From Busted Teeth to Broken TVs: The Oral History of Tony Hawk's Underground

From Busted Teeth to Broken TVs: The Oral History of Tony Hawk's Underground

The road to creating Tony Hawk's Underground in under a year was a wild one. We talked to the rebellious developers who made it.

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Rodney Mullen skating in front of the Neversoft team, photo from Scott Pease.

"Can You Do That on a Board?"

Making a game about becoming a professional skater, early on Neversoft found inspiration from the most obvious source: professional skaters. They'd come into the studio, review the game, be interviewed and hang out. It was all in an effort to make Underground as authentic to skate culture as possible.

Scott Pease (producer): That was basically part of their contract. They had to come in, sit down with us, and tell us what they wanted to look like, what they wanted their outfit to be. It was bonus points if they just came dressed up, because then there would be no interpretation and we couldn't screw it up.

Chad Findley (lead designer): I think [Tony Hawk] really enjoyed the fact that a lot of his friends, like [Mike] Vallely, got to really shine and be part of the story. He always pushed skate culture and wanted to make sure that it was being represented well. So he enjoyed that his other buddies got to be stars in this.

Scott Pease (producer): They were like mini-collaborators. Each one of them had such a different style and personality; those were some of the things we tried to reflect in the game. Whether it was Mike [Vallely's] persona in some of our hidden videos and stuff, or the way Tony felt about skateboarding or Chad [Muska's] crazy personality.

Scott Pease (producer): Jamie Thomas got really into it, [he] would come down to the office a few times and he would help with just basic skateboarding knowledge. He'd review some of the tricks and the animations to make sure we got those right. … Andrew [Reynolds], he was the best in the voice booth because he was just so funny, just so deadpanned funny.

Nolan Nelson (lead character artist): Mike Vallely was probably the funnest to work with, he was really passionate about making sure his character looked as [close] to his current vibe [that it could be]. … He was a cool cat [laughs].

Dana MacKenzie (UI artist): I remember one day Bam [Margera was] just looking over Nolan's shoulder … he was working on Bam's character and there's Bam sitting there eating a freaking, I don't know, creamsicle or something and he's just staring. He was just like, "Thank you, thank you, thank you. This is so cool! This is so cool!" He was thanking us while we were all thanking him for coming into the office.

Jim Jagger (animator): [For Bam's] special moves, he just wanted to do crazy stunts and smash things. … I just remember some of the reference footage of him doing flips inside the office and I remember videoing him standing on the floor and doing the jump up, spin and land on his back. And he's like, "I want to do that on a skateboard. Can you do that on a board?"

Jim Jagger (animator): I would just take a video camera and we would go out into the parking lot and we'd just talk about, "What do you want to do as your special move?" I remember Rodney Mullen, he was just amazing. He was like, "Ah. We could do this, we could do that. Let me try this, this would be really cool! I haven't done this for ages," and I'd just be videoing him.

Scott Pease (producer): Because [Rodney Mullen's] stuff was sort of freestyle stuff, every time he'd come in and we'd start brainstorming tricks, he could just throw down and start showing us what he was talking about. Always when Rodney would come over [there was an] impromptu freestyle demo in the parking lot.

Jason Greenberg (animator): That guy just understands the physics and the dynamic of how to manipulate a skateboard. And he would explain that stuff to us, and then he'd demonstrate it. … It was super helpful from an animation standpoint to understand how things should work and what things should look like, and the physicality of what your feet need to do and what your body needs to do in order to pull off a trick.

Jim Jagger (animator, Neversoft): It was one of the best days of my life. Just like watching him think out tricks, tricks that he couldn't necessarily do but tricks he knew were semi-possible. I'd just video reference him doing certain things and then take that video back inside and work on his special moves and everyone else that was in the game.

Nolan Nelson (lead character artist): [Rodney was] stoked when we put a bunch of his tricks in. He would just be like blown away. He'd be like, "Those tricks are so fucking hard to do and you guys are just doing it no problem!"

