There’s been a Tony Hawk shaped hole in the video game world for a while now. Skate has been missing for nine years. Session was announced last year but has been radio silent ever since. Thankfully, a hero is emerging. One to bring us out of this drought. It goes by but a single name:
I got to talk with Megan Fox, founder of Glass Bottom Games and developer of SkateBIRD, a game about this wonderful skateboarding bird.
(I could hear birds in the background during our entire conversation, so to accurately set the mood, I’d quietly play bird sounds while you read.)
SM: Let’s start with birds! Your twitter page is pretty much totally awash with birds right now with SkateBIRD, your own feeding spots. Have you always liked birds, or is this new coming off the heels of SkateBIRD?
MF: So I used to live in Colorado, and whenever I moved out to Seattle, we moved into the country, because you can’t buy houses in Seattle [laughs]. So, I’m way over the water, west of Seattle near a little town called Port Orchard that has like 14,000 people. So, it’s a little small. But the point is, because I moved out this far, we have space! We keep the windows open, and there aren’t like people staring in, so it’s kind of cool. And part of that is that now I can sit in the morning and there’s a patio! And I can watch the patio, or I can watch outside and there are birds and stuff. And then well, I like it when the birds are around. So, I started putting some seed out and then “oh hey the birds like the seed! I’ll get more seed!” So, I go some suet, started putting the suet out and then it was like “Oh hey the suet’s drawing in new birds! I wonder what kind of birds those are.” And then I got the field guide and that kind of started my whole descent into birds. That all happened a year, two years ago and the next game I was like “Hey! What if I did birds.” Then my partner found a gif of a bird [skateboarding]. You can actually teach birds to skateboard, like a legit skateboard. They’ll ride a fingerboard. And my partner found a particular good gif of this bird that would hop up on a board and then ride it down, and then their friend would like put the board back up, and the bird would climb back up and then do it again. It clearly enjoyed the act, so it was like “what if I made a game about—Oh my god” and here we are!
SM: Do you have any specific birds you’re hoping to put into the game that have not been realized yet?
MF: Yeah, specifically chickadees. There’s a bunch of birds that people have requested, and we do a vote on the Patreon every month for what bird should be next. So that’s cool, and they’ll get [added]. But whether or not they vote for it or not, a chickadee is gonna be in the game.
So a weird bit of trivia. The state bird of Washington is a goldfinch, which is really weird because goldfinches aren’t even native to the state. They’re a migrant bird. Chickadees are really big here. So, chickadees are a huge part of what I see. Chickadees and juncos. Those are the two birds I see the most. And chickadees are my favorite, so yeah, I need those birds in the game.
SM: I’ve seen you say a couple of times that the origin of the game came from the pun of a Tiny Hawk, at least in part. So has the Tony Hawk series of games had that influence on your work or did the skateboarding come after?
MF: So the Tiny Hawk pun came after the game was created and that was just “Oh hey the name, oh you can do the thing, and it’s funny!” The reason that pun came about is that I was hugely into (still am) into the Tony Hawk games. I played essentially all of them. I even played Tony Hawk 5, and the less said about that the better. But where a lot of the fans stopped following the games at around where [Tony Hawk’s Underground] and [Tony Hawk’s Underground 2] came out, I like Project 8. I genuinely thought Project 8 was cool. And I’m really sad that we didn’t get more games in that vein. Or American Wasteland was surprisingly good. The create-a-park stuff in American Wasteland is why I’m really careful when I look at create-a-park in SkateBIRD. I don’t want to go into it half-cocked. I’ve been playing these games forever. After those stopped being made, well the good ones stopped being made. I even played the HD remake and thought it was okay because I was that desperate. But after that, I switched to the Skate games, which are also good in a different way. But there is a different dynamic wherein Tony Hawk games you can ollie and you can kickflip and all of that immediately. It’s intuitive; there’s no thinking about it. And the thought comes in “how can I jump up off this ramp and grind that powerline and do a really sick 360 flip over that gap between buildings. Whereas, when you’re playing Skate, it’s like “how can I do a really sweet kickflip on this one ramp, or just this edge.” It’s like the scope of the things you think off as cool and hard to pull are way smaller. So, I wanted to do the feel of Skate physics that are a lot smoother and a lot more grounded. But more on the Tony Hawk level of, do a sick 360 flip over this building gap and then yadda yadda yadda.
SM: Keeping in line with Tony Hawk [games], are you planning on including reverts, manuals, stuff like that?
