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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Getting Off the Board

One of the biggest changes Neversoft made to the Tony Hawk formula with Underground was allowing its players to get off the board and walk around levels, something it hadn't tried before.

Dan Nelson (programmer): That was really, really hard. Making a character that feels like they're walking really in reality is a surprisingly challenging task.

Scott Pease (producer): [We] were definitely influenced by games at the time, games like the Grand Theft Autos that were out there. It felt like once we had a narrative and once we pushed in the more adventure game-y direction, it just made sense to be able to get off your skateboard and not be constantly holding on to break and having to keep your guy from speeding off down the street or whatever.

Joel Jewett (co-founder): For me, I think, at least part of that was we'd build these huge levels and we also wanted to start building them up more. I looked at it more as just like an extra thing that would allow you to get to different places so that you could make more use of that environment. Back in those days [when] we worked a certain level, I don't want to say until [it was memory-constrained], but you can only build so [wide]. You want to just allow people to utilize it as much as you can.

Jim Jagger (animator): I remember I had a friend who was working on [a different skating game], but it was more like a futuristic kind of game. I remember chatting to him one time and I mentioned—probably shouldn't have—that we were thinking about getting off the board. And then he went away and told his boss and they cut it from their game because they're like, "Ah, if they're doing it on Tony Hawk we're doomed. We're not going to do that."

Dan Nelson (programmer): [In my first year of employment] that was a pretty big task to take on. You don't want the character to just fly around, that's not how people walk. They have to turn, they have to step off, when they come to a stop they have to take a final half-step to stop. There's all these weird rhythms and accelerations and curves that make a walk feel like a walk as opposed to just like a marble that's sliding around on the concrete. I spent a lot of time trying to get that working.

Scott Pease (producer): [It] was tricky, because honestly the whole Tony Hawk physics engine was designed around skateboarding obviously. More or less, you're a marble rolling around an environment until you jump in the air, and then you float in the air and you fall back down. So trying to blend the two things together was super difficult, and trying to come up with a control scheme that could work and felt natural was really, really tricky.

Dan Nelson (programmer): Another major problem was [we got] to walking and we had fucking used every button on that controller. Like, we had maximized that controller 100 percent and there was nothing left to use. We tried all sorts of different things, and we ended up with [pressing L1 and R1] at the same time to walk. That was, like, all that was left. After that we couldn't add any more controls to the game, everything had to be a variation of something that existed.

Dana MacKenzie (UI artist): There was definitely a lot of testing, a lot of trying different things to see what felt right. The whole timer mechanic is one of those things in there that we ultimately ended up putting in just because we wanted to make sure people didn't get penalized for a trick taking too much time. I think we were trying to do some stuff through animation to see if we could indicate if you were running out of time and you had to get back on your board, and ultimately we ended up going back to UI being that visual indicator.

Scott Pease (producer): And honestly it created a ton of problems as well. If you can skate the environment, that's one thing for the designers. But then when you can stop, slow down, walk around, climb on everything, walk everywhere, look at everything up close and in detail, then that's a much bigger deal for the level designers and they have to think about their levels differently, they have to really close them all up and make sure you can maneuver both ways.

Alan Flores (senior designer): That was the one a lot of people complained about. … Well, it's not skating. You're walking. We had to do something, you know? But there's a walk-timer and stuff and there's things that you could do to make it so you're still continuing your combo. I don't think it was as a big a deal as a lot of people did. I thought it was pretty cool.

Jim Jagger (animator): I guess from a purist's perspective, it's not a cool way to string moves together. You know, jumping off your board, having a timer and then going back and skating again, it's not a trick that flows like a manual to revert or whatever. You know? So, in that sense, it went a bit too far. But I mean, it was good, it was fun. Certainly I have no regrets, I enjoyed it.

Chad Findley (lead designer): I'm really glad we did it and I think it ended up pretty good, [even if] it's little janky, especially on the look controls [laughs].

Work Hard

By the time they made it to Underground, Neversoft knew how to make a Tony Hawk game. Despite the fast turnaround required by an annualized series, the developer was, as they put it, a machine. Neversoft had a stable engine, it had the majority of its tricks, now it was just time to make it happen.

Joel Jewett (co-founder): Oh, we were fucking good at the time we made THUG [laughs]. We were a fucking machine, man. … The reality is [to work at Neversoft] you had to be freaking creative, you had to come up with new shit. We were pretty much in our prime when we made this game.

Dan Nelson (programmer): [Production] was really tight on Tony Hawk. We were lucky because we had a franchise that was selling like mad, we knew how to make that game and all we had to do was level it up every year and put a new one out. When you know how to make a game and it's selling really well, that's the best place to be. You can schedule the whole project, you can do accurate estimates like, "How long is it going to take to make 12 maps?" You've done it four times before, you know exactly how long it's going to take to make 12 maps.

