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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Play Hard

Over the years, Neversoft became famous for its antics. It was something it put front and center of its games, which usually shipped with home movies of the team's parties, skating, and overall bad behavior. Somehow, throughout it all, they didn't get kicked out of their office. Even when they were throwing TVs from the roof onto cars below for the Underground credits.

Jim Jagger (animator): That was my car [laughs].

Cody Pierson (animator): He was leaving town in the not too distant future, and he had a car that wasn't worth a lot or worth selling. So he was like, "Hey. Let's do something with this for the credits movie." It was the end of the project, so they were like, "Fuck it. Let's spray paint it and throw a TV off of the top of the building and record it."

Jim Jagger (animator): You know, you'd hear about rock stars doing it, so it's like, "Fuck it. We'll do it. We'll film it. It'll be in the outtakes, it'll be awesome.

Aaron Skillman (environment artist): He had one chance to throw that TV off the [roof]. He nailed it. It was amazing.

Chad Findley (lead designer): It was very loud. Those TVs, those big tube TVs, when they fall they explode.

Dana MacKenzie (UI artist): When that TV bounced off the roof and hit the ground, I have never heard a louder explosion in my entire life.

Jim Jagger (animator): I kind of expected it to make a bigger dent.

Cody Pierson (animator): Man, I don't know how they got away with a lot of stuff like that. I honestly have no idea how we didn't get kicked out of that building.

Jim Jagger (animator): I think everyone else was in our shadow, we were just making a lot of noise and everyone just sort of hid away from us.

Nolan Nelson (lead character artist): There were lawyers underneath us that hated us really bad.

Mick West (co-founder): We'd often break things. I remember we were playing escape from the box games where we would tie people up in a box and [they would] try to get out of it. I used a joystick extension cable, back then there were these 9 Pin D joysticks which were used for the PlayStation 2 development kit. We tied up one of the programmers … in a box and he had to escape from it. He did, he kind of smashed his way out.

The next day I used that same cable, plugged it into a PlayStation 2 development kit and it basically started smoking and nearly caught fire because we had broken the cable. I didn't realize it was the cable at the time, so I plugged it into a second one and that started smoking, too. So [laughs], I ended up destroying like $40,000 worth of development equipment from playing around after the office [closed for the night].

Jason Greenberg (animator): We had a couple guys who, you know, were young guys who couldn't really afford much in terms of apartments and stuff that ended up living in the office. … Eventually Joel had to kick them out when he found out.

Jim Jagger (animator): Sometimes it'd just get late and we'd start drinking in the office and try to do tricks. I was hopeless. I remember trying to kickflip the conference table in flip flops. I couldn't even ollie.

Nolan Nelson (lead character artist): [We were skating on the conference tables] when all the sudden we just hear someone banging on the door. We open the door and he's like, "What the hell are you guys doing up here, bowling or something?"

Chad Findley (lead designer): I remember I was taking the elevator up with one of my buddies and a woman from one of the offices, and she said, "You guys work at that company there?"

And I was like, "Yeah."

She's like, "When I saw the name Neversoft, I thought it was a porn company at first."

Then she said, "Then I saw you guys."

Dan Nelson (programmer): Our work hours, they were pretty hard hours Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, but we would always get off at five o'clock on Fridays like clockwork. The rumor always was because our boss, Joel, needed to go to the strip club at five on Fridays. It needed to happen. I don't know if that's actually true.

Scott Pease (producer): The Candy Cat. Oh, yeah, I [went there] a few times. But it really wasn't my scene [laughs].

Alan Flores (senior designer): The Christmas parties were always nuts, someone was always smashing into a tree, or throwing up in his sleeve, or getting arrested or something like that.

Joel Jewett (co-founder): At one of the trade shows we got in trouble from Sony. We had about 1,000 Neversoft stickers so we thought it'd be a good idea to go stick them on anything at E3 that we could. My guys found whatever competing skateboarding game was coming out and covered that with Neversoft stickers. … Sony called me up and told me that wasn't cool.

Alan Flores (senior designer): Chris [Ward, co-founder of Neversoft] came in one time and he was like all yellow because he drank too much, he got jaundice. [Another time he] went to Mexico to try and get his Visa renewed in some shady way and then he wound up being stuck in Mexico for a month.

Joel Jewett (co-founder): If you're in my position and you're the one that decides the studio should be called "Neversoft," then you kind of have to walk the walk, right?

