Patrick Dwyer interview: the making of Tony Hawk Ride

Michael catches up with one of the brains behind the reboot of the Tony Hawk games, Mr Patrick Dwyer...

Formed out of the closure of the EA Chicago games studio, ultra-stylish new start-up Robomodo’s first project is Tony Hawk Ride – a radical reinvention of the established skate-em-up series, featuring a board peripheral. Recently in London to oversee a preview event for the game, we had the chance to speak with Lead Designer Patrick Dwyer about Robomodo (featuring talent that has worked on the Fight Night, NBA Street, and Mortal Kombat franchises), the design processes behind the game, and the fun of skating in the living room.

Tony Hawk Ride is Robomodo’s first game. What was it like taking on the Tony Hawk franchise from Neversoft?

It was actually really awesome, since we’re all huge fans of the series, and just playing non-stop with friends, over and over again. So, just hearing [from Activision] ‘hey, you guys are an independent developer, and your first game’s going to be Tony Hawk! And it’s going to have a peripheral!’, that was insane!

So, were you approached by Activision with the peripheral idea already part of it?

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It was more of an approach like, ‘how are you guys going to refresh the series, and make the franchise Robomodo’s?’ The idea of a peripheral for skateboarding is not new, it’s been around forever. So we went over what our gameplay goals were – appealing to the mass market, having an intuitive control scheme, short bursts of gameplay that appeal to the party atmosphere, and having visuals that make it fun to watch – so from that, games that seem to nail that seem to be peripheral games. So, it was a logical step.

And Robomodo created the hardware from the ground up. Can you run us through the processes behind that?

We started out, saying ‘hey, what do we want this board to be able to do?’. So, initially, in week one, we didn’t have any hardware, but we had a bunch of skate videos, so we watched the skate videos and we all stood on decks, and acting like we were controlling this guy. So, when I’d do an ollie, I’d just lift up, and everybody was like ‘hey, ollie, okay, lift up the board quickly; manual, lift it up slowly’. And then it started getting to interesting things like the 90 degree grind – ‘how would we do that?’ – we had to have that freedom of motion. So from that we knew it had to be wireless. For flip tricks, we had no way to tell about lifting and tilting, just from being a board on the deck, so we had a bunch of arcade buttons on the front. We have some really cool engineers that are into electronics, and pulling stuff apart, so we had buttons on there, we even had trackballs – when someone would do a kickflip, you’d spin it. It started to get, like, that’s cool, but if I’m standing, I don’t want to be standing on the trackball, because you’d, uh [mimes slipping off board].

Eventually, we got to the point where we had a Wiimote, a 360 controller, a gyroscope from a PS3, and three sonar detectors, and that’s how we passed our first greenlight at Activision. A huge mess of wires everywhere, but it was really impressive as to what we were able to put together. And we were playing this thing, we were playing the old Tony Hawk, the previous one [Tony Hawk’s Proving Ground], so we had it working. And it was like, we actually can make this work. Then, there were certain things that felt really good, but the level design of Tony Hawk, and the twitch gameplay, was not working at all. So we had to start from the ground up with the software as well.

So you decided to peel the gameplay back, to that one or two minute, hot-seat approach?

Yeah, you know, when you’re on a peripheral, the best thing is that you get on it, play for a little while, hop off, have your friend play, try to best that score. And once you’re in an open world environment, and it’s about the player exploring, and searching for objectives, you lost that short burst of gameplay. And, in the shorter bursts of gameplay, as a player, you get focused, you get locked in, and it’s just you and the game. You get immersed. So once it gets to 6 or 8 minutes, you just want to relax, you get tired!

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This is a game that seems to be suffering from people’s preconceptions and skepticism, as it is a peripheral-based reimagining of a very involved, ‘hardcore’-ish game. But it seems that you still have that depth in there, with the more difficult tricks, and the perfect-line combos. Do you have any favourite combos yourself?

Yeah, we really wanted to take what was fun about the old games. But we wanted to make it not about doing these ollies, like, I’ve never seen a skater do! I guess my favourite thing is, where I go up, pitch the board up [on the backside] – it’s called a 5-0, and rotating into a salad grind, and then you can rotate again to go into a bluntslide, and you can lower the front and go into a different type of trick, and rotate again. And you’re doing grind combos, but it’s mapping 1:1 with the board, so that’s by far my favourite thing to do, getting into a long grind, holding it up, and doing tricks from it. Because, [previously] in Tony Hawk, it’s a balance meter, and your thumbs are doing all the work, but here, your whole body is like ‘oh, my god!’. People that get a high score in this game, they earned it! Whereas, in the old Tony Hawk games, you can get a million points, but then look again, and somebody had got a billion. So, we brought the scores back to within a reasonable range, where they mean something!

The peripheral is quite an innovation, in an obvious way. For the franchise, it’s been 10 games in 10 years, and each instalment had been piling on new features. Do you think this change of direction was necessary?

Once you have a game for ten years, and you go that long, every year, adding more and more stuff, you have the people who played the first one, and moved onto the second one, taking all they’d learned, but if you miss one, you feel left out. And when you’re at Project 8 – I think we looked at the left bumper, and that did, like, 4 different things, contextually. So we decided that, if we’re going to make a game, the left bumper isn’t going to do anything. We’re removing it from the equation! Just get the basics, and have it be intuitive, so you don’t have to memorise all that stuff. And, just, have it be fun!

Thanks for chatting with us, Patrick!

Tony Hawk Ride is out on December 4th.

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Read our preview here.