MF: Manuals are already in the game, believe it or not. Manuals used to be bound to B button before grabs were in. Then I got grabs in, and my input system can’t handle combos yet, like directional combos. So, I don’t have a way of bounding up/down or down/up to nollie or to nose manual or manual. But the game already supports them. So those are going to be in probably within the Kickstarter.
As far as reverts go, I specifically didn’t want to do reverts because reverts are kinda dumb. In actual skating, I mean some people do [reverts], but it’s not like you link a revert into a trick. You would just skate and switch. Then skating in switch because it’s a different direction. That’s part of the coolness of going up a ramp and coming back down. It’s part of the combo. But, in Tony Hawk terms, reverts are really important for linking tricks. Without a revert, you can’t go up into a vert and come down and go into a manual and have it be a combo. That’s why my game uses a scoring system a little bit closer to Skate. It’s essentially a combo meter. That is one of the reasons you can screm in SkateBIRD. Screm is a thing birds need to do period, and it’s just kind of funny. But the gameplay purpose of screm is so that whenever you’re doing a lengthy aerial trick or trying to get somewhere else and there’s a big gap, you don’t have to just drop straight into a manual or do anything at all. You can sometimes screm to cover the gap. I wanted to give you more ways of covering gaps than that whole Tony Hawk “I always have to revert then I always have to manual” like there’s that ingrained flow that you always have to do. I wanted something more flexible.
SM: I’ve just been using the screm button to show frustration. I hadn’t even thought about it as a combo tool.
MF: Yeah! It burns down really fast in a combo. You can’t get very many screms in a combo before it just stops doing anything. But it’s really useful for covering those gaps. Also, the way the combo system works, when you come out of a vert and then start skating out of the ramp, your combo does continue for a second, that’s the purpose of the meter. So you can just come down from vert and then go straight into a manual. You don’t [need to] do a revert or whatever to link it.
SM: Along the same lines, Tony Hawks games have always had named gaps. That’s to be added?
MF: Oh yeah, definitely. Those are fun. Just in terms of gameplay functionality, if you don’t have gaps, it’s really hard to create interesting goals. Tony Hawk had “go collect those things, and it had “do this gap.” [Tony Hawk] had a lot of clever ways of phrasing those in different ways, but realistically, it was collect the things, do this gap, or trick on this object. And if you can’t detect the gaps, you probably can’t do those things at all.
Also, there will be a transfer button, thought the transfer in the build right now is janky. The final build will have a better transfer. Sometimes it does nothing, and I have no idea why. It’s buggy as shit.
SM: And that’s why coding sounds terrifying to me.
MF: Yeah, it’s a thing. Especially this game. This game is like all math. If you’ve ever seen the way the bird leans out of the way of obstructions, there are no collisions, that is all math. Well, I mean there’s ray cast collisions. But it’s not like the bird is nudging anything, it’s just math.
SM: Watching your physics displays on Twitter and Patreon have just been crazy how much has gone into it, and it’s a fascinating look at how things look.
MF: If you want to see more of that, look up Kev Kev on twitter. So Skatebird is built on top of one of his early prototypes. He got this cool prototype where he had a board, and it was physically active and it kind of skated around and it had a good feel. And then he got stymied when he tried to put a skater on top because of the animations involved in making a skater track with a totally physical board… they look like they’re drunk. It’s almost impossible. So, he just abandoned it, and I assumed it and went, “Wait! If I put a bird on there, it all works,” and that’s where it started.
SM: I mean, a drunk skateboarding game also sounds kind of fun too!
MF: It would be! [But we’re] both aiming for Tony Hawk, essentially. And he wanted like the pure Tony Hawk, whereas I was willing to queer it up a little bit. If you look at his current game, which is Sk8Brd, he abandoned this code base entirely. Like when I took it over, it was already kind of abandoned. His new code base is done very Tony Hawk style. [In] Tony Hawk, your board was imaginary. Like it’s there, but what your character actually is a pill shape. Everything else is animated. His new prototype is done in that style, and it is like razor sharp. It is very Tony Hawk inspired.
SM: Obviously, you have a lot of influences from Tony Hawk and Skate, but are there more hidden influences?