Mick West (co-founder): [All the levels] are entirely new so that's being made from scratch, but things like the player control, more than half of that I would say is essentially the same from one game to the next. Especially from like, say, four to five. There were a lot of tricks added to the existing code because we had a very flexible system, like a scripting language that we had for doing tricks, and so adding new tricks was relatively straightforward.

Alan Flores (senior designer): There is a tendency to want to throw everything out and start over, but then there were so many subtleties and little things that were sort of hacked in that we couldn't really change. I think that was a big part of it, we had to keep that stuff going. It's sort of like band aids, putting it on, but that's what was making it work and making it feel good. The game just felt so good, that if you were to try to take it apart and recreate it, it would take a long time to get back to that same spot.

Mick West (co-founder): You could argue that some of it got a little crafty and some of the code was a bit hard to change, but really we had a formula for player control that worked really well, and extending that formula was definitely the best way to go rather than starting from scratch. Because if you start from scratch, you're going to lose the actual feel of a game and you don't want a game that people pick up and they don't recognize.

Chad Findley (lead designer): Neversoft and the Tony Hawk series, we knew how to get that stuff done and do it well. Scott Pease was great on producing it and making quick calls, cutting when we need to quickly. Vetting it, getting people playing the game constantly, always giving good feedback, the feedback loop was always super quick. We [didn't] destroy ourselves on a death march on that game.

Cody Pierson (animator): I've worked on a fuck-ton of games since then, and I would say that stuff almost seemed to go smoother with less hair-on-fire type issues. … Everyone worked hard because everyone was into what they were doing. No one was like, "Hey man. You better show up at the office for 14 to 16 hours a day everyday because we've got to finish this." People knew what they wanted to do and they were completely self-driven to do it.

Jim Jagger (animator): I wouldn't say it was easy. I think the difference was that everyone worked really fucking hard on those games, everyone was into it. Joel used to ring out messages saying, "We can't stop the juggernaut! Keep the juggernaut moving!" We used to do these hardcore weeks, even at the beginning of the project, we'd have every third or fourth week we'd do 12 hour days before we even got close to crunch; we would just stay on top of it. Then towards the end, it was like three or four weeks of crunch, and then maybe a week of sort of less hours.

Joel Jewett (co-founder): And this happened a lot with my guys: if they really wanted [a] feature—and it seems like they always did—then that's when that sacrifice thing would happen that I talked about. You'd be like, "That one ain't going in. We just can't get it done, man."

And they'd be like, "Ahhh, yeah we can."

And that's when, and I didn't tell them to work weekends, but dudes just came in and freaking got shit done. My hat will always fucking go off to them for doing that, and it made better video games.

The Neversoft team (Aaron Skillman pictured above) spraypainted cars for their ending credits video.

Kings of the Underground

Thanks in part to that fierce work ethic, a steady engine, and encouragement from the top down, Neversoft was able to experiment on Underground. Developers were encouraged to just come up with stuff and see what worked. In fact, the game's hidden cutscene was born this way.

Mick West (co-founder): Neversoft started out a very unstructured company and that didn't really work out that well. We developed a method of structuring things while still allowing people freedom, which is basically rewriting the schedule every week. We'd come up with a schedule of what we were doing, then we'd see what we'd done and then we'd revise the schedule based on that. So that gave people flexibility to just try things out.

Obviously we tried to stick to the schedule, but things would take longer or someone would have an idea, and just having that flexibility to revise while still staying on target, I think, was key to Neversoft's success at the time.

Chad Findley (lead designer): We always reminded people, "Keep it authentic, but go ahead and push boundaries." It's something I've dealt with my entire career as a lead, you cannot micromanage greatness. Greatness comes from the people being inspired by doing stuff. We all knew the goals right from the get-go, the goals for the game, and so as long as you stuck to the goals, and people did because they cared about it, yes, they got to create their own stuff. And I think that made them really happy and passionate.

Nolan Nelson (lead character artist): There was a lot of respect there for other people from the top down.

Dana MacKenzie (UI artist): We were all adding stuff into the game, we didn't have to go through any political channels to put stuff into the game. We'd put it in and within an hour or two people could get the latest data rebuild of the game and they would see all those changes go in. And if people didn't like something, they would speak up. Or if somebody loved something, they would also speak up. But beyond that we were just left to make the game, and to me that was just really cool [that] we had that respect for eachother.

