The journey to Skater XL first began in 2015 with the mobile game Skater, a breakout hit that garnered GOTY nominations. Skater's success fueled the creation of Skater XL, a Steam Early Access title released in December 2018. Now, a year and a half later, Skater XL is dropping in as a full-fat game on PC, Xbox One, PS4, and Nintendo Switch.
Steam Early Access allowed Easy Day Studios to focus on refining Skater XL's core mechanic: the left foot/right foot dichotomy we're seeing in modern skate games, now translated from mobile touch screens to joysticks. Come July 2020, Skater XL will land on all platforms, with a brand-new map (Downtown LA) and four pro skaters on the roster.
"Gaming properties like Skater XL give access and engagement to so many more people than who are actually doing these sports," studio head Dain Hedgpeth tells me. "We all come from a skating background, but we're in our thirties now. It's not so easy to just get on the board when you have a meeting the next day."
Skater XL's controls should feel like an instrument
"We didn't want to make the controls punishing," Hedgpeth tells me as I watch a virtual version of pro skater Tom Asta navigate the tutorial screen. I can't speak to the veracity of this statement as the current COVID-19 pandemic makes it impossible for me to go hands-on with Skater XL, but I'm intrigued. Mainly because the developers of Session, Skater XL's natural "rival" (in that it is a skateboarding game where your feet are mapped to joysticks that's currently in Steam Early Access) proudly referred to itself as "Demon's Souls on a skateboard". And while that comparison is more worn out than the logo on my favorite Miller High Life tee, it just means the two skate games are, in some ways, diametrically opposed.
"Once you get the hang of it, it starts to feel like an expressive thing," Hedgpeth promises. "It's like a musical instrument – a guitar has six strings, but there's a lot of nuance to the way you hit those strings, make chords, combine things – there's no limit." The decision to map feet to joysticks was one Easy Day toiled over – "how much do we want to reinvent things, or how much do we want to give people a new skating game that's familiar?" But Hedgpeth and his team found that the more they put Skater XL in the hands of people from varying backgrounds (some pro skaters, some pro gamers, some casuals from both groups), the more they found that the consistency of the controller model drove them to want to get better.
"They felt like they were building up to a skill, they'd try something and they'd know what they did wrong, but they could learn from it," he explains. There are no tricks written into the game's code, there's just physics, so you can sort out a new approach when you can't land that kickflip to boardslide combo on your tenth go-round.
Welcome to the capital of skating
Easy Day is all about the Cali lifestyle (sun, surf, skating, supreme chillness), and Skater XL is imbued with that energy. "A lot of people that have any connection to skating, part of that obsession is with LA and SoCal... The big open streets, beautiful sidewalks, big blue sky. LA was a no brainer to set this game," Hedgpeth continues, noting that the team was so dedicated to capturing the SoCal vibe that they moved Easy Day Studios there (none of the core team members are Cali natives). "LA was the thing we were most excited to build and have as a centerpiece."
That's probably because Downtown LA is ripe for the skate spot picking. Maybe you're interested in trying to make history by hitting a trick off the Staple Center ledge or skating the Chinatown Ledge from the Rob Dyrdek days. Perhaps you want to time travel and skate the Downtown car wash from Tony Hawk Pro Skater 4, which has been modified with anti-skateboarding barriers IRL. Whatever you want to do, there are, as skateboarding pro turned lead dev Jon West says, "skate spots for days" in Skater XL.
We built this city on...player feedback
Since Skater XL spent a lot of time in Steam Early Access, the game you'll see in July is partially the creation of its players. Easy Day didn't release a step-by-step guide on how to mod its IP, but they (admittedly) weren't too protective of its code. That's why, shortly after its release, websites began to crop up showing off different gear, decks, skins, and maps. "Kids were picking up Blender, the free 3D software, just to build maps in it for Skater XL," Hedgpeth tells me, clearly impressed with the community forming up around the game.
Those player-created maps helped the team understand what does and doesn't work in skateboarding games, or at least their skateboarding game. In fact, it's through playing these creations that helped the team decide to steer away from engineering its Downtown LA map to be a 1-to-1 recreation of the real thing – sometimes, fiction is just far more fun than reality. "Some of the player builds were fun to skate on, some were frustrating," West explains. "They just needed some tweaking on heights, distances, angles, and they could have opened up more."
It's important, Hedgpeth tells me, that the studio continue working with the community though. Much like skating in real life, there's a culture of collaboration at the heart of the scene that feels like an easy for what the studio is trying to achieve with the game. "There was this realization that contrary to back in the day, where you'd build a title, polish it up, ship it out, and that's the thing that people consume, this feels so much more like the product is a combination of what we create and what the community is creating," says Hedgpeth, adding, "I guess we feel a lot more like a part of the ecosystem, rather than we're the creator and they're the consumer."
Not to double down on the age-old East Coast/West Coast rivalry, but it seems like there's a clear delineation between Skater XL and Session. One is the gently stoned cousin looking to just ride, man, and the other will happily kick your ass for miscalculating a ledge. Skater XL is bringing its own unique take to the skate game genre, and it's honestly a privilege to have the opportunity to choose between skateboarding games again. I look forward to playing both.