Late last year during the Spike Video Game Awards a familiar image resurfaced: A lanky towhead skateboarding around a dingy warehouse. The problem was that — aside from the sound of trucks grinding on a railing — the video was silent. Today, the team at Robomodo — the developer behind Tony Hawk Pro Skater HD — breaks that silence. I took the opportunity to speak with the game's producers and audio designer to learn how much work goes into re-licensing a classic soundtrack, picking out new songs and what original track almost had the studio's president breaking out his wallet to buy the rights.
How hard was it narrowing the soundtrack down to 14 songs?
Ken Overbey, producer/project manager: It was a little difficult. We definitely wanted to bring back some of the songs from the original soundtrack, but wanted new songs as well. The most difficulty we had was our budget, which was very small, and the scope and time frame; it was a lot of work to get it all lined up and get the songs in. You have to put out a risk analysis report and you have to point out to the publisher what the biggest risks are in the development. Soundtrack, Patrick and I both agreed, was the number one. Anyone who knows the game knows the music is just as important as the gameplay.
After we sent out the risk analysis report, we didn’t hear too much. Patrick and I took it upon ourselves to start going after it, mainly toward new music. The momentum picked up when we released the trailer at the VGAs (Spike Video Game Awards). The following day, at least 90% of the comments and posts on the forums were about the soundtrack. That’s not even exaggerating. We had an idea of the songs we wanted to go after from the original, but the fans pretty much solidified what they wanted. We were right on track.
For whatever reason, when I hear “Superman” by Goldfinger, I immediately think of skating in the “Warehouse” level in Tony Hawk Pro Skater.
Ken: That’s the thing, to this day still, we hear the soundtrack every single day, there isn’t a day that goes by and I hear a song where it takes me back to 1999. I remember sitting in the basement at my house. Every song brings back a memory.
What would you say makes the soundtracks from the first two games so special? Does what you’ve curated for the new soundtrack even matter when you can stream your mp3 collection to your console and listen to Lady Gaga while doing 5-0 grinds and benihanas?
Ken: (Laughs) You can definitely listen to whatever you want, but the soundtrack is still a part of the title. There were rumors leaking out that there weren’t going to be any of the original songs and the fans were very upset with that. Then you have people saying, “make your own custom soundtracks and put that in there.” That might have been all right for some people but it kind of goes to the whole thinking of make the fans happy.
You’re right, it isn’t the same. You could make a playlist on your iPod or burn a CD, but, for whatever reason, it’s not the same.
Patrick Dwyer, lead designer: When we set out to make this game, our goal was to take the best from Tony Hawk one and Tony Hawk two from the gameplay and the soundtrack and make them better. It wasn’t even a decision for us to not have to worry about a soundtrack now because people can load in their own music. Tony Hawk soundtracks are a tradition we have to follow. It was vital to lock down the needed songs to make the best soundtrack possible.
I played the first two games on the Nintendo 64 and had to listen to minute long clips of each song looped over and over. I didn’t get sick of it. That really speaks to how the songs were picked, especially on the cart-based N64 and its limited audio tech.
Patrick: That was our number one goal with picking songs: To make sure with each song you can listen to them over and over again and not get tired of them. We have a hip-hop song in there that people who like punk rock music can listen to and really dig and fans of hip-hop can listen to metal songs and still dig ‘em. That was really important: to figure out songs that everyone would like.
Ken: Activision put the ball in our hands and let us run with it, that was huge. It worked in our favor to have a limited number of people working on it. On previous projects we’ve worked on, you start getting a bunch of people involved and everyone has their opinions. We started running into that a little on this project. People from other groups over at Activision were putting in their two cents, “Oh, I remember this song from when I was younger or when I was skating.” The thing we always had to keep reminding them was that although it’s a great song, it’s not a great song to play the game to. The songs have to be fast-paced, happy/somewhat aggressive and make you want to tear it up for two minutes in the game; it had to be two minutes long.
