If you grew up skating in the early 2000s, you played Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. It’s that simple. Whether you were checking off every single challenge in career mode, vicariously skating as your favorite pros, or nerding out on million point manual combos, you relished in the glory that was the first good skateboarding video game series. Hell, the THPS games may have even convinced you to pick up your first skateboard, regardless of how much brain damage they induced from overplaying that one ska song.
But even if they weren’t that influential for you, the games at least gave us another way to process skateboarding. They let us skate when the weather wouldn’t and they let us share skating with friends who didn’t skate. So for a game that resonated so much with skaters, we decided it was time to learn more about it. That’s why we tracked down some ex-Neversoft guys and the Hawkman himself to find out how the games came about, why they were so lucrative, and where they are today.
Here is the oral history of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater.
Silvio Porretta (lead artist on THPS)
How did you get started on the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater series?
I was working on a game called Apocalypse, and once that was done the president of Neversoft asked if I wanted to be the lead artist on this skateboarding game they were putting together. I’m not a skateboarder, but I love the culture. I have a lot of skateboarding friends too, the godfather of my child is Bod Boyle. He used to beat Tony Hawk [in competitions] back in the day. Of course we didn’t know what we were doing. Nobody had done a skateboarding game before to the scale we were doing it so it was foreign territory. Tony Hawk was not involved at the beginning so we were trying different things to make it work. We decided to make the game more fun so that’s why it was never a realistic simulation of skateboarding. That was key to the success of the game.
What kind of research did you do to figure out how to make the game look?
I remember going to skate shops and talking to the owners and watching a lot of videos. I watched many 411 videos. I still have some of them in a box somewhere. I can’t remember the other ones, but I watched the most popular ones back in 1998 and 1999. Just getting immersed in the skateboarding world, looking at brands and what was popular to wear.
What was the inspiration for the secret characters, Officer Dick and Private Carrera?
I don’t remember who came up with Officer Dick. Officer Carrera, is she the pornstar? Carrera something… She came to the office one day and wanted some money because we used the name Officer Carrera. Maybe she was pissed because she’s Carrera and everybody knew her. We were like, we can’t pay you, but we can put you in the game, so we put her in THPS 2. I remember her coming to the office and everybody wanting to take a photo with her.
Was it difficult to find board companies that agreed to let you use their graphics?
The brands were open to put their names and logos in the game because it’s free advertising. Our video game was gonna be seen by millions of people so I think those deals were easy.
Over the course of the series, it had songs from Suicidal Tendencies, Nas, Slayer, and tons of other real musicians. Did THPS pioneer the idea of a video game having a real soundtrack?
It was unusual but it made complete sense for Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater to have real bands. Slayer was not into it because they don’t do promotion or commercial stuff, but we finally got them because my ex-wife had a connection with their manager. She knew one of the guys at Suicidal Tendencies as well, so it was a no brainer to get that band in. We were so small, we didn’t have any marketing funds, so we were the ones going out promoting the game. We’d go to a skateboarding event with a big TV and demo the game for the kids. We were doing everything DIY. All the graffiti in the first game was also real. That came from a guy I knew who was doing a lot of graffiti around LA.
Joel Jewett, president of Neversoft, encouraged employees to skate when they were working on THPS. What was the logic behind this?
To feel what it is to be a skateboarder, to have a connection with a skateboard, and because it’s fun. All we were talking about all day long was skateboarding, so it made sense to try it. We all realized that it’s super difficult. We had a competition to do a kickflip. I remember one of the programmers, the most nerdy, skinny one, was the only one who could do it. The guy was not an athlete or whatever, never put his feet on a skateboard before, but he understood how to make his legs move in order to do a kickflip. He won $1,200.
When we did the first Tony Hawk, none of the developers were skaters. But once Tony Hawk hit the shelves and became a huge success, a lot of younger video game developers who were skateboarders started to send their resumes to Neversoft. Some of them joined the team, so on THPS 2 we had real skateboarders working on the game. Maybe that’s why THPS 2 was such a better game than THPS 1.
Rockstar Games came out with Thrasher: Skate and Destroy around the time THPS 1 was released. Were you worried about competing with them?
