Josh Tsui | Interview
He spent his childhood wandering a boat-shaped arcade with a sack full of video-game tokens; now Josh Tsui is all grown up and creates some of the industry’s highest-profile titles. The Robomodo cofounder and River North dad talks with us about reso-looting the Tony Hawk franchise, how filmmaking and game design are converging, and more.
Late in 2007, Electronic Arts closed its studio in the Northwest Suburbs, prompting Josh Tsui, 45, and a team of his colleagues to open their own video-game design firm, Robomodo. When we paid a visit to Robomodo’s new West Loop nerve center on a sunny afternoon in early April, some boxes from its previous location in downtown Chicago still hadn’t been unpacked.
Move-in was going slowly due probably to a big deadline: Sitting at workstations nearly all of which had at least two monitors, Robomodo’s artists, engineers, game designers and testers were putting the finishing touches on Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD, available in July from Activision. The latest installment in a 13-year-old series of skateboarding games, THPS HD revisits classic levels from its earliest days and updates them, Tsui explains, to “take advantage of the extra horsepower from the [Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3] consoles, to make it feel like a whole new experience.”
While we didn’t get a chance to play an early build of the game, Tsui did offer a sneak peek. He also shared with us the painstaking attention to detail that skateboarding star Tony Hawk brings to the project and how THPS HD combines three of Tsui’s lifelong passions: ’boarding, gaming and filmmaking.
What’s the relationship between Robomodo and the game publishers you work with, such as Activision?
Basically, they pay for the game and we make the game. It’s a lot like a book author–publisher relationship: As the publisher, they obviously own the rights to the Tony Hawk games, do all the distribution and funding of them, and what happens is they’ll look for developers to make the games. They contacted us about working on Tony Hawk and we said, “Oh, [heck] yeah.” [Laughs]
How much creative license do you have?
Maybe surprisingly, quite a bit. We get asked that a lot. It varies according to the game. [Publishers] have certain ideas about what a game should be. They give us high-level information [such as] what the demographic is and anything that has to be included. Activision understands that it’s the developers who bring the game to life. If there are too many guidelines, it just dies right then and there.
In the case of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD, what was that high-level information?
Activision wanted another Tony Hawk game but wasn’t sure what direction they wanted to [take the series in]. Tony had always wanted to revisit the original games, like, “Hey, let’s take a break and go back to the originals that came out 13 years ago and HD them up.” A lot of longtime fans had been asking for this for quite a while, actually: People our age have great memories of games from 15 years ago. Now you can port games over [to new consoles] and play them on your HD TVs, but we didn’t want to just port over old graphics to a nicer TV. We wanted to take all of those memories people have of the classic games and do a full remake, with all new graphics, but keeping gameplay the same.
What emerged as essential to the originals through that process? What couldn’t you change and retain that connection to nostalgia?
The levels themselves. We knew right off the bat that those had to stay the same, in terms of the scale of them, what the props were, how it all was laid out, all of that. Not just for players’ memories but as a muscle-memory thing. Players remember, “In the warehouse, I would go down here and then I would pop up onto this.” At first it seemed like an enormous amount of work to reconstruct all that, but we were fortunate to find that the original developers of the original games were cool with sending us all of their assets. They were 13-year-old assets, so the texture mapping all looked really ancient, for example, but it gave us a head start.
Those assets are the raw architecture of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD?
Exactly. The foundation was there for us to build on top of and do a great job.
Have you done a remake before, a process similar to this one where you’ve updated an existing game for a new platform?
The best example of something similar to this that we’ve done is, a lot of guys on [the THPS HD] team worked on a game called Fight Night Round 3, that was done through EA [Electronic Arts] Chicago. It was a remake of Fight Night Round 2, more or less, but if you look at the graphical differences between the two, Fight Night Round 3, when we developed it for Xbox 360, we just went nuts with it. We put such incredible detail into graphics that we were able to take out the life bars, for example. We wanted the way the boxers moved to express how much life they had left. It was monumentally different than the previous game in that franchise, just a year before. So that was the approach that we used [for THPS HD].