More than a decade removed from the turn-of-the-millennium extreme sports craze, the genre has essentially fallen off the map in the video game world. Activision's attempted revival of the Tony Hawk's Pro Skater franchise failed miserably last year. Electronic Arts hasn't released a Skate title in nearly six years (despite a seemingly coordinated social media campaign for a new one). Even the warm reception to EA's 2012 reboot of SSX didn't result in a rebirth for the series.
While major publishers continue to sit on the sidelines, independent developers are stepping into the space. Stockholm-based Poppermost Productions is working on Snow, a free-to-play winter sports game. And HB Studios, a veteran indie located in the tiny Canadian port town of Lunenberg, Nova Scotia, is building off of its success with 2014's The Golf Club for its next project: a snowboarding game called Infinite Air, which is scheduled for release this fall.
Realism is HB's focus with Infinite Air, with the studio aiming to deliver on the high-flying action of snowboarding while remaining grounded in reality. Think of it this way: Infinite Air is to SSX as Skate is to Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, with a physics-based control scheme that shifts the inputs from the face buttons and D-pad to the triggers and analog sticks.
If that alone isn't enough of a hook, HB is hoping to draw in creative types with support for user-generated content, like in The Golf Club. But instead of building 18-hole golf courses, Infinite Air players will be sculpting entire mountains full of snowboarding playgrounds.
"We've been playing something that's reasonably, on the whole, pretty close to the same thing for probably 15 years now," said HB's Peter Garcin in a phone interview, in response to a question about the current sports gaming market. "And so I think that people are looking for things that are new kinds of experiences within the sports genre, and maybe new approaches to sports."
Before The Golf Club, HB Studios primarily performed contract work for publishers such as EA, rather than developing its own original games. The Golf Club only arose because EA decided not to make a golf title in 2014; HB had been anticipating working on that project, but ended up making its own golf game. Traditional league-licensed video games for team sports — EA's Madden NFL and FIFA series, for instance — are prohibitively expensive for an indie studio like HB to develop, but individual sports like golf and now snowboarding offer opportunities for smaller developers to try something different.
With The Golf Club, HB eschewed the traditional trappings of simulation sports titles: The studio didn't pay licensing fees for real-life golfers or courses, and instead focused on letting players create characters and build their own courses. This time around, HB is working with Canadian-born Mark McMorris, one of the world's top snowboarders. McMorris, 22, is a 12-time medalist at the Winter X Games, and in addition to appearing in Infinite Air, he is providing feedback to the development team.
McMorris, said Garcin, brings "that on-the-ground insider authenticity to be able to work with us to say, 'This grab should look like that,' or, 'This is exactly how we do this move.' And so he's able to [give] feedback on that, as well as some other riders that we've worked with as well during this process." (HB isn't yet ready to confirm which other real-life athletes will be playable in Infinite Air, if any.)
Infinite Air is to SSX as Skate is to Tony Hawk's Pro Skater
Infinite Air's analog control scheme plays a crucial role in delivering on that authenticity. Many games in this genre are combo-driven, requiring players to memorize particular button sequences to perform specific tricks. But Infinite Air gives players full control over their snowboarder's body position and board position, which opens up a lot of possibilities.
"Obviously, when you say, 'I want to do a [grab trick],' you're going to grab the board in a particular way and kind of tweak your body," said Garcin. "But the amount that you move your body, you have complete analog control over that." Garcin added that players also have full control over how they orient their body — such as how fast they're spinning, and their axis of rotation — when they attempt to land a trick.
That control scheme is meant to not only provide players with freedom, but with their own sense of snowboarding style as well.
"Different riders can do a trick a little bit differently, because you do the trick by manipulating your body," Garcin explained. "And you have a great deal of expression, even with grabs, in terms of how you choose to execute a particular trick." Personal expression is a big part of the sport of snowboarding, and McMorris insisted that Infinite Air allow players to ride with their own style, said Garcin.
Of course, creativity is at the forefront of Infinite Air's level editor. Garcin said it's more accessible and robust than the one in The Golf Club, offering the ability to quickly flip back and forth between editing a mountain and riding down it. And in addition to the terrain shaping functionality that was present in The Golf Club, Infinite Air will let players mold the frozen surface from fresh, soft powder to compressed hard pack snow.
The editor includes plenty of snowboarding objects like ramps, rails and halfpipes, along with backcountry features such as kickers and log rails. And the biggest expansion over The Golf Club is that creators in Infinite Air can build a variety of snowboarding activities — slopestyle courses, halfpipes, big air and more — and put them all on the same mountain, inside an area that's "considerably bigger" than the courses in The Golf Club.
"You can fly by helicopter around and drop in anywhere on the entire map; there's no restrictions," said Garcin. "[Players] can create a whole mountain and populate it with a hundred runs, or two runs, or a park, or backcountry runs, or whatever they want." HB is using a procedural generation algorithm, as in The Golf Club, to create the frozen landscapes for these mountains.
Infinite Air is in development on PlayStation 4, Windows PC and Xbox One, and HB expects to be able to deliver the same sharing across all three platforms that The Golf Club offered for user-created courses. Garcin hopes that the process to make that happen goes more smoothly, since HB already went through it before.
Players have created more than 100,000 Golf Club courses to date, according to Garcin. The closest thing to something like Infinite Air's mountain maker in a sports game from a major publisher might be the customization features in NBA 2K16's 2K Pro-Am or MLB The Show's Diamond Dynasty modes.
"I think that it's difficult to go head-to-head and toe-to-toe in those spaces," said Garcin of competing with traditional big-budget sports titles, which each have numerous modes of play.
That's why, Garcin continued, HB tries to "approach it from a different angle and say, 'What's an experience within this genre that hasn't been delivered before? And what can we do to create a deeper and longer-lasting experience for players?' — so that they can help create these really rich virtual worlds, and [we can] do it in a way that doesn't become super expensive to develop?"