Chad Findley (lead designer): Now, getting some of those guys to do VO was not easy. I did a lot of the voice directing for the game. It was always fun, we always got what we needed, but, you know, they're not trained at doing voice over. They were all stoked to work on this game because they loved the game, they loved what it did for them and for skating, but I could tell it was difficult for some of them to get out the lines.

Scott Pease (producer): And all throughout the series Tony was just super involved. He would come by many times in production just to see what was going on, check in. And then we would send him builds of the game either weekly or monthly depending on what he was up to. He had his own debug PlayStation at his house so he could play the builds as they were developing and coming along and give us feedback.

Moscow was one of the Neversoft team's favorite locales in Underground.

What Happens in Russia...

Underground's story took players to eight levels around the world as they followed their character's journey from skate rat to professional. To get the feel of these areas just right, Neversoft sent employees on reference trips to cities such as Moscow and New York while others would roam around Los Angeles—where Neversoft was located—to see local skate scenes, photograph spots, get a feel for an area's atmosphere, and, uh, try to not get shot.

Chad Findley (lead designer): [When we started,] we would just start listing out cities on the whiteboard, and it would be like 100 different cities that we'd end up with. Then we'd start talking about the pros and cons and what each city would achieve. We had a backbone of what the story should be, like starting at a kind of poor location. Then you get to travel around and go to a place that has an [amateur] competition, then you get to go to some more fascinating places that pros get to go to.

Scott Pease (producer): The story suggested certain levels, like you were going to start nowhere, then get to New York, then get to Tampa and follow the path of a skater. So that suggested very concrete levels. Then on the flip side of that, all those levels can kind of get a little boring and feel a little rote. So the other side is, "What are the exotic locations that we want to put in the game?"

"OK, well we want to put Moscow in the game."

"Alright, cool. So, how the hell do we get that in the story?"

Chad Findley (lead designer): So, a few weeks before we'd start on the level, we'd send out people on reference trips to all the locations, and we did this multiple times as we did the game with the goals of just getting a lot, a lot, a lot of photo reference. Because the more photo references we have, it makes it easier [to go], "What could this be? Oh, it could be this." If we were having problems figuring out what could be skateable, and how do you make a halfpipe out of something, we just literally trolled through the photos to see if there was anything that would solve the problems that would be authentic.

The other goal was also to do research of skating. Like when I went to Russia with Bryan, Ted and Aaron Skillman, we hooked up with a guy who was a skater there and he took us to a bunch of skate spots.

Aaron Skillman (environment artist): He was basically just our bud for like a week or so when we were out there taking photographs.

Chad Findley (lead designer): We went to a couple spots and people found out we were working on Tony Hawk. There's obviously a language barrier—I spoke Russian, but not really well—so they would speak in as much broken English as they could, and they were just stoked to see guys working on Tony Hawk coming in and checking out their town to put it into the game.

Aaron Skillman (environment artist): It was like we were pros or something crazy. We were like signing helmets, giving away stickers, just doing all this stuff that a pro would do. It was weird. In the U.S., that would never happen, you know? Even just an average skater, [like] not even that good, you're just like, "whatever." But over there it was like, "Oh my God. There's these skateboarders from the United States skating in our park." It was crazy. I've never experienced that before.

Chad Findley (lead designer): We got stopped by soldiers with guns on the street at one point. I remember, it was about minus five when we were there and everybody was kind of frowning and grey and in dark clothing, and we were four Californians in bright red sweatshirts, smiling our asses off.

Dana MacKenzie (UI Artist): So, for me, I would have my little camera with me—this was long before phones had cameras built in—and I was always taking pictures [around Los Angeles]. Especially if it was something like the overpass, the corkscrews, something that I could start with as a basis,then take into Photoshop and manipulate it, add some filters on it, then vectorize it in Illustrator and turn it into a cool piece of art. Having something as reference was always a good place to start, rather than just kind of guessing and pulling it out of your head.

