The S+V Interview: Robomodo President Josh Tsui Talks Tony Hawk Pro Skater HD

Last week, we told you about all the work that went into the refreshed soundtrack for Tony Hawk Pro Skater HD. S+V also talked with Robomodo president Josh Tsui about the whole range of challenges involved in recreating a classic game for a modern era.

"The ultimate compliment for me is when people play the game and say it takes them back to when they were playing when they were younger," said the Midway and EA Chicago veteran"My childhood was all about video games, skateboarding, and comic books, and I've been able to turn that into a career." Even though we were on Skype, it wasn't hard to hear the pride in his voice.

It seems like every other day a quick and dirty HD upscaling of a classic game is released to take advantage of nostalgia (and a lawless used game market). Tsui stressed Tony Hawk HD isn't another lazy port, his studio set out to make Tony Hawk Pro Skater 1 and 2 look and play like games that look like they're from 2012; much like what Microsoft did with last year's Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary Edition. "We're hoping people don't look at us with this project and say we were just cashing in on this trend of HD rereleases."

Read on for how the project came to be; what was changed and more importantly, what wasn't; and how Tony Hawk was replaced by an Asian pop group in a version of his own game.

When did the concept for Tony Hawk HD come about?

It was something we'd talked about since we started the first game. During the peripheral-based Tony Hawk Ride we were talking about it off and on. Fans had always been talking about us going back to basics and this was before that game came out. It was always hovering around us. After we finished up Tony Hawk Shred there was a downfall of peripherals. At that point, this break in the franchise releases allowed Tony Hawk to put a proposal together for Activision to take a look at.

After many discussions, Activision offered to do it as an XBLA/PSN game to see how it would go. We didn't care what format it came out on, we just wanted to do it and take care of it.

What was your initial reaction to finally getting the green light by Activision, based on your relationship with the franchise?

I was elated. In all honesty, when we started up Robomodo doing the Hawk games we didn't know we would be doing the peripheral thing. It was hinted at, but weren't completely sure about it. In our minds, we were going to be doing the game we're currently working on now. Everybody was just so stoked about it getting approved.

What have been some of the challenges of working on the game?

A lot! One of the biggest challenges is you're making a game people have really fond memories of and their memories might not be accurate with reality. We want to make sure we're faithful to the gameplay people remember and make sure we add modern elements there so that someone who isn't as fond of the game or never played it when it first came out can still pick it up and have fun. You don't want to add things that will get the hardcore fans upset, but you've got to get stuff in there that's going to get younger people excited.

Music was definitely one of the big ones. Everybody wanted all old soundtrack music, which is fantastic – I like most of those songs, too. A lot of those songs were 13 plus years old, though. You don't want a kid picking up the game and getting mad that there's a piece of retro music.

Another big challenge for the game is that everybody's first memories of the game all came from different systems. For somebody to say, "This doesn't feel right because I was used to doing this," the response is "Yeah, you were probably on the N64!" Someone else might say their first experience was on the Dreamcast. There were so many systems it was hard to pick one to use as the basis of things.

The PlayStation version had video screens showing your skating within the level, the N64 version couldn't handle that. The game came out on PC as well; Activision hit a wide swath of that over a couple of years.

It's nuts. When we started really digging into the research, it was like, "Oh my God. How many different versions were there?" Tony told us that either in the Japanese version or the Korean version he wasn't even the star! An all-girl pop group were the stars of the game and he just happened to be one of the characters.

What were some of the things you put in that were geared to a new audience? Were they gameplay features or just additions to how the gameplay actually worked?

We had to keep the mechanics the same and the controls the same: there was no way we were going to mess with that. What it came down to were all the little features like the fidelity of the animations, how the tricks looked, making sure things were punctuated really well with the audio. Obviously, being HD, getting all the rich details into the environments and characters that people are expecting. When a kid looks at the game, he's going to think this is a game that belongs in 2012 and not a cheap port that was slapped together.

Even with Tony Hawk Pro Skater 3 and 4, I would go back to Tony Hawk Pro Skater 2 on N64 and the fluidity of the animations made a big difference. Especially in how the game played given how you'd have to time combos differently based on how a spin would work.

