SKATEBOARDING GAMES ARE BACK BABY.
Or, maybe I should edit that.
Skateboarding Simulators are here, baby?
I thought I was done talking about skateboarding simulators after Session came out in September. Honestly, in the battleground for the best skate sim, Session had SkaterXL beat. I’ve been enjoying playing the game a fair bit, but honestly my appetite for “simulation” has been waning.
Session is a wonderful sandbox of realistic, beautifully crafted virtual skateboarding, but as a game it can often be frustrating, annoying and unnecessarily difficult. I think the act of super realistic simulated skateboarding is at odds with the accessible pick up and play nature of the best video games. People like to compare Session to Dark Souls, but honestly Dark Souls offers you the basics of standardised movement and intuitive control – with a fiercely difficult combat loop built on top of it.
Compare this to SkaterXL and Session, where the sheer act of moving about is inherently alien and difficult to anyone who doesn’t understand how skateboarding works. Even as a lifelong gamer & skateboarder, getting to grips with these controls was weird. I’m a big accessibility advocate, and honestly this trend of skateboarding games needing to be the true skateboarding sim is almost as bad as skateboarding’s other unwritten rules about skatepark footage being shit, or Nyjah Huston’s comments about “fake tricks”. It’s just one more way to gatekeep skateboarding from people who might really enjoy it.
I know that’s an incredibly pessimistic view. The dev teams behind these games are made up of many people, some who skate, some who don’t, and they all want to make the best game they can. In some cases they love skateboarding as much as any of us, and want to share what it’s like in their eyes so that others can enjoy it too. This is often where I feel there’s a romantic notion that skateboarders love skateboarding so much that they can’t possibly understand what it’s like for someone with zero interest in skateboarding to play one of these games.
There’s a reason why THPS and Skate became enduring franchises that spawned multiple games, and Thrasher Skate & Destroy never got a sequel. Don’t get me wrong, I love Skate & Destroy, but it’s really difficult, cumbersome, frustrating and downright impossible to figure out for modern gamers. It says a lot that the recent THPS 1+2 remake retained much of the same game feel, and still feels as fresh and modern as it did 20 years ago. Accessible pick up and play gameplay stands the test of time, and it does so for a reason.
The latest game to jump on the true skate sim bandwagon is the aptly named “True Skate”. This isn’t an old game: similar to SkaterXL’s predecessor Skater, it’s existed on mobile for around 10 years, and has been incredibly successful. Now, like Skater, it’s making its leap to PC and consoles with its “big screen” update, now live on Steam in Early Access. This game is the latest in what is quickly becoming a crowded market for skateboarding sims, with SkaterXL, Session and an as yet unnamed in-development game coming from Zellah Games.
True Skate’s marketing spiel is full of grand statements about their game being the most in depth skateboarding simulator. This is all well and good, but if you thought SkaterXL and Session were hard to pick up (and universally I have heard many people discuss the “hard to pick up, hard to master” gameplay of both games), then True Skate is another level entirely. The game gives you full control over your board, but at, what I feel, is at the detriment of accessibility.
Doing a moving ollie is a 5 step process: Push off with right stick, hold RT to engage trick mode, hold down right stick, release right stick and use RT to level out. In my opinion, if I’m having to contort my hands to just do an ollie, then that isn’t a fun experience. There are players who love this sort of in-depth control, but I find it frustrating, especially because in real life things like “doing an ollie” are second nature to me and I can do them without barely thinking.
I think this stance on skateboarding games has grown and expanded because the cartoon-like superhero gameplay of THPS drifted so far off from core skateboarding that people who consider themselves at the centre of true skateboarding want that hardcore realism. 30 million point combos, collecting secret tapes and grinding power lines are frowned upon actions as people liken THPS to the cringeworthy repetition of being called “Sk8r boi” shortly after Avril Lavigne came onto the music scene.
There’s no denying that these self-proclaimed simulators are very good at what they claim to be. But the truth, in all honesty, THPS is a better video game than True Skate, or SkaterXL. Even Session and Skate, which have both been held up as golden bastions of skateboarding culture in the medium, put in considerable effort to offer meaningful goals and progression to onboard the player, as well as a touch of unrealistic silliness (anyone remember the Hall Of Meat challenges from Skate, where you threw yourself off the roof of a building?). Skateboarding works surprisingly well as a traditional video game, and it’s something I feel the simulators miss.
