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Winter sports game Snow gets big snowboarding update ahead of PS4 debut

Indies are heating up the extreme sports genre

Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

Snow, the open-world winter sports title from Swedish indie studio Poppermost Productions, is getting its biggest addition yet: snowboarding, the game's first sport beyond skiing. With the long-awaited debut today of snowboarding, along with snowmobiles, Poppermost is looking to set Snow apart from everything else in the extreme sports genre — including another indie competitor, HB Studios' upcoming Mark McMorris Infinite Air.

Poppermost originally launched Snow on Windows PC and Linux via Steam Early Access in October 2013, and more than 500,000 registered users have tried the game since then. The studio counts 100,000 monthly active users on the platform. And of the 4,400-plus reviews Snow has received on Steam, 73 percent are positive, illustrating the strong connection that Poppermost has built with the Early Access community.

That community has been clamoring for snowboarding ever since the Snow's debut, but according to Poppermost CEO Alexander Bergendahl, the developers felt they had to get the fundamentals right first — even if snowboarding was part of the plan from the beginning.

"snowboard game fans know what EA or Ubisoft can do"

"Snowboard fans, snowboard game fans, know what EA can do or Ubisoft can do when they set their minds to a snowboarding game," said Bergendahl in a phone interview. "And we're a team of eight people or 10 people, and we knew we couldn't achieve that from day one. So we knew we had to build up to it gradually."

That's part of the reason why Poppermost launched Snow with skiing, Bergendahl explained. Gamers are familiar with snowboarding because plenty of games have featured the sport over the years. As recently as the previous console generation, Ubisoft released Shaun White Snowboarding while Electronic Arts delivered a series reboot in SSX.

"I saw the potential there, with really no free-skiing game ever made, and knew that we could go out there with a super-unfinished game and work with [the Steam community]," said Bergendahl. "Because they [hadn't] had a [skiing] game, so [they would] be a bit more acceptable to the growing pains."

Poppermost has spent years refining skiing in Snow with the community's help, crowdsourcing feedback on elements like trick animations and skier speed. Many players are die-hard fans of winter sports, and there's a fairly even breakdown of skiers and snowboarders among them, according to Bergendahl. He told Polygon that Poppermost completed most of the work on snowboarding in the past three-plus months, shifting focus to the sport after launching Snow's open beta at the end of January. The studio is finally ready to launch a "first playable" version of snowboarding that, like everything else in Snow, is a work in progress.

After downloading today's update, Snow players will have to choose at startup whether they want to ski or snowboard. (They can switch at any time; they'll just respawn in about 10 seconds.) When they drop onto the mountain, they'll be able to ride around and do all kinds of tricks — grabs, tweaks, grinds, presses, flips, spins and more — while freeriding or hanging out in a halfpipe.

"You can see that we've understood the core style of snowboarding, and that it doesn't look like something that someone who read about snowboarding has made," said Bergendahl, adding that the developers have spent a lot of time working on riding animations, as well as board poses and grab styles. Snow doesn't offer any snowboarding-specific events yet, but they're on the way.

Today's update also introduces snowmobiles to Snow. Rather than providing a sport of their own, snowmobiles are meant to be used as a tool to get around more easily (and get back up the mountain after riding down it). Bergendahl noted that the snowmobiles are in a "bit more of a rough state" than skiing or snowboarding, since the vehicles have unique physics associated with them.

Now that snowboarding and snowmobiles are in, Poppermost will switch gears to the PlayStation 4 version of Snow, which the studio announced during Gamescom 2015. Bergendahl said that the studio "definitely didn't want to launch on PS4 without snowboarding," and added that the company is planning to launch Snow in beta on PS4 before this summer. Poppermost hasn't yet decided on a business model for the PS4 version; it's a free-to-play game on PC, with microtransactions that allow players to customize their characters with licensed apparel and equipment.

In that way, and many others, Snow is a very different experience from HB Studios' Infinite Air, which is set to be released this fall on PC, PS4 and Xbox One. HB is working with Mark McMorris, who is shaping the game with his expertise as an Olympic medal-winning snowboarder. And the studio is touting its procedural generation technology, which is the centerpiece of Infinite Air's level editor. User-generated content is a major focus for the game, as it was for HB's previous title, 2014's The Golf Club.

Bergendahl told Polygon that he believes there's plenty of room in the sports market for both Infinite Air and Snow, especially since they're separate games that appeal to slightly different audiences. But the interesting thing about these two titles is that they're both developed by indie studios; when it comes to extreme sports games, the major publishers have sat out this console generation thus far — aside from Activision with the disastrous Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 5 last year.

Asked for his thoughts on why that's the case, Bergendahl pointed to the risk-averse mentality that big publishers tend to run their businesses with.

"I think the publishers didn't see the financial reward from it, so they sort of stepped out of the ring," he said of games such as Ubisoft's Shaun White Snowboarding.

"the publishers didn't see the financial reward from it"

EA's 2012 reboot of SSX was well-received, but the company hasn't said anything about plans for a follow-up. The publisher likely saw diminishing returns with the Skate series by the time it launched Skate 3 in 2010, so the reticence to revive that series is at least understandable. Yet the issue in AAA game development is that unless a title becomes a huge hit, a publisher has little incentive — and often, can't afford — to give it another shot with a sequel.

"A lot of the games had some really cool things, but I think overall, each of the games didn't get to that quality bar that meant that they became staples," said Bergendahl. "And I think none of them were able to capture the essence of the sport in a way that appealed to the evergreens — the skiiers and the snowboarders that live and breathe these games."

That, said Bergendahl, is why Poppermost has taken a community-driven approach to Snow's development. The studio is trying to remain cautious to "obviously not go too crazy" in catering to fan feedback, but that's the challenge inherent in the development of all early access projects. It's a risky plan, but the risk is one that indie studios are uniquely suited to take.