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New Tricks: Scott Blackwood Talks Skate And Skate 2

EA Black Box's Skate has dethroned the long-running Tony Hawk franchise in sales, and with a follow-up imminent, Gamasutra talks to exec producer Scott Blackwood on design and tech fundamentals.

When the EA Black Box-developed Skate was first announced, the game was anything but a sure thing. But notably, last holiday season's iteration eclipsed the sales of the most recent iteration of the Tony Hawk series, the reigning champion of all extreme sports game -- that which had outlasted all comers, including Electronic Arts, during the genre's boom in the late '90s to early 2000s.

How did this happen? The result, according to EA executive producer Scott Blackwood, is built on a group of developers passionate and knowledgeable about the sport, allowed to prototype and experiment -- building the game from the ground up under the instruction that there was no established formula for the genre.

Here, Blackwood outlines that process, as well as detailing the motivational tactics used to improve the game for its second iteration, Skate 2, which is due very early next year (rival Activision didn't release a Tony Hawk title this holiday season, and hasn't announced a new version of its franchise just yet.)

Blackwood also describes the process by which the team has defined what elements of its technological solutions must be built from the ground up and which can be brought in from outside -- a prioritization process absolutely crucial to delivering the game on time and on budget.

You had a lot of success with the first game. You took the crown away from Tony Hawk, to a certain extent. Was that what you were expecting, or what kind of reception were you anticipating? Because you came out with a very different kind of game.

Scott Blackwood: It would be hard to say that you would expect to do that. We didn't go in with that expectation. It wasn't really the spirit with which we started Skate. A lot of us were skaters, and we had the opportunity to get into something different. We had a vision for a totally different way of doing a skateboarding game, but there were a lot of risks involved.

We didn't want to copy Tony Hawk. We didn't want to waste one or two years of our lives just recreating something that, for what it was, had pretty much been perfected already. There were a lot of risks, and it was going in a different direction, and we were stoked that it paid off. So I don't know about crown this-or-that.

I just hope that it is the beginning of a rejuvenation of the category of the genre, because action sports games are just fun. We wanted to make a game that was fun and represented skateboarding in a different way. We just freshened up the category a little bit. It just felt like it needed a new injection. We didn't go into it as corporately competitive as people maybe think. We just had an idea, and thankfully we had the support of a company to go through with it.

You said that people on the team were actually into skateboarding, so is this like a natural kind of percolating idea that had been going around the studio, or something that you'd been discussing while you were working on other projects?

SB: I know that the idea of doing the skateboarding game had been around, and there were some different approaches to how we might try to get into that category. Obviously, we had a lot of success with SSX -- an amazing game, and I loved it.

And yet, I think that approach -- which is a more super-arcadey, good times, get your hands on it -- wasn't necessarily the way to approach getting into skateboarding, because that had been done.

We thought about it a lot, and a few of us just started this. It was really a grassroots thing. A bunch of guys who were passionate about doing a skateboarding game and doing something different and who skated... getting the go-ahead to go in a different direction, which at the time was pretty cool.

In terms of the way the design was... was it something that someone in the studio had been thinking about in the back of their mind for a long time, or was it actually more iterative? How was it born?

SB: Basically, the idea of approaching that skateboarding genre had been around for a while.

Sure, but the way you did it, specifically.

SB: At the time, we didn't feel like we necessarily had the right way to get into the genre. When I got together with some of the guys who'd been thinking about it -- Chris and Jay had both been skating for like 30 years -- and were dying to make a skateboarding game. We wiped the slate clean.

I just said, "Guys, pretend that nobody had ever made a skateboarding game before. What would we do?" and just started with philosophies. "Okay, let's see if we can keep it real." That's fine, but it's not fine if it's boring. We built up from there. "Okay, if we keep it real, can we innovate on the controls, the cameras, and the physics?" We just built it out like nothing else had ever existed.


Did you do that with paper design, or did you start prototyping fast?

SB: We did it on whiteboards and paper, and in fact, the control scheme, we came up with that pretty much on paper. It was a crazy, risky thing to undo eight years of convention in skateboarding and just throw it out the window and say, "No, we're going to do this." Imagine if someone did a driving game and reversed steering and put acceleration on a different [control scheme layout]... it would be crazy. No one would ever do that.

