20 Years of ‘Tony Hawk: Pro Skater’ | Interview With Neversoft Co-Founder Mick West

Two decades on from the release of the first instalment in the THPS franchise, West tells us how he's gone from programming skateboarding games to debunking online conspiracy theories

So here I am. Doing everything I can. PlayStation controller in hand. Pretending I’m a Superman. It’s been 20 years since Tony Hawk: Pro Skater was first released into the world.

20 years since the speared eyeball of the ‘Neversoft’ logo first appeared on screens. 20 years since Goldfinger’s ‘Superman’ become the national anthem of skateboarding. 20 years since video game owners were first exposed to the innate joys and frustrations that come with trying to collect hovering letters of the alphabet under deceivingly short time limitations.

“I’m very proud of what we did”

Tony Hawk: Pro Skater was released on PlayStation on 31 August 1999. It would be a game that would change the face of skateboarding forever.

“I’m very proud of what we did,” Mick West tells us. “I can see the influence the games have had on the broader game market and on skateboarding itself.” Mick was the lead programmer on the first Tony Hawk game, and a co-founder of Neversoft alongside Joel Jewett and Chris Ward. “The whole culture of skateboarding was affected. It was good to be even a small part of that.”

West co-founded Neversoft in 1994. In the months before they met video game publisher Activision, Neversoft were in serious financial trouble. West, Jewett and Ward weren’t paying themselves a wage, and employees were on half-salaries. Eventually though, work came to them. Activision needed someone to salvage a third-person shooter they had commissioned named Apocalypse. It starred Bruce Willis as the protagonist.

“They’d stuck a load of money into this game and the people before us had made a bit of a mess of it,” West says. “We made Activison their money back and they suggested we do this skateboarding game. Skateboarding was this big thing that was up and coming and there weren’t any good skateboarding games. So that’s how it started.”

When Tony Hawk himself was first invited to demo the game, the prototype he played featured the character of Bruce Willis from Apocalypse, on a skateboard, riding vert.

“When Tony Hawk himself was first invited to demo the game, the prototype he played featured the character of Bruce Willis”

“We were three months into development,” West remembers. “We just used all the Apocalypse assets to throw something together. I can’t remember exactly what version Tony would’ve seen but he must have been at least reasonably impressed!

“He was more involved once we got things up and running. He would work as a tester essentially. We would send him builds all the time and then he would send back notes.”

Pictured: Neversoft, in 1998

Tony Hawk: Pro Skater stood apart from nearly every other video game available at the time because it was, simply put, badass. In an era when ‘badass’ was still a cool word. The game was anti-authority. It encouraged you to write off police cars. To smash glass. There were infamously large pools of blood on the ground anytime your skater bailed. And the game opened to the sound of Dead Kennedys – a band renowned for their political punk and satirization. Each time you turned on your PlayStation you’d see Tony Hawk hit a full loop and Bob Burnquist nail a one-foot backside 360 before you even got to the main menu.

“We really tried to immerse ourselves in skate culture,” says West. “At lunch time everyday we would watch skate videos and you’d get familiar with the people in the culture.

“Some people end up getting divorced because they believe that 9/11 was an inside job”

“You’d also get familiar with the kind of camera angles that you could expect. One thing we do in the games is have replays which we tried to make look exactly like they would have in a skate video. It’s catching the essence of almost an idealised version of skating.”

There was a lot of work done on the game before Tony Hawk became involved. The initial idea was that it would be a downhill racing game, in a similar vein to EA’s 2001 release SSX Tricky. “The downhill levels were fun but only fun for the 30 seconds that it took you to get from one area to another,” says West. It was only after realising that most people were having more fun playing about in the holding area Neversoft had set up at the bottom of these levels, which consisted of ramps and half-pipes, that they shifted their focus.

Pictured: Downhill Jam

Some downhill levels survived. Aficionados will remember a level called ‘Downhill Jam’ in the first game which was of this mould, but it would be the more open-world style levels which would really lay the foundation for the success of the Tony Hawk franchise.

“One of the influences back then was Super Mario 64 on the Nintendo 64, which had an open world,” says Mick. “It wasn’t until the third game that we had a really open world where are the levels were one thing, but there was still freedom [in game one]. In the school level there’s a nice open area where you can go from one area to another and try and find things.