Exactly, that's a thing a lot of people don't understand. You have your game mechanic and how the controllers are, but a lot of people underestimate how much the presentation adds to your experience. Back in the old days, the graphics were what they were, so the gameplay had to be great. Now as we get into much more powerful technology, it's at a point where the look of the game is a part of the gameplay. When I worked on Fight Night Round 3, we made the decision to go HUD-less. By doing that, it forced us to add visual elements like the animation of the boxer's face to convey certain emotions. That ended up being a great feature that added to the realism of the game; that's what we bring to the table with increased fidelity.

Is everything like architecture and skaters still to original scale?

Yeah. We had a couple of big mantras and one of them was to get the original geometry from (original developer) Neversoft and not mess around with it. Everything was left exactly as is, so in terms of measurements and placement it's the exact same geometry. We might have smoothed some stuff out here or there because some stuff just went completely wacky. As long as it didn't affect the gameplay, we smoothed some stuff out where we needed to; everything is exactly where it used to be.

One of the things we did when we demoed the game at Game Developers Conference in San Francisco earlier this year was show the PlayStation 1 version and the HD version side-by-side. We had the skater doing the same things, but because of the extra detail we put in there it felt larger because there was so much to see.

That's one of the things I remember, especially with the "School 2" level, was how expansive that area was. When you go down that big first hill and there's the rail with that huge stair set. None of the geometry drew in beyond that until you went about 3/4 of the way down that rail to continue that trick line. A lot of that came in with muscle memory: here's where I have to do a kickflip before doing an ollie on to the next rail and then the bench.

It's funny you mention that because the other day I was watching gameplay videos of the old game and it used the old fog effect where stuff would appear out of the fog and into view. The interesting thing is that's an example of the visuals changing the gameplay. When you play our "School 2," you can see all the way down to the end of the level. You can figure out your line much faster ahead of time. You can precompose in your mind what you're going to do. Whereas on the N64, you had to get that muscle memory – and hopefully that muscle memory was good.

Every time I went to go and launch over something and I couldn't see where I was going I'd hit the grind button so even if I was going to biff it, I'd land in a grind.

(Laughs)

One of the things is - especially with the "School 2" level, aside from the guy driving around the golf cart - the levels were pretty barren. It felt solitary. Are you afraid that's going to throw some people off who are used to playing in more populated levels in modern games?

We discussed that quite a bit. We made the decision to not put people in because even if you never collide with them, it's just too distracting. They visually get in the way of you looking at your line. If I'm going to do a line and somebody's walking in front of the next grind, you might lose that and your timing goes off. We made a point of saying whatever wasn't in the first two games, let's not do it because it's just too risky.

How does the remastering process work? You have the geometry from Neversoft and then what?

With the levels from Pro Skater 1 and 2, back in the day there was no real lighting; everything was set at nighttime or straight daytime. One of the first things we did was determine the time of day for each location. Knowing the order of each level, we wanted to make sure going from level to level you'd have a very different look. If we ended up with two sunsets on two different nights, one level after another, that wouldn't be good. We mapped out all the levels, figured out the time of day each was going to be and then figured out what the personality should be for each.

For "School 2," I grew up in southern California so I had a very idealized picture in my head of what a southern California high school was like. We wanted it to be a very clear, sunny day whereas "Venice Beach" we wanted to go for a sunset look. In "Venice Beach," we made a very exaggerated sunset look and also made it incredibly smoggy looking. It really doesn't get as smoggy in real life as it does in our game, but we really wanted to make sure each level had a very distinct look. So now when somebody thinks of Venice Beach they think of that real orange-y sunset look, when they think of a warehouse they think of a real gritty almost Gears of War-ish look. (Laughs)

We figured out the lighting for each level and the artists went in and started adding layers and layers of materials to different surfaces until we got the exact look we wanted. While they were doing that, our designers were going into a separate version of the geometry and adding in all the gameplay data; they had to work together at the same time.

What's your favorite level or area of the game?

Oh, jeez. That's a loaded question! My favorite level in terms of sentimental value is going to be "Warehouse." Back in '99, you've got the first Hawk game: The first level is "Warehouse," Goldfinger's "Superman" is on there and everybody remembers that. That's how we start our game: The first level is going to be "Warehouse" and we're going to try to recreate that feel. In terms of a spot I'm obsessed over, it's "School 2" at the very beginning. You go off the kicker and wallride to knock off the bell, go up to the canopy on top and do a grind, break through glass and land on various rooftops. I'm obsessed with that line, I just do that repeatedly to try and do as well as possible. The retry button gets a real workout on that part of "School 2."

You said "retry button," is that a button mapped specifically to the controller now?

