At Gamescom 2011, GGUK had the chance to sit down and have a chat with Todd Batty, Creative Director of the upcoming Snowboarding title, SSX.
GGUK: Why has there been such a delay since the last SSX game?
TB: Development is a funny thing. It certainly hasn’t been through a lack of want or lack of effort that it has been so long since we have seen SSX. I know that there have been other teams that have put forward great ideas for bringing the franchise back, and I know that our executives look at SSX as one of the darling franchises for EA, in particular for EA Sports. But I guess that you just have to have the right idea at the right time with the right team of people and our team was fortunate enough that it ended up being us and we got some really early momentum a couple of years ago with some big ideas and it kind of ballooned and here we are. We are excited to bring this franchise back.
GGUK: Is the game known as just SSX or SSX: Deadly Descents?
TB: The game is known as just SSX. We decided to drop Deadly Descents from the title. There are definitely deadly descents in the game, from day one our tagline has been race it, trick it, survive it – race it and trick it really being the foundations that SSX was built upon and then survive it as something new to give to our fans that we think is going to be really fun. But having deadly descents as the subtitle of the game, it felt like it was too limiting. It’s really only talking about a small piece of the game and it doesn’t really indicate the whole breadth of what we are trying to do. We love the name SSX.
GGUK: Things seem a lot more serious this time. Do you think it is important to make sure the game is less like Tony Hawks than previous titles?
TB: That’s a tough question. I don’t think the game feels that serious at all. We’ve done a tremendous amount of effort in trying to make sure that what we do remains really true to SSX. We brought back tons of returning characters, we have all of the big, crazy, over-the-top tricks. I think we’ve really nailed it and I think SSX feels just like SSX does and our fans have been saying the same thing. I think certainly the new stuff, some of the survival stuff, certainly takes SSX to a place it has never been before. But that’s just an additional layer that exists on top of all the great stuff that has been there before.
GGUK: The mountains down which the player must race – were they modeled on real mountains?
TB: In early days we discovered that NASA had satellite topography data of 99% of the Earths surface and it was available under public domain. So we built a tool that we call “Mountain Man”, we downloaded the entire topography of planet Earth into our tool and we got to a point really early on in development where we could enter in latitude and longitude co-ordinates of any mountain on planet Earth and Mountain Man would generate a 3D replica of that mountain and of all the surrounding mountains in about 28 seconds, which is really awesome. And so that’s really just the starting point for us. If we were making a simulation snowboarding game, we might have been done. But SSX is not about simulation snowboarding. So what it means is our level designers and world builders get to spend all their time doing what matters the most to our fans, which is carving, crafting and taking whatever creative liberties we want with the terrain that we find there, to create big, thematic, over-the-top tracks like you would expect in a game like SSX. So you kinda get the best of both worlds. You can stand on the summit of Mount Everest and look around and see the view from the rooftop of the world, which is pretty awesome, but then you get all the crazy, over-the-top, big tracks with lots of thematic elements, like you would want in SSX.
GGUK: Will the characters and their boards be customisable?
TB: We have super rich gear design. There are literally thousands of items of gear available in the game and one of the big things that we focused on was making sure that all of those pieces of gear have an effect on gameplay, so as you are customising and changing the gear for your character, it is actually going to change the way that they perform. It’s going to give them different skills, different upgrades and there is an endless amount of time to be spent earning money in the game, and everything that you do in the game earns you money, and taking that money that you’ve earned and going into the store and equipping your favorite characters so that they can level up and become even better.
GGUK: Will there be any support for Kinect or Move?
TB: No. We looked at Kinect and Move and peripherals in general in the early days of development for SSX. I’m a firm believer that a: if you are going to do things, you need to do them really, really well and b: particularly with peripherals – if you are going to build a game and you plan to support a peripheral, you really need to build and design that game around the peripheral. Even the guys at Microsoft have been saying that about Kinect, y’know – don’t just hook up Kinect support to any old game, think about how to maximise and build that game around that technology, and we were well down the path of what we wanted to do with SSX before that really became an option and then we looked at it and we said “if we did that, I think it would detract from the overall quality of the game” and so we opted not to support those.
