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The profile of skateboarding games has gone downhill (ahem) since the heyday of Activision's Tony Hawk's Pro Skater franchise, and even EA's physics-based Skate games.
A few trends have affected big-brand skateboarding franchises, and one factor may be this: It’s generally (with some exceptions) been a slow transition from arcade fun with simple button presses translating into stellar tricks to more complicated, harder-to-grasp systems that exclude audiences who'd otherwise play an easy-to-learn, hard-to-master skateboarding game.
“We’re trying to combine the best parts of both Skate and the Tony Hawk games. We want you to roll up a halfpipe and have that physical feel that the Pro Skater games didn’t have.” said Glass Bottom Games programmer and designer Megan Fox. “We realized there was this cool middle ground. Skate is fun but its super inaccessible to play and we wanted to mitigate that.”
The idea behind SkateBird, a charming skater featuring a bird shredding through a table-top sized, Toy Story-like park, came after Fox found a gif of a real bird skating around on a half pipe in a mini-skatepark. Developer Kevin Suckert, who goes by Der_Kevin on Twitter, had created a prototype skateboarding game featuring a board with no rider -- he couldn’t get the human part of skateboarding to feel quite right without looking funky. Fox thought making a bird the focus would allow the game to be a bit zanier without feeling out of place.
“I contacted him and he loved the idea of a bird on a board. So I bought what he created and started to incorporate it,” Fox said. “I decided to just project the bird on top of the board. The board is what exists physically and the bird mostly just tries to follow along in a somewhat intelligent way.”
Fox describes the player character in Tony Hawk-esque games as a pill sliding around a skate park; everything is fake and the entire character is a self contained element. SkateBird, somewhat similar to Skate, is different in that the board acts like an actual skateboard but the bird, as well as many of the tricks, are faked in order to mix the two approaches. Fox is hoping to connect both types of games with the control scheme.
“The button-to-trick controls were pretty easy to fuse with actual physics,” Fox said. “You press the kick flip button and you do a kickflip. You can do several in a row and then combo them with a grind just like you would in Tony Hawk. The button inputs are instant with no lag. It respects the inputs you make and does them as soon as it can.”
A big issue that stands in the way of that simplicity covering the whole game is the more complicated special tricks. Any tricks involving the body manipulating the board, more so than flip tricks, creates an issue with the bird not being an actual part of the board.
“For example, Christ Air, where you make a cross shape with your body is particular hard to pull off,” Fox said. “If you’re character is a pill shape then that’s easy, but if everything is fake besides the board then you’re moving it into an unnatural position that would be hard to make work.”
Most of the tricks that bridged combos together in the Pro Skater series are still intact in SkateBird -- stalls, grinds, manuals, and such are simple since you can essentially weld the board to a surface and it’s done. Fox’s solution to pull off the more complicated body tricks is twofold.
“I’m creating a separate duplicate board animation so that when you get air it’ll replace the actual board,” Fox said. “But almost all the special tricks tend to have weird physics that might be hard to duplicate. So I won’t be able to have all of them.”
Even though Fox won’t have all the traditional tricks that players will recognize from Tony Hawk and other games, she will have other tricks that fit the quirky style she’s going for.
“My special tricks that do weird stuff lean more towards weird stuff, like the bird pulling a pizza thing out and eating it,” she said. “But I do still want specific special tricks like the T-Air, where the bird holds the board above its head.”
It would be hard to have a bird pull off all the body tricks even if Fox and her team wanted to, since a bird can’t naturally bend to all the positions required. That makes tricks like grinding even more important in SkateBird. It’s only through this project did Fox realize how complicated Tony Hawk’s grinding systems were.
“It turns out the rail and the board have a really deep system in the Tony Hawk games,” she said “Whenever you’re grinding in Tony Hawk the system needs to know things like where the player was when they ollied, where they were when they started the grind, what part of the board hit the rail first, and so many other things.”
Since the inputs in the Tony Hawk games were so simple, the system had to fill in a lot of the blanks for different types of grinds to be possible It’s different in Skate since the player has to do a lot more of the work in terms of button presses and positioning.
Grinding is one of the most important elements to get right in a game like SkateBIRD since it chains combos together and feels incredible on its own. It’s something that Fox tried to replicate since the alternative, physics-based approach would be less accessible and forgiving -- plus it’s something that both birds and humans can handle on a board.
Feathered skateboarders aren’t going to be carbon copies of their human counterparts. SkateBIRD’s star has a few crucial differences when compared to the Birdman that help ground some of the mechanics while also incorporating wings into tricks and combos.
“The physics for skateboard feel real, but if you stand back and look it doesn’t make complete sense. It feels good, but it doesn’t feel real,” Fox said. “The flapping, an animation, was added to give a visual explanation for when the gravity feels too light. It also infuses more of the Tony Hawk feel of crazy tricks with the realish-feel that Skate has.”
That flapping animation, or what Fox calls flaps, works as double jump/air ollie that serves as another way to chain tricks together. It’s something that’s unique to SkateBird that also builds off the foundation built by past games.
While Fox does want to create a skateboard experience that fuses the approaches of both Skate and Tony Hawk, she also wants SkateBird to be a relaxing experience that doesn’t put a ton of pressure on the player. Fox doesn’t want progression to be tied to stats. Instead, SkateBird would focus on collectables as the simple, primary objective throughout the game similar to Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles’ casual collect-athon that pushed exploration and fun over difficulty.
“I’m trying to make something for the players that didn’t go from Tony Hawk to Skate, but also something with a combination of vibes and play styles that will be broad enough for fans of Skate,” Fox said. “This is especially for people who like the idea of skateboarding but don’t want to think to hard about what the difference is between a smith and a crooked grind. People that just want to pretend to skate.”