"Internationally Known"

Tony Hawk's Underground was released on October 28, 2003. At the time, it sold well and was received positively by critics. However these days, 14 years removed, Underground is a bit of a cult classic in the shadows of other Tony Hawk games like Pro Skater and Pro Skater 3—both considered among some of the best games ever made. But for a lot of the developers that worked on it, Underground still remains their favorite.

Aaron Skillman (environment artist): Man, it's funny because it's gotta be the story or the cutscenes or something like that. Sometimes I'll be on Reddit and I'll see a Tony Hawk [thread and] at least a few times I've seen someone link the cutscene of Chad Muska [with] his Escalade bouncing up and down. Do you know what I'm talking about? … And I'm like, "Oh man. Is that the legacy of the game?" Because that's what you see, right?

Chad Findley (lead designer): I think when people talk about the Tony Hawk games, they usually mean [the first Pro Skater]. I'm fine with that because, one, I got to be a part of the THPS series, which is cool. This game was financially successful, I think it sold more than the others had up to that point, so I was happy with it financially. The performance of it, it got rated really well. [But these days] it's a cult classic. And yeah, like, fuck, that's cool. I'd kinda rather it be a cult classic than it be the one [that] everybody who knows it cares about.

Jason Greenberg (animator): You know, that's an interesting one, because I worry that people have such fond memories of the Pro Skater series and I think some people see THUG as a turning point, and that may not always be a positive thing. But, from my perspective, I think THUG was the peak of the franchise. I think it made a good balance between innovating and giving you something different without moving too far from the core that made Pro Skater great. It wasn't old yet. By the time you get to the eighth and ninth version, it doesn't really matter what you do, it's going to feel old.

Chad Findley (lead designer): This was our own retake on it, our recreation on Tony Hawk. To be able to be part of it, to take it seriously and deliver something that is inspired by the pros and truth, [by] what's really out there and the punk side of it, [to] really show what we felt. I think the fact that we could actually deliver it and [were able to] recreate Tony Hawk games in this way, that's why I enjoyed it. We took something that was already fucking good and made something that I think people really enjoyed out of it. … I'll say, I think Underground is [my] favorite game I've ever worked on.

Cody Pierson (animator): There's a lot of times I'm on Reddit, just reading different video game forums and things like that just because you get some exposure to what gamers are looking for, but I still run into people that were stoked about THUG. And they're like, "Ah, I'd love to see another THUG!" So, I don't think it was the pinnacle of the series, but I think it was a cult classic to a lot of gamers that still hold it near and dear to their hearts. … The Tony Hawk series is just one of those games, it makes an imprint on you as a video gamer in one way, shape, or form.

Dana MacKenzie (UI artist): To this day, I look back [at the game manual] and I see the screenshots of the game or I fire the game up [and] everything I see I don't question. I don't go, "Ah, damn. I wish I had changed that." Or, "Uh, that looks kinda crappy." It's so easy to scrutinize things after it goes out the door, but I look at Underground and every element that I helped out with I'm just insanely proud of. … There's no regrets that I have on that game. There's nothing, honestly, that I would go back and change. That's kind of crazy to think that all the years later that I still feel that way about it.

Mick West (co-founder): The first game we only had, like, ten people working on it and I think when [we] got to Underground it was more like 70 people working on it. So, for some people it was their first game. [As] we were saying earlier, it was kind of a chance for people to refine what they were doing—especially the level designers—so they would get a lot more time to work on things and they would see them going into the game straight away. So it was a more rewarding game to work on from that perspective.

Jim Jagger (animator): I don't want to be harsh on everyone else, but, you know, it was kind of the end of the great Tony Hawk games in my opinion. [After Underground,] they started going downhill a little bit. They still do really well, they're still successful, but I think most of the mechanics were in place. I guess it just was almost like it was the last of the good ideas. I sound horrible, I don't mean to be disrespectful to any of the other games.

Scott Pease (producer): It's funny. Every time a game would come out, it would be like, "Yay! We're done." But we'd already moved on in a way, you know? Having to do a game every year meant that there was literally no downtime. We would ship a game, and then we'd go right into brainstorming the next game. So that by the time the previous game came out, we were already well underway with the next game. Which is kind of crazy, but it just was the way it was because we had to be super efficient.

I remember reading the reviews, and enjoying the good ones, and then it was just kind of like, "Back to work! Move on to the next thing."

