The year 1999 was crowded by a slate of big-budget, high-profile video games like Mario Party, Shenmue and Silent Hill. Nobody expected a skateboard game made by a 12-person team to be one of the biggest titles of the year. In the following nine years, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater established itself as a billion-dollar franchise. But its formula for success would bring an ironic end to its developer.
Neversoft Entertainment, the Woodland Hills, Los Angeles-based studio, made Tony Hawk's Pro Skater in a year. Joel Jewett, Mick West and Chris Ward formed the studio in 1994. The team took any work it could find. "The industry felt like a bunch of frat houses trying to make video games," Jewett says. Few studios actually knew what they were doing. With the belief that they could do better than other industry frats ("I just thought we could"), Jewett, who spent his past life in finance ("If you knew me you'd understand I was never meant to be a public accountant"), maxed out his credit card and Neversoft Entertainment was born.
The studio didn't hit home runs, not right away. First it made Skeleton Warriors, a side-scrolling action game for the Sega Saturn based on the Saturday morning cartoon of the same name. It didn't exactly tank, but it wasn't a success, either. The studio also began development on a game based on the Ghost Rider comic for Crystal Dynamics, and Big Guns for Sony Computer Entertainment, both of which were canceled.
None of these setbacks were skin off Neversoft's nose, though. At least, not according to Jewett. The games industry of the mid-'90s was still something of a Wild West. Every project it worked on was a lesson. Every project it worked on brought it a step closer to knowing what it was doing. Jewett wasn't fazed. "Take a challenge, man!" he says.
Then Activision, now known for publishing the Call of Duty and Skylanders series, came knocking.
"There was this huge trend in skateboarding, and [Activision] was like, do you think you guys can make a game based on this?" Jewett says. "We were like, heck yeah! We'd love to do it, in part because it felt like a wild and crazy sports game almost. So with their help we just hit the ground running."
It's 2014 and I'm on the phone with Jewett and longtime Neversoft developer Scott Pease. Jewett started Neversoft when he was 31. He recently turned 51. It's his and Pease's last day at the studio, and their last day as game developers. After more than 20 years in the industry, Jewett and Pease are retiring. The two led a studio that grew from three to more than 150 employees. It made nine Tony Hawk games in nine years, which translated to more than a billion dollars in revenue. After Tony Hawk had its run, Neversoft made six Guitar Hero games and the spinoff Band Hero over a four-year period. That's enough to make anyone want to go on a very, very long break.
When Neversoft accepted the assignment to make the original Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, one of the first things Jewett did was build a halfpipe in his backyard so he could start skateboarding. The development team followed his lead — many skating for the first time.
"I felt it was super important that everybody at the studio became part of skateboarding so the game would be legitimate to the fan base," Jewett says. "So we built a ramp and we kept hiring more guys who could skate, and we'd all skate together."
There was no shortage of bumps, bruises, skin coming off elbows and knees, and more blood than HR would be OK with at any game studio. But that was Neversoft. "You just hop on it and go down a hill and fall on your ass and do it again and again and again," Jewett says. "We encouraged everyone to pad up and get out there."
"...go down a hill and fall on your ass and do it again and again and again."
Neversoft didn't want to make a skateboarding simulator; it wanted to make a skateboarding game. Existing skateboarding games were mostly 2D and bland. Jewett felt there should be more to it than just riding down hills and going back and forth on ramps.
"I remember at the time we had a lot of levels where you were skateboard racing down a hill," Pease says. "But we found that skating around, doing tricks and finding lines was A, more true to skateboarding and B, kind of more fun.
"A lot of people did say, 'You can't really do that. You can't just make a game that's pure tricks. It's not going to work. No one's done that. It's not real, man, you'd run out of speed.' So we had this big internal debate ... and we just started to lean into the natural act of skating in a real environment, going anywhere, exploring, finding your own lines and being creative."
This played a large part in Pro Skater's popularity. By focusing on player creativity rather than offering a linear downhill skateboarding race, Neversoft made a 3D playground that anyone — skateboarder or not — could enjoy. Players didn't need to be interested in skateboarding itself to like the feeling of skating around the game's 3D environments. The game had a good sense of kinetics. There was something exhilarating about the movement. It was satisfying to swerve from side to side and execute jumps. There was a deliciousness to the sound of the board grinding against staircases and handrails.
Pease says it was about looking at the world differently. Parks, ramps and railings were no longer just utilitarian objects — hey were opportunities for kickflips, railslides, McTwists and any number of tricks that led to Neversoft's developers' many bloodied bruises. And players could do all this to a punk rock soundtrack that had songs from the Dead Kennedys, Primus and Goldfinger.
"Video games at the time all had orchestral music," Jewett says. "And we were like,'Fuck, man, we can pick awesome rock and roll! This is cool shit!' So we spent money on licensing it and sticking it in the game."