There was a lot of trash talk at the time between Neversoft and the people who did Thrasher. It was almost like an East Coast vs. West Coast battle, but we won. We played that game a lot at the office but it was unplayable. There was a ragdoll effect on the guy every time he fell and it would take him forever to get back on his board, which wasn’t fun. We learned from this and it’s why we made Tony Hawk so easy and fluid. It’s all about rewarding the player, not making them frustrated.
Scott Pease (producer on THPS)
THPS 1 seemed like a completely new style of skateboarding game when it came out. Were there other skateboarding games you looked at for inspiration while making THPS 1?
There was a Top Skater machine at the bowling alley across the street from Neversoft, so we played a ton of sessions on that. It was this weird Japanese, over-the-top take on skateboarding but it had a really nice camera and it was done in 3D, so we looked at that for inspiration. One of my favorite games that I looked at when we were trying to figure out the controls and the scoring was 1080 Snowboarding, which is just a awesome kind of legendary game.
How did you get Tony Hawk to sign on to the game?
Neversoft had this Apocalypse demo where they took out Bruce Willis, replaced him with a stock skater model, and put him on a skateboard. Mick [West] had basic physics working and it was this downhill snake run with transitions you could kind of skate. I don’t even know if we had a single trick at that point, you might have just been able to air out and come down.
Activision set up this meeting with Tony and he showed up in ripped cargo pants and a t-shirt, and Activision had this board room stuffed with dudes in suits. They sat him down and proceed to give him this 40-page Powerpoint on revenue and video games. I was in the meeting and I could see Tony sinking in his chair. After an hour of these slides, I wheeled in the demo and handed Tony the controller, and he just lit up. He was having fun carving the transitions and going down the snake run, and I think he could get a glimpse of what we had in mind.
So he was won over just by playing the demo?
I think so. We knew from researching Tony that he was a gamer, so that was a critical component as well because he wasn’t just slapping his name on something. He was actually signing up to get involved and guide us along the way.
After Tony signed on, how did you decide which other skaters to include?
We came up with lists, Tony sent us ideas, and I want to say we got everybody we wanted to get for that first game. I can’t remember anyone we reached out to who was like, “No, screw you guys.” Everybody was excited about there being a good skateboarding game. A few guys went above and beyond and basically took us to skateboarding school. Jamie Thomas was full of energy and strongly opinionated. He came in and told us, “This is stupid, that’s wrong, don’t do that, make the kickflip look like this.” It was awesome having a real life expert in house. And then guys like Rodney Mullen who are just like, incredibly amazing, super smart, bring all kinds of ideas to the table. Like Chad Muska. I mean, the guy’s a one of a kind, and we could feed off that and try to capture their vibe inside the game.
Did the Muska bring his boombox or hand out copies of Muska Beatz when he came to the Neversoft office?
I think he did actually bring his ghetto blaster to meetings. We would ask them to come and bring the outfit they want in the game, either wear it to the meeting or bring it and dress up. He was one of the guys who would totally embrace that. He would have thought about it in advance and have his cut off t-shirt, fingerless gloves, ghetto blaster, hat and everything. We didn’t need to enhance that at all, we just put it in the game.
Did the pros get to decide what their special maneuvers would be?
It was a negotiated thing. We’d have some ideas from watching their video parts or studying their personalities. They would bring ideas, then we’d have to figure out something that would work. As the series progressed it got harder to come up with new stuff, guys would come up with crazy ideas and we would do what we could to get that in the game. We had different special tricks for Tony, and when he hit the 900 it was like, animate that quick, we got to get that in the game. He did that in July at the 1999 summer X-Games and the game came out that September. The way games worked back then, they had to be done a month or two in advance, so we were right down, ready to send it off, and then he did that and we had to go back and get that trick in there.
Did you ever consider adding blood or gore? Like if someone sacks on a handrail, they start peeing blood?
Well, we wouldn’t have gone that far. There was a rating we were shooting for but we were always riding right on the edge of that. I feel like we did do some blood but not over the top crazy, teeth bashed in, blood gushing out of your mouth. Although we always put a bail video inside the game, so you’d see some of that stuff.
Supposedly in the first one or two iterations of the series, the skaters who signed on got royalties instead of a flat fee to be featured in the games. Later on, other skaters agreed on a flat fee and eventually none of the skaters were getting royalties. Is this true?
It was more like if the game sold X amount of units they would get additional money as part of their contract. It was there to motivate them to promote the game so they’d be into its success. But the series ran a long time, so there were initial deals, then another wave of skaters came on board and they got deals, then other skaters came on board later, but at that point they’re part of a series that’s been built by these other guys.
