4Q Interview: Skate It Producer Steve Robert

Posted by Jason Fanguy on May 13th, 2010
iPhone App - Designed for iPhone, compatible with iPad

Steve Robert, producer of Electronic Art's Skate It, released May 10, 2010, is a former pro-skater who helmed the development and creation of the game's port to the iPhone. I sat down for a phone interview with Steve and spoke at length about the game and its subsequent port from the Nintendo DS to the iPhone. Steve provided us with much insight on the game's development and how it came to fruition on the iPhone.

Jason (148apps) - First of all, thanks for putting time aside from your busy schedule to talk with me. I'm stoked to be speaking with you. For people who aren't familiar with you, what's your background and how did you get involved in skating?

Steve Robert (EA) - Well, I grew up in Huntington Beach, CA, which is a coastal town in Southern, CA and, probably as early as 6th grade I got immersed in the culture of skateboarding. It was a very popular hobby in my neighborhood and I had a bunch of good friends who were all into skateboarding. We kept pushing each other to learn and get better and then it sort of evolved as some of my friends, like Jason Lee, who's a good friend of mine, went on to become a famous actor, was the first of us to go on and get sponsored and turn pro. I skated with him all the time and he got me sponsored by the same company he was. From then on, I started entering amateur contests and then we shot a video in 1989 called Rubbish Heap and everything just unfolded from there. I was attracted to the culture and it was fun learning tricks and being competitive with my friends and progressing in the sport.

Jason (148apps) - It's easy to hit a plateau if you don't have people around you who you can learn from.

Steve Robert (EA) - Yeah, absolutely. I think being surrounded by people like Jason Lee, Ed Templeton, Mark Gonzalez and the older, big pros, they all came from Huntington Beach and we would all gather at night at Huntington Beach High School or these schools you see in all the videos, while others were out partying, we would be spending our nights skating at the schools together and you just kind of get obsessed with it. It was everything I did until I graduated high school, it's all I really cared about. Skating was just kind of a sub-culture because it wasn't as mainstream back then, as it is now.

Jason (148apps) - How did you come to get involved in developing Skate It?

Steve Robert (EA) - Well, I've been working in video games since 1997. I slowly got out of skateboarding and went to college. When I graduated from college, I got my first job at Interplay in 1997. I found it interesting because the culture was very similar to skating in many ways. It's obviously less physically active, but the people were the same.

Hit the jump for more with Skate It Producer Steve Robert.

Jason (148apps) - The enthusiasm and level of passion were the same.

Steve Robert (EA) - Yeah, and back in 1997, video games were still a bit of a counter-culture; they weren't as mainstream as they are now. It's kind of weird, both industries I was part of became really big over time. The game industry especially. I liked the people and the creativity and ended up moving to New York and worked for Rockstar Games a little over three years. I don't know if you remember, but they developed the Thrasher PS One game, so we had a lot in common. Then I moved back to Los Angeles, worked for Sony doing more casual, internet games and mobile games. Now I've been at EA and really happy for the past 2 1/2 years. So when the opportunity came to work on Skate It and bring it to the iPhone and improving it, they looked to me as the person to produce the project.

Jason (148apps) - There's always a debate regarding virtual buttons vs. touch/tilt control. Why did you decide to go with touch/tilt control?

Steve Robert (EA) - One thing we’re proud of is keeping the controls core or hardcore, so to speak. We made the game much more forgiving, as far as bailing and that stuff goes. We decided not to use the D pad, we wanted to keep it analog and use touch swipes and touch controls and use tilt for left, right and back. It takes a little to get adjusted to it, but once you get it, it becomes really immersive. It may not be as easy to play as if you had a digital version of a joystick on-screen, but we just don’t believe that’s true to the franchise or true to skateboarding. So we decided to stick to our guns and keep the controls the way we designed them using the stylus for the DS version. So, you use your finger on the ghost board to swipe and activate tricks and then left/right and tilt left/right and then there’s one icon for grabbing and one icon for pushing and that’s it.

You also have the opportunity, once you reach pro or expert level, you can turn the transparency off, so there’s nothing on the screen as far as controls go. You just simply remember the tricks and how you swipe to make the tricks work. That’s for people who want to really take it to the next level and get super hardcore about it. But for people starting off, we have those visuals on the screen to help get them started off.

Jason (148apps) - I noticed the tricks library is quite extensive. I counted 95 different tricks between beginner and advanced levels.

Steve Robert (EA) - Yeah, the trick library, compared to any of the other skateboarding games is completely extensive. Every trick is in there from the beginning, from beginner to intermediate to advanced. The only thing that opens up as you progress are the additional levels, which are real world locations like Rio, London, Paris; anywhere you can build a ramp. It’s a very robust game, with probably like a 7-8 hour play through to beat it. Then there’s free skate mode: as you unlock the levels, you can just pop into free skate.

Jason (148apps) - Critics of other skating games say they contain unreal combinations and have lost touch with reality, have lost realism. Did this influence the development of Skate It?