But we really liked it on paper. We worked with our lead programmer at the time, and really, in about two or three days, he built a prototype, and it was great. We actually were up and playing the game -- no rendering, no game, and no animations. But what we did was that we were reading the stick, and we could start to dial in different gestures and motions.

We could put in any different gesture and say, "We're going to call that a kickflip. That's going to be starting in the middle, going down to six o'clock, and then up to one of the sides." And it would spit that out and say, "You did a kickflip." It would measure it based on how accurate you were, and we would rate that from one to five.

So one was like, "Okay, you weren't really accurate, but you sort of did the kickflip." Five was, "You did it perfect." The other one would give you a rating based on the speed with which you did it. So one was like, "You were kind of slow," and five was, "You were fast." So if you could be five and five, you did it fast, and you did it perfectly accurate.

It was funny, it was just a little text-based game with flick-it controls, that turned into us grabbing the controller from each other going, "Oh, I can do better than that." And we dialed in... how we imagined flips, ollies, and inward heels and all that. We were playing the game a year before we ever had to care about graphics. And we learned a lot, too. With prototyping, it's amazing the things you learn. We learned one thing -- we needed to read the controls at 120 hertz, not 60.

Really?

SB: If you look at the Xbox 360 or the PS3 controller, there's not a lot of give there. When you go down and up, it's fast -- it's less than a second. Reading at 60 hertz did not give us enough information to build the profile into exactly what you did. So we redid it and were like, "Okay, we need to read it at 120 to get all that information on how fast you were and how accurate you were." Then we built that into the physics, and it was on and on from there.

And then you run at 60 frames per second for the game display.

SB: We are this year [for Skate 2], in rendering. The physics, similar to the controller... we always ran the physics at 60 hertz, because we needed to get the fidelity to match what you were doing with the controller. This year, we put the challenge down to the team and our senior art director that we really wanted 60.

When you can get your rendering matching your physics and running all at 60, it's just a bit of magic. All of a sudden, there's this new feeling. There was some arguing back-and-forth like, "Well, we're going to need to sacrifice visuals, because if you double your framerate, you're taking half of that away from what you're putting into your visuals."

And yet somehow, the team managed to not only hit 60 frames a second, but also made the game look better in every way than it did last year. Which is a cool thing. Putting a constraint like that in front of a team that's as talented and motivated and passionate as the Skate team, they still figured out how to make it look better and hit 60.

It's interesting, because not a lot of people try and hit 60 anymore. Mostly it's 30. But the one genre that tries to consistently hit 60 is fighting games. They're also very fast, command-based games. There's some similarities there, in terms of... not necessarily the output. Obviously, skating around a park is very different. But the way you input precise movement to create very precise movement of a character.

SB: Sure. I love fighting games. I could've paid off a mortgage with the amount of money I put into Street Fighter II back in the day. And yeah, I couldn't imagine playing one at 30 [FPS], with what's out there now.

But it's tough when you become open-world, and you're not just two fighters in a ring. You're in an open world with cars and pedestrians and other AI skaters and an extremely complex physics model, and yet it's still hitting 60 [FPS]. I'm really proud of the team.

There's no world in a fighting game, so that's a major load that comes off. They pump a lot of it back into the character models, but at the same time, there's still a vast difference.

SB: And even our character guys... without hyperbole, I think our characters might be 50 to 100 percent better-looking than they were last time. And in doubling the framerate... putting in a constraint like, "Yes, we value 60 [FPS], because gameplay rules all."

We put that above other things, and somehow, people will find a way. Nobody wants their stuff to not look good, so they think outside the box and come up with new techniques, and it's amazing on the tech side, art side, or whatever. They still figure out, "Okay, we met that constraint, but we're not going to make stuff look worse than last year." There's too much pride there.


How much of your audience do you think is going to appreciate the framerate jump? Whenever you're picking features to put into a game, it seems to me that sometimes -- and I'm not suggesting that you have -- there's an extent to which developers can lose sight of what actually has an impact on the broad audience of a game.

SB: When you're bombing downhill at 60 miles an hour and it's silky-smooth 60 [FPS], I think a lot of people will appreciate that it's 60, whether or not they really know why. The savvy gamers will know. They're going to look at that and go, "Wicked. That's 60 frames a second."