One of the common comparisons you get, especially with kids that see the game is they think of Goat Simulator. Because I mean its physically active. So, I wasn’t expecting that comparison as strongly. Like I figured it would come up, but I didn’t think it was going to be like the primary thing. But for kids, it’s the primary comparison. They like the physical weirdness of it; they like some of the bugs. So, a lot of the feedback we’ve seen from the demo is that “Oh man, these bugs are awesome! I wish you wouldn’t fix all of em!” We probably aren’t going to fix all of the bugs. The final game is going to have a little bit of that physics jank. What we’ve been finding is that if you take it out, you lose a lot of the charm. Like “technically yes, this is a more accurate skateboard,” but it’s not as fun. A simple example: right now, whenever you’re in a stall (by the way you can do stalls on anything. It’s not just on ramps, which I’m very proud of. Technically it’s a stall if you do it on something else and a lip trick if you do it on a lip and Tony Hawk only had lip tricks, not stalls until later game but still. I’m super proud of it.) whenever you come out of a stall if you let the balance swing one of the ways what it’s trying to do is tip you back and make you bail on the ramp. But what it does is make you do a double front flip and its fucking awesome. So that’s technically a bug. But it’s a fucking awesome bug! I’m not going to fix that shit. But it has the accidental effect that some of the coolest things you can do are accidents or things you can’t directly control. They just happen.
That part of why the press “tab” to get the last ten seconds of play and share it with someone is so important. These cool things just fall out of the physics sometimes. And while I can make them not fall out of the physics, the game would be less charming because the bird wouldn’t pull off these sick flips and shits that blow your mind. Or they’ll land an improbable tumbly, weird flip off the table and land it on the floor and just like “dude! You did that!” So, like sure, I could make it more accurate. I could [cut the bugs down] and make it more Tony Hawk-y, but you lose so much that were likely to lean a bit more into the goofs just because it’s fun and it feels good. Like if we did a multiplayer mode, there would be HORSE, there would be SKATE because of course. There’s gotta be SKATE in an online skating game. By the way, online is not confirmed, we don’t know it’s going to happen. It’s something I’d like to do; it’s just potentially very dangerous and expensive, so I don’t want to promise it. But like rather than just stop there, my partner recommended “Well, what if you did like jousting? Like little jousting with Q-tips.” Stuff like that leans more into what the game is good at. So yeah, playing a little bit with the genre, as it were, as opposed to trying to make a “straight-laced this is a skate game” sort of thing. But it’s still, to be clear, it’s still going to be an honest to goodness skate game. We’re not making it a joke.
So there’s this weird thing where Tony Hawk and sort-of-not-so-much Skate but even Skate, they do this thing where they’re about the cool moment that you see in the magazine. That kick-ass kickflip that just is lined up perfectly and you get the perfect shot, and that’s what they’re channeling. But actual skating, when you go skating with your friends, that’s not what you’re doing. You’re trying to do a kickflip because a kickflip is fucking hard. Or you’re trying to just get into the bowl and skate the bowl without falling on your ass. Half the day is you falling on your ass until that one moment where everything lines up perfectly, and you do that perfect carve of the bowl, and you’re all screaming “oh my god that was so fucking cool!’ and only you ever see it and it’s not cool to anyone else, but it’s cool to you. That’s the vibe I’m more interested in channeling. That what it feels like to skate as you, not “I’m going to be Tony Hawk.”
SM: [Talking about growth, skateboarding and doing your best] Is that something you see as a core theme of the game? Are there more themes than that?
MF: Oh, absolutely. The core theme that’s written at the top of the document is “trying your best.” Skatebirds try their best. That is the core resonant theme, and everything is built around that. Because skateboarding is not about a kickflip, it is not about the moment you do the kickflip. It is about the fact that you practiced for days, months, [years] to do that trick. And it’s about that process. Getting back up after you fall is way more important than the moment where you do the kickflip.
SM: We’ve seen a lot of the desktop skatepark so far, I don’t know that we’ve seen anything else other than that –
MF: Nothing else exists [laughs]. It’s just this. This is all I’ve got so far. This is essentially a vertical slice. I wanted to get everything visually polished and make sure I can nail a final environment. That’s what the desktop is. It’s technically a craft table. If you look at the world scale versus everything else, this person lives in a relatively small [one-bedroom] apartment that has a huge ass table. It’s like on a level of the guy who’s really into trains and takes up half his room the really impressive [train set]. That’s the level of skate geek we’re dealing with, as far as your big friend goes. But yeah this is just the vertical slice. I’m probably going to debut a level sometime through the Kickstarter which is the start of an office environment. Your big friend, the human, they have a shitty job at an architectural firm, and you’re going to go to their office, and you’re going to play on their scale model table. Their scale model table is going to be a neighborhood, and the bird will be about human size for the scale level. I’m trying for [the Cul-de-sac Tony Hawk level] vibe, where it’s just this kind of self-contained little neighborhood that like its sort of real, but also very much staged. That sense. But like, in a way that you can knock over because it’s just cardboard.
