In 2018, making a skateboarding game might not seem like an obvious choice. Two decades ago, series such as Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater made action sports games a full-blown phenomenon, but these days you’d be hard pressed to find a new — much less good — entry for sale.
That’s not stopping Toronto-based independent studio Snowman, known for games such as Alto’s Adventure and its sequel Alto’s Odyssey, from giving it a go.
The team’s next game is Skate City, a mobile skateboarding game developed in conjunction with Scandinavian developer Agens. Planned for a 2019 release, the game uses touch screen controls to mimic the real-world moments required to do tricks.
I recently chatted with Snowman founder Ryan Cash and associate producer Andrew Schimmel about the upcoming game and their history with the sport.
Polygon: What is the skating scene like in Toronto?
Andrew Schimmel: The skating scene in Toronto is pretty mediocre compared to other big cities like LA or New York. [...] Probably not as big as some of the other mechas in the world that we kind of ended up taking a lot of inspiration from for the game. There’s definitely a lot of really impressive underground street skaters I’ll see in certain areas where it’s a little less policed, I’ll say.
Ryan Cash: Our weather’s so bad that you definitely can’t really skate outside in the winter.
Polygon: Did your parents have one of those unfinished basements with the really smooth concrete?
RC: It was like a godsend. We also had a little bit that had carpet. That was where I actually learned how to ollie, was on the carpet. It was pretty flat carpet so you could ride on it a little bit, but you wouldn’t go so fast, so it was good training wheels.
Polygon: We’re getting into it a little bit, but I want to ask you, especially since we’re talking about Skate City, what’s your history with skateboarding?
RC: So I think, in general, [for] quite a few people in our company, skateboarding [was] part of their childhood growing up. Jordan [Rosenberg, co-founder of Snowman], who’s not on the call, we grew up across the street from one another. We started skateboarding, I don’t know, when we were probably 10-years-old or so. We were huge into it. We would go outside of my house and wax our curb and borrow my dad’s Sony camcorder for home footage. [...] We skateboarded every free minute we [had] and [watched] some of the old school skate videos like Misled Youth, for example. When Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater came out, Jordan and I would play that all day long. We’d have sleepovers and be up until like six in the morning.
AS: I’m kind of similar to Ryan and Jordan in that I skated a lot as a kid. For probably like two or three years, avidly. That was all my friends and I were concerned about — as soon as you get out at recess you grab your board. At lunch, after school, we tried to be learning new tricks every day and we kind of fell in love with that zone you fall into when you’re out in the city and you’re exploring and trying to push yourself to learn a new skill. The second you land a new trick, that’s such a rewarding feeling. So we wanted to capture some of that in the game.
Polygon: So where did the genesis of wanting to do a skateboarding game come from?
RC: When Alto’s Adventure came out and had done well, and it’d been a long two-and-a-half year long process to get there, we started asking ourselves what would be next. [...] In that same discussion we talked about skateboarding as well.
It was Daniel [Zeller, concept designer and developer] from Agens, this company in Norway, who first reached out to me with a question about Alto’s Adventure. I believe it was a question about a shader we were using. I talked to our team and answered his question and then kind of kept this conversation going [...] this lightbulb went off where I was like, “Maybe we can help you make this game a little bit better with any of our expertise and the things we learned making Alto’s Adventure, and then also help you guys market it and things like that.”
It sort of naturally came up where we had started getting into doing this kind of thing ourselves and they were asking for a certain number of things that we felt like we were able to help with. The fact that we’d always wanted to make a skate game, and that if we had gone down the route of making a skate game, we would have wanted to do something that very much focuses on the art of skateboarding rather than the olympic or extreme sport side of things [made it a natural fit]. So I floated that out as an idea and they were really stoked on that, so we kind of continued that conversation and that ended up leading to us deciding to team up and work on the game together.
Polygon: I feel like people fall into two different camps with skating games: the arcade games like Tony Hawk and the more sim games like Skate. Where does Skate City fall on that spectrum?
AS: I played a lot of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater and that was [my] initiation into the skateboarding world. Like we mentioned a couple times, that’s always gonna have a special place in my nostalgic memory. But I think Skate is more of an interesting game to me now because the control scheme is a little bit more novel and interesting, and that difficulty curve was a bold move to make to set itself apart. It’s a pretty hard game to get used to. But once you do, it really rewards you for the hours you’ve put in and it feels like you’re building upon your skills. I think that’s an interesting mirror to make compared to real world skateboarding. [...] Jumping with a skateboard underneath your feet is a very difficult, fine-tuned, athletic thing to be able to do and it takes a ton of practice.
So that’s kind of where I fall now. Skate’s a little bit more interesting to me now. And Skate City itself is definitely much more real-world inspired. We have a couple different levels that are based off real cities in the real world, and we take inspiration from real world obstacles and real world locations. We wanted to get it as close as we could to real skating.
