Skater XL Interview -- Easy Day Studios on Bringing Skateboarding Culture to Gaming
Easy Day Studios co-founder Dain Hedgpeth and director of marketing Jeff Goforth discuss Skater XL's unique gameplay and properly repping skateboarding.
Throughout my years with DualShockers, my “E3 dream” was for a formal announcement for Skate 4. Now that EA actually made that announcement, I’m not as enthused as I thought I would be. “Why is that,” you ask? Well, there are a whole lot of skateboarding games launching in the near future. From Crea-ture Studios’ Session to Vicarious Visions’ Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 and 2, there are so many different variations of the beloved yet niche genre. Heck, there is even one where you can skate as a bird.
However, the game that will usher in this new wave of skateboarding games is by the California-based developer, Easy Day Studios. Skater XL is the first mainstream skateboarding video game to hit the big console platforms since Skate 3 launched over 10 years ago. Evoking a similar style to Skate, it will certainly fill that gap that has been present in the market for a whole decade.
“This is our interpretation of the skating game people really wanted the whole time. This is where things were moving to.”
I was able to chat with Easy Day Studios co-founder and director Dain Hedgpeth and director of marketing Jeff Goforth about what makes Skater XL stand out amongst the plethora of recently announced skateboarding games. We also discussed how it improves on what EA started with Skate and how Easy Day Studios is bringing skateboarding culture and community to its upcoming game.
As I mentioned, there is somewhat of a resurgence of the skateboarding video game genre. It’s as if everyone grew tired of waiting for a new Skate game and decided to make it themselves. There is clearly an audience for a simulation-esque skateboarding game, and Skater XL will attempt to appease everyone who has been hungry for this type of game for years. I asked Dain about this resurgence of the skateboarding game and his feelings on ushering it in with Skater XL:
“It’s pretty surreal as fans of the genre to have been able to work in the space. Jeff [Goforth] is coming from 20 years in the actual skateboarding industry. Myself and some of the other guys on the team have worked on action sports games and are just off the back of a mobile skateboarding game for iOS and Android that launched in 2014. So yeah, it’s been interesting, the things that all had to happen for this to all fall into place at the time that it did. And, you know, we were looking at this gap in the market a few years back when we were sort of putting the pieces together that became Skater XL.
Everyone is familiar with the meme of, “we want Skate 4, etcetera, etcetera.” There has just been this clamoring and this passionate group. You know, I think everyone is aware that maybe as a niche, it’s big, but not as big as some of the team sport games that EA Sports works on or some of the first person shooters. It just sort of fits in this interesting middle point. So yeah, it has been pretty amazing for us just to kind of come in and start to fill this gap.
From early on, we were very [decided on] bringing something new to the genre. Tony Hawk had come in with a certain approach; EA Skate had come in and moved things forward. We felt there was another big step that this genre could take and we were very well positioned to have a go at it. This is our interpretation of the skating game people really wanted the whole time. This is where things were moving to.”
Collectively, I’ve spent about 27 hours playing the early access versions of Skater XL and Session; the majority of my time has been within the past month or so, as I just built a PC. That number has been steadily climbing as we approach Skater XL‘s full release later this month. Each is great in their own right. However, something I noticed about Easy Day Studios’ trick system versus Crea-ture Studios’ Session is how trick inputs function. Although there are several variations that each of these titles makes to deviate from the beloved Skate series, Session‘s trick animations function similarly to EA’s animations. Essentially, you can change flip speeds and make slight variations to each trick, but it is pretty easy to get the flip you want consistently. Skater XL takes a very different approach that may look similar if you’re watching a video, but works rather differently than its competition.
Skater XL actually uses a mostly physics-based system for trick inputs. There is some motion capture used to properly animate your skater, but all of your trick inputs are essentially being interpreted in real-time, and then executed on-screen using an amalgamation of animation and physics-based trick system. I was very intrigued by this trick system, as it produced some of the coolest looking flip tricks I have seen in a game. It really feels like you are expressing yourself with a skateboard. When asked whether this system was difficult to work with and implement, this is what Dain had to say:
“It was, but it’s interesting because there’s certain things that become much easier when you’re working with a natural and organic system, and there are certain things that are much more complicated because you’re not working with a real world interaction. You don’t have the same level of articulation through two joysticks and four axes of control. It’s not the same as having balance and all these different things you have control over in the real world.
[Creating the trick system] was the better part of the first year of development. We locked down the core team and really just drew a line in the sand and said, “we’re not moving forward until we are happy that we have something that we can build a game around.” The core mechanics, like the controls and the gameplay, was the only focus for some time until we had something that was like 80 percent of the way. It still needed some extra things added, it still needed some polish, but once we could feel it, we were like, “yes.”
I think we boiled it down to the right principles in the way it is designed. It feels right. It feels like skateboarding. You have control. You really feel a personal sense of reward when you do things because you are not only learning a skill, but every moment of the trick [including its] style [and] the way it came out. Like in real skateboarding, each time you do a kickflip, it looks and feels different.