It's an interesting consideration. When you're sitting there and going to the whiteboard or whatever and talking about the targets that you want to hit for the game, prioritizing something like that becomes... you have to really want it and work hard to make that happen.

SB: Yeah. I didn't tell my team this, but I was always willing to concede 60 FPS if the cost ever became too high. But drawing that line in the sand rallied these guys, and they still figured it out. And the 60 is amazing, and I think it was worth it. I don't know what we would buy back that would be worth more than that 60 frames per second, to be quite honest.

And especially in a game where... we built up a mountain, and you're bombing [down] hills at crazy speeds. It's not a lot different from a racing game, and you're doing tricks. You're not just driving a car. That's cool and you're going fast, but now you're doing crazy tricks and stunts while you're going that fast. You appreciate that more at 60 hertz.

Honestly, I think that's probably a differentiator. Like I said with the fighting game comparison, when you're doing precise, fast movements, that's probably just as much as the visual appeal of it.

SB: Oh, for sure. Fighting games are quick, and you need to capture all the nuances of what's going on. You're not necessarily going to get that same feel at 30.

What physics solution did you use for the game?

SB: It's actually a RenderWare-based physics solution. We did look at a lot of different physics packages... and now I'm going back over two years. Actually, at that time, RenderWare had a really cool physics package that one guy developed, and they were called Drives. Essentially what Drives were, was a hinge. It's a neat way to make an intensive thing like a saloon door.

Our guys took these Drives and turned them into all the joints in your body. So now with Drives, we can create a full, physically accurate replica of the human body and all the joints, and you can even... say, take your right knee, and we can weaken it by 50 percent, and your guy would walk differently, based on that. So we use Drives as the foundation for everything that we do in physics, even your skateboard. Your trucks are Drives, and your wheels and hinges. Everything's Drives.

In fact, the way you're popping your board off the ground, it's not animation-driven. It's actually real forces on that board popping off the ground. We'd never have been able to get the same feel without our team [taking the] foundation of Drives and [building] a lot on top of it. We did mocap, and we have all that animation in the game, but animation is a target.

With Drives, I can say that I want to be 100 percent of that target, with every joint and limb, or I can be zero, which would be ragdoll -- I would be limp. But you have everything in between. I could even take my right arm and say, "Well, that's going to be 10 percent, so it's super-limp, but my other one's 100." It's amazing the amount of flexibility it gave us, and it is the foundation of the whole game and what gives it that great feel.

Have you considered a feature with injuries, or something like that?

SB: Absolutely. We have the Hall of Meat in Skate, and we liked it and know a lot of other people who liked it. We sort of just dipped our toes into the water with what we could've done with that feature.

We're not going into too much detail with what we're doing in Skate 2 with Hall of Meat, but I can tell you we're doing more, and we're having a hell of a lot of fun with it because the physics gives us so much to play with and have fun with.


Another interesting thing is... I'm trying to think what the last serious competitor to Tony Hawk was before they all got shut down, and it was probably like...

SB: Thrasher: Skate and Destroy, maybe.

Yeah. We're talking like back in 2000 or 2002, maybe, at the latest, I would say. Probably not even that late. But I guess you've reached the point where your game is successful, but now you have to iterate on it. Going back for the second one is very different than coming out with the first one. What was that process like for you guys?

SB: It is. It can only be new for your first time out with a franchise, and there's a certain appeal to being new. New is sexy, especially if you're taking a lot of risks and they pay off. Of course, if you take risks that don't pay off, that's kind of horrible. But to be quite honest, we'd already designed 2 at the same time as we designed 1. In fact, we designed 1, 2, and 3 all at the beginning.

We looked at it as a three-game plan. We knew where we wanted to get to in the first, and we knew that even with the first one, we couldn't get off-board, and some people would be kind of bummed. "Oh, I want to get off the board." But to make getting off-board really pay off, it would've taken away from our skating. Do you want ollie inward heels, or do you want off-board?

So we decided, "Okay, we're going to focus. Let's just get skating right the first time," and we knew the second time we'd come in with off-board. Same with movable objects, and a lot of other things. We already kind of knew where we wanted to go, which made it easier, but it's also a challenge, because you've got to keep it fresh.