Nolan Nelson (lead character artist): Driving to work you'd hear a rad song and you'd be like, "Ah, that's fucking awesome!" Then you might see something cool in a magazine, you're like, "Hey, look at this cool shit! Let's put this in the game."

I don't think I can think of a better time. As an artist it was great, because it was just kind of whatever you wanted to put in you kind of could.

Dan Nelson (programmer): Another thing that came out of that was the cars. … I don't know if you remember, Tony Hawk's Underground was the only game with cars in it and [to do it] we slapped some wheels on the new physics object that we made, put a steering wheel on it and started driving around maps. [People thought the driving was kind of fun], so we ended up making a different car for every map. I think there's one where you're driving a lawnmower.

Cody Pierson (animator): Everyone there is just creative and has fun, whimsical ideas. [The higher-level employees would say,] "Hey we want this thing in the game," and then they'll take it to the developer to just have fun with it. To just do something that fits the theme and tone of the game.

Even doing cutscenes, for every person working on it, every step of the way, there was a lot of opportunities to just [spit ball] like, "Hey. It'd be fucking funny if this thing happened here." …

The end of the game, [where] you're racing for that tape and you gotta race Eric Sparrow. I remember we were out at lunch, and this was at the very end of development so we're past beta, we're just bug-fixing and trying to get the game out the door, and everyone was sitting around, and they're like, "Man. Eric Sparrow, he's such a little jerk. I just want to punch him when he's sitting there taunting me with that tape."

Scott Pease (producer): Those poor guys were so tired of listening to Eric Sparrow's annoying voice throughout the entire production, they demanded they get to put in that little extra Easter egg and that was cool.

Cody Pierson (animator): And then we're like, "Oh! What if you beat the game, 100 percent everything, and played through it again, what if there was an alt-ending where you don't have to do the final challenge? You just punch him in the face and take the tape."

And we're all like, "Oh yeah! That'd be so cool!"

So that weekend, I just went in to work and I animated the alt-cutscene. And I remember coming back to Scott Pease … and I was like, "Hey. I made that branching cutscene if you do that stuff so Eric Sparrow can get punched." And he just kind of looked at me, like, "Really? We were kind of just joking around [about that], you know? It's crazy to add shit like that this late in the process."

And I'm like, 'Yeah, but it's all animated!' He looked at it, and then [was] like, "Alright." He put in the scripting for it and that went into the game, [all] just from people talking about it.

"Fuck It Up"

Neversoft wasn't just making a game about skate culture with Underground, the developers were actually living it. Part of working at Neversoft meant studying skateboarding, watching videos and actually getting on a board—whether you skated or not—to get an appreciation of what it took to skate, then funneling it all back into the game to get the look and feel right.

Joel Jewett (co-founder): As we went, we built a culture at the studio around knowing and understanding skateboarding. … You want [skaters] to feel like you're making it for them. Then word of mouth gets around from those guys to a larger audience, where they're like, "This is all about skating, it's totally authentic and—oh wait—it's a super fun video game to play." And then, I believe because of that, your audience [grows] to what it ultimately became.

Scott Pease (producer): Did Aaron [Skillman] tell you I asked him to do a heelflip in his job interview? … It was awesome, he did it on the carpet. I think it was Aaron and Edwin, they were good buddies, and we were interviewing them as artists and they had said on their resumes that they were skaters and they could skate. And so I think I asked him in his interview, "Well, what can you do? Can you do a kickflip or heelflip?"

And they're like, "Yeah, I can do a heelflip."

I was like, "Alright, let's see it." [Laughs] And he did it! He put his board down on the carpet and did it right then and there. It was awesome.

Nolan Nelson (lead character artist): There were four or five of us that were really into skateboarding, so that, in a way, made Tony Hawk what is it is. Because everybody was really into the culture. … [If someone] wanted to do something that didn't feel quite skater-ish, you'd be like, "Well that's starting to break the realm of the Tony Hawk feel." We would really gut-check that.

Mick West (co-founder): It's Underground, that kind of refers to a variety of things, but [it mainly refers to the] underground skate scene, so [we] wanted to capture the essence of that. A lot of things go into that. The artwork, of course is a very important thing, things like graffiti and getting replays that look like they were shot on video and things like that. We were just kind of capturing the essence of the skate scene, really.

Nolan Nelson (lead character artist): Basically we wanted to try to make it feel a little more gritty. The first three were pretty colorful and a little more exaggerated. This one, obviously it still had exaggeration in it, but we wanted to just try to make it a little bit more real, a little more detailed in some of the environments.

