Tony Hawk (the man, not the game) was the first skateboarder ever to land the 900. He did it in July 1999 -- about a month before the release of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater. You couldn't really ask for a better time to launch a new skateboarding video game, or a more perfect spokesperson.
Neversoft's original Tony Hawk's Pro Skater felt a bit like a revolution. The game was fun and innovative, and was in bed with a sport and a brand that radiated youthful energy and edginess.
For a while, it seemed that each Tony Hawk iteration got better and better. Each new installment added a couple key elements that kept the Tony Hawk experience fresh. It became one of publisher Activision's anchor franchises, occupying for several years its own sphere, one unique in all the game industry, and one that Activision's competitors envied for a long time.
But then the franchise started becoming lost. Where the earlier entrants in the series were all about the gameplay and tight level design, the later iterations gradually became bogged down by storylines and increasingly bloated levels. It was difficult keeping something the same, but trying to make it new. Consumers were losing interest in the aging series.
After critics' cold reception of Neversoft's Tony Hawk's Proving Ground in 2007, it was time to renew the franchise. Neversoft moved on to the (now disbanded) Guitar Hero business, and a Chicago studio called Robomodo -- made up of ex-EA Chicago developers -- took the reins.
Robomodo's contributions, 2009's Tony Hawk: Ride and 2010's Tony Hawk: Shred, both used expensive skateboard peripherals. Players would stand on skateboard controllers. The peripheral-based re-envisioning didn't really work, neither critically nor financially. Actually, it didn't work to the extent that after Shred, Activision pulled out of the skateboard game business altogether. The revolution had finally puttered out.
A matter of when and how
Robomodo didn't want to give up yet. Publisher Activision was wary of putting another Tony Hawk game out after the poor performance of the last few titles in the franchise, and so when Robomodo came to persuade the publisher that it could make good with a new Tony Hawk title, it went in with the angle that a smaller downloadable game would be cheaper to make and, therefore, less of a risk.
"In many ways that's how we went about pitching this project, and how Tony Hawk himself convinced Activision to get behind the idea," Josh Tsui, CEO of Robomodo tells Gamasutra. The idea was to use a downloadable title to test the waters with how a reboot of the series would go down with consumers.
Launched this month, Robomodo's latest effort, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater HD, sold 120,000 units in its first week on Xbox Live Arcade (PC and PlayStation 3 versions are on the way). It's not exactly a critical darling, but it's basically those same turn-of-the-century skateboarding games (Pro Skater 1 and 2) that people used to love. That earns it automatic nostalgia points in the eyes of players.
Tsui says, "By making it 'lower risk' we were allowed to take some chances, which benefits both developer and publisher." Now, thanks to the notable sales of the title, "the prospect of a fuller game is definitely on the table -- it's just a matter of when and how."
Tony Hawk's Pro Skater HD is very much intended to be Robomodo's first step in bringing the series back to its former glory, and Tsui is convinced that, if provided with greater resources next time, his team could raise the skateboarding franchise up high once again.
"We were given the right amount [of resources] based on the scope of [Tony Hawk's Pro Skater HD], but obviously we would always want more to go bigger," he explains. "I don't think hits these days look the same as they did back in 1999 or 2000, so it would be great to see the Tony Hawk franchise do interesting things on a variety of platforms."
Referring to the reviews that Tony Hawk's HD received -- especially "a few [that] were quite vicious" -- Tsui notes that going back to the roots of the series was quite the balancing act.
"The tricky thing about this game specifically is that it plays to childhood or teen memories," he notes, "and those memories can be very subjective obviously. We kept the mechanics the same even though they were 13-years-old because that was our number one priority.
"Had we changed it up and modernized it, we would have gotten the same criticism from the other side," he adds. "We knew going in that there were going to be some comments about the gameplay, but it's not Pro Skater 5, it's what Pro Skater 1 & 2 were."
How does the future of the Tony Hawk's franchise look to Tsui then? First off, he has the PlayStation 3 and PC releases of Tony Hawk's HD to deal with, which he hopes will really get players in the mood for potentially more in the future.
"I think for now Tony Hawk's Pro Skater HD is a very good way to reacquaint people to the franchise," he reasons. "People are more apt to try games that are smaller and downloadable. Moving forward we'd have to see what our options are for a completely new experience, especially for any new platforms. But for now, downloadable games for a low price allow us great flexibility to try new things.
Where that next Tony Hawk's title falls is all down to Activision, however. Tsui isn't sure which generation of hardware the next game will come to, or whether Tony Hawk's HD will receive more DLC, but from his prespective, the Tony Hawk's Pro Skater reboot has now begun.