The animation system, as well, was quite tricky because everything is kind of upside down. You’re not having the game read input, decide to do a kickflip, and then start a sequence of events that equals a kickflip. There is not even a line of code in the game that says “kickflip.” We basically have movement of the board, the player controls that movement, that movement happens to create a kickflip, then the game is actually watching the board [and] the user’s intent and in the moment, interpreting that in real time and trying to figure out what the animation should be doing.
We do have mo-cap. We have all these hundreds of different fragments of cut up mo-cap that is being augmented and it blends and fades in the right way. So, we have a system in there that is kind of novel in itself that is trying to listen to the board and see what the board is doing. Like, ‘Oh, this looks like a kickflip, let’s make the character express [themself] and flick their foot in the right way,’ and all that kind of stuff. So, that was a whole bundle of challenges in itself.”
“I think we boiled it down to the right principles in the way it is designed. It feels right. it feels like skateboarding.”
Skater XL‘s unique trick system, inspired environments, and general gameplay loop is the reason to play this game. Like real skateboarding, your “progress” is determined by your coolest line or your gnarliest trick. However, this isn’t real, even if it is as close to the real thing as a video game can get. Just about every game has a progression system, and Easy Day Studios has implemented one into Skater XL, albeit not in the traditional sense.
When asked if there would be challenges or a progression system in Skater XL, Dain brought up how most players, including myself, played Skate. While there were challenges and a story mode, the fun in Skate was engaging in its gameplay, finding spots, and testing your skills by filming an awesome line or trick. Specifically, Dain mentions that rather than using challenges to “supplement” or “replace” the gameplay loop, it will “enhance” it, with the intent to help players learn new skills and thoroughly use each environment to its maximum potential:
“Yes, we do have a challenge system in there. At launch, we have several hundreds of different challenges throughout the different levels. The objective of having challenges in there was really to help people see all the different things within the levels; you know, the different lines you can do in them. It’s really kind of giving people a helping hand; giving them some challenges, something to feel like they are progressing. [It’s] something that will push their skills in different directions and help them understand the different ways you can use the controls, but also help unlock the environment a little bit, as well.”
Back in April, Easy Day Studios announced four pros would be playable in Skater XL: Brandon Westgate, Tiago Lemos, Evan Smith, and Tom Asta. Each of them is outfitted with the deck and attire they would use in real life. A month later, it was revealed several name brands, like Emerica and Element, would also be featured in the game.
Now, I used to skate and was really engulfed in that culture…over 10 years ago. So, while I’ve seen names like Brandon Westgate and Tom Asta, I have kind of stepped away from skateboarding, and am pretty unfamiliar with that world as I’ve been absent from it for years. Because of that, I wanted to know why these four skaters in particular were added into the game. This is what Jeff had to say:
“[They were chosen] partially based on my past relationships and working with brands. I had connected with these guys, or several of them, over the years and just maintained friendship [with them]. So, it came kind of naturally. Like, cool; we want to get not only icons from this generation–which really, these guys are those pros that have really cemented themselves for this generation of skateboarding–but also guys that we meld with and were really on board with the idea and wanted to be involved.
Yeah, we really just wanted some unique styles. We got Evan [Smith], who is kind of more “out there.” He’s got the long hair and kind of the psychedelic vibe. Then you got someone like Brandon Westgate who is just one of the most powerful, all-around street skaters there is today. Then Tiago [Lemos] is like the next huge legend globally. We really just wanted to pick a diverse group of people that brought different elements of skating, but also guys that really fit with the game.”
From Jeff’s response, it really seems as if these four, and I’m sure many others, really represent skating culture today. These are some of the best in the world, and people look up to them as influences, kind of in the same way as skaters like Don Nguyen, Mike V., Jamie Thomas, Christian Hosoi, and Shogo Kubo inspired my style of skating. I know a few of those names are a bit before my time, but guys like Hosoi and Kubo had such an awesome style that I wish I could emulate.
But skating culture is more than just adding in a few pros from the scene. I asked in what way is Skater XL representing that culture. Part of Jeff’s answer does entail the brands that Easy Day Studios has managed to include in the game. After all, part of expressing yourself may be in the way you dress, or the way you outfit your board. Jeff also mentions how it’s also the gameplay and the California-based spots they’ve created (or recreated) in the game:
“The whole game is sort of based around the California skating lifestyle. It’s a little more laid back, but you got those iconic spots and it’s really authentic to skateboarding. You know, myself, Dain [Hedgpeth], and Jon [West, co-founder and lead developer of Easy Day Studios] — who are three of the core members — are lifelong skaters. Everyone else on the team has a really strong connection to skateboarding. So, just all those details [both in the environment and in its gameplay] might get missed from somebody that’s not a skater. A huge focus was to make sure that we do right by skateboarding and represent it in the correct way.”