Steve Robert (EA) - Yeah, I think when you’re grinding on spaceships, it gets so far removed from skateboarding and ridiculous that it turns into some other entirely different entity. I have a lot of friends that are still in the skate boarding industry and it’s for that reason they play Skate. Games have become so far removed and the tricks just got so ridiculous that you’ll actually feel kind of tired and your hands are cramping up from all the button combinations you end up doing to link all these tricks together. You’re just memorizing button combos, almost like in Street Fighter, rather than getting the actual feeling to do the trick.

Skateboarding games, particularly our franchise at EA, are not about the memorization of tapping a D pad, like Simon Sez, you just tap on the D pad a bunch of times and the skater does a bunch of digitally executed tricks. Skate It is about slowing, swiping, flowing left, flowing right and letting the gestures control the tricks, whereas with other games using the D pad, it’s all about hitting a sequence of buttons in the right order to do a chain of tricks. That was great for awhile, but it’s not true to skateboarding. Skateboarding is not digital, it’s analog. It’s flowing with the tricks. As a human, all tricks are open to me, I just have to learn how to do them right, so we tried to stay true to that and I think that once people learn and give themselves time to adjust, they’ll find it’s a much more immersive skateboarding game on the iPhone, a real skateboarding game on the iPhone.

One thing that really impressed me with the Skate It franchise, once we translated it to the iPhone, is that you actually have to get the feeling of how to do something by the way you swipe and once you do it and you get that feeling, you remember and you do it again and again and you get the feeling of actually learning a trick. It’s a lot more true to the sport than pressing up twice, down twice, left twice and right twice I’ll do a back flip and fly over a lake.

So that’s one thing that holds true with our game: It’s digitally controlled in the most basic sense, but it’s a slow, slightly analog feeling as opposed to a button smasher.

Jason (148apps) - How challenging was it porting Skate It from the Nintendo DS to the iPhone?

Steve Robert (EA) - It was pretty challenging. One of the main things we wanted to do was import the art. We did as much as we could to do that. We raised the resolution on all the original textures; we made them all brighter. We made the game more forgiving with bailing and made it easier to land tricks. We completely redid the whole front-end and the way you look at the menus. And then we added shader support to 3GS. All the cut scenes and photo-related tutorials are skippable now and we added some more in-game help to help users get in and start playing.

We improved upon the soundtrack as well: The DS version only shipped with a couple of licensed songs and we added 8. A big part was improving the controls and then getting all the art in and improving all the art. Then, once we got everything in and working we had to work out all the bugs, test it, make sure it feels right, get the frame rate right and getting all the tricks to feel right on the iPhone. It’s a very robust offering; there’s a lot of game there for the iPhone and it’s true to skateboarding. As you progress in the game, it feels like you’re actually progressing like you did when you were skateboatrding: As you get a feel for a certain trick, you move on to the next trick and before you know it, you have a repertoire of tricks. It’s not a button masher, arcade version of skateboarding. At the same time, we didn’t want to make it too hardcore, because we understand that people playing on iPod Touches and iPhones are probably not the hardcore elite of gaming, but that crowd probably all own iPhones.

Jason (148apps) - What elements of the game were you able to make better by virtue of being a pro skater?

Steve Robert (EA) - The authenticity of the game. At its core, Skate It is an authentic skateboarding game. I was able to play it, help shape it, help with the controls and the way it looks and feels. I made sure that we translated that authenticity to the iPhone.

Jason (148apps) - Do you think the game’s learning curve will turn players off and was that taken into consideration when developing the game?

Steve Robert (EA) - I understand that we took a little bit of a risk with this control scheme and we knew that going in, but risk is a huge part of skateboarding. As a former pro skater, I knew it was absolutely the right way to go, to stick to our guns. Do we think that some people may not entirely get it? Sure, we understand that's a possibility, but I think if they spend a little time with it in free skate mode they'll realize it's actually not that hard, it's just a different way of controlling, as opposed to having two analog sticks or a couple of buttons and a D pad. I think players will be very pleased to find how immersive it is. We wanted to do something different from what is currently offered and that makes it even that much more of a real skateboarding game: Skateboarding takes a little time to learn and get adjusted to. You don't just hop on your board and start doing 500's on a ramp.

Jason (148apps) - Outside of the game, who is your favorite pro of all time or who influenced you the most?

Steve Robert (EA) - Mark Gonzalez. He's an innovator and made street skating what it is today. That's what we wanted to do with Skate It: bring a level of innovation to the controls. The fact that Mark Gonzalez always broke new ground and always pushed helped move the sport as a whole. Skateboarding is all about innovation, progression and individuality.

Jason (148apps) - Steve, thank you very much for your time and it was great talking with you. I'm really stoked to review Skate It.

Steve Robert (EA) - Likewise. My pleasure.

Look for our in-depth review of Skate It coming soon!

iPhone Screenshots

(click to enlarge)

Skate It by EA screenshot 1 Skate It by EA screenshot 2 Skate It by EA screenshot 3 Skate It by EA screenshot 4 Skate It by EA screenshot 5
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