Jason DeLong, the extremely polite senior producer from EA Black Box, demos the latest instalment in the company's quietly excellent Skate series with the understated pleasure of a man who knows he doesn't have to convince you to invest in a plastic skateboard with infrared sensors instead of wheels. It's a nice position to be in, I imagine: while it looks very much like Tony Hawk is off to see the wizard, EA's developers are free to focus on something that's potentially a little more exciting.
And that's playing with teams. Skate 3 picks up with your character from Skate 2 - let's call him Fabian D'La Peche? - having risen through the ranks of the board culture elite, and emerged as a true titan. Clearly having hit the streets with an MBA from Yale, that can only mean that the time has come for him to start his own company, get his logo out there, and gather a crew together. Go Fabian!
This all bodes rather well, seeing as building a brand is obviously something that EA knows a bit about already. Yet, while I'd love to report that Black Box has taken a jaunty suicide swerve into the realms of business sim, the team is focusing on the social aspects of running a company with this game.
In Skate 3, your team works on three levels. "From a story perspective, the game is about you as a legend and your board company," explains DeLong. "The way you get your company out there is to recruit a team to ride your board and show off your brand. So from that perspective, for a single-player, if you're not online at all and you just want to play through the story of the game, that's how teams are integrated: you recruit AI team members as the story progresses, and over the course of the game, you become more famous, and more central to the world."
"But the next level is, if you're playing single-player and you're online when it comes time to recruit team members, you can recruit them through your online friends lists," he continues. "Then you can play the game co-operatively with your friends. We're still juggling player limits for this, but the really cool thing about this from an AI standpoint is, once I've recruited you into my team, you're a real team member: you've created a character in your game, and you've brought it into my game. When you're not online, you're still in my game: the guy looks like you and skates like you, and we know all that stuff about them. And you play the same team-based challenges, the races, the trick challenges, as you would in standard single-player."
This all sounds totally dope, but the real focus of today's unveiling is the pure online team stuff. "The third use for teams is actually creating a separate team from the single-player team," says DeLong, who has now used the word 'team' so much in such a short space of time that everyone else has to avoid it for a few hours while it goes and has a quick lie down out back. "This is where you can get together as a group of 15 players." Confusingly, actually playing together online maxes out at six people at any one time, but, such disappointments aside, the handful of modes we get to see are well-tuned for the smaller group cap.
First up is Domination, which flings you into an arena with a number of spots to control by performing the most tricks inside them. It's almost an RTS, really, and at the end of each round, the team that owns the most real estate wins. "The idea is to think about the space in terms of management," says DeLong. "There's an odd number of spots, so you can never tie a game. You have to really be thinking about what your team is doing, and what the other team's likely to be doing."
Then there's Own the Lot, inspired by Freeskating in Skate 2, in which a given area has three random challenges selected for it, ranging from point accumulation to a list of tricks to nail. It's a kind of jukebox mode, and it's a lot of fun, but the biggest hit of the day is 1-Up, a cumulative turn-based game in which two teams of three players compete in 20-second rounds to score as many points as possible.
Risk and reward are knotted tightly together, as wiping out at any point will end a round early, so you're constantly weighing up whether to go for the safe tricks with their low rewards, or risk being the idiot who ruins everything for your gang when you flunk something special. Beyond that, standard Skate modes like Death Race will return, scaled up for three-on-three team play, so it looks like there'll be plenty for you to do.
It feels brilliant to play, and the game's enhanced by a welcome change in location. After the grim skateboarding crackdown of Skate 2, Black Box is leaving San Vanelona behind and beating it to the sunny, palm-tree ridden climes of Port Carverton, with its three districts covering University Hill, Downtown and Industrial. "It's a world where skateboarding is actually embraced," smiles DeLong.
"In San Vanelona, it was based on reality: cities don't want you skating. There are skate-stoppers and security guards. This is actually a fictional world where skating has always been okay: the university actually has a skateboarding team, and for all those skateboarders who are sick of being put down by The Man, this is the place for them." A place where skating is actually encouraged, eh? For a skating game, that sounds like a smart idea. And - right on, EA - who doesn't hate The Man?
But the shift in locale isn't the only tweak: Black Box is promising a better on-foot experience this time around - you certainly seem to handle less like a wheelie bin whenever you step off your board - and a focus on providing accessibility for new players without gimping everything for those who want a challenge, with a new Skate School mode and a range of difficulty levels.
"In the past, the game has always been: this is the control scheme, now learn to love it," says DeLong. "That hasn't changed - we're still based on the Flickit system - but we are working on some stuff behind the scenes for an easier setting, which hopefully you won't notice where you're skating. Stuff like knowing to align you to a grind, knowing how high you can jump, and tweaking the variables. I think one of the first things we always wanted to be was the authentic skate game, and there is a learning curve that comes with that. For long-term fans of the game, we're not changing anything - in fact, we're adding a harder difficulty mode for you - but we want there to be things which make the game a little more inclusive elsewhere."
Skate's aging with grace, in other words: with the market-driven horrors of Skate It safely out of sight, the latest entry in the series is shaping up to be as smart, gimmick-free, and self-effacing as the first two instalments.
Skate 3 is due out for PS3 and Xbox 360 in May 2010.