Interview / EA Black Box’s Chris Parry

EA’s Black Box doesn’t seem too worried about their lack of a plastic skateboard peripheral as they show off the pre-alpha build of Skate 3, the latest installment in their surprisingly addictive and refreshingly authentic Tony Hawk-killing franchise. This time around, Black Box has forsaken the totalitarian city of San Vanelona for the skate-friendly streets of Port Carverton, where the focus will be on forming teams to further your career and build your brand. We got a chance to sit down with Producer Chris “Cuz” Parry to discuss the new co-op challenges, the improved video and graphics editor, and the miles and miles of grip tape that went into creating Skate 3.

That VideoGame Blog (TVGB): What are you looking to do in Skate 3 compared to Skate and Skate 2? You’re going for the trilogy, the trifecta…

Chris Parry: I don’t want to limit it a trilogy, but it’s definitely something that we had our eyes set on in terms of story. It’s like “Come on, it’s a skateboarding game. We don’t want to get bogged down with story.” But it’s a logical progression of what skaters do in a career. You know, get sponsored. Okay, we did that. Have a comeback. Okay, we did that. Now build your own company, your own team. From a story standpoint, that’s what we’re trying to do.

I think a goal of the franchise as a whole is, you know, skateboarders have really attached themselves to the game and they understand it. Everywhere I go where skaters are, they’re just like “This is awesome!” But we want to get outside of that and tell other people this is fun for other people too. It doesn’t have to just be for skateboarders.

So we’re definitely looking at ways to make it so that other people can enjoy it and get the same sort of satisfaction that skaters have. If you have even a passing interest, you might like it. We’ve taken steps to satisfy both the hardcore users with our difficulty modes and new people with our Skate School.

TVGB: How exactly is that going to work, easing in people new to the series?

Chris Parry: We’re not really talking about it in too much depth now, but like I said we have a new thing called Skate School and it definitely is a way to help you learn at your own pace as opposed to just throwing you into the skate park like we did in the past. Like, “Here’s some tutorials. Good luck. Hope you finish them ‘cause you’re going to need them as soon as you go outside in this city and get thrown to the wolves.” Which is like real skateboarding. Most people, dad drops them off at the skate park and you either pay your dues or get run over. We don’t want it to be like that for people.

Also with our challenges we have the concept of “owning it” and “killing it,” so that there’s tiered success. So if you own it, we’re gonna make that easy for you to do. You paid your money and now it’s your game. Let’s let you get through the game. Let’s not have that boss battle that turns you off from finishing. But having said that, if you want to kill it you better have tricks on hand, you better know what you’re doing.

Again, I think we’re catering to both kinds of people. If you’re like “I don’t really care, I just wanna go online and freeskate,” then do that. If you want to get really good at it, go to Skate School and learn how to do it, or if you already know how to do it – if you’ve played Skate 1 or 2, it will be a breeze and you can just run with it.

TVGB: How important was fan feedback from the first two games?

Chris Parry: Huge. Fan feedback, you know we listen to it and we do what we can to accommodate it. There’s a lot of voices out there. A lot. You try to listen to as many as you can and put it through the filter of what makes sense in terms of where we need to go with the game. And also we have the ability to see what people are skating and what places are popular online and all of those things. It’s not even focus groups anymore. What people were already doing with the game, that influenced us with the teams.

People were coming together because they had similar interests and they were producing videos or graphics or just skating together and having a good time. So we said “Why don’t we make it easier for them to do that? Why don’t we celebrate that?” Right now, they create a graphic and it gets uploaded and gets “x” number of views, and that’s the only pat on the back they get. That’s awesome, but how can we take it beyond that? There’s a lot of stuff going into the new game to do that.

TVGB: There’s a lot of music, artwork and clothing that’s grown out of the skating scene. It’s not just about skating.

Chris Parry: Definitely. We have people in our community that are like, “Yeah, let me drop some beats.” We had somebody from our community put some music in the game last time, so we definitely love it. We love the game. We love skateboarding. We love what people do with it and we’re in awe of what they do with it, so we always want to make sure we’re helping them. But at the same time, not make it too imposing for new people who want to get in so it’s like “Oh, I can’t get in that clique.” It’s not high school.

TVGB: A lot of people at Harmonix are musicians and a lot of people at Blizzard are tabletop gamers. So how about the Black Box team, do a lot of them skate?

Chris Parry: Yeah, a lot of people on the team skate. We have obviously people that don’t, and sometimes that’s good because you need people to actually do the work!

I’ve been in skateboarding for years, and what I’ve found is that when you’re so passionate about something, sometimes you care too much about it so that you get paralyzed. We’re lucky that we have enough people on the team that get it and understand it. We’ve been part of the culture outside of the game, a lot of us have been, for a long time.