The second time around, you're not the new shiny thing. It's a sequel. But to us, that was an opportunity to fix anything we didn't like with the first one. And there were some parts of the game -- maybe create a character, the video editor, online stuff -- that we knew that if we rated that ourselves, we'd say, "Okay, good first outing, but not amazing." On the second one, we get to make it amazing. We get to get across all the features and push them further, and then pick a few that we really want to just knock out of the park.

To return to what you were talking about with designing the three games up-front, I don't think I've ever actually heard anyone say that before. Is this a franchise-driven philosophy? A lot of people say now, "We're trying to do a franchise." I guess because this is an action-sports game, you're expected to ship one every holiday, I'm assuming.

SB: No, that's not the expectation. I hear a lot about it. I read the boards and the forums, and a lot of people are like, "Oh, EA is going to make these guys crank one out every year." Honestly, it's a different EA.

I've been around here for 14 years and seen a lot of changes, but it is a different environment under John Riccitiello and a lot of the new heads at the company really embrace quality. I don't need to say it, because I think people are seeing it in some of the products that are coming out, whether it's Dead Space or Mirror's Edge or whatever, but at Black Box, we're treated more like an independent developer.

I wasn't trying to imply that it was a meat packing factory situation. It was more just...

SB: I guess we can go down to another layer. Skateboarding doesn't have a season, so yeah. NBA needs to hit at the beginning of a season. It'd be crazy not to. Sports games do need to iterate yearly.

Madden's got to hit the beginning of the football season, sure, but what we do is that we're building a massive city, and to do that, trying to build a massive new city every year would be crazy. You can't do that, so you need more time. And we were never pressured to ship and crank one out every year.


When are you shipping?

SB: I'll smirk and say, "When it's done." I'll say this: Skate came out in mid-September last year. Skate 2 is not in alpha yet. [Ed. note: as of the time of the interview, conducted in September.] So it's already not a yearly franchise. It's not going to be as late as, say, late next spring, and it's not going to be in the fall.

I'm just curious from the perspective of this thoughtful approach to a franchise. It's like, "We have a realistic target for the first game, second game, and third game." And I understand that things have changed. One specific example that I think maps well beyond Mirror's Edge being quite cool is the fact that Need for Speed is on a two-year cycle now. They've announced that. They're going to flip it around.

SB: Yeah, Need for Speed is kind of cool. We share the same studio with them. They've always got two different teams. It's similar to Call of Duty. I know some guys who work on that, and it's a cool system. You can ship every year, but you have two teams going one on and one off.

We're all getting it. Certain franchises don't need to ship every year, and we consider ourselves one of those. So let's take the time, and when we do come out with another one, let's make sure that we don't drive it into the ground.

We want to build the category and build the genre. The team puts a lot of work into this. We all take pride in what we do, and we don't want to shovel stuff out too soon. That benefits nobody. What's awesome is that all the heads at EA are totally down with that program.

I think having to ship every fall is what led to Tony Hawk stumbling a little bit, right? You don't have to agree with me, and it's not an insult to Neversoft at all. They just ran into a wall eventually.

SB: I don't ever hate on those guys and what they did, and I never took a weird business competitive aggro approach to it. Yeah, we're doing something different, but I can certainly see why it would be tough to be... whether you're forced or if you've just decided, trying to do a game like that every single year is tough. Doing any game every single year is tough.

One of my best friends is the executive producer on NBA, and every single year, he's got to bring it. When you factor in the ops time and holiday time, really you're making that game in seven or eight months. It's a big challenge. So to do a skateboarding game and keep it fresh for eight, nine, or ten seasons every year? That's hard. I wouldn't want to have to do that.

In this generation, there's been a lot of success and a lot of great games, and I think that some people are finding out that it was more than they bargained for in other ways. You know what I mean? In terms of budgets, team size, technology, and all kinds of things.

SB: It's funny. When I joined the EAC [Electronic Arts Canada] studio in '94, I think I was the 107th person. My team now is bigger than that -- than an entire studio was. So when you look at the budget... I was working on SNES and Sega Genesis, and we did a game with like seven, eight, or nine people maybe. Now it's ten times that, and ten times the cost, at least.

So yeah, it's a challenge, especially if you want to make a triple-A, blockbuster game. You've got to be prepared for what that's going to take. I think now we're all getting like, yeah, you can't say that I'm going to make a triple-A blockbuster in a year. You know it's not possible. As much as we'd all like to, you've got to give it the right amount of time.