SM: Looking at your history of game development, looking at Spartan Fist, Hot Tin Roof, all your games seem very distinct from one another. They might have a similar flavor of how the game plays, but they all seem very distinct. Is there any sort of through-line that you see between all of them up to SkateBIRD? Are we going to see returning characters as teases or homages?
MF: Up to SkateBIRD, all the previous games their through-line was the Emma and Frankie paring. [In Jones on Fire, Emma] was the hero, the lady and Frankie was her cat. The first game was Emma’s first job as a firefighter, rescues Frankie. The second game, Hot Tin Roof, they lose their jobs because of downsizing, they move into the city, they get jobs as detectives. The third game, Spartan Fist, you get thrown into a capitalist hellscape of an arena/gladiatorial thing. And if you get to the end of Spartan Fist, its this very weird timey-wimey you become a time god sort of thing. So that’s kind of the end or the beginning of the Emma/Frankie three-episode thing. At this point, canonically, Emma and Frankie are gods of time, so they can show up anywhere, in anything I do, in any way, and it will technically be canonical. I don’t know if I will, but I can.
That aside, SkateBIRD is essentially me rebooting the brand. What I’m trying for with our games in general, in a more focused way now, is to make sure they’re cozy and close and weird. But like in a good way? Not in a bad way. Not like spooky weird., Just like good weird. There’s a brief on this on the company page if you really want to see it, but the gist is you can expect games going forward to have a vibe more like SkateBIRD. Spartan Fist was a pretty strong outlier. I tried really hard to make it a cozy, fun feeling safe experience. But It’s still one in which you’re exploding people. So, it was really hard to ride that line. What I probably should have honestly done is not bother with blood. I should have just shipped Spartan Fist with rainbow mode engaged always. Party mode. That was much better.
If it helps contextualize it, Hot Tin Roof, my mom died when I was supposed to ship the game. After that I went through hell crunch to get it done because I essentially lost two months when she died, I don’t remember them. And then I launched the game early… I think it was 2015? Something like that? And then a couple weeks or months later… A couple of weeks, I think. I broke my hand cus I punched the floor because I didn’t deal with any of that well. I just bottled it up. And because of the punching of the floor, I made a game about punching because that was appropriate at the time. But that whole thing is essentially what I was channeling with Spartan Fist, which is why it’s kind of skews off to the side. Not to get too real.
SM: Do you feel that SkateBIRD is channeling anything that you’re currently going through?
MF: In a sense, SkateBIRD is me trying to express how I put myself back together and how everyone else maybe can do the same. Which is just that you need to try. And I don’t mean like the kind of try where you limply lift one hand and go “eh.” That’s not really trying. But if you actually, genuinely try, you can do a lot of things. You can reinvent yourself. You can pick yourself back up. You can piece your brain back together after a really shitty thing happens to you. There’s [obviously] very real human sides of this that I don’t have much interest delving into for obvious reasons. But that’s essentially what I’m doing here.
And the cozy aspect is largely informed by, well, the presidential election that happened in 2016, say. We live in a time right now where the world is very scary. Where we individually have very little that we can do as individuals. And even our main ways of making a difference are very tiny individually. So, what this game is trying to do is get people on board with the idea that “look. Even if you just do a little tiny thing, if you genuinely try that little tiny thing, eventually it can honest to God make a difference if you just keep trying.”
I’m hoping that comes across as subtext. That if you want to dig into you can, but like it’s also just a cute cozy fun skateboarding game that you can hide in, and that’s totally fine.
SM: The demo currently has a really cool Lo-Fi tune included. When you first set out to make SkateBIRD, is this kind of what you always envisioned the soundtrack to be like, or were you originally thinking something more along the lines of the original Tony Hawk games, that has a little bit more punk atmosphere to it?
MF: Nah, this is what we went for originally. So, Nathan is the composer. Nathan Madsen has been the composer for all of our games. We’ve been working together ever since LEGO. He was also on the LEGO team. And then he got laid off, and I got laid off, and we worked together after that. What I knew from the beginning is that if we tried to go for a punk sound, it was going to immediately be compared to literally any of the Tony Hawk soundtracks and it didn’t matter how good the punk sound was, no one would be into it. Punk music is one of my favorite genres. If you give like a normie an actual punk song, they don’t like it. What they like, very specifically, is Goldfinger or they like Offspring. Or maybe at absolute best they like Foo Fighters. And Foo Fighters is good, but all of that is very pop punk. The reasons they like it is less because it’s punk, and more because its pop. And if you veer away from that at all, you fall out of what they’re interested in very quickly.
