Down and Dirty with ‘Skate’

Screenshot from SkateTony Hawk, your time has come. There’s a new skateboarding game in town.

Skate (or skate.) was developed by EA Black Box, a stone’s throw from the VFS Hastings Street campuses, and two grads from the very first Game Design class, Charles Lavigne and Chris Klein, were on board.

The game dropped earlier this month to great reviews. IGN gave it an 8.8 score, concluding, “When EA announced Skate, everyone in the IGN office laughed. We’re not laughing anymore. Skate‘s pretty awesome.” The game is seen as everything the Tony Hawk series isn’t – realistic and surprisingly challenging, with an innovative control system that gets away from button sequences leading to impossible tricks.

Now that the game’s out, Chris has been kind enough to share his story and his thoughts on the game.

How did you come to be hired at EA Black Box?

Chris: How I got hired is a doozy of a question, so here goes – My career started at school, impressing the right people who could get me work. This not only means instructors, but classmates as well! Having Dave Warfield as the program head was hugely beneficial – the guy has a lot of respect in the industry, so when he says something about you, people listen. Having Instructors from EA and Backbone Entertainment was not only helpful in gaining real-world insight into the industry, but they also proved to be valuable allies in getting hired.

I wasn’t the first person in the class to get work, but thanks in part to some helpful persuasion from fellow classmates who did, I didn’t have to wait too long. I started work as a design intern – a paid one, even! – at Backbone Entertainment working on Age of Empires: The Age of Kings for the Nintendo DS. It was a great opportunity and one I didn’t waste. It was tricky balancing work and school, but it helped that my group for the final project were also design interns at Backbone!

Keeping my options open and wanting to ensure stable post-graduation employment, I also sought out opportunities at EA Black Box. This was mostly because I knew they were working on a new IP, and even though nobody would tell me what it was, there was something about their enthusiasm that drew me in.

My gut told me to really pursue work at Black Box. One instructor, Al Kang, who also worked at Black Box, kept encouraging me to bug them, which I did. It took three interviews for them to finally make me an offer! I also got an offer from Backbone, but Black Box won out with a mysterious new IP for next gen consoles.

Jumping in blind, when I didn’t even know what the game was, was very scary for me. I didn’t want to work on a lame-ass game. But I trusted the barely contained enthusiasm of the people I met who were working on it. Another factor was the reaction I got from Al Kang and the guest he brought from work – Andy Santos, a designer on the mysterious project – to a presentation at school. My presentation placed quite a bit of emphasis on camera and control, and it seemed I struck a nerve. If they were thinking about camera and control the same way I was, then maybe this game they were making would be right up my alley! When Black Box finally did make me an offer and told me what the game was all about, I was stoked to say the least.

And now we have Skate. What was your role on the game?

San Vanelona: A mix of San Francisco, Vancouver, and BarcelonaChris: My roles on Skate were very tailored to my strengths – I have a background in art, music, writing, and have a sometimes annoying level of attention to detail when it comes to gameflow and process. I started off with an exploration into how success is celebrated in video games, which helped in the long run to establish a vision for how we would celebrate successful tricks in Skate. I then got into exploring overall gameflow, which led directly into player navigation and the layout of our front end. It was hard work, because much of it was before various features had a chance to be fully realized.

The cool thing is that a lot of my guesswork and placeholder ideas for features served to inform – and often translated directly – into feature designs such as tutorials, online, and the role of music as a navigational tool. Once I ran out of things to do, they needed me to iron out the design details for establishing the game camera as a character. They had smarter people than me working out the camera position logic, so for me it was mostly dialogue – What does the character need to say and when will he say it? This led to the same work for the photographers, and eventually established me as the design consultant for all the dialogue in the game.

What was the biggest challenge you, personally, faced while making the game?

Chris: The biggest challenge was being heard. By my very nature, I’m a pretty quiet and mellow dude, so despite my enormous enthusiasm, I struggle to put myself out there in such a way that people take notice. So to work through this problem, I learned how to back-stab people and sabotage their work so I would look better…

Just kidding.

Really, it’s just about talking to and listening to people every chance you get. Make yourself known in the workplace, find someone who will listen to you and that has some pull to champion your cause, and learn how to get heard from the people who are good at it.

I’ve never stopped being a student – it’s just now I get paid for it! I learn something new every single day. Like I said, I work alongside people with some pretty impressive credentials, people who have worked on some of my favorite games and movies – our audio director worked on Army of Darkness, and we have a conceptual artist who worked on Fifth Element! – so it’s actually pretty hard not to pick a thing or two up in your average work day.

How are you feeling now that Skate’s out? Have you been reading the reviews?

Chris: Not quite how I thought I would feel. It’s pretty weird. I put two years of my life into this thing and it’s finally done, I’m really proud of it, and it’s getting some really great feedback. The thing is, I’ve played it already! I’ve been playing it for two years! It’s pretty strange how you feel about a game that, under normal circumstances, you can’t wait to play, but you’ve already played it and know everything about it. That gamer’s anticipation for something new and cool is replaced with this weird anxiety about what other people are going to think about it!

Screenshot from SkateAs a gamer, when you’re waiting for a new game to come out, and it does, and you’re all, like, “Oh, my God, I’m gonna put my freakin’ life on hold to play this game!” and it’s actually worth it, you don’t care about what other people think about it. As a game developer you just don’t get that with your own game. The same sort of applies to other games as well – once you understand the process behind them, the way in which you enjoy them is more appreciation of work than raw enjoyment. I’m not saying I don’t enjoy playing games anymore, it’s just that now that I’ve bitten into the apple, I enjoy them differently.

The reviews are definitely interesting. What’s really getting me stoked is the player feedback! People are really digging it, and it’s great because we had so much going against us.

Getting kudos in the face of adversity feels pretty damn heroic, even if it is just a video game…

Right – “Just a video game.” Thank you, Chris, for taking the time to give us insight into the development process, and best of luck to you, Charles, and the rest of the EA Black Box team going forward!

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