Alan Flores (senior designer): There were these guys from this place called 50-50 [in Hawaii], I think, they were actually able to get us on the Air Force base to show us those cool wooden bowls that they had built there. They took us to The Wallows also [which made it into the level]. Which it's funny, because if you were here in Southern California or Florida or something, [you] probably wouldn't even bat an eye at the Wallows, it's just like a wash. But they really built it up there to have all these ramps and all this cool stuff in there. You just go in-between a couple houses and then climb up and then you're in this wash and dudes are skating and stuff. …

There was a guy, and I wish I could remember his name, the guy from the skatepark of Tampa that showed us around the place. He took us to a place called the Bro Bowl. … It's in the level, it's this really cool concrete bowl and it's graffitied up like crazy, and it's in a terrible neighborhood. [People said to us], "If you go there, go during the day and make sure you get out before [the locals] come out and stab you. Just be careful." So we were, like, pretty worried about that.

Dana MacKenzie (UI artist): I remember one Saturday, I got up early and I was out in the Valley and there's a section where there's about two or three different freeways that all kind of go over top and corkscrew over [on] top of each other and cloverleaf. And I was like, "Oh, that's cool! I'm going to go underneath that and take some pictures." I remember I was walking down the road and taking pictures of signs and cars are going by and blah, blah, blah, car, car, car, police car, car, car, car.

I'm sitting there taking pictures and at one point all I hear is, "Turn around, sir, and put the camera on the hood of the car."

And I was like, "What the hell?" I turn around and there was a cop car right there, the doors are open, there's two cops over the glass with guns on me. And I'm like, "What the hell is going on?" … So I basically get the full meal deal. I get frisked, I got asked if I was part of a gang, I get all this kind of stuff. And as they're asking me all these questions and I'm trying to figure out what's going on I realize that I'm sitting there on a Saturday morning and I'm taking pictures of overpasses and 9/11 had only happened, what, maybe two years before, three years before. So it looks super, super sketchy.

[MacKenzie was let go after one of the officers, who turned out to be a huge fan of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4, found out he worked for Neversoft.]

It was so funny, in that split moment I went from being, like, a potential terrorist to I have all the secret cheats and unlocks that can get him all the extra characters.

Joel Jewett (co-founder): I don't even probably want to hear all the shit that happened on those trips. … Oh trust me, I've heard a lot of the ones that they wouldn't tell you. I don't know if I want to hear all of 'em.

Scott Pease (producer): As long as they came back in one piece and came back with the photos, you know, what happens in Russia stays in Russia. I guess [laughs].

Making The Real World Skateable

Escaping the reference trips with life and limb intact, Neversoft would begin building the game's levels using the hundreds of reference photos it took all over the world. Though for the first time, the levels in Underground couldn't simply exist as a pseudo-virtual skatepark. They also had to facilitate the game's story, furthering the narrative on top of being a fun level to skate around in.

Mick West (co-founder): That's always a trade-off that you make in games. People think they want realism, but realism isn't always that much fun. So you have to make sure the game is fun. You're not making a skateboarding daytime TV movie, you're making a game that people want to play. So you want it to be entertaining, but you also want to give that sense of actually progressing.

Chad Findley (lead designer): We talked about New Jersey [like], "Alright, well, what are the goals? We want you to start in an area that's got some bad elements to it, show some of the poverty of being a nobody skater."

So, [from there], we're like, "Alright, it's your hometown, so how do we make a hometown?" We went to Jersey and we did research.

[Then it's like], "How do we make this skateable?" … "How do we make a top of a house skateable? There's a train station at the end, this is a big, long building that's kind of boring to skate on, but it looks good." So we'd just go back and forth constantly, like, "What little bits can we add here? What can we throw here that looks like it would fit a quarter pipe, or a siderail you can jump to?" It was just a lot of work to make something that looked real and skateable.

Mick West (co-founder): [A challenge was] arranging things so that getting from one place to another wasn't a chore. You'd have to make it so that there's not too much dead space in the game, because it was a bit more spread out. … Some of the problems that we had in Tony Hawk 3, I think, were that some of the levels were a bit bare and people didn't know exactly where to go to do things. Wandering around, looking for someone to talk to isn't that much fun, so that was something we needed to address so that the narrative flowed much more naturally and it wasn't that you would just happen to come across something.