THPS is apparently a billion dollar series. Just how valuable was it at its height?
Activision put out that press release at some point when it did go over a billion dollars in revenue. That’s just taking every unit of a Tony Hawk game that’s ever been sold across every platform and totaling that all up. It took seven or eight years to reach that. It sold over a million units year after year, which back then was a big deal. Now you try to sell 20 million units if you’re Call of Duty or some of these other big games.
How big of a competition was EA’s Skate series?
It was definitely a competition and it’s a really good game, so that accelerated the decline of it all. They had that game and we had our games, so they’re going to be taking pieces from each other, so everybody’s down.As is often the case in the video game world, you get competitors fighting it out and then both end up going away. It just saturates the market. That’s the end of it.
Why did Neversoft stop making Tony Hawk games in 2008?
After the ninth Tony Hawk game, which was Proving Ground, we were just kind of done. There were declining sales too. Most video game franchises go through this bell curve where it’s growing, growing, growing, then peaks and starts to tail off. The systems kept advancing, the game kept getting more expensive to produce, the sales were not keeping up with that, so at a certain point it was decided Neversoft’s development efforts would be better put onto something else. There was a little break and then a studio in Chicago, Robomodo, developed two Tony Hawk games with the skateboarding peripheral. Last year, Activision tried to revive the Pro Skater brand with THPS 5, but Neversoft was defunct by that point.
Were you into playing video games much before you did THPS?
Mostly arcade games as a kid, and Super NES. I had a Nintendo 64 when I signed on to do the game and one of our first conversations was me telling them that I want it to be a Nintendo 64 game. They told me, “Well, a million people have Playstations and only this many people have Nintendos so we’re gonna go with Playstation.”
When you play any THPS games, do you do realistic tricks or do you do crazy, long ass manual combos?
I keep it real in the sense that I mostly skate bowls and vert ramps, but I do 900 to revert to manual to kickflip 540. I’m keeping it authentic in the sense that I’m skating the type of terrain I would skate, but doing impossible combos.
Did you ever consider giving your character higher stats than the other ones?
No, not really. I was savvy enough to know my own weaknesses compared to the other guys. I wasn’t claiming I could ollie as high as Eric Koston.
Before Neversoft approached you to partner with them, had you ever had proposals or ideas to do a skating video game?
I had a PC programmer approach me a couple years before to pitch a skate game with him. We took a few meetings with Nintendo, Midway, and Gottlieb. His version was really early so we didn’t have the best pitch. Also we came up against a lot of push back. The people at Midway literally said, “Skateboarding isn’t even popular, why would anybody want to buy a skateboarding video game?” He gave up, but because we had taken a few meetings my name was out there in the video game world as someone who wanted to do a game. Then Rockstar Games, approached me to do something with foot controls. They had a decent idea but I thought the game was too hard to pick up. It was almost as hard as real skateboarding. I was wavering on that and then Activision called me, and I knew right away that was exactly what I wanted to work on. It was already fun to play, you didn’t have to know how to skate, and the controls were easier to understand. I signed on with them and the other game became Thrasher: Skate and Destroy.
Did you have plans for the game as something to make skating more accessible to the general public?
That wasn’t the original intention. For me, the goal was to have a game that skaters would be hyped to play. All the other skate games in the past just weren’t authentic. 720° was was fun but it was super silly. In Skate and Destroy, the bees chase you and you would get more points doing cess slides on vert than you would doing airs. I thought if we could do something fun to play as a skater, we could inspire skaters to go buy Playstations. I thought we’d do one version and it would be gone, but I would have been proud of it.
You weren’t even expecting a second game?
I wasn’t based on the reactions I got in the early stages of pitching a skate game, and how negatively people thought skateboarding would translate. I knew there was a shift in perception when right before the game was released, Activision offered me a buyout of all future royalties. I didn’t take it, which was probably the best financial move I’ve ever made, but at the time it was very tempting.
Why do you think they tried to buy you out?
Because they saw they had a hit on their hands and they were gearing up to do the sequel, but they weren’t really telling me. They weren’t being shady, it was more like that’s how their business was. To be fair, it was more money than I’d ever seen in my life. I thought if people are so hyped on it already, let’s let it ride.
