along, and encountering problems and fixing them. Everyone just worked really heard and believed we could do it, even though when you looked at the timeframes and whatnot—both on the Nintendo side and the VV/Activision side—it was just very daunting. But we really wanted to create this unique experience for gamers. Look, Vicarious Visions feels that online is the future of handheld gaming, and we're really at the birth of something really new that we feel is going to change how people play games and how as gamers and consumers we're going to consume interactive entertainment. Being connected anywhere in the world, wherever you're walking around, on a portable device…and being able to meet with other players and enjoy games together…is really powerful. And we're just starting out.
PGC: And you're going to be adding stuff.
KB: We're adding stuff! Tony Hawk and Mario Kart are the first two, and this is just the starting point. It's just really exciting, and I think that knowing that's what we were trying to do motivated a lot of people to make it happen within the team. It was just a good experience. It was really hard, and there were a lot of late nights, but the results are there, and we really hope that gamers are going to like it.
PGC: Well, thank you very much!
Planet GameCube would like to thank Karthik Bala and Dan Wallace again for their time. Tony Hawk's American Sk8land ships to stores November 15th in North America.
Interview conducted by Michael "TYP" Cole.