Joel Jewett (co-founder): For me, all of our games were about having fun and I'd like to believe that's the legacy of this game. I think it was just super fun. I think a lot of people enjoyed it, and a lot of people played it. [Then] a lot of people played it over and over. … People remember it. If you look at the YouTube videos of all the cutscenes and read the comments, it's pretty awesome, man. People remember it. We had a lot of fun making it and hopefully that bled into the video game and then people had fun playing it and they all remember it. That's a cool thing. Glad I was there to do it.

A group of Neversoft developers on a boat, pre-Underground's development.

Changing Lives, One Grind at a Time

Neversoft officially closed its doors in 2014, but the echoes of its influence can still be heard today. Everyone we talked to for this project talked about their love for that company, their love for their co-workers, their love for the games they helped make. Some even think it's something that will never be replicated in the AAA space again, as if Neversoft was lightning in a bottle. A perfect storm of the right amount of passionate people making passionate games.

Alan Flores (senior designer): Hopefully I'm not putting rose-colored glasses on it, right? Because those were some of the greatest times I've ever had in my life. Certainly development wise. I met with Joel Jewett probably two weeks ago at E3 [2017] and we were talking about the good ol' days or whatever. I was telling him there's this knife-fight concept. You want to be in business with a guy who's got your back in a knife fight, and I never really had that with any other company I've worked with ever since. They're not the same thing. You have an idea and then you present your idea and everybody's left the room. They've left you standing there. Joel would never do that, the whole company would never do that. If they're going to go down, they're going to go down as a company.

Chad Findley (lead designer): We had leadership who genuinely pushed for "Everyone here [should] be able to afford a house for you and your family," which goes a long way with an employee's trust in the company, work ethic, and loyalty.

Jason Greenberg (animator): We definitely knew how have fun; I'd put it that way. But the thing that stands out to me even more was Neversoft was like a family. With Joel and his wife Sandy, when you joined Neversoft, you joined this group that was more about [family] than just making money or being a company. We all knew each other, we all hung out together and we all cared about each other. It's a lot different when you work for a company of 200 people, it can't be like that.

Dana MacKenzie (UI artist): I left for 10 years and then I came back and I kind of crashed the Neversoft closing party when we [merged into] Infinity Ward. I hadn't seen Joel for 10 years. I saw him and I just started tearing up. I just went up, I just thanked him. I thanked him. I said, "Dude, it took me going away to Oregon for 10 years to really realize how much of an influence and how much change happened to me having [worked with you]."

Cody Pierson (animator): All of my close friends, even in [Los Angeles] to this day, feel like they all kind of branched out from that core group of people that used to work there.

Aaron Skillman (environment artist): I've definitely met some of the best friends of my entire life working at [Neversoft]. I still hang out with them today, which is crazy.

Dan Nelson (programmer): Yeah, I definitely fucking loved [working there].

Chad Findley (lead designer): It suited me perfectly. When I joined [Neversoft] back in 1998 I was a somewhat immature developer who needed a place to grow up and get a chance to really shine. … It's also the place where I became a true game dev pro. I worked with the smartest people that were at the same time still cool/fun to work with, which is a pretty fucking rare combo.

Jason Greenberg (animator): I remember being in New York City and one of the guys taking my luggage out of my taxi cab saw the Neversoft eyeball logo on my bag and he's like, "Oh my God! Do you work for Neversoft?"

And I was like, "Yeah."

And he said, "Tony Hawk games changed my life. They influenced me to skate." All that kind of stuff. It was so cool to have those encounters and hear about how our games actually helped people become fans of skating, and motivated them to learn to skate or adopt that skating lifestyle.

Dana MacKenzie (UI artist): I think about it a lot—not to depress myself—but I don't know if there will ever be that experience again in my lifetime. Unless we got the same people together.

Alan Flores (senior designer): I don't think [Neversoft will] ever be replicated. Although, I wouldn't mind trying. We'll see. Maybe in the future.

Dan Nelson (programmer): The Zombies team at Infinity Ward, I sometimes think they're where the spirit of Neversoft lives on. They are a small, scrappy team that worked on a relatively small part of Infinite Warfare. Did you check out Zombies on Infinite Warfare? It's crazy, crazy like a Tony Hawk game, and it's full in silly jokes and immersed in pop culture. Just like how Neversoft made Tony Hawks back in the day, and then later Guitar Heros. That's where Neversoft is still kicking.

Joel Jewett (co-founder): Cool people, man.

Car photos provided by Dana MacKenzie. Team photos are from Chad Findley. Rodney Mullen footage provided by Jim Jagger. Graphics and edits made to photos by Caty McCarthy. Interviews have been edited for clarity and to reduce redundancies.

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