Aaron Skillman (environment artist): I mean Tony Hawk maps are, by today's standards, kind of small, so we could only get a few things in each one. [In] Moscow, for example, obviously the Kremlin and the wall around the map and some of the more iconic things in the middle of Moscow [made it into the game]. But once you get inside you start seeing buildings that you could have never have known about. I think the Parliament made it in there [too]. But yeah, it's just little details like that go in there, and it gives a nice authenticity to it that's sort of hard to get [without having actually been there].

Chad Findley (lead designer): That one was less [authentic], we didn't use the skate spots in the Russian area. That one was more just because we knew we wanted to get the Kremlin and the Red Square in there. … There is not a halfpipe in the Red Square [laughs].

Alan Flores (senior designer): We'd go [on those trips] and identify these really key spots, and then we'd take them and we were like, "We have to get these five things in here." Then you start cramming them into the level and make a version of it that [you could] skate all together pretty well.

Chad Findley (lead designer): It's kind of the same on Call of Duty [Findley was a project director at Infinity Ward], we have to stay at 60 frames per second for Tony Hawk. It has to be at 60. You know [on] the previous games we worked on, we pushed the boundaries. [But on this one] we pushed the boundaries further than we ever did. We were trying to tell the story, we wanted you to get off the board and we wanted this driving, so the scale of levels just, like, doubled.

Jersey was a good example. We built it, we kind of knew it was going to be too big. And then it got started and it did not even come close to running at 60 [frames]. So then we scaled back what we could, and it still didn't run at 60. … Nowadays we have software that will cull back edges of things and all that to get framerate back. We didn't have that technology, so we would lay in triggers throughout the entire level, so if I was in the northeast corner of it, I would manually hide the back faces of all the buildings on the southside of [the level]. We just did a lot of hand-scripting on every level to get it framerate, as well as cutting.

Alan Flores (senior designer): We would usually start with a generalized level box where it's like 500 units by 500 units, and it's like, "Stay within [these] dimensions." It's sort of just like a rough guideline because you can make things denser, which would take up more memory or not. We would always have the level box where we would start, but people would always go outside the box. And we're like, "This is better, it's going to work this way." And then you would just run out of memory, you'd run out of room and then you'd have to scale back. It seemed like it always happened.

Scott Pease (producer): [The level Vancouver] in particular was kind of a nightmare because it was so big, and you could see from end to end. So that hotel in the middle literally has to block your view so that when you're standing on one end of the level you can't see all the way to the other end of the level. … It's like this big monolith in the middle of the level there.

Chad Findley (lead designer): I don't remember what it looked like, but the second half of Jersey was much larger now that I remember it. It was probably twice as big. You know how in Jersey, you go over the bridge and there's a whole second half to it? … It was about twice as big as it was. So there was a whole 'nother street, there was a whole 'nother loop. Instead of having one street, [on the other side] there was a whole loop that cars could drive around out of Jersey.

Alan Flores (senior designer): I don't think it happened in my level, but people would have to cut out a giant section or pull another section on over and stitch things back together, which was not a happy process for the designer during that. … Sometimes it was pretty brutal.

Chad Findley (lead designer): As we went a long, it was just like forcing our way through each problem and working through it. There was never a good generic fix to a lot of problems.

Dana MacKenzie (left) and Aaron Skillman (right) at a gathering.

Mo' Cutscenes, Mo' Problems

One of the things Neversoft did in preparation for Underground was grow its team, specifically to do cinematics and expand animations, bringing on new talent and developers to work on their very first video games. It had a stable base with its engine, but it wanted to add more tricks, throw in more special moves, have fully animated cutscenes. It was a tall order for a game developed in just under a year.

Scott Pease (producer): The Tony Hawk team on Tony Hawk 1 started with, I think, about 13 people. Every year the games got a little deeper and added a few more features, and then eventually moved to new machines that were higher fidelity, so we had to keep expanding to keep up with everything. At the time we were looking to expand into two teams, so we were also looking to bulk up in that way.

A big thing about THUG specifically though was we added animations and cinematics into the game. So that required a whole new division of people to create that content.

Jason Greenberg (animator): When I started there were only three animators on the project. So it was me, Pete Day and Jim Jagger, and we ended up hiring more people when we started to do cinematics and that kind of stuff. That's where we brought Cody and a bunch of other guys [on].