GGUK: What about the Wii and the handhelds – will we be seeing SSX on those?
TB: This version of SSX that ships in January 2012 is going to be on Xbox360 and PS3. Ideally we are a huge success and everyone loves the game, and at that time I think we would definitely look at what other platforms we can bring this game to. We would look at the Wii-U, we would look at the Vita, the iPhone, the iPad. I think that the game we have built could translate extremely well to any one of those platforms. So we will definitely be looking at that in the future.
GGUK: So you have introduced Ridernet – can you explain more about it?
TB: Sure. At Gamescom our big reveal has been talking about our online and multiplayer features and we put a tremendous amount of time into the design of our online and multiplayer and one of the big parts of that online multiplayer feature set is something we call Ridernet. Ridernet is inspired directly from the amazing Autolog engine that powered Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit. I am a huge fan of everything that Criterion games does, I play all of their games, and we really thought that the whole idea of bringing friends to the absolute heart of your game and making sure that the competition that you find in the game is both relevant and achievable – relevant meaning it’s far more enriching and far more interesting competing against people you know or have some sort of connection with, and achievable being don’t put a challenge in front of you that is seemingly insurmountable, if it takes me three minutes to ride down a race track, don’t say my next goal is to do it in a minute and thirty seconds, posted by somebody I don’t know – tell me that one of my friends has posted a time of two minutes 50 seconds, I can beat that, I’m sure I can do that.
So Ridernet basically acts as your guide through this massive online world, always trying to point you to where your friends are, helping you make new friends, pointing you to drops that you might like. With the sheer number of drops and tracks that we have in the game, there’s a huge breadth of difficulty levels, there’s expert tracks, beginner tracks and everything in between. Some drops have more thematic elements, some are more back country and every time you finish a track you can press a single button at the end that just says “I wanna like that track” and you “like” it. The liking feature works in two ways – it feeds into Ridernet and Ridernet says “well, if you like those, you might like these”. It also feeds into our telemetry so we can say, like Amazon, people who liked that track also liked these tracks and it’s a really great way to just funnel you towards where you are going to find the most fun experience. We think it is a great evolution of where Autolog was in Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit.
GGUK: Global Events – 100,000 players – can you explain how that works?
TB: I knew that question was going to be coming. The honest answer is that in Global Events we can support an unlimited number of people competing and the way Global Events work, with our Explore feature it is all about posting ghosts and asynchronous competition between people so that I can be playing my game when my friends were logged off and actually be competing against them. But Global Events are our answer for “what if I want to go online and compete against people in real time”, which is a great and fun thing to do. So in keeping with our goals for online, we wanted it to be fun and easy, we really wanted to have no lobbies or need for scheduling, no waiting around. Y’know, I play a lot of racing games online and the worst thing that can happen is you go into a lobby and get match made up with someone and crash on the first turn. I really only have two options – I can disconnect and be a bad online gamer, or I can try my best to catch up. We think Global Events answers all of those things.
It’s basically an ongoing, live tournament at every single drop in the game and they are timeboxed. They can be the traditional one run, top to bottom, first one to the bottom wins and then it resets and starts all over again. But typically they are timeboxed meaning “who can set the fastest time down this track in the next 60 minutes” – you don’t have to be there at the start, you don’t have to be there at the end, you can just jump in any time you want, try to post a couple of fast times. If you have a bad run, you can stop halfway down and go back to the top and post your best time. Once you do, you are on the leaderboard, you are there for ever, until the event ends. So you can post a good time in one, jump into another one and post a good trick score. Some of them last for days – three days, who can post the highest trick score on this mountain. It could have started a day and a half ago, and you can jump in half way, post a good score and jump out again. It’s really interesting, competing in multiple events at the same time is incredibly addictive and Ridernet will always update you as to how you are doing in those events. So if you post a high time on the leaderboard and you think you are going to get a really big reward for that and then you go off and you are playing in another event and you start to slip down the leaderboard, Ridernet’s going to let you know that you should get back in there and try to improve your time.
