Best Games - Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater
The first video game, depending on who you ask, was probably a sports game. Either tennis or ping pong. Video games have been infatuated with simulations of real world sports since day one. Only one problem. That doesn’t work at all.
Video games depicting sports don’t really simulate playing them. Tennis you play with your whole body. Everything is taxed. Your muscles, your reflexes, your perception, your decision making skills. All of your various interconnected systems have to be firing for you to play tennis. When, like Pong, you reduce that down to twisting a knob, tilting a stick, or pressing some buttons, it isn’t tennis, but it is still fun.
The fun part of most sports isn’t the mechanics of movement. It isn’t the competition, or the camaraderie. It’s solving tiny problems over and over and over again. Hitting a ball mid flight, taking a step on uneven terrain, anticipating the next quarter second of play on the field. These are the moments that fun is made of. Our brains just can’t get enough of solving these tiny problems. Like a positive reinforcement loop that keeps us practicing potential survival skills until we get good at them. It’s a dopamine thing. Pong gets it.
Skateboarding at a high level is something that an infinitesimal amount of people have done or will ever do. It’s a set of skills that require intense practice and a deep time commitment. The positive feedback loop on skateboarding must be amazing. I don’t really know though, since I can barely ride a skateboard over a level surface for more than a few meters. The last time I legitimately gave it a go, I was probably 13. I would hazard a guess that the majority of the audience for the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater games falls into this category.
So how does a sport that almost no one has any real world experience with become one of the most popular video games ever? The developers, Neversoft, took a page out of the Pong playbook. They didn’t try to simulate skateboarding. Not even close. They weren’t even in the same room as a simulation. Instead they focused on getting their players to solve tiny problems over and over and over. Every time you steer the character you are planning half a second into the future. Every time your character hits a ramp you have to predict how much time you will have in the air and choose tricks accordingly. Every time you land a trick you have to be setting up for the next one. The tiny problems never stop.
Solving these tiny problems can be fun, but skateboarding, real skateboarding, is a demanding challenge of balance and dexterity, momentum and reactions. If Neversoft had tried to simulate skateboarding it would have resulted in some horrifying set of finger contortions that might be fun to some people, but not to most. Instead, almost every interaction with a Tony Hawk game is biased toward success. Every time you direct your character up a quarter pipe, they will always come down in the perfect position to land the jump. Every time you leap over a rail or ledge and press the button to grind, your skater will magnetically snap to the right position. With very little practice you can land any jump or ride any rail. You only start to crash when you push a grind too long or pack too many tricks into your available airtime. The game wants you to win. It set you up to solve all of those small problems. You reaching for more is where it gets challenging.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater understands fun, and that is why it is one of the best games.