We're all catching up to that now. We're always trying to find ways to do more, faster, but the bottom line is that these new consoles can hold a lot of shit. It takes a while to pack it all in, and when you're up against competitors that are taking three years or even sometimes more to build their games, you have to adjust that, or else they'll bury you. So do you take that amount of time? There's so many different approaches. It's definitely an interesting new world, and I think we're all adapting and learning as we go.

Do you do everything internally at your studio, like all the art? Or do you outsource or collaborate?

SB: We definitely outsource. We have some great outsourcers helping us out with characters and parts of our environments. So wherever we can, we outsource.

Just art, or is it other stuff, too?

SB: It's just art. It's pretty much full-on art focused. It's easier stuff. Outsourcing code would probably be next to impossible, but certainly outsourcing art... and in our studio, we have a physical limitation on how many people we have seats for. So when you can outsource, it makes it a little bit easier so that you don't have to pack two guys into one cube or that type of thing.


Have you guys as a studio been trying to develop any studio-wide solutions for core teams or core tech that you can utilize in those cases? Or do you think that building it all per-game, is the right way to go?

SB: Core technology is so interesting, because it's always made so much sense in some ways, and yet it's been the hardest thing to ever really make happen. I've seen it come and go and ebb and flow over my entire career. Core libraries, everyone uses them, and one will go, "No. We're not using that, because it's not exactly right for what we're doing." And then the whole thing kind of falls apart.

It's a challenge to say, "We're going to have a central team that supports Need for Speed and their needs, and then Skate and our needs." That'd be tough, because they're totally different games. You sort of move through open-ended environments, and we always share as much as we can, but I think we've found that we make the best games when we let the teams decide, "What's right for me?"

There's a toolbox, but we don't all need to use a hammer. Maybe a hammer's right for your solution. Maybe I need a saw or a chisel or whatever. But I think when you force people to all use the same tools, you're going to get cookie-cutter games. It's a tough one.

Economically, it makes sense in a lot of ways, but I don't think anyone's perfected the, "Hey, we have the one solution for everybody," thing. Because when you go that way, teams aren't as motivated, because programmers, artists, and everyone wants to create their own stuff. They want to put their own personal stamp on what they do and tailor it to the genre. If it's like, "Here. Use this toolset and make a game around it," then that can be tougher.

That said, if you're making a shooter, I don't think I would go and create all of my own stuff from the ground up, because there's battle-tested stuff out there that gets you up and going right away. So different solutions for different games, I guess.

Do you have a proprietary engine that you've been using?

SB: I guess so. You could call it the Skate engine. It's a whole bunch of harvested technology put together in something that I guess you could call an engine. But we certainly begged, borrowed, or stole wherever we could, because we didn't want to spend more money than we had to making the game.

What I've always said is that you invest in your special sauce. So if physics is your special sauce and that's what's going to make or break your game, and you don't see anything out there that's going to get you to where you want it to be, build it yourself if you have to.

But don't go write your own renderer if there are great renderers out there, and so on and so forth. Pick a couple of things, if you have to, to build yourself, if you know you need it to knock your game out of the park. But then, for everything else, if there's something good out there, take it.

There were technical solutions, to a certain extent, that probably existed at your studio that were broadly applicable to the game that you envisioned at the beginning, I'm guessing. Like open-world stuff had been done by Need for Speed, potentially. I'm just wildly theorizing. There are places where you could and places where you couldn't.

SB: Definitely. There was a lot of stuff out there, and we took it. It was interesting. For almost the first year of Skate, we were a very small team, and I think we honestly only had two programmers that whole time. That forces you to really focus.

When you have two programmers, you'd better really focus. Don't go and write a renderer. We have great rendering technology, so we're not going to worry right now about rendering pixels on a screen. EA's never had a problem rendering pixels on a screen.

However, let's look at the things that we want to do that makes Skate special. And we did look. We looked everywhere for physics. We looked at a lot of different solutions. We looked at Havok and Endorphin and others, and either things are too expensive or they're not quite... if we could've paid a little bit of money and gotten an off-the-shelf solution that was exactly what we needed, we would've done it.

But there wasn't anything that did exactly what we needed it to do, so we built it. But we only built a few new components that really made Skate special. Everything else, we just took. There's lots of good stuff out there, so why rewrite it?

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