We've never been snowboarding, but we love SSX. People would always tell us (usually loudly, usually with CAPITAL LETTERS, usually in ricin-tainted mailshots) that there's a reason for that, and that games like Amped were the choice of the real 'boarder. We'd even started to believe it, and thought perhaps even EA's Canadian development team felt the same way. Not so. "I just don't buy it," says associate producer Michael Wyman. "In terms of simply riding down the mountain I feel that SSX actually offers a more true-to-life experience than anything else out there."
Speaking to us following a recent press event in London, during which we were treated to a brief overview of SSX On Tour, he had other fears to quash. Much as we love SSX, the idea of a "Hype system" governing your career-mode progress, the addition of skiing, and such a heavy emphasis on the game's presentation all seemed to imply that the developer was struggling for ways to keep us interested. With this in mind, we chatted about SSX in the past, the simplification of the trick system, the narrower slopes of SSX 3, the new features and the thinking behind them - and overall why he thinks SSX On Tour is the best in the series to date.
Eurogamer: Previews have focused on changes to SSX's presentation and the addition of skiing. Let's talk about the presentation first. Was there a specific goal with this approach - to tap more into mountain culture perhaps? - or was it just something that happened naturally?
Michael Wyman: We definitely had a clear direction in terms of style this year from our art directors and some of the other key artists working on the front end. We all felt that SSX3 was beautiful, but a bit kid-like in terms of style, so with SSX On Tour we wanted to go somewhere completely different. The direction is more of a DIY, sketchbook feel - and this plays out in the FMV, our front end, the HUD, loading screens, etc. It is very fresh and has been getting great feedback from the fans that have seen it so far.
Eurogamer: On the subject of mountain culture, why do you think 'boarders have had a hard time accepting SSX in the past? And have you found yourselves changing anything about the game to try and cater to them?
Michael Wyman: I think there has been this perception that some of the other snowboarding games out there are more realistic. While I think this has been true about the look-and-feel of the games, I think this has been carried over to the feel of the gameplay, and when it comes right down to the physics of the game and how it feels to actually ride I just don't buy it.
Yes SSX incorporates over-the-top tricks - this has always been a part of our game and will be no different with SSX On Tour - but in terms of simply riding down the mountain I feel that SSX actually offers a more true-to-life experience than anything else out there. I am a mediocre snowboarder myself, but being located here in Vancouver we have a lot of talented boarders (and skiers) on our team, including some ex-pro riders, and they make sure that we are tuning the game to feel 'right.' And yes, we have definitely made improvements to the overall physics engines and are constantly striving to make the game feel as good as we can.
Eurogamer: Skiing, then - obviously this is the fourth snowboarding game but the first to include skis. How does that side of the game stand out from the 'boarding, and was it difficult to get it to match up to the series' high standards given the differences?
Michael Wyman: I must tell you I was quite sceptical when I first heard the idea of incorporating skiing into SSX. We all wanted to make sure that if we were going to do something as fundamental as that, it would need to be able to stand up to the boarding experience. We worked very hard, and worked closely with members of the twin-tip skiing community, to ensure that skiing could stand, trick-by-trick, with snowboarding. I am happy to report that skiing adds a whole new dimension to the game, and I think folks will really enjoy playing through The Tour as a boarder, and going back as a skier to experience the events and moments on the tracks as both.
Eurogamer: The trick system has seen yet more refinement with the Monster Tricks. What's the trick hierarchy like this time, and how important is it to be able to master all of them?
Michael Wyman: The fundamental formula hasn't changed, in that tricks = boost, and boost = speed. What we have changed is Monster Tricks - these are now all triggered with the right analogue stick. Basically you can earn new Monsters through The Tour, and assign them to the different directions on the Trick Stick (right analogue). Eventually, with enough boost, you can unleash Level 2 Monsters as well - this is accomplished by moving and holding the trick Stick and then rotating it either clockwise or counter-clockwise. You can then hold the Monster as long as possible before letting go to land the trick.
Eurogamer: One of the things you showed us last week was the way that regular "tricky" tricks are now much easier to perform than they used to be. Back in Tricky, for example, getting there and pulling them off demanded the sort of dextrousness and presence of mind usually associated with brain surgery. Do you worry that by making some of the high-end stuff easier, the longer-term fans who by now feel pretty elite will find the game less satisfying?
Michael Wyman: I don't think so. Look - many of the people on our team are hardcore SSX players - some of these folks have worked on all three previous games - and we all feel that we have an incredible legacy to live up to with the franchise. Fortunately for the quality of the game these guys are very vocal and let us know if anything changes for the worse. I remember the day we implemented the new Monster treatment (also new this year - there is a new camera and presentation treatment that accompanies Level 1 and level 2 Monsters). I remember the day because we didn't get a lot of work done - we were all playing the game, getting used to the new feature, and having a blast finding the best places on the tracks for launching and holding Monsters. There is the same kind of risk/reward dynamic behind the Monsters, as it is tempting to hold them to long to try to rack up boost. That being said, of course there will be some people who prefer the old system - this is inevitable with any change.
Eurogamer: We understand that exploring the mountain has now returned to the sort of levels people saw in SSX and of course Tricky, whereas it dropped off a little in SSX 3. First of all, is that the case? And second, to what sort of extent can you go off-piste this time around?
Michael Wyman: Our mantra this year with the worlds has been if it looks like you can ride there, you should be able to ride there. We have also tried to avoid reset zones as much as possible. We've approached this from the design side as well as the technical side. The result is that the mountain is ripe for exploration.
Eurogamer: One of SSX's biggest strengths (to us at least!) has always been the way that intricate routes existed that required real skill to discover - sometimes we'd so something utterly obscene coming off a jump and discover that we'd uncovered a new path for our troubles. How do you go about designing those sorts of complex networks of rails and jumps? Presumably it takes a lot of planning to get it right?
Michael Wyman: Yes - again this is a benefit of super experienced and super talented world builders. These guys build the tracks with expert players in mind, and also push each other to create cool tracks. Also, we had clearly defined design goals for each of our tracks. They were built around key gameplay dynamics, visual moments, etc. - so for example one track was all about rails, and this was the theme for the entire track.
Eurogamer: We're also interested to hear about the challenges you've included. How does that side of the game work, and what sorts of things will players be doing?
Michael Wyman: For the first time we've got a true Career Mode in SSX. We call it The Tour, and players need to get invited onto The Tour. To do so, they must succeed in Shreds, which are one-on-one challenges that take place all over the mountain, and with a huge variety of rule-sets. Winning Shreds earns players Hype, and Hype is what players need to get on The Tour and eventually work their way up The Charts. So, for example, some rule sets for Shreds include: 1-on-1 races and trick-offs, Outrun, accumulate a certain number of seconds in the air, rail grind a certain number of meters before time runs out, knock down ski school kids, evade the ski patrol, find scattered collectibles, etc.
SSX On Tour is due out on PS2, Xbox and Cube later this year. A PSP version is also in development, although EA has yet to confirm a release date.