TVGB: That’s one of the great things about the Skate series, that it captures not just the moves and the tricks but the skating culture.

Chris Parry: It’s funny that you mention that, because people will say of some of the dialogue of Skate 1 and Skate 2, “Oh, no skater talks like that!” We don’t write what they say. We write the situations that they’d react to – they’re using their own words. People say, “Nobody says buttery ass dope!” Our cameraman Retta, he speaks like that. He’s from New York and that’s how he talks. We didn’t tell him to say that, we just said “React to a wipeout” or “React to a sick trick.” It’s funny when people say, “Who would write that?” No one, actually. That’s how they really talk. We try to just let it be what it is.

TVGB: Tell us more about Skate 3‘s new city, Port Carverton.

Chris Parry: In our minds, San Vanelona was one side of the mountain and this is the other side, the Shelbyville to their Springfield. We’ve done the dark and mean streets of San Vanelona thing, so this time we said let’s turn it on its heads. These guys are like the little kingdom that just didn’t understand skateboarding was bad and all that, they just embraced it. They supported it. What if in the 60’s, skateboarding didn’t go through fads and up and down, what if it just stayed on a continual course? Building parks. Founding teams. California has surf teams, so what if skating kind of went that way?

In terms of the actual city itself, the cool thing about having made two games before is that our world builders, our artists and modelers, are really good at their craft now. I’m just blown away. A ledge is a ledge is a ledge, but no, ‘cause you just made a different kind of ledge. That’s cool.

TVGB: How do you decide which real world skate spots to put into the game?

Chris Parry: The real world is huge. The skaters on the team will be watching a video and be like, “Put that spot in” or look at a magazine cover and say, “That spot is sick!” We just show the modelers, and the modelers are so good now that we don’t have to send them somewhere to take photos, they’re just like “Yeah, I think I can build that.” We’re good at trying to replicate spots. One thing that we’re cognizant of is we never say this spot is exactly this spot, because as soon as it’s off by a little bit, people holler and scream. It’s “inspired by.” It has to suit our needs too, ‘cause we know how the game plays. But there are some real spots. One of the pros in the game was by yesterday, and I just flew him by one of the spots, and he called it out.

TVGB: The Skate series has also been known for its exemplary audio design. What lengths have you gone to in getting that authentic sound? Or are you just recycling the old stuff?

Chris Parry: The guys working on the audio are fanatical. We’ve got darkslides in this game, so they went through miles and miles of grip tape, because you’re sliding upside down. To the average person it sounds just like any other slide, but they were like “NO!” They were doing darkslides on different surface types, on pool coping, on coping, on ledges, on metal. Some of the guys on the team were like, “It’s fine” and they were like, “No, it’s not fine!” It’s gotta be right.

TVGB: They’ve got to step it up because they know the rest of the game is going to take it to that next level, like the music for instance?

Chris Parry: We’re not talking about it now, but we’re really excited. For the past two games, we got musicians to score, like we’ve had Z-Trip and Monkey Mark and Tommy Geurrero who’s a professional skater. This time we’re blown away, we’re honored that these people want to be a part of Skate 3. I guess we’ve had two pretty good games, so people want to score the game now. We’ve got some surprises there.

We didn’t want to just have incessant music, your typical pop/punk going all the time, ‘cause a lot of times when you hear words they get repetitive. But if it’s just sort of in the background, it’s cool. But these guys are taking it to an art level. We just say, “Here’s a neighborhood. Score the neighborhood,” and we fly them through, and they take it from there.

TVGB: In the first two games, the video maker really took off with people uploading their own videos. Any plans to expand that functionality for Skate 3?

Chris Parry: There will be enhancements. We had the filmer pack as DLC for Skate 2, because it just wasn’t ready at the time we shipped, which put in the hands of the users the tools that we use when we produce our marketing videos. Skate 3 will come out with that. This time it’s not DLC, it’s part of the game because we want everybody to experiment. If you just want a quick replay, it’s there. If you want to make art, it’s there. And there will be the ability to upgrade, because the people that are into it are really into it. Probably once every week, videos get released that leave us sitting there scratching our heads asking, “How the hell did they do that?” They inspire us and drive us forward.

The cool thing about it is it’s integral to the culture of skateboarding. Skateboarding is all about footage. Right from day one we always wanted to have a replay editor in it, and a lot of people said it was a bad idea because our game shows all the bumps and warts and everything. It shows it. But we just said whatever, we think they’re having fun. No one’s really complaining. Every once in a while something weird happens, and someone captures a replay of it, so it’s a nightmare for some of the artists. But for the most part, people don’t care, they’re just having fun.

TVGB: Customization has always been a huge part of the series. Is there anything left to customize?