Patrick and could sit and listen to a song and within three seconds and know if it was right. So, we took it upon ourselves to go after this one label and we were able to get a lot of good songs. We play-tested them for months before we even let Activision know about them so we could easily push them over to them and say “We’ve had these songs for the past two or three months and no one here’s gotten sick of them.” The funny thing is, we were always sending builds over to Activision and saying the songs were just placeholders. And before you know it, they started rubbing off on them and they would say, “This really works, these are really great songs!”
If you’re bringing in new songs, I don’t know if Sleigh Bells or black metal would work. What were the criteria for the new songs?
Patrick: One of my friends works at a record label and I sent him an email and he turned me onto Bank Robber Music, a management group who has something like 200 different bands as clients. I started going through and listening to some to get a feel for them. Our criteria was it has to be a song, not that it has mass appeal, but that anyone can listen to it and enjoy it. It has to be up tempo all the way through. There are some songs that have an awesome intro and an awesome chorus, but the verse is really slow. Those don’t work for this game.
Ken: Also, the ESRB. We had to stay with a Teen rating.
Patrick: So that killed 99% of the hip-hop songs we wanted! (Laughs) We emailed the labels that had the songs from the original soundtrack and said, “All these songs have this stuff in common, so songs that would work in the soundtrack would flow around them.”
We knew we were getting original songs, but we didn’t know how many at the time. We wanted to make sure the bands we were getting were new; the original soundtracks opened up everyone’s eyes to new music. Bad Religion attributes Pro Skater to them being famous and popular. It wasn’t trying to go and get a Descendants song, as much as we wanted to.
Patrick: We wanted to pick new songs that had that potential where, five years from now, people hear the songs and they think of this game.
Was there a risk of skewing heavily toward one genre of music? You have “When Worlds Collide” by Powerman 5000. You could have easily picked up “Guerilla Radio” by Rage Against the Machine and turned the soundtrack into hard rock radio, circa 2000.
Patrick: Not to say “When Worlds Collide” isn’t a great song, but if you take the greatest song in the world, it might not work in the game. We were really strict with that: it has to work in the game. It has to make players feel awesome and motivate them to get through. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater is not the easiest game in the world. Objectives are pretty hard, you have to get better and better. You really need songs that are going to push you forward. Not like motivational Rocky stuff, but…
I’d like to hear the Rocky theme or maybe “Eye of the Tiger” in a Tony Hawk game.
Patrick: That actually would work. Any montage music, really. (Laughs)
Or, you could pull in the montage song from Scarface, “Push it to the Limit.”
Patrick: Yeah, that’s a good one!
Ken: That was the other hard part about this. There were so many songs Patrick and I listened to — it would get difficult after a while. You’d hear one song and you’d say, "this is going to work," then at a minute-thirty, it would turn into a ballad. You almost want to call the band and ask if they could make a special version of their song.
Patrick: “Hey, you’ve got to take this thirty second part out!”
When we talked to a label, we’d send them our high-level goals for what we wanted to do and we’d send them sample songs for what we were going after. They’d send us 50 songs from 50 different bands and we’d shortlist ‘em. If they had a good minute in a song and maybe they could send us more songs by this band. From there, it was just nonstop filtering of stuff. We went through thousands of songs and to boil that down to six or seven of the new ones was insanely tough. The best ones started floating to the top.
Josh (Tsui, Robomodo president) said if it had been up to Tony Hawk, the game would have had all new music. That would have been a difficult juxtaposition, wouldn’t it? New songs with old levels?
Patrick: We played our game for a while with nothing but new songs because we knew the old songs automatically worked. We didn’t pick songs that have all been made in 2012. Some of our songs are four or five years old, they’re just undiscovered. We wanted songs that were timeless. When you hear our soundtrack, it’s not like any of these songs belong to a certain time period. We wanted songs that sounded like they could have been in the old game, but had come out after that game released.