As we inch closer to our first PS3 release for The Surfer, its about time we talked about where we’ve come from to explain what we’ve done and why. The first question to raise is:
How do you create a compelling surfing mechanic?
This is the very question that has haunted us since we signed our very first deal with EA back in 2000. Back then, we had a good piece of tech and a great premise based upon a sport we are passionate about. But if we’re honest, we had not really much of a clue as to how engage the player in surfing and scoring effectively. It became evident that there was a dire need to address the most important issue facing the “lack of depth” conundrum for Surfing video games as genre. At the time, the “big” games for our genre – Sunny Garcia Surfing, Transworld Surf and Kelly Slater’s Pro Surfer had been released and the consensus among critics and players was that each of these games had potential, but all lacked a degree of “replayability” for those not considered hardcore surfing fans. Each title is reported to have had less than stellar sales and the question that became apparent was; how do you turn an activity that is essentially (on a screen at least) not all that challenging, and then make it engrossing to a non-surfer? To be specific when it comes to a surfing game we feature tubes, aerials and wave moves and there is a degree of gameplay challenge to these facets of surfing, if done correctly. But when reviewing a surfing game mechanic in its barest form, a player can only travel to the left of screen, to the right of screen, up and down the wave and essentially, that’s all there is to it. Our test is to try and build a mechanic that encompass’ all of the elements of surfing in a more meaningful and compelling way to mainly surfers, our key audience, and then perhaps to non-surfers as well.
It’s reasonable to suggest that a lack of genuine confidence in our previous ideas of just how a compelling surfing game mechanic might work, also correlated directly to some of our less than stellar business decisions. After all, if you don’t know what your basic game is, or how it’s meant to truly engage your player, then no matter how impressive the tech or the exciting the concept the end-result on screen will inevitably fail. Therefore, when we couldn’t really define how our basic mechanic would translate into fun, we descended into a designer’s hell. We spent many years deviating from our original vision, all the while trying to design our way out of this netherworld toward some kind of superficial nirvana where our “extreme game audience” supposedly lived and according to us, we could simply reach them all by creating anything but a surfing game. There were various incarnations on the PS2 along the way – Smokin Barrels, then Tidal Riders, and even a movie tie in with the movie Blue Crush. Man… We still wonder how it is possible to start out as a developer of a sport surfing simulation, only to end up creating a Frankenstein version of surfing that featured, of all things, jet propulsion through canyons…. What? Well, as it turns out this can easily happen to developers when working with different publishers and partners. There’s nothing new about that. Everyone wants to have input into the design and the marketing direction and really, in the end, if the vision gets lost then it’s easy to understand why. The other real problem for us (as a studio) was that through working with different people, we had lost sight of who our customer actually was and why we were building a surfing game in the first place. Our customer was in fact “us” and we are surfers. We made the classic rookie error of trying to appeal to everyone only to end up appealing to no one, instead of just focussing on our own people, surfers. So yeah, we made some mistakes but luckily, we did actually learn something from those mistakes in the end. The irony is that although there was a lot of trial, error, blood, sweat and plenty of tears – our design deviations weren’t really wasted. Why? Because it was through our consistent design fails that we finally arrived at the point where we genuinely knew what to do. So ultimately, we decided to go back to our original vision for the game and importantly, focus solely on innovating via physics, control and our scoring system. We have, in our own lo-fi indie kind of way tried to emulate the Nintendo sandbox testing philosophy of focussing on “feel” when designing the system. It’s not to suggest that we’ve reached Nintendo’s lofty heights of course, we’ve simply tried to learn from the best and attempt, however feebly, to put into practice what they do so consistently well. There is an old adage used by a well know surfing company that says, “Only a surfer knows the feeling” and this is true. Surfing is the granddaddy of skateboarding, the father or snowboarding, but at the same time surfing isn’t either; it’s arguably much, much harder in real life and in its gaming form. It’s quite unique. It’s a feeling that is like no other on the planet and we needed to try and replicate that feel in a game. So then, the PUMP mechanic was finally born.