Take a 'RIDE' with Tony Hawk

Skateboarding made Tony Hawk famous, but it's his video game series that has made The Birdman wealthy beyond even his belief. With over $1 billion in sales worldwide, Hawk's games are the top-selling action sports franchise of all time. But with "Tony Hawk RIDE," Hawk and game developer Robomodo have decided to ditch traditional controllers in favor of a wheel-less plastic skateboard peripheral. A peripheral Hawk demonstrates to me by rocking the nose and tail, then spinning completely around on the board, a move that forced his on-screen character to pull a frontside 360 over a gap at the end of LA river level.

"The experience is like you're really there, it's that exhilarating when you're physically able to rotate your board," he tells me. "This is something I've always envisioned, but to actually do it and to see your character on screen mimicking your movements and almost having the same hand and body positions is amazing.

"I think when people first heard about this game, they thought it was just another Wii Fit board. It's not. This is way beyond that."

And by watching Hawk soar in the game thanks to his movements on the board, it's easy to see kids across the country trading in their plastic guitars for plastic skateboards (if only they made "Tony Hawk: Guitar Hero" where you could shred while you ride).

I caught up with Hawk in Los Angeles to get his thoughts on "RIDE," the inspiration behind the plastic peripheral, and how his video game franchise has changed his life (beyond the truckloads of cash, of course). Here's what he had to say:

Jon Robinson: Why do you feel your video game series needed a change of direction to a board-based game?

Tony Hawk:I've always wanted to do a board-based game, I just felt like the technology wasn't quite there yet. I felt like after our last game, we had gone as far as we could with the button-smashing mode because you weren't getting a true skate experience at that point, you were just memorizing button combos. So I came to Activision and said, 'I think it's time we do a board-based game.' The technology is here, we shouldn't be afraid to utilize it, and games like Guitar Hero proved, people aren't afraid to buy peripherals. I just thought we should try. So Activision hired this group out of Chicago, Robobmodo, to develop the game and to develop the board, and they came up with something beyond what I could've ever imagined. This thing has accelerometers, and it even has infra-red sensors around the edges that scan the perimeter of the board to know if your hands or feet are coming in. And we made it so you don't need to know how to skate to use it. You get on and all you have to do is stand on the thing. You don't even need to turn your way around on casual mode as it will help guide you around obstacles. I'm just so excited. We've been working on it for two years, and I've had to keep it a secret for so long. There was a lot of speculation on what we were up to. Now the game is finally going to be coming out and I'm really excited.


Robinson: Do you fear someone falling off the board only to watch the peripheral fly through their TV?

Tony Hawk: You're not actually moving at 30 mph, so you don't have to worry about that. You can step off of this device. I also think that the board is a lot more intuitive than people assume. You get on it and all you have to do is put one foot on the tail and one foot on the nose and rock it up and down and that will get you into the tricks or wheelies or manuals. It's not about the balance so much as it is about the timing.

Robinson: Were you a big "Top Skater" fan growing up?

Tony Hawk: I loved "Top Skater." I actually have an "Air Trix" arcade machine at my house, which was the sequel to "Top Skater." A lot of "RIDE" actually stems from playing "Top Skater" in arcades and thinking that the game was fun, but it just wasn't a real skating experience. You're holding onto these rails and you're not maneuvering the board the way it should be maneuvered, but there was something there and it was really fun.

I've pretty much been into every skating game that has come out. I've played them all. I have a 720 machine in my office. I bought an old Commodore 64 just so I could play "Skate or Die." I even bought "California Games" just because it had skating in it.

Robinson: Do you think that a game where players have to physically stand on a board to skate will help inspire kids to go out and skate for real?

Tony Hawk: I'd like to think so. I feel like our video game has a pretty good track record for helping people get into skating and this one could definitely inspire them if they thought that maybe they weren't physically able. Maybe they'll realize that they can try it out for real because of how prolific they are on the board.

Dobbs The experience is like you're really there, it's that exhilarating when you're physically able to rotate your board. This is something I've always envisioned, but to actually do it and to see your character on screen mimicking your movements and almost having the same hand and body positions is amazing.

-- Tony Hawk

Robinson: Throughout the process of developing the peripheral, what were some of the designs that ended up in the reject pile?

Tony Hawk: Some were on raised platforms. We had one that had two trackballs up on the nose so you could brush your foot by them like you were flipping your board by the way the trackballs moved. But it just didn't feel natural. It just didn't feel intuitive. Once they got into accelerometers, and using two accelerometers to measure the tilt and the flick and the spin, that's when we realized that's how it should be.

Robinson: How about the game itself. Besides adding the board, you've taken the game back from being open world to setting skaters in levels. What's the reasoning behind that?

Tony Hawk: I think with a whole new controller and a whole new way to play, we can go back to the two-minute challenge mode way of playing, and to be honest, if you were playing this game with the board in free skate for more than five minutes, you'd be really tired. I picture this as more of a party game.

Robinson: How has your video game series changed your life? Next to John Madden, your name might be the most recognizable name that's so closely associated with a game.

Tony Hawk: I feel like it changed my life in terms of giving skating a much bigger appeal. The game raised the awareness for skating and the appreciation for it. That's just not something I ever thought would happen. I didn't think it would take a video game to bring skating to the public's acceptance, but it has, and that in turn has changed my life just because skating is so much more acceptable that now I have a lot more opportunities in skating and traveling. This is stuff I never dreamed of.

Robinson: Where do you see skateboarding going from here?

Tony Hawk: I think skateboarding is in a real good place in terms of countries that it's established. In terms of growing the sport, we need to take it to more countries. We need to find more global acceptance. That's one area where actually the Internet has been a big help. All of a sudden, thanks to YouTube, a kid in Brazil can learn a trick instantly that he sees online, whereas before, you'd have to wait for skate magazines or videos.

Robinson: Have you been able to pull off anything in your new game that inspires you to try that trick for real?

Tony Hawk: There are a few tricks that I've done in the vert part of the game that I've never done in real life, and I actually want to go try them, like a kickflip to blunt.

Robinson: So what's the best thing about skating in "RIDE" as opposed to skating in real life?

Tony Hawk: When you fall, you don't hit the cement at 30 mph. In real life, I've broken my pelvis, broke my elbow, not to mention all the scrapes and concussions. But in the game, if you don't feel like you're going to make a jump, just step off onto the carpet and sit on the couch. Feels better than cement any day.