Skater XL is the Musical Instrument of Skateboarding Sims (Preview)

The world has been in want of more skateboarding games for some time now. After Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater’s disappointing fall from glory and nothing but ethereal rumors for a new Skate game from EA, fans of the genre have been waiting for something to fill that void. Skater XL is the next granular evolution of skateboarding games. Where Tony Hawk was an arcade game full of massive tricks and absurd combos, and EA’s Skate kept things a little more grounded, Skater XL furthers the focus on the player’s relationship with the board.

In the era of COVID-19, social distancing, and staying at home indefinitely, developers have to find new ways to showcase their games thanks to events simply no longer being possible. Easy Day Studios, the team behind Skater XL, took to Discord and live-streamed private sessions of the game, so while I didn’t get to get my hands (or digital feet) on the board, I had the opportunity to talk directly with members of the team while they streamed the game to me in realtime.

If there’s one thing to take away from Skater XL, it’s that it is the other side of the skateboarding-game coin; the sim to Tony Hawk’s hyper-arcadey absurdity. You aren’t going to be getting massive air or stringing together million-point combo strings around bizarre environments while collecting S-K-A-T-E and hidden tapes. In that way, it’s a lot more like EA’s Skate, a grounded and more realistic focus on skateboarding that takes things a step further by giving nuanced expressiveness through physics simulations. Skater XL isn’t a simple binary “enter button combo, do trick” type of game. Each thumbstick controls one of your feet, and the way you move the thumbsticks changes the way your feet interact with the board.

Skater XL Preview

Physics-based controls mean every trick is different and expressive every time.

You could do a kickflip 10 times, and each time, the trick would be slightly different. Speed could vary. Slight variances in angle could tweak the trick a little bit. The controller is actually being sampled at a higher rate than the game engine itself to ensure the lightest nuance is translated, making each trick feel like your own. The team likened it to a musical instrument. There are basic stick inputs and movements that correlate to specific tricks, but players can build on the basics with their own expressiveness, like learning basics chords on a guitar and then expanding on that foundation.

That relationship with learning an instrument came up again and again in our conversation. Skater XL is a skill with many tiers of expertise and natural player progression. It’s going to seem intimidating at first, but through early access (which has been running since December 2018 on PC) and countless playtests with a variety of players, people have found that there’s a real desire to build on those skills and figure out how they can turn basic chord progressions into full and expressive songs. The skillset eventually becomes natural and fluid and an “extension of self,” as opposed to just inputting a button combo correctly.

The team also reiterated that, despite its high skill-ceiling, it doesn’t lose casual players. Because there’s a consistency and it’s not a strict “pass/fail” mechanic, players are able to learn in smaller increments, growing into the expressive potential of the full skillset without simply failing because they didn’t input the right button combo. Mapping of foot movement is always the same, which extends to the air, on the ground, grinding a rail or ledge, or even in a grab. Variation comes from learning how to interpret those movements contextually.

A Skateboarding Playground

Skater XL is a skateboarding playground, and in more ways than one. The open-world levels are free of the checklist-types of objectives like collectible letters. Skater XL definitely isn’t a replacement for Tony Hawk, but it scratches a different itch. When I asked about presenting players with goals, objectives, and other things to motivate gameplay, they told me that there will be some basic trick-based challenges designed to help teach players what’s possible. The idea is to offer some light guidance which will then promote more expression and trial-and-error of their own. The focus of Skater XL is specifically on the sandbox and overall player freedom.

The environments, while tuned for overall player enjoyment and fun, are not necessarily built like Tony Hawk levels of old with obvious lines ingrained into every corner. Like real skateboarding culture, they wanted players to interpret the landscape for a run, connecting lines based on their own expressiveness and not necessarily what the game was saying should come next.

Skater XL Preview

If you’ve spent any time in downtown LA, you’ll recognize multiple iconic areas.

Easy Day is putting together some incredible levels full of classic skating environments. This particular preview focused on the new downtown LA area—which was nice considering I won’t be headed there myself for E3 this year. As the camera swooped across the plaza between the Staples Center and the LA Convention Center, I was immediately taken back. It’s not necessarily recreated with a 1:1 accuracy (as I mentioned, they are trying to balance natural environments with making sure it’s fun to play in-game), but there was no mistaking multiple iconic areas, environments, and structures from downtown LA. Being given the freedom to set a starting pin virtually anywhere in the environment means you can take to trying out some of the most standout skate spots from a city crucial to skate culture.

Skate Culture

One of the biggest elements to arise from Skater XL is something Easy Day couldn’t have even planned for. During its time in early access, a whole culture has sprung up around the game. It’s modding Discord channel is 50,000 members strong. Players have taken to learning Blender and other 3D-modeling software just to add to the game. Players have even created skateboarding videos, full digital magazines, fake brands, and other elements of skate culture found in the real world. The community aspect is as much, if not more, a part of skateboarding than the skating itself, so Easy Day was very excited to see the culture begin to naturally sprout from the platform they had created.

That platform will have four current skateboarding pros at launch: Evan Smith, Tom Asta, Brandon Westgate, and Tiago Lemos. Players can also create their own skater, again, offering that level of self-expressive nature that Easy Day wants to provide. Updates could add more pros down the line, and Easy Day has a “massive” wishlist of skaters they want to get involved. Along with each skater comes the support of popular brands like éS, DC, Santa Cruz, Element, New Balance, Primitive, and more. Grounding the game within this reality helps anchor the continued organic culture that then pops up with the game.

Skater XL Preview

It’s grounded in reality with four pros and multiple real-life skate brands.

Because our interest is obviously on the PlayStation side of things, I had to ask about the culture and creativity aspect on consoles. The PC-version of the game is much more free to see an expressive community, featuring modding with different levels, parks, and other content, but Sony specifically has a much more closed down system that prevents that same kind of freedom. Easy Day admitted that those were the exact conversations they were having, and while they couldn’t get into specifics, they are definitely looking into solutions for this aspect of the game for the console release.

Skater XL isn’t dropping in to be the next replacement to skateboarding games in general, but it does want to fill a certain void and re-spark the excitement for skateboarding games once again. If your history with the genre lies with Tony Hawk, Skater XL might be quite a bit different from the games you’re used to. It embraces the culture of skateboarding in a unique way that allows for individual player nuance and expressiveness, a wide sandbox of creativity where every single ollie, kickflip, and shove it is entirely your own.

Skater XL releases in July 2020 on PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and its full release on PC.