How expressive gameplay makes you feel in Skate 3, or, why Game Designers Should Take Up A Sport

by Dave Proctor

I didn’t value the Skate series as much as I should have when it came out. I grew up on late night Tony Hawk parties–we would stay up until 5 in the morning mastering the halls of the School, the Warehouse, the Airport. I knew how to play Tony Hawk, and I was damned good at it. It was a video game, and I liked video games. Seems like a natural fit.

That last sentence seems odd, but let me be clear: Tony Hawk is not a skateboarding game.

I grew up snowboarding. It’s been years since I’ve been out now, but I went as far as instructor level at our small private club. I had friends that were exclusively snowboarding friends. I said things that were exclusively snowboarding things. I was a different person on the hill than I was at home. I loved it. I was never as great at skateboarding, probably because unlike others I got into it after snowboarding, so the lack of bindings and much smaller board never filled me with stability… but I was good enough at snowboarding to know why Skate 3 is great.

(For the remainder of this piece I’ll talk about skateboarding culture, because while I wasn’t ingrained enough in it I was a passive observer and qualified enough to recognize the similarities. If you doubt my qualifications, picture me talking about this stuff on a snowboard. If it’s written below, I’ve lived it).

Part of the experience, the culture, of skateboarding, is focusing on features and pushing your limits on them. This is written in the very DNA, the language of the sport.You’ll isolate individual features in a park and make them your goal. You’ll talk about things in knowing terms, naming things by their features and stuff you can do to them. “I’m gonna hit that kink box today,” or “I’m trying to 270 on to that down-flat-down rail,” or, once, from an instructor of mine, “and if we hit this drop really high up, you might be able to pull off a quick 180.”

Setting up around a specific rail and re-hitting it until you land the trick that you think will be cool, push your limitations, and look cool is the core of skateboarding. It is about challenging only yourself for the benefit of spectators. Tony Hawk forces weird gravitational rules on you and allows for physical impossibilities, and is not as much a game about skateboarding as it could be about trampolining. In Tony Hawk, you are challenging yourself for the benefit of a score counter. In Skate 3, I couldn’t tell you, not once, what point value my tricks were worth.

This is not even to go in to how Skate 3 plays. The Flick-it system of using your analog sticks as legs feels more natural and difficultthan the old “left+square” logic of Tony Hawk (which by the way is even worse in Shaun White and Amped, because the idea that you should have a button mapped to complete inverted rotations is insulting to the skill that requires).

The thing that Skate 3 really impresses on me is that it incentivies playing like a skateboarder. Watch the guys in the video above. They’re not doing mind-numbing, off-the-wall, 300-foot drops. They’re focusing on lines. Flow. Continuation of trick to trick. The way your legs move one way up on to a rail and down off of it. It is a ballet, and they are screaming excitedly at each other to pull it off.

Skate 3 takes how skateboarders actually live and figures out how to do that in the game. Remember how I said picking your line and focusing on it is a core point of the sport? Skate 3 lets you set up a spot in front of something and immediately teleport back to your starting point, so you can repeat and master tricks of your own choosing. Some of the most fun I’d ever had in this game was focusing on a single rail or ledge, and challenging myself to kickflip on to it and kickflip off, manual in the middle, or something that wasn’t high flying Tony Hawk acrobatics, but would prove that I had enough of a grasp on the controls to execute something that I thought would look cool. If you had ever done this in Skate 3, you can understand what it’s like to be someone trying to free skate on their own rules.

The videos that skateboarding culture are based around? Hundreds of attempts to land single tricks, all shot at the same low angle, the same camera perspective Skate 3 works on in default, all meant to give you focus on the fluidity of the legs and make you feel like you’re front row center for the ballet.

But if you tried to make this game without being a part of the culture, without looking at how people that love it truly love it, you’d end up with only the ideas of tricks and ramps and rails, the parts that don’t really comprise the whole. Tony Hawk is all the component parts of skateboarding thrown into a different game. Skate 3 is how people skateboard, for skill, for style, and for themselves. So get out there and rip it up, if you’re trying to make a game about rippin’ it up.