I can’t remember if they offered me that before the 900 or not. It was more like as it was getting into the final version it was obvious it was super fun to play. When I let other people play it they would be blown away. I remember Atiba [Jefferson] had a chipped Playstation so I sent him a version of what it was gonna be, and he flipped out. He was playing it with all the L.A. skaters and they started calling it “The Game.” I felt like if they had so much reverence for it before it’s even released, and it’s this thing no one’s heard of, I feel like there’s something there.
A lot of the energy from Neversoft that made THPS great seemed to come from one of Neversoft’s founders, Joel Jewett. What was he like to work with?
Joel was nuts. It would be an HR nightmare these days but he would take the whole crew to Skate Street in Ventura and basically demand that everyone skate because they were working on a skate game. One guy broke his ankle. He wasn’t forcing him to skate but it was highly encouraged. He also used to take the crew to strip bars. Now he’s basically retired on a ranch in Montana. The last time I saw him was the goodbye party for Neversoft and he was burning a giant Neversoft logo in effigy.
Since there wasn’t a huge demand for skateboarding video games at the time you were first working on THPS, were you ever worried about losing credibility among skaters by putting out a video game?
No because I had already jumped through that fire in terms of my endorsements in the years leading up to that. I was the guy known with the Bagel Bites contract and Club Med. Making a video game that represented skating well was the least of my worries.
When you get proposals from companies outside of skateboarding to feature you in an ad or branding, what do you consider before deciding whether or not to accept deals?
Firstly, if it’s a product or a service that I actually believe in. Secondly, if they allow me to have final approval over anything that represents skateboarding or my name and likeness. THPS was the turning point of that because prior to that I didn’t have the clout to include that in contracts. Once THPS was a success, that was when I was able to be more respectful of what I choose to do and how I was able to present skateboarding. It set my standard. After that even doing a McDonald’s commercial I got final say.
Did it feel weird at first that kids were coming to skating through THPS instead of the more typical way of seeing someone skate?
It never felt weird, it felt like a byproduct of the success. That was not the original intention, but at some point I realized that was starting to happen. I had a disagreement with Per [Welinder], my partner at Birdhouse at the time, because he wanted Activision to pay us to have the brands in the game. I told him this is gonna bring our brand to an audience bigger than we’ve ever known, and we’re going to benefit from that later on. He finally agreed with me and I feel like it did.
Between THPS and the 900, which was more influential in increasing your fame?
THPS was the biggest aspect. At some point I remember meeting a mom who said, “You’re Tony Hawk? I thought you were just a video game? I didn’t even know you were a person.” Another mom said, “My kids think they named you after the game.” The 900 put me on the map of a more general public because they featured that as a highlight on mainstream sporting shows. Combined with the fact that the video game was just a couple months away from being released, there were ridiculous rumors that it was this big plan, but it was just lucky for me.
Financially, how big of an impact did the series have for you?
The rumors or speculation of the actual money I’ve made from the series are way inflated, but I made more money than I’d ever imagined. At some point Activision offered me an advance in royalties just so they could keep me under contract. They offered me this ridiculous amount that I never ever thought my royalties would amount to, but I reached that amount in less than the contract’s time frame. When the fourth game came out, the prior three games were all in the top ten of all video games sold for that time frame. It was insane.
It changed my life. By far it was the most lucrative thing that’s ever happened to me. Beyond making money, it allowed me to not have to take every little deal to make a living as a skater. I feel like my skating flourished during those years. I learned more stuff and more techniques than I had my whole career because it gave me the sense of freedom.
Why did you end the series after Tony Hawk’s Proving Ground?
Proving Ground was the same year EA’s Skate came out, and Skate basically split the market. It wasn’t that it outnumbered our sales, it was that suddenly Activision was looking at half the sales going forward for our game series. Neversoft was burnt and more focused on Guitar Hero, so they chose not to do the next game. Then I brought Activision the idea of Ride and they were so adamant about a release date that the game wasn’t ready to be released, as far as I’m concerned. It got panned really badly because of that. Then we released Shred, which was the game I wanted Ride to be, but by the time that came out people were over peripherals and we already got bad reviews on Ride so that killed the whole idea.
Are there plans for more games in the series?
Not from Activision. I’m potentially working on something but it’s so early I couldn’t talk about it. I don’t have any contracts signed but it’s exciting. I feel like it’s with the right people so I should know more in the next couple months.