A huge part of skateboarding, whether it is digitally in a game or in real life, is filming some trick or line that is rad and sharing it with the world. Now more than ever, it is easy to just capture a moment and post it. Posting video is almost immediate unless you want to make it look all nice and fancy. Heck, I’ve been capturing a ton of content on Skater XL with its replay feature and posting it on my Twitter. It is incredibly fun and simple to use and looks pretty natural. As it is pretty integral to the experience, I asked about Easy Day Studios’ approach with the replay editor, and if it were somewhat of a priority for the developer to really get that facet right. Here is what Dain had to say:
“It’s a big thing that we wanted to give some attention to. For 1.0, there is a bit of a refresh on the replay editor, the UI, and the guides that are in there. But moving forward, I think we can have a process of making replays that helps people make the best replays possible, particularly with people who haven’t done it before. There is a bit of a learning curve there.
But also, you’ve made a replay; the cool thing to do with it is to actually show other people. You know, share that moment and get some kudos. Those kind of things differ per platform as well; the ability to hook into social platforms, the ability to capture video easily, save it then share it. So, there are a few things to work out there, but it’s definitely a big part for anyone that goes beyond enjoying the gameplay.
As you get deep into [Skater XL], it is certainly one of the things that becomes very rewarding. We are definitely looking to improve that and definitely looking for more integration and easier sharing in the future. We’ll see what’s possible on each platform.”
For anyone to even want to share footage, you need a community to watch. Unsurprisingly, Skater XL has a community that is not only eager for the launch but have also taken matters into their own hands and started creating their own levels and mods. However, I didn’t realize how dedicated this community was, which Dain enlightened me on:
“So, what we were seeing in the PC [version] is this incredible explosion of community activity of modding. It’s really interesting to see that in the ten years since Skate 3 has come out, how much social platforms and the nature of what a game is has evolved. [There is] such a broader spectrum of what gaming can mean these days.
I think that is part of what was in the front of our minds when we started the project. [We asked ourselves about] Skater XL, “what does a modern skating game look like?” This isn’t 2010 where you can put things on a disc and that’s it. There is a lot more connectivity. You have all these social platforms you can leverage; people are on Discord, people are on Twitch; [for] skating, in particular, Instagram is quite with big clip sharing; and YouTube, of course. Being receptive to that out of the gate was something we were hoping to do.
I think we weren’t expecting it to be quite as active as it was. We were really hoping [for it]. This is skateboarding, there is a creative side to it. There is this existing community that is still playing Skate 3. And a large part of what is fun about skateboarding is the social side of it, the culture, the content, and the artistic expression of it with video parts, and all the different facets of it; the music, the clothing, everything.
So, it has been interesting seeing Skater XL become a digital version of both the activity of skateboarding and the cultural things around it.”
Dain continued explaining some examples of just how dedicated the Skater XL community is. He talked about this bi-monthly magazine that is 200 pages long, including features on community members and ads for products by fake skate brands you can download via mod support. There are even skate teams. It’s a community filled with people who skate or have skated (I’m the latter) and want to just create cool content using a trick system that feels like skateboarding.
“It seems Easy Day Studios is doing its best to represent that wild world the best it can with Skater XL.”
This led to a conversation about the recently announced community-made levels Easy Day Studios is launching alongside the 1.0 release of Skater XL. Grant Park, Streets, and Hüdland are all levels created by the game’s modding community and will be completely free for the PC and console versions. It is pretty rare to see developers showcase their community in this way, and it’s encouraging to see Easy Day Studios featuring these levels as if they were their own.
Modding and downloading mods, especially in the way the Skater XL community seems to be going about it, is typically only available for the PC version, and that seems to be the case with Easy Day Studios’ upcoming release. However, as Dain explained, it seems the developer is looking into ways they can potentially bring user-generated content to console platforms:
“One of the most popular things with mods was the environments. People are making their own skateparks or a really famous skate spot and putting that out to the community. They are also collaborating with each other with building these spots. One guy might be really great at 3D modeling, [while] another is great at texturing and lighting. Then you’ve got guys who are good at filming and skating and they do promos and get it out to the community. You have all this kind of community activity around the creative process.
I know there are a lot of barriers, a lot of things to figure out with the console manufacturers, and for good reason. It’s not as easy to launch just any old content onto these more locked down platforms. They have strict quality control and there’s guides around ratings and language and all those sort of things. But I think things are changing as well. And gaming is changing. There are more avenues games can take to start to bridge that gap [between PC and console] and start to bring community content and [user-generated content] into console games.
So yeah, it’s something we’re looking at doing. We might bring in more maps. We are thinking about every different way you can think of to bridge the gap between the console audience and the community at large.”
After talking with Dain and Josh, it’s clear that Easy Day Studios knows skateboarding and really understand its culture and community. What I always found awesome about skateboarding and the people who partake in what some would consider “delinquent behavior” is that there really are no norms. The only barrier you face when jumping on a board is yourself. You’re constantly fighting your limitations, taking everything you’ve learned either by yourself or someone else and applying it in a way that is uniquely you. It’s really just about being yourself and expressing your creativity with a skateboard. It seems Easy Day Studios is doing its best to represent that wild world the best it can with Skater XL.
Skater XL is currently available in Early Access and will officially launch for PS4, Xbox One, and PC on July 28, 2020.