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Bringing Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater back to life

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2020 has been a year like no other. As the world has been stuck inside amid the coronavirus pandemic, some media and entertainment has thrived, particularly video games, where gaming hours have increased across the board. In some ways, though, 2020 feels similar — film remakes like Disney’s “Mulan”, Universal’s “Dolittle” and HBO’s “Scoob!” have reimagined old franchises with new thoughts, and gaming isn’t too different.

For years, many game developers have remastered old franchises or made sequels long after the fact. It’s a trend: people love nostalgia. On Sept. 4, “Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2,” a remaster of the first two wildly-popular, trend-setting skateboarding titles, will release across the globe. Since its announcement, the game has garnered hype from both old fans, who played the titles more than two decades ago, and newcomers alike.

The idea to remake the “Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater” and “Pro Skater 2” came when Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick met with Hawk to discuss contributing to and plans around the Tony Hawk Foundation. Before the meeting, Kotick met with some of his marketing team at Activision to discuss the possibility of making another “Tony Hawk” title. So Kotick pitched Hawk.

“It was an answer to a call of the hardcore fans,” Hawk told IGN in June.

Very few video games series are as revered as the skateboarding mega franchise. The “Tony Hawk’s” games had an impact across the board — from streetwear to music and inspiring a generation of skaters in the early 2000’s. So it seemed like a no-brainer, as Activision Blizzard continued to remaster titles in other franchises, such as “Warcraft III”, “Crash Bandicoot”, “Spyro” and “Call of Duty”, to take a swing at another “Tony Hawk’s” game. When Kotick and Hawk met, Kotick came prepared with a light business pitch on how to proceed forward.

“We moved pretty quickly from that conversation,” Activision vice president of product management and marketing Michelle Bresaw told ESPN. “Tony immediately showed interest.”

Much like how it seemed so simple to decide on a remaster, it was equally seamless to decide which of the 10 Activision studios would take on the project. It would be Vicarious Visions, the same studio that remastered the “Crash” titles, classics of the original PlayStation then ported and updated for the modern console and PC. Vicarious worked on handheld and mobile versions of a number of the initial set of “Tony Hawk’s” titles and on the PlayStation version of “Pro Skater 4” in 2002.

Vicarious were able to get their hands on a lot of the original coding for the original “Pro Skater” games left behind by original developer Neversoft, which merged with Infinity Ward and became defunct in July 2014.

“We were able to import the handling code, but it was really now, ‘what do you do with it to make it feel more modern?'” Vicarious studio head Jen Oneal said. “Like the animations that are layered on top of that handling, how are those more modern but you keep the timing so you have that muscle memory. The code side, not so challenging. The more arduous challenge was the preciseness of getting the animations to feel right and also feel modern. That took a lot of finessing.”

Since “Pro Skater” and “Pro Skater 2” released in 1999 and 2000, the world has changed significantly. When the originals were released, they featured a trick called the “mute air” and “mute grab,” which many skaters like Hawk, had coined from the trick’s investor, amateur skateboarder Chris Weddle. Weddle himself was not mute, but rather, deaf. In a post on Instagram in early August, Hawk said that for the upcoming remaster that he and the developers decided to rename it to the “Weddle Grab” after he consulted with Weddle and Deaflympics action sport champion Darrick De La O.

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For nearly 40 years, we’ve shamelessly referred to this trick as the “mute” air/grab. Here is the backstory: around 1981, a deaf skater and Colton skatepark local named Chris Weddle was a prominent amateur on the competition circuit. The “Indy” air had just been created & named so somebody proposed that grabbing with the front hand should be known as the “Tracker” air. Others countered that Chris was the first to do, so it should be named after him. They referred to him as the “quiet, mute guy.” So it became known as the mute air, and we all went along with it in our naive youth. In recent years a few people have reached out to Chris (who still skates) about this trick and the name it was given. He has been very gracious in his response but it is obvious that a different name would have honored his legacy, as he is deaf but not lacking speech. I asked him last year as I was diving into trick origins and he said he would have rather named it the “deaf” or “Weddle” grab if given the choice. His exact quote to me was “I am deaf, not mute.” So as we embark on the upcoming @tonyhawkthegame demo release, some of you might notice a trick name change: The Weddle Grab. It’s going to be challenging to break the habit of saying the old name but I think Chris deserves the recognition. Thanks to @darrick_delao for being a great advocate to the deaf community in action sports, and for being the catalyst in this renaming process. I told Chris tecently and his reply was “I’m so stoked!” And then he shot this photo in celebration yesterday. 📷: @yousta_storytellers_club

A post shared by Tony Hawk (@tonyhawk) on

Many things will feel like the old “Pro Skater” titles, like the incredibly popular music — which Vicarious and Activision were able to get updated license agreements for all but three tracks — but some things will be new. 37 new songs will be added, as well as a few new skaters, too, including Hawk’s son, Riley Hawk.

Oneal said that the studio wasn’t faced with working around anything offensive from the original games, but that the studio wanted to ensure that the game was more inclusive to all people. The original “Pro Skater” featured just one Black skater and only two women. “Pro Skater 2” featured three persons of color and two women again.

“When we’re making games, we want to make sure that the feel is inclusive to all so that people from all walks of life feel like they’re welcome to play our games and they feel a sense of identity that they connect with,” Oneal said. “So I would say the big thing for this remaster was how we looked at our roster.

“We of course felt it was important to include the original roster, the nostalgia factor there is important, but we felt that the roster needed to reflect modern skateboarding and Tony felt that way too, so we added quite a few skaters from different nationalities, different genders, etc. to really represent, like I said, modern skateboarding.”

When Vicarious felt they struck the right feel for the game, Oneal and her Albany, New York-based team took a trip down to New York City when Hawk next visited town. They let Hawk get hands on with the game, to provide feedback on what would eventually become the new “Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2.”

“[It was] maybe the second time he had gotten a copy of the game in front of him,” Oneal said. Hawk was impressed — Vicarious had nailed the handling, making controlling a skateboarder in game feel as similar to the real thing as it could. “Getting that positive accolade from him was just really meaningful.”

Oneal and her team returned to Albany set to finish out strong.

But then the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States hard in the spring and the home stretch of the game development process looked much different than the initial concept and building stages. Vicarious employees began working from home, like many Americans working jobs in tech, media and similar professions.

“We definitely had to change our communication style,” Oneal said. “It’s really about having much more regular touchpoints via video conference. A lot more documentation there. There was definitely a moment where, while we were making the transition, it was a bit of ‘how do we work?’

“Interestingly enough, working from home has given us an extreme amount of focus as we’ve closed the project. I’m incredibly proud of how resilient the team has been during this time and just how incredibly productive and detail oriented everyone is in getting it right.”

“Pro Skater 1 + 2” will release on Sept. 4, making it the first “Tony Hawk’s” game since 2015, when “Pro Skater 5” released to low reviews and not nearly as much fanfare. The big question for now is whether gamers at large want a skateboarding game. Bresaw and Oneal think they do and that the nostalgia around the old games will carry it on release. The reception alone since it was announced on May 12, Hawk’s birthday, has been enormous. If all goes well, it’s inevitable fans will call for a new unique game, not just a remaster.

“For us the starting point is really to bring this franchise back from its original glory and of course, there’s always an opportunity to create something new for the series,” Bresaw said. “I think we’ll wait and see how successful this is. … I have nothing to report on at this time but there’s been so much excitement in this project and it’s been so fun that it’s definitely a possibility.”

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