The Tony Hawk "brand" also helped sell copies. In the summer of 1999, the skater competed at the X Games and successfully pulled off a 900, a complicated move involving multiple body rotations in midair. It made the news, appearing on ESPN's SportsCenter at a time when ESPN rarely covered skateboarding. A month after Hawk's feat, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater hit shelves. The game became a best-seller.
"We were like, holy shit, we got lightning in a bottle, we got the tiger by the tail, don't let go!" Jewett says. "We got to make another one by next year and we just rolled into it."
At the time, the studio was working in two teams, with one team handling Pro Skater and the other working on a Spider-Man game. The studio kept this setup all the way through to its Guitar Hero days. This allowed people to move back and forth between projects, and was also how Neversoft was able to release a new game every year.
Releasing a game for the same series every year has a downside. There's a term called Madden Syndrome, derived from the Madden football video games. It describes an annualized franchise that barely changes from year to year. After all, how much can you improve on a football game, soccer game or skateboarding game — especially on never-ending deadlines?
For some companies, like the publisher of Madden, this isn't a problem. Electronic Arts' exclusive deals with the NFL and the NFL Players Association mean only EA can make American football video games using the real NFL teams and players. If people like American football, they're going to buy Madden. Skateboarding doesn't have any comparable deals, and the pull of skateboarding isn't as strong as that of American football. So while Madden can get away with incremental changes year after year, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater showed that skateboarding couldn't. The formula that won over so many players was getting stale. And as quickly as people gained an interest in skateboarding, they started to lose interest in it.
"We plan to douse it with gasoline and shoot it with a flaming arrow and burn it."
Neversoft made nine Tony Hawk games across three console generations. Its last Tony Hawk game was Tony Hawk's Proving Ground (2007), by which point the studio — and the audience — was ready to move on.
"Nine years is a really long time to be working on the same thing," Pease says. "I think a lot of people here were ready for new challenges. You've got to keep trying to do something different or you will just fall into the rut. So it was time to put it to bed and move on."
While one of Neversoft's teams was finishing up 2006's Tony Hawk's Project 8, Activision acquired the rights to Guitar Hero, which already had two games in its series. Neversoft volunteered to make Guitar Hero 3 and released the game a year later.
"Guitar Hero 3 was kind of a crazy challenge because you make the first game and you get to really refine it in the second game," Pease says. "But we came in and here we were going to make a sequel to a really successful second game. And we had nothing. We'd not made a music game. We had an engine, but we basically got no help from anyone who knew the trials and tribulations they went through to make 1 and 2."
The development team studied the first two Guitar Heroes. From that, they were able to make Guitar Hero 3: Legends of Rock. Less than a year after that, the studio made Guitar Hero: Aerosmith and Guitar Hero World Tour. This was followed by a Metallica-focused game; Guitar Hero 5; Band Hero, and their final Guitar Hero title, Warriors of Rock.
Like skateboarding, the music game market was one that blew up and shrank. By 2009, the market was losing interest in games that used plastic drum kits and guitars. Competitor Rock Band (which was made by the original developers of Guitar Hero, Harmonix) experienced the same decline. Neversoft saw the market winding down. According to Jewett, it didn't come as a surprise to the studio.
"You could go back and analyze the entire industry and put all the great franchises on a bell curve," Jewett says. "For Guitar Hero, we knew things were going to wind down, so we pushed out our last game to be more heavy metal. It suited our studio.
"[When you see the market shrinking...] the way it makes you feel is you realize now it's time for us to move onto other stuff, too. I mean, it's pretty simple."
I ask Jewett and Pease if they felt sad when they saw that the markets for Tony Hawk and Guitar Hero were shrinking. "Nah," Pease says. "We had a good run."
Jewett and Pease poured their careers into two major game franchises. For 20 years (15 for Pease), they came to work each day and worked on either a skateboarding game or a music game (there were a few exceptions, including the Spider-Man game and the 2005 Western shooter Gun). During Neversoft's time with Activision, the publisher shipped more than 100 million units of Neversoft's games and games that contained the studio's tech. Tony Hawk remains one of the highest-selling video game series of all time, and the Guitar Hero games came to characterize gaming of the 2000s.
Their game development journeys have come to an end, and so has Neversoft's. Neversoft's team recently merged with Activision-owned studio Infinity Ward, a move that coincides with Jewett and Pease's departure. The merger means the studio once known for two great franchises will now work on arguably the biggest franchise in the world: Call of Duty — the Tony Hawk of our time — Activision's annual series that tops sales charts with every game released.
Neversoft opened 20 years ago with the intention of doing better than everyone else. With two top-selling franchises under its belt, Jewett has accomplished his mission and is going out in style.
"We're going to begin tomorrow by giving our Neversoft eyeball a proper Viking burial," he says. "We plan to douse it with gasoline and shoot it with a flaming arrow and burn it. Then we're going to go to the bar and get hammered with all our guys. After that, we're going to ride out into the sunset, so to speak."
And that's exactly what they did.