I don’t think the investment in “full physics based animations” to get “no two flip tricks that look the same” is worth the price of losing a crafted experience that could speak to millions of kids and introduce them to real skateboarding. Occasionally you might see a trick done in a skateboarding sim that looks super realistic, but in order to get there you have to ignore the 20 buggy, glitchy attempts you had beforehand where some form of David Cronenberg body horror unfurled on your screen as your character mangles themselves at the mercy of the game’s physics engine. The look and feel of this gameplay all sort of starts to become a bit “samey”, as opposed to the stylised and hand crafted animations of THPS, Skate and OlliOlli World.
What’s more, SkaterXL and True Skate ignore some core elements of skateboarding that their competitors have absolutely nailed. Session, OlliOlli World and THPS 1+2 offer various board shapes and customisation options that reflect where we’re at with real world skateboarding trends. Session’s board customisation is amazing: you can add pool shaped boards, rails, wide trucks, different sized wheels & riser pads. If we’re talking about true realism, and true reflection of skateboarding, then personalising your board, and having the freedom to fully express yourself, is part of that. This is something that just isn’t there in the base versions of SkaterXL or True Skate.
Video games are escapism, and when I’m playing a game I don’t want to be reminded that I can’t consistently kickflip in real life, or that the amount of 360 flips I have landed in my life is less than 10. I want to feel like I can skate way better than I can in real life, and as this race to become the most realistic skateboarding game continues, I can’t help but feel like I’d rather close down True Skate, and go slappy a curb in real life. If games like that are struggling to make me see the magic of skateboarding due to their unnecessary difficulty, what hope have they got of attracting the interest of other gamers?
The whole reason why skateboarding is appealing, and has so many people interested and engaged with it, isn’t its difficulty. It’s because it’s accessible. No matter who you are: you can get a skateboard, you can ride it, and you can have fun. It is relatively low cost to enter, it does not require you to join a club, it is unorganised, and there are no real rules about how you go about it. Accessibility is core to skateboarding’s appeal, so to concentrate on difficulty rather than it’s low barrier to entry is a bizarre misinterpretation of why skateboarding is so well loved.
Regardless of your opinion on the big budget franchises in this space, they understand that. THPS and OlliOlli World are high score chasing, rapid fire arcade games through the lens of skateboarding’s creativity. The challenges, navigation and habits the games teach you are based on real skateboarding – you need to understand how to form a line of tricks and expert play is directly informed by what makes a real skateboarder “better” than another (clean landings and complexity/variety of tricks and terrain). Blurring the line, Skate does something similar, although on a more realistic scale.
Whilst there is no doubt that all of the games I’ve mentioned really understand and show appreciation for skateboarding, I honestly have always believed that THPS and Skate nail the “video game” part more than the simulators. And no, I don’t think these newer games can rest on the excuse of “it’s a simulator” to ignore adding meaningful progression. Both THPS & Skate take skateboarding and perfectly translate it to moment to moment gameplay. OlliOlli World, despite being even more removed from reality than THPS, nails the “video game” part, and still feels entirely grounded to skateboarding’s core identity. You don’t need “the most realistic skateboarding experience ever” to make a fun skateboarding video game, and OlliOlli is proof of that.
My first few days playing True Skate feel like we’ve hit a saturation point, and (in what was a surprise to me) I felt like I maybe had had enough of skateboarding games for the time being. If more complexity, more realism, less board customisation, less exploration and less actual gameplay mechanics is what skateboarders really want from video games, I guess I’m in the minority. But I gotta believe that there has to be a contingent of skateboarders who want that raw, visceral, addictive, rapid fire rush that I got from THPS2 the first time I played it. That’s a feeling that got me excited about skateboarding, and it’s not something I really see coming from today’s skateboarding simulators.
Do I think there’s an audience for the one true skateboarding simulation? Of course there is. But, like with all hardcore simulations, I think it’s a niche audience. I’ll try any game that has skateboarding in it, as I think it’s a worthwhile endeavour and it’s a combination of 2 of my biggest passions in life. However, I don’t think the “skate sim” is enough to keep the skateboarding genre alive in the same way THPS and Skate did. Between THPS, arcade indie darling OlliOlli World, the upcoming Free To Play Skate sequel, and the high quality simulation effort from Session, we are spoilt for choice, and I think that doubling down on a less accessible experience for players isn’t the way to stand out from the crowd.
Disclaimer: I work for Electronic Arts, my opinions on any skateboarding video games are simply my own, and not those of EA.