2014. Skateboarding was in the wilderness. The Tony Hawks series’ heyday was over, and the wheels had come o EA’s Skate franchise. Enter OlliOlli, a two-dimensional skate ‘em up that saw players rocketing through levels trying not just to hold a combo for the entire line, but also to stay upright.
A large part of the challenge was OlliOlli’s landing mechanic, which meant players would need to press the X button before landing. It was a bold new approach for skateboarding games, but to understand Roll7’s take on the future of skateboarding games, you have to look to the past.
When Roll7’s creative director John Ribbins was a teenager, he’d skate most Saturdays, before coming home to play skateboarding games on the PSOne. His favourite was Thrasher: Skate and Destroy. It came out just a month after Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, meaning it was developed at the same time as Neversoft’s enduring skate series. But due to the overlapping development time it was free of being in uenced by the Tony Hawks, with Thrasher instead putting a much higher emphasis on realism.
“Thrasher had a bunch of stuff in it that we really wanted to do with OlliOlli,” Ribbins says. “There’s a lot about the game that I loved, and as a skater it always felt to me like the truest skateboarding game.”
Something that stuck with Ribbins was Thrasher’s Expert mode: “ Once you finished the game on Normal, you could play it again in Expert mode, which made it significantly harder. One of these changes was the landing, which required you to hit square on the PlayStation controller to land a trick after pulling it off. Fail to press square between nailing the trick and hitting the ground and you’ll bail, slamming into the ground."
“No other game did this!” Ribbins exclaims. “It always felt weird to me because in real life, landing a trick in skateboarding is the hardest part, but no-one else did it.”
PRESS X OR DIE
While prototyping games in the early days of Roll7, the team made a mobile game emulating Thrasher’s landing mechanic, an infinite runner full of staircases, handrails and gaps with players hitting the left side of the screen to jump and the right side of the screen to land. Miss a landing and you crater into the ground. This went on forever, with the aim to get as far as you could before wiping out.
Ribbins describes the concept of nailing your landing as the core pillar of OlliOlli, and this remained the case through the game’s development: “What we thought made it fun was you’d press a button to land, and if you don’t, you waste all the effort you put in up until that point, like a gambling game. During the two and a half years we were making it, everything either changed or got altered but that was the core part of the game.”
Slowly this started to mutate into the form of the original OlliOlli, making the jump from mobile to console. Around the core landing mechanic, the rest of the game started to fall into shape, as the team got rid of most buttons and stripped the control scheme back to just the X button for most interactions and the sticks and shoulder buttons to modify tricks. “When you have barely a second to react to any obstacle, it felt like players were failing not because they didn’t have the skill but because players had no more mental bandwidth, the thumb didn’t know what it should be doing,” says Ribbins.
Originally, the team wanted players to hit the button perfectly in time to land the trick. It was a playtest at Sony’s offices that galvanised them to change the system: “When we gave our first playable version of the game to Sony, if you didn’t get the timing perfect you slammed. one of the QA guys playing it was just sitting in the corner of the meeting like fuck! fuck!’ trying to get through levels.”
Having to survive the run wasn’t capturing the gambling feel that Roll7 were so fond of, so they changed things again, introducing a sketchy landing system that punished you for getting your timing wrong by cutting the majority of your points.
“It was still a harsh punishment but not as brutal as saying ‘right, start the whole thing again’,” Ribbins says with a grin.
“We added in a Rad mode,so you could play the game as we originally intended, and maybe 10 to 20 people ever finished it in OlliOlli, so making it more forgiving was probably the right choice.”