Cody Pierson (animator): I gotta say, on my phone interview I was so nervous I choked. Like my brain blurred out and I had no idea what I was saying. It was [my] first big interview with anyone. I was honest with them. I was like, "Hey. Look guys, I'm fucking so nervous right now. I can't believe I'm talking to you guys." And I was just genuine about it. I guess they were like, "Oh, cool! He's honest and genuine and really likes us and he does good work. So let's, like, check him out."

Joel Jewett (co-founder): Cody was freaking awesome. I hired that dude over the telephone without even ever seeing him. I could just fucking talk to him on the phone and I could tell.

Jason Greenberg (animator): Cody was the first guy that we hired on and we didn't have room for him [laughs].

Cody Pierson (animator): Then going out there, now I'm working with a bunch of professionals who know how to make video games and I had no fucking idea what I was doing. I was sitting in the hallway, too, which made it even weirder because the company was in a small building, all the offices were filled. So I was just kind of the young college kid in the hallway for quite a while.

Jason Greenberg (animator): We kind of shared responsibilities across the animation department. We all had our hands in pretty much everything, from animating the skating moves for the player, animating NPC characters, animating cinematics. I think probably the biggest chunk of animations on that game was the cinematics, they were all hand-keyed and [there] was a ton of work that we put into that.

Cody Pierson (animator): So to crank out all those cutscenes, with very few animators, in under year, I think we had three or four months of full development on the cutscenes. … I think it was March or April when I joined, and then games usually wrapping up around August. So, yeah. There wasn't a lot of time. It's kind of funny, everything seems to take so much more time these days. It was kind of nuts we could push out so much shit so quick.

But we [were] just winging everything. We did not have cinematic pipeline in place, like, any step of the way. Even down to, like, "How do we story board it and get consistency between all the animations and all that stuff?" We were just totally doing whatever we could to pull it off. … It feels like that was our development at the time. Like, you have a year to make a game, so there was a lot of winging it involved.

Nolan Nelson (lead character artist): One of the harder parts of that whole process was getting your character into the cutscenes. Because basically the model changed where the amount of facial movement from in-game to the cutscenes [increased]. We basically had to make a new rig for the head so the head would swap out with more bones so we could get talking and stuff like that in there.

Jason Greenberg (animator): I had access to some of the scripting stuff, so we had the opportunity to try to improve the animation ourselves, the way animations connected to each other [and] just played in general. I remember working on the pedestrian system, like a little scripted system where we could make the [pedestrians] go through different idles and everyone once in awhile does some sort of fidget or wave or something like that, just to make them look more alive and more natural.

Jim Jagger (animator): I'd just study slow motion reference of people doing the tricks. Back then I don't think we even had YouTube, so you couldn't even go online to find the tricks, you'd have to bring in a VHS and then you'd sample it, go through frame by frame, and look at the moves. … I guess with it being skating, lots of people were doing slo-mo videos, so it was perfect reference for that.

Jason Greenberg (animator): And we had pretty good exposure to the pros, which was great.

Nolan Nelson (lead character artist): None of the animators were actual skateboarders.

Jason Greenberg (animator): A lot of the stuff was carried over [from previous games], like some of the core mechanics for the skateboarder and they were tweaked or improved. I remember working on a lot of custom bails, getting back on your board and those kinds of things. Those videos are somewhat painful to watch when you have to watch them over and over and over again.

Jim Jagger (animator): The bails were some of the best things to animate. I mean, some of the worst and some of the most fun. … [We'd watch videos of people falling] over and over again and just looking for ones where they'd ping the board out and they'd, like, break an ankle. Of course, because we could do whatever we wanted in the game, we could bend the knee backwards. We could make it really bad.

Jason Greenberg (animator): You identify, "Okay, we're going to do this breaking an ankle [animation]," and then as an animator you have to watch that video like 100 times, at least. Over and over again, to the point where you become desensitized to it.

Cody Pierson (animator): I enjoyed doing those.

Next On Part 3: The road to taking players off the board for the first time and the consequences of a sometimes-dangerous work ethic, including broken teeth.

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