Dana Mackenzie (UI artist): I was doing a lot of experimentation with a lot more traditional methods. Like I would actually go out, I would spray paint pieces of wood. I would make stencils and I would actually sit there and spray paint them. Back in the day we didn't have the greatest cameras, but I'd take the best camera that we had, take a picture of it, digitize it, and then convert it over to digital just to try to maintain that organic and realistic quality that I was seeing in the magazines and on TV and all that stuff. That was really important.

Mick West (co-founder): We were just kind of capturing the essence of the skate scene, really.

Dana Mackenzie (UI artist): The art direction that I would get from [co-founder] Chris Ward was one of the best pieces of direction he ever gave me. He would always say, "Fuck it up."

At first I was like, "Fuck it up, like make it wrong? Break it?" And he would say, "No, no, no," he had a very thick Scottish accent, [doing accent] "Fuck it up. Fuck it up." Actually it turned out to be English, but it sounded Scottish. I kind of figured out what that meant. It means skate graphics felt good-intentioned but they didn't feel contrived and they felt like there was an element in it that was not perfect. That's what makes it believable.

Dan Nelson (programmer, Neversoft): I do remember every year we would go, actually a couple times a year, we'd always go to a skatepark. We'd rent out an indoor skatepark usually and we'd go there. It was always a mix, some of the game designers and artists, they were working on Tony Hawk because they'd been skating since they were like eight years old or something and they were just like tearing up the ramps. Some of us had, like, every piece of padding on that we could and were dropping in and just immediately face planting [laughs].

Aaron Skillman (environment artist): There would be a lot of people working on this game and they'd never skated before. So it's like, "Oh. Why don't you just try it?"

Jason Greenberg (animator): That's kind of how I learned to skate, I think I did my first drop in at one of those events. It was cool, Neversoft would buy you a skateboard if you didn't have a skateboard. I still have my Neversoft-sponsored skateboard to this day and I won't get rid of it because Rodney Mullen actually worked on my skateboard and replaced the trucks on it.

Alan Flores (senior designer, Neversoft): I remember [going and] putting on a lot of pads and falling down a whole bunch. And, you know, you get an appreciation [for] how hard it is when people are doing this stuff.

Dan Nelson (programmer, Neversoft): I think just about every year somebody lost a tooth or there was blood or something.

"There Was Blood Everywhere"

Skateboarding is obviously dangerous. Getting a bunch of guys on boards—whether they skated or not—led to the occasional injury and/or bloodshed. One of the worst falls the team saw at sites during the development of Underground ended in a mess of blood and teeth. And consequently, at least resulted in good footage for the game's ending credits.

Aaron Skillman (environment artist): Skateboarding is tough, man. It looks easy, but it's actually really hard. If you're just trying it for the first time and you're, like, 30 or whatever, you're going to fall down. There's no way you're not going to fall down. You gotta be ready to fall. I think a lot of people when they start, they just don't know how to fall. … Some people fall and they hurt their knee or some people fall and they break an arm. Maybe you fall and you don't catch yourself and you smash your face.

Scott Pease (producer): One of our guys, Brian Jennings was his name, it was one of his first times skating I think, and he tried going up a little transition and his board rolled out. His helmet was up on his forehead just a little too high, so he literally just smashed his face into that ramp and knocked out his front teeth. Yeah, it was brutal.

Cody Pierson (animator): He hit the ramp so hard that his tooth punctured the metal ramp; it left like a little tooth hole in it. There were just pieces of teeth [laying] around and he was trying to wash his mouth out. There was blood everywhere.

Chad Findley (lead designer): And he was just cool about it. He was smiling, I think he was stoked that he made the credits video.

Jason Greenberg (animator): I think he was in shock at the time because he wasn't screaming or wailing or anything. He was just gushing blood out of his mouth, went straight to the bathroom and was trying to wash it out.

Scott Pease (producer): Actually, you know what, I can't remember if it was Brian Jennings or not. I can't remember who it was. It might have been a tester.

Dana MacKenzie (UI artist): That was Cody, that's Cody Pierson.

Cody Pierson (animator): He was a QA guy that was around. I don't remember if he was around on the next project or not, but yeah, he was a temp guy.

Dan Nelson (programmer): Ah, God. I cannot remember. … I remember he was tall and thin. That's about all I remember.

Scott Pease (producer): I just remember we had to help that person with some dental payments. It really messed him up. That was the bloodiest [bail] by far.

Joel Jewett (co-founder): He never had insurance, so we gave him some money in return for being able to use the footage of it. The sad part is in hindsight I've now learned that, and you should know this, you can pick a tooth up, stick it back in, and if you hold it tight and keep it there—of course you probably need to go the dentist as well—but the tooth will rebind if you knock it out. It'll reset and stay. Unfortunately I didn't know that at the time, so we didn't stick his tooth back in.

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