No, it's from the pause menu. Back in the day when Pro Skater 2 came out, that was the line I showed everybody I could do. 12 or 13 years later, when we got "School 2" in our game that was the first line I tried to do. We based a lot of our physics tweaking on me being obsessed with that level.

It's funny you mention that area, it's that opening 30 seconds. I did that where I just wanted to keep doing it over and over and perfecting it. It's the obsessive nature of Pro Skater that I'm really looking forward to: those little "spots."

Exactly. It's interesting because we're doing some mobile games here and everytime I play lines like that, I keep thinking to myself there should be a mobile game based on just doing a spot over and over again to see how high of a score you can get and challenge other people with it. It's such a great little mini-bite of gameplay.

Was there a specific level you were rooting for to be included in the game?

I really wanted "Area 51" but it was one of those things where Tony did a Twitter survey and that didn't make it. There's something about it that just gave me great memories. I 'll probably look back on it and ask myself why I even liked the level…which happens a lot, actually. (Laughs)

But as long as we got "School 2," I'm good. "School 2" was the one everyone wanted. It's considered one of the greatest levels in games, period.

How hard has it been working within the confines of levels that were developed 13 years ago? Has how game design has changed since then affected what players expect?

It has. It's interesting because people really wanted to get back to the original control scheme and not that long ago people were complaining about the original control scheme when EA's Skate came out. What happened over the years is we hit a critical mass of people who want to go back for nostalgia's sake. In terms of level design and things like that, we were really lucky because we had the levels and the objectives were already mapped out. We did make up some new levels on our own, so that's where we stretched our creative legs.

This game was a real lesson in discipline. We wanted to add new stuff in, but didn't want to muddy the waters by going too crazy with it. Give the fans what they want, add a little on top with it, but hold back and make it a good, quality experience and not throw everything but the kitchen sink in.

I think that's what the problems were with the latter games: they were trying to throw in everything but the kitchen sink. Tony Hawk Underground had car racing and it felt like crap. You brought up how people were complaining about the control scheme once Skate (a physics and analog stick-based skating sim compared to Pro Skater's face button arcade offering) came out, it wasn't the control scheme so much as that the game had stagnated by that point.

I can't second guess what was going on at the time, but you're talking about an annual game release and trying to do something different every year becomes really difficult. When Skate came out, I was working at EA. We had early builds and I thought it felt really damned good to play, but even they fell into the iterative trap with that franchise. By the time they go to their third game, it was really weak and easy to run out of ideas. I wouldn't mind seeing another game, but it's a genre that's tough to make fresh every single year.

What are you guys doing with the sound design that wasn't available in the original games?

We have the audio reactions based a little more based on what you're doing in the game. When you hit the point of having the audio sound like your wheels are squeaking on the ground; the way you land, the hardness of the surface; the landing is punctuated by the audio itself with different materials; it really adds to the experience. When we created the video teaser for the VGAs that was all done in-game but we didn't have any audio in the game at the time.

That actually served as a good example for our audio design. We had our sound designer come in and layer in the audio. One of the things he was working on and that developed from that video is we wanted to go for a very aggressive skating sound. Skate audio in real life is what it is. He said we needed to make the sound really aggressive and almost mean sounding so when you land and you land hard, you feel it.

We're kind of riding on the idea that people have an HDTV and a good sound system. When you're grinding metal, we wanted to make sure we have that nice screeching sound. We recorded metal on metal grinds and it sounded real, but it didn't sound right. It actually didn't sound that much different from grinding on wood. We made a point of changing stuff like that up so it had a very distinct personality to it.

The direction we gave our audio guy was it should almost sound like a sword coming out of a sheath, you get that ringing sound, you know? In their minds, people are thinking it should sound like that, when in real life it doesn't. Much like the rest of the game, we needed to play to people's memories of what was in the game as opposed to pure realism.

Why do you think the extreme sports scene made such a huge impact in the late '90s and died out around 2004 or 2005? Both in games and the sports themselves.

It was so new and it just got majorly saturated. You had skateboarding, snowboarding, BMX; everyone was piling on top of each other and then you have the X Games happening every year. At least the Olympics are every four years, but it was too many sports happening all at once under one umbrella. I wonder if people lumped it all together and didn't see the difference between one sport and another. One interesting thing is how brands like Redbull are making up their own sports just to do something different. It's going to be interesting to see how that plays out. I'm curious to see if that's the next wave of extreme sports. 

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