So, what I wanted to do was to establish an aural identity that was very distinct, that would not be compared to Tony Hawk’s. We cannot license Goldfinger; I don’t care if you want Goldfinger, that is way out of our price range. But we can make a really kick-ass original sound. And because I knew there would still be people who would say “But I want to play…” whatever soundtrack. It’s not even Goldfinger. It depends on which Tony Hawk you grew up with. All of them had different soundtracks, and some of them veered more hip-hop than punk, so it’s a moving target. You can’t hit it.
Rather than try and hit that, what I decided I’d do early on is it’s not that hard to make a PC game that has a folder you can drop MP3s into, and the game finds those MP3 and the game goes “okay, I’ll play these instead.” That’s a thing that games used to do all the time; we just don’t do it now because modding fell out of fashion, I guess? I don’t know. But still, that’s really easy! I’m just going to do that. And then, if you own a soundtrack for some other Tony Hawk game or if you wanna put actual punk music in there or if you want to do “Ave Maria,” I don’t care. You can put whatever you want into the folder and it’ll just… The in-game soundtrack system and the files are going to work like previous Tony Hawk games. The main difference in this game, we’re using the concept of mixtapes. So, you can make a mixtape, and you can put the tracks on it you want [in virtually], and it will play those, and you can shuffle or not. Whenever it changes between mixtapes, you get that cool shuffling cassettes around and clicky-clacky sound and well lean into that. But it’s that, and you can just add MP3s to your mixtape, and there you go! Have fun, do whatever!
SM: Your Kickstarter is just doing absolutely incredible so far. Obviously, you have stretch goals you’re still holding close to your chest. But say it just does the absolute best it possibly could, what is the dream thing you would put into [SkateBIRD]
MF: Honestly, the top end feature is probably multiplayer. But multiplayer is a big enough ask that I don’t even know if I’ll have it as a stretch goal. It’s the kind of thing where our top stretch goal might actually be sandbox multiplayer, like coop split screen. Since that’s a little more doable, and there are less moving parts to make it work. And that essentially works as a first step towards online multiplayer because if I’ve already engineered it to support two controllable characters, it’s a lot easier to say “oh and by the way, one of those in virtual.” Not trivial, but its easier.
The big, big, huge hurdle is our character animation system is very based on board physics. It’s not like “I play the kickflip animation, and the kickflip animation takes three seconds and the board is always in this position.” No, the bird is actually skating. When I play the kickflip, what the board does [is] a kickflip and the bird goes “I’m doing a kickflip!” and puts their feet out in the kickflip position because they kick their feets, then they put their feets back at the appropriate time and like, they have to sync up. And if the board is tilted at the time, the bird stays tilted.
Let’s talk about skating for a moment. A kickflip is not a maneuver that you do after an ollie. The kickflip is the ollie, essentially—It’s all one move. So when you do a kickflip in reality, what you’re actually doing is kicking the board up and you’re starting the kickflip whenever the nose is still up a bit. That’s what a kickflip is. Or you can do it after you’re in the air and you’re going over a gap or whatever. But the orientation of the board is not a fixed thing in a kickflip. It might be pointed a bit up; it may be pointed a bit down. The important part is the rotation.
My system supports that, but that also means that if I’m syncing information down so that I can [make the co-op player’s birb] not look totally drunk when they’re skating, I need a lot of information and I need a lot of data streams and they need to be pretty accurate. So yeah, there’s a lot of stuff I’d have to figure out.
SM: Are there anything you think people haven’t found yet in the SkateBIRD demo? Is anything hidden or tucked away that might be missed?
MF: I don’t know how many people realize, I suspect none of them, it is possible to get on top of the glass table. There is a bowl up there. If you jump off the glass table, you will find an area with a ton of vert ramps that are magazines. But to get up there, you have to realize that you can do a stepped jump up to a ledge from a ramp. So, you do a ramp up to a ledge and land it; then you have to no fall behind that ledge because the bird can actually fall back there. Then you have to go up another ramp and land that, then do another transfer. The other way to get up there is if you mash the reset button, you’ll cycle between teleport points, you’ll cycle between teleport points, but I don’t think anyone’s realized that yet. So, I suspect there’s about 20% of the map that almost no ones bothered finding yet. They don’t think it’s skateable. The other one is I don’t think anyone’s realized you can skate the pipe yet—like you can do a full loop.
Many thanks to Megan Fox for talking to us about SkateBIRD, we wish the team every success with the Kickstarter campaign!