NOVATO, California — Back in the mid-'90s, Tony Hawk took a break from half-pipes to try some downhill lines. He got some velocity, tore a chunk out of his elbow and kept off the hills for a decade.
Early this year, game developer Paul Reiche taped a motion-sensitive Wii controller to a skateboard, stood on the board, got in front of a TV running a test version of the Tony Hawk racing game his company is making, tucked himself for a run and, tilting the board this way and that, put his own elbows at risk.
"It was really fun," he said. And then he and others on his team who had brainstormed the idea took a tumble. "I fell off the skateboard, and I thought, 'Oh boy, I can see this Christmas morning, everyone flipping off their boards.' We decided we would leave that out of the official release."
Reiche and the few dozen team members at Activision developer Toys for Bob have spent the last two years developing "Tony Hawk Downhill Jam" for the Nintendo Wii. Scheduled for release before the end of the year, "Downhill Jam" twists — or, rather, untwists — the seven-year-old Tony Hawk series from free-range stunt-rides through rectangular skate parks and city blocks into forward-only downhill races.
Square one for making such a direction work on Wii (see "The Revolution Has A Name: Nintendo Wii") was figuring out what to do with that controller. Square two would be how to use it in a way that doesn't threaten bodily harm.
In the lead-up to the Wii's fall release, developers around the world have endeavored to make good use of the first mainstream gaming controller designed for hand-swinging gestures instead of button pushes (see "Wii Surprise: Nintendo Controller Lets You Bend The Rules — To An Extent"). Those efforts have been rife with experiments, not all of them fruitful. Nintendo's most famous designer, Shigeru Miyamoto, told Japanese press this month that the controls in the May E3 build of Wii launch title "The Legend of Zelda: The Twilight Princess" have since been rethought. After hearing this, no developer need be shy about their journey of dead ends, detours and happy accidents.
The offices of Toys for Bob don't immediately strike visitors as a place where major breakthroughs would be happening.
About 25 miles south of San Francisco, gaming giant Electronic Arts keeps core video games in its well-secured headquarters. The upper floors, where big games are in development, can't even be accessed without special ID cards. But 25 miles north of San Francisco, over the Golden Gate Bridge and through the hills of Marin County, Toys for Bob sits in a former pool hall. Down the street is a karate school. A few strides away is a strip mall.
The pool tables are gone, replaced by cubicles stocked with computers and shaded by one giant fake green leaf apiece, bought at Ikea. The last remnant of the old days is a bar countertop where beers were served at the end of the hall.
In those quarters, Reiche's team brainstormed and messed around with the Wii controller for months. First they thought, logically, that players should hold the remote-shaped controller like a remote.
"It made some sense because a skateboard is proportionately like that," Reiche said. "We said, 'We're really going to emulate it like a skateboard.' You'll actually do flips. You'll do ollies. You'll turn by steering your hand left and right. And we implemented that, and it just felt weird." It also got tiring keeping the arm extended while twisting and turning for race after race.
The experimental method with the controller taped to the skateboard was interesting in part because it was designed to work with the Wii's nunchuck controller in their other hand. The cord tethering the Wii remote to the Wii nunchuck is only a couple of feet long, so players standing on the skateboard and holding the nunchuck had to stay crouched.
Reiche said he pushed the team to think about using two hands to hold the Wii remote, one hand at each short end like it was a conventional controller. That idea has stuck. Tilt left to turn left; right to go right.
Acceleration is triggered instead by holding down a button on the Wii remote. Letting go causes the boarder to ollie. Once the character is in the air, the player can pull off tricks with lifts and shakes of the controller. Spins come from tipping the device. Back on the ground, sudden speed boosts come with an aggressive shake of the Wii controller.
The team gave Tony Hawk himself his first Wii experience back at E3 with a demo of the game that had most of those controls. "I think he got a kick out of the physicality of it," Reiche said.
Hawk hasn't weighed in on the game since then, but he has taken to the hills for the game's sound effects. With microphones attached to his board and his wrist, he tore downhill on asphalt for the first time in a decade — no elbows injured this time. The sounds of his board on pavement have been recorded into the game. "He did great. Another guy did a face-plant and scraped his face up."
Dangerous as a tear downhill might be, the Toys for Bob developers are nonetheless trying to get gamers' bodies in the action as much as possible. The controller's sensitivity settings can be tuned by the player, allowing those who want to apply some body English to do so.
"Some people tilt with their wrists," Reiche said. "Some people tilt with their arms. Some people tilt with their whole torso." Players will be able to calibrate the controller accordingly.
The game is almost finished now, getting cued up in the former pool hall for its late 2006 release. Reiche is pleased with his team's progress. But soon, he said, he'd like to be left alone — with the Wii programming code.
"I would love to have our scripting language and a couple of weeks with no one else around and just play around with it," he said. He could easily make a "Whac-a-Mole" game or play with an idea for "psychic war," involving constant body shakes.
He's a Wii fan at this point and a firm believer in the potential of the system's games. "I think the first round will be fun," he said. "But I think the next round where people know how to use it and really start stepping out is going to be great."
That is, as long as no one gets too injured playing the first round of games in the process. Watch the elbows.