So, as far as the number of riders goes, because of the way we built it, we can support as many people riding on a mountain as we want. Of course we are never going to show 100,000 people on the mountain simultaneously. First of all, I don’t think any computer in the world could do that and secondly I don’t think it would be that much fun, I don’t know how you would make your way down the mountain amongst 100,000 people. So what we do is we choose to show on your screen, again going with relevance and achievable, we choose to show first your friend, if a friend of yours is riding on that mountain we are going to show him, if a friend of your friend is on the mountain we will show him next, and then otherwise we are going to show people who are competing relatively at your skill level and are competing in the same bracket generally as you are and there are different people phasing in and out around you all of the time and we will only show you the number of people on the mountain that feels comfortable, so it feels like the mountain is alive and active but they don’t get in the way of what you are trying to do. So, on a given run you might see a hundred different people at different times from top to bottom, but you may only see 10 or 15 different people at one time in your viewpoint, so you always have room to move around the mountain. It’s a really cool system.
GGUK: What about your standard multiplayer options, like racing against a couple of friends – will that also be available?
TB: Standard multiplayer options as in offline multiplayer? Because of the way we use ghosts and Explore is an incredibly robust mode, you can play, you can race and you can trick and you can do survival against your friends even if your friends are offline. But one thing that we are not going to do in this version of SSX is have split screen multiplayer. In SSX you used to be able to race against people split screen offline. We looked at that and, I am actually an old school gamer myself and even though most games don’t do that anymore because it is a tremendous technical investment, you basically have to render everything twice and to do that you usually have to make everything look a little bit worse and we didn’t really want to compromise the quality of our game. But at the end of the day, if I look at how multiplayer has evolved over the last five or ten years, the last generation of consoles, Xbox and PS2, were all about local multiplayer, sitting on the couch playing split screen. Then this generation, Xbox360 and PS3, has really evolved into the traditional online play, go to a lobby, matchmaking and then playing online games. We think that the next generation of online multiplay is going to be wall to wall online competition, where it’s the convenience and accessibility of being able to compete with your friends at your own pace on your own schedule. Kinda the way that communicating with your friends has evolved from instant messaging, where you both had to be online at the same time, to FaceBook where I can just dip into FaceBook and post a bunch of messages to all of my friends, do some activity, log off and then my friends at their own time will get to all of my messages, post some things for me, when I log back on I can update that. It’s a far more accessible way and we think gaming is going to go that way in the future and we are hoping to be on the cutting edge with SSX.
GGUK: How many drops are there in the game?
TB: We don’t know yet, to be honest. We are not even alpha yet on SSX. But right now we are targeting nine mountain ranges around the planet, each of which has multiple mountains, sort of three or four different mountains accessible in each range. So I think right now we are targeting 28 different completely open mountains. The number of drop points on each mountain varies anywhere from three or four up to 12 or 15. So we are somewhere in the neighbourhood of 150 to 180 different drops in the game, which is truly enormous.
GGUK: In Explore mode, will it be open world in that the player can snowboard from one drop to another? Or will it be instant drop to each event?
TB: No, it’s instant drop. I play a lot of open world games, I like open world games, but the one inconvenience I find with open world games is when I have to do a lot of traveling between gameplay experiences and so we thought, y’know, we kind of end up with what I think is the best of both worlds in that our mountain is totally open and you can on some mountains get dropped at one point and, because of the way you navigate, end up on another area of the mountain that was really intended to be accessed from another drop point on that mountain. But as far as going from drop to drop, we made that as quick and fast as possible. So if you are in the middle of a race and you want to start the race again, you can say “re-drop me at the top of the mountain”. We tried to make that instantly accessible so you can start again. Or if I just want to change to a different drop, again we just wanted to make it about speed and accessibility so you can just be focused on gameplay not traveling.