Chris Parry: You create your graphic with our graphics creator, it’s a web-based thing, that’s going to be improved. It’s way better this time. You can bring that into the game, put it on your clothes, put it on your board, put it on your hat and stuff like that. But then the thing that’s really cool, as you progress through the game, as your brand starts getting bigger, you’re going to brand the city in a way. So when you do a photo for a photo shoot for a poster, it could become a billboard. You’ll see the city transform. It’s sort of a tangible reward for you progressing through the game.

And we have something that we can’t talk about right now called Skate Park. What we do with creating spots and moving objects in the world, that’s all going to be much better. You’re customizing your city. You make it the way you want to skate it. You like skating handrails? You like skating mega ramps? You like skating manual pads? It’s all there and you can customize it to make it just the way you want. Do what you want to do.

TVGB: The main focus this time is co-op, to work as a team toward a goal. How does that mesh with the idea of individual brand building?

Chris Parry: Some people are like, “Oh, I don’t have friends!” Don’t worry about it. The single-player story is about trying to build your brand. As your team gets bigger, and say you sell 100,000 boards, you’ll add a new player to your team. But where it really gets fun is when you start saying, “Hey, I have a friends list.” If there’s somebody out there you like to skate with, they can come in and join your team in your single-player progression when you’re trying to beat a contest or challenge.

For the people that have the competitive juices flowing, you definitely have “our team” versus “your team.” It’s no longer just, “I’m going in to do a spot battle by myself and get heckled by five other dudes.” Now it’s your team going in there to play a game of one-up or domination. The response we’ve been getting is everyone’s been having fun with it.

TVGB: Even losing feels better on a team.

Chris Parry: Yeah, you can point the finger at somebody else! Beyond that though, when you get to the point in your single-player career where you can add somebody new to your team, you can actually import your friend’s avatar, basically their persona, and they become the AI skater in the world with you.

So if you’ve got somebody that you skate with all the time, you can import him into your game so that as you’re skating through the world, you can be like “Hey, there goes so-and-so!” That’s definitely taking the social experience to a new level. Even when you’re not online, when you’re offline just playing by yourself, your world can still have your friends in it.

TVGB: I know one of the major console trends of this generation has been DLC, something the Skate series has sorta shied away from in the past. Any plans to incorporate more downloadable content into this game?

Chris Parry: Absolutely, and I know I won’t be able to talk about it. But yeah, for sure. We are, umm…yes. I can’t go into any detail, but we had meetings about it just the other day, so I know for sure…

TVGB: Okay, I see the red sniper dot on your forehead. So you can’t tell me about the DLC, but tell me what changed your mind?

Chris Parry: In the first game we didn’t have the infrastructure, but in the second game we had DLC it was considered a success. One of our DLC packs was the most popular at EA. You might as well put the hooks in!

Without giving anything away, of course people want new spots to skate. We can only build so much during the course of the development cycle. So when we ask what else do people want, people definitely want new places to skate. That’s a no-brainer that that will happen.

TVGB: How does it feel going into this third game with that infrastructure from the first two games already under your belt?

Chris Parry: Obviously the first one took many years to build because we built an engine from scratch. But now that we have it, let’s share it. Let’s play with it. The great thing is that the prototyping is being done for you live. You don’t have to wonder what it’s going to look like or how it’s going to work because anything you dream up, you can test right away.

TVGB: I couldn’t help but notice you don’t control this game with your feet. Any plans for a skateboard controller in the future?

Chris Parry: We did Skate It for the Wii. [laughs]

TVGB: Not going back to that?

Chris Parry: Not going back to that. I’m not saying not going back to the Wii or the Balance Board, but I don’t know of any plans for a skateboard controller.

TVGB: Have you tried Tony Hawk’s Ride?

Chris Parry: I haven’t, but one of our other producers has. My standard comment is that if it sparks interest in skateboarding games, if there’s a renaissance in the genre, more power to them. I’m glad that we’ve sparked people’s interest. If their new game does well, then that means people are psyched on skateboarding.

TVGB: There are new control schemes coming out, not just shoving the controls into a skateboard. How do you think the future of skateboarding games is going to evolve in the face of new technology like Natal?

Chris Parry: The real smart guys on our team are staying abreast of everything. We’re not just sitting on FlickIt forever. Ten years ago, everybody had one control scheme, and then we came up with a new one. Two years, five years, ten years from now, somebody might be saying, “FlickIt? That’s ancient!” As long as we keep producing quality controls that feel good until we think of, or somebody else thinks of something better, we’re happy with what we have.

TVGB: How far do you see this series going? How long until you run out of new ideas?

Chris Parry: For the first Skate, we started with enough material for more than one game. Because a lot of us didn’t come from a game making background, what we put on paper, we were told, “You’ve got about five games here.” So there’s still lot’s to do.

We’re not even close.