“One big innovation we had was the way the trick system worked, in the way that you could build up tricks. One of the designers, Aaron Cammarata, came up with it. He suggested that we had what we called a holding area, where the points go into this holding area and then if you landed the trick correctly you get them all and if you didn’t you’d lose them all. That took it to a whole new level. These long combos became a fundamental part of the game.”

“There were people who genuinely thought they were living in a computer simulation”

The first demo of the game was given out on a Pizza Hut demo disc, free with pizzas.

“We had this one fairly primitive level but we knew it was going to be big because we just had so much feedback from that one demo disc,” says West. “The controls were tight. When you went off a halfpipe it felt good and it looked good. People just enjoyed playing it.”

On 27 June 1999, when Tony Hawk landed the first ever 900 at the X-Games in San Francisco, two months before the launch of Pro Skater, the stars aligned for Neversoft.

Mick continues: “It raised the profile of skateboarding and it made Tony Hawk, already one of the most famous skateboarders in existence, the best skateboarder in the world. It raised the profile of everything. Once the game went out we got such good reviews and the sales were coming in as well. The hard work had paid off. So for the next game we thought we’d do the same but better. Which is what we did.”

Mick worked on the first five games, up to Tony Hawk: Underground before retiring from the video game world altogether. “Tony Hawk 4 is my favourite,” he says. “My favourite level was Alcatraz.” On the often maligned progression of the games after his departure, he simply says: “You can’t keep innovating forever when you’re essentially doing the same type of game. I think it kind of ran out of steam. But it was a great thing to have been a part of”.

“There’s even some people who believe the earth is flat. It’s not good because it can become all they have”

After leaving the video game world, West’s life would take a drastic change in direction. The once-programmer set up a website called Metabunk, created to disprove conspiracy theories with “logic, facts and respect”. Mick has since become a respected authority in the field.

“Some people believe that 9/11 was an inside job, that the World Trade Centre was demolished by explosives. Some people believe in chemtrails,” says Mick. “There’s even some people who believe the earth is flat. It’s not good because it can become all they have. Some people end up getting divorced because they believe that 9/11 was an inside job.”

Pictured: Top down level maps from THPS (left), ‘Escaping The Rabbit Hole’ book cover (right)

Mick released a book on the topic, ‘Escaping the Rabbit Hole’, in September 2018, “explaining how people get sucked into conspiracy theories and how you can help them get out”. He says that when he meets those who believe in these theories (and who, he says, often believe he is a “government shill”), he sometimes uses the fact that he worked on Tony Hawk: Pro Skater to break down the barriers between them and establish trust.

“My experience as a game programmer is surprisingly relevant,” Mick says. “Debunking is very similar to debugging. Something goes wrong or falls through a wall and you’ve got to find out why that happened and be very analytical about it all. Someone shows me a picture that’s supposed to be a ghost or chemtrails and you have to look into it in an analytical way.”

Tony Hawk: Pro Skater itself threw up a multitude of conspiracy theories. There were the rumours you could glitch into a special test level, or somehow turn into a playable taxi in the game. There was a cheat code which brought up a picture of a mysterious woman’s face and nothing else. And rumours that certain playable characters were based on porn stars.

“Debunking is very similar to debugging. Something goes wrong or falls through a wall and you’ve got to find out why that happened”

In one passage in his ‘Escaping the Rabbit Hole’ West describes the diverse range of people he once met at a “Chemtrails Convention”, writing:

“There were young people itching for a revolution. There were well-read intellectuals […] There were people who genuinely thought they were living in a computer simulation.”

Oddly, the quote could easily be applied to the adoring fan base of Tony Hawk: Pro Skater as well. The franchise reached all ages, classes, shapes and sizes. Skateboarders. Video game addicts. For many it was an introduction to skateboarding. For others, it was an honourable mainstream embodiment of skate culture, best played with a joint and a crew of mates.

20 years on, the game still holds its own. It’s still rock solid to get the video tape in the San Francisco ‘Streets’ level. The soundtrack still slaps. The concept of skating around a schoolyard breaking stuff has lost none of its excitement. And throwing a 900 in the warehouse, where it all began for the player, is every bit as satisfying as it was in 1999.

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