RC: I think, for myself, I really love the Tony Hawk games, and I embarrassingly haven’t played them much in the past year or two. But I really love those and feel like I would super love playing them with friends. I think I’m more interested in making something more along the lines of Skate [...] But I think it can be like movies or other games, like I really enjoy playing the Uncharted series, and obviously that’s way beyond the scope of anything that we would be able to make. But there’s certain things, I think, that I enjoy playing, or if it’s a movie watching, that I’d be less interested in trying to pursue myself.
Polygon: Bringing up Skate, they very much modeled the architecture of a trick to the controller. Do you do something similar for mobile?
AS: Just like Skate tried to revolutionize the game in an era where Tony Hawk was [indisputably] dominant in the industry, [we’re trying] to bring something different to the app store. We loved True Skate and Skater; we think they’re awesome games. They’re really, really fun. But we brought a different experience for sure.
Not only in camera perspective and the fact that you’ll be able to play with a fully-modeled avatar and be able to “imprint” on that avatar in interesting ways, but the control scheme is a novel one that uses four quadrants of the screen. So there’s a couple different ways that you’ll be able to trick contextually. Pretty much at any point in the game, based on what feature you’re coming up to, you can grab, spin, manual; you can do different flip tricks and all kinds of different grinds, slides, spins.
So taking on that kind of challenge was really tricky and we’ve definitely experimented a lot with the control scheme. There’s a lot of nuance to it, but we feel like it’s in a really good place now where people will be able to pick it up and get used to it pretty quickly through the tutorial and as they move through some of our modes. But there’s a ton of depth to it to really master for players that want to put in the hours and be rewarded for it. If you want to be able to pull off any trick off the top of your head very purposefully like you could in the old console games, then it does take a lot of practice. That’s as much as I can kind of say; it involves a lot of holds, touches, swipes on different areas of the screen that you get used to.
Polygon: Are there advantages to doing a skate game on mobile?
AS: Yeah, I think there’s advantages to doing a lot of different games on mobile just because of the sheer volume of players you can reach. But there’s this rabid fanbase that wants a skate game and we hate to see years go by without [getting a game in the hands of people] looking for that kind of experience. There are already great games out there, but something that’s a little bit different. So I think, to get an experience like this that’s a little bit more condensed and artistically-driven, it’s a fantastic platform to be developing for.
Polygon: A few years back I interviewed some Neversoft people and they talked about how they were always watching and studying skate videos in the office to be able to inject that culture and what skaters were like into the Tony Hawk games. Are you doing something similar for Skate City?
AS: Daniel is a real purest when it comes to skate style and I think you can see that in our videos that we share on Instagram. We’re very careful with what kinds of tricks we choose and getting real, believable lines that feel real and feel like you can do them in real life. The animation work takes a ton of time, so I think we could easily fall into a hole of constantly trying to perfect the style and get that kickflip just like you see in a video. But I think, skate fans, when they play and they run through the three different cities that we have in-game, they’ll notice a lot of spaces from those famous clips and famous skate spots and meccas like [...] Oslo and Los Angeles, and they’ll recognize certain [skate spots] and whatnot.
Polygon: What’s each of your favorite skate videos?
AS: That’s a tricky one. Such a sucker for like, nostalgia. It’s probably Misled Youth.
RC: That’s what I was gonna say.
AS: I remember the Rodney Mullen stuff, like, seeing that and just being like, flabbergasted. I felt like I was watching a magician. I couldn’t fathom it in my kid brain. It really sticks with me. Nowadays everything’s so beautifully [...] shot. A lot of Nyjah [Huston’s] new videos are pretty unbelievable.
Polygon: Last question. It’s kind of a softball, but who’s your favorite skater, pro or otherwise?
RC: I hate to just go back and say Rodney Mullen. Also though, Daewon Song is pretty crazy. I had a [Danny Way deck] when I was younger, an Alien Workshop that was my favorite deck I ever had. So, I’d loved his stuff. There was this crazy video. I think he jumped out of like, a helicopter onto a halfpipe in one video.
AS: Which you won’t see in Skate City.
RC: If I had to pick one I’d probably just like instinctively say Rodney Mullen, but also he just seems like such a cool guy and pioneered so much [...] However, I think when I was younger I didn’t care for Tony Hawk as much, because I felt like I wasn’t into [vert] as much, and I wasn’t as into his style, maybe. But I’ve since seen quite a few documentaries that have covered him and he’s definitely like, a huge legend. A godfather of the sport. Definitely have a lot of respect for him as well.
AS: I remember always watching Dylan Rieder a lot, even when I wasn’t skating. I thought his videos were always really impressive and so smooth and effortless. The kind of approach he brought to street league and making art and artful videos was really cool. It was super sad when he passed away. A modern favorite? Luan Oliveira is I think the most impressive skater out there right now.
Special thanks: Kenneth Shepard