GGUK: What about weather conditions? Will we be seeing snowstorms and such?
TB: Absolutely. One of the big, fundamental aspects of Survive It is bringing forward environmental challenges and each one of those are themed around the different regions. So nine different regions, nine different deadly descents. The deadly descent in each region is the pinnacle challenge of what the environmental condition for that region is. For example, Antarctica is about cold, so we brought cold to life. We found a real-life fact, true fact, that in Antarctica you can actually go from the sunlight to the shade and the temperature can drop 30 or 40 degrees Centigrade in less than one second. We thought that sounds really cool and that sounds like a really fun gameplay mechanic. So in Antarctica the deadly descent is cold and you actually have to not only go down the mountain and do lots of tricks and style, but you have to try and avoid shadows and stay in the sunlight. It just provides a neat metagame. But we have white out, we have avalanches, we have dark runs, like true night runs. One of our deadly descents is darkness, we actually drop you into a frozen volcano and turn out the lights. You get a little head lamp on your head and you have to try to navigate your way down and try to avoid falling in lava pits. It’s really neat.
GGUK: Are there any plans for including any other snow toys, like Skis or Ski-scooters?
TB: We had Skis in our game early on in development and Skiing was a big thing that we wanted to support in this version of SSX and ultimately, the tough part about Skiing is, because a snowboard can ride both ways down a mountain, but Skis only point one way down a mountain, we basically would have had to recreate every animation in our game twice to support Skiing and even though we held onto that for a while, we eventually, again the same thing, if we are going to do stuff we should make sure to do it as well as possible and it eventually ended up being something that we postponed. Certainly something that we are going to look at doing post-ship if there are enough people and enough demand. It is certainly something we could be adding later.
GGUK: Is there anything you can tell us about how the controls are mapped to the controllers?
TB: Sure. We actually have multiple control schemes in our game. Right now we are probably looking at three different control schemes, these are all still a work in progress, but one of the things that we talked a lot about at E3 and that I’m a big fan of is, y’know, a lot of the games I’ve worked on use the right analog stick and people who play shooters are very familiar with using two sticks and triggers as sort of the fundamental controls. But there’s still a lot of players out there who prefer to play with buttons. Something I’ve always wanted to do in my career is have that not be an issue and so we actually have two live control schemes at all times.
You can play the game very, very effectively with triggers and two sticks, but all the functionality of the right analog stick can be done on the buttons, so you can actually hot swap between them, you don’t have to change any options or anything. And then third, our fans have been asking very strongly for the classic control scheme and we’ve heard that loud and clear. So right now we are working on seeing if we can support the true SSX control scheme in this version of the game. The tough part is our gameplay has changed a little bit and things don’t quite map one to one. But we think we can put together a classic control scheme that is going to be instantly familiar to fans. We are working on all of those things and hopefully we will net out in a good place.
GGUK: A lot has been revealed about the online and multiplayer, but what about the single player. How will the player progress through the game and will they be able to level up or progress through tournaments?
TB: A couple of things. Number one, we do have a Campaign mode, so there’s actually four major modes in SSX. There’s a Campaign mode, Explore, Global Events and a fourth mode, Free Ride. Our fans have been just clamouring saying “I want to just free ride all these mountains” and so we have a Free Ride mode as well. Campaign Mode is something we are not talking about yet. We are going to be revealing details about that a little bit further into our marketing campaign, potentially around TGS or a little bit later. But I can say as far as leveling up characters, you do. Because of our robust inventory system and because of the thousands of pieces of gear that we have, as you purchase better gear for a particular character, that character levels up and so there is a sort of RPG-lite system there and people will be able to invest in a single character or broadly invest in all of their characters and I think they are going to find a lot of hours of fun there.
GGUK would like to thank Todd Batty for his time and for giving us some insight into SSX, which is due in stores January 2012 for Xbox360 and PS3.