Roll7 co-founder John Ribbins has been thinking about a 2D skating game since he was a child.
"I used to draw all the tricks as pixel animations, but I didn’t have the skill to make it into a game," he told Polygon. The Tony Hawk series came and went, and skateboarding culture has made its way into the mainstream, but there was still a hole when it came to boarding games. This is the niche that the Vita game OlliOlli hopes to fill.
The issue, and few games address this basic fact, is that skating is a very hard thing to do.
You gotta bleed before you sing
"Thrasher: Skate and Destroy, for me, was the seminal skating game," Ribbins said. "Because it was really fucking hard. If you played that on the hardcore mode, you had to press square to land, and that was the coolest mechanic. You had to nail your trick."
The idea of "landing" the trick, of the skill needed to bring everything together at the end, was carried over to OlliOlli. Players have to press the X button the moment before the onscreen skater touches the ground. Failure to do so leads to a stumbling end to your combo, and a much lower score.
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It’s a matter of timing, of finishing a long string of tricks with a perfectly timed button press. This may sound simple on the page, but in practice it can be hard to remember to hit that button, and even harder to master the timing needed to end the trick after also learning how to string tricks together into combos.
The game is easy to pick up and try, but it will take an investment from the player to become proficient in learning and then landing combos, and even more hours will be spent trying to claw your way up the leaderboards.
This is the rare modern game that forces you to grit your teeth through failure after failure before tasting success. "You will wreck so very, very much. You will wreck dozens of times after forgetting to land your tricks," Polygon’s review stated.
"You will blow your 100-trick-long combo inches from the finish line. You will jump clean over rails you were trying to grind, and land in a dumpster instead." It’s always easy to start your run again, so the cost of these failures is low, but you’ll be watching yourself eat pavement for a long time before you nail a perfect fun.
This was also by design, and Ribbins explained that you can often get the wrong impression of how easy these tricks are to perform by watching Youtube videos. "You see that the guy who nailed that massive 50 stair staircase, he didn’t just go up and nail on the first time, he slammed like 50 times trying to nail that," he said. "Skating is often about perseverance, saying 'you can do this, you can do this.' You don’t really get that in skating games so much."
The street is harder than it looks
I spoke with Gary Collins, who owns Instrument Skateboards and the Galaxie Skateshop in Cincinnati Ohio, and he agreed: Skating is much harder than it seems in games.
"Obviously it’s 1,000 times harder to really do it. I know that the one Thrasher game that came out was more realistic, but it was still a video game," he told Polygon. "Real skating is going to be way harder than that." It was about this time I realized Thrasher had more credibility in the world of skating than I had assumed growing up; the game popped up in conversation multiple times when researching this story.
The illusion of ease, and the possibilities of what can be done on a board, have also been expanded by how easy it is to find skate videos.
"If you started today, you are more aware of what’s possible, because there’s so much skate boarding media available by just clicking a button," Collins said. "Way back then people had to get DVDs and watch a video, and actually we had to get VHS."
This is another area where OlliOlli stands apart from other skating games; the focus is on skating street, on grinds and kickflips. There is very little vert skating in the game, and this is in stark contrast to the Tony Hawk series, which often features monstrous ramps and exaggerated airtime.
"Which is a weird thing, right?" Ribbins said. "Speak to any kid in the street on a skateboard, and they don’t skate vert. It’s a strange thing, if you’re a kid that skateboards, and you play a skating video game, this may be different in the States, but in the UK there aren’t that many parks. If you play a skate video game and your hero is a vert skater and you’re really into vert, there are precious few places you could go to pull a Christ air. There aren’t that many vert ramps."
"Way back then people had to get DVDs and watch a video, and actually we had to get VHS"
On the other hand, all it takes is a flat area to practice a kickflip. It’s not hard to find rails in your neighborhood. OlliOlli may seem like a simple 2D version of skating, but it offers a version of the sport that is attainable for most players, no matter where they live. The game also hints at the repetition and muscle memory needed to perform these tricks with an actual board. "The hard part may not be getting the board to do the thing, but on landing it afterwards," Ribbins said.
Which is why that final button press to land each trick is so beautiful. It creates a sense of rhythm and adds punctuation to the game. If each combo is a sentence, the final button press is the period. You’ll forget all the times you scraped your face on the stairs once you land that perfect combo, and suddenly all the practice seems worth it.
The graphics may be two-dimensional, and the visuals may be relatively simply, but OlliOlli gives you a look at the sport that is, in many ways, more "real" than the Tony Hawk series.