SESSION: a journey into a skateboarding video game

In 1999, the most groundbreaking skate video game was born : Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. It was an instant cult game, and it has been proven through the years with something like 30 million copies sold. 8 years later, a new franchise was born : the EA Skate series, which definitely stole the crown from Tony Hawk, growing an even bigger community of players.During all that time, Marc-André Houde, skater and video game nerd from Montreal, had the idea that you could push the genre even more.

Despite Tony and EA, Marc-André started his own skate game at home with some friends between watching old skate videos, and play video games. More than 10 years later, his dream is on his way to be completed, making his skateboarding video game a very realistic accomplishment. . For the Early Access (meaning the games is halfway finished) release today, we chatted with Marc-André about this crazy adventure and, of course, the game.


Hi Marc-André, how are you?
Good, you?

Where did the idea for the project come from? Was it the frustration of not having Skate4?
No, what happened with the Skate3, I felt that there was no need for a Skate4. Skate3 was a very good game, I am far from saying that it was bad. But, my favorites are really the first and the second from the franchise. I saw that with the third they broke the vibe of the product to become more mainstream. To make tricks a little more funny, that’s where I gave up a lot.

The desire to make a skateboard game came from the time of THPS, I played the second game, and I tried to make tricks just as realistic as possible. That’s where the frustration started, I just wanted to kickflip on 9 a stair, and I flew over the street at the same time, haha. The Session catalyzer is when EA Skate arrived. It gave me fire to see that people can enjoy a game much closer to reality without them feeling less accomplished if they don’t do backflips on an electric wire.

From there, the concept of thumbsticks, it opened up a lot of stuff, the ideas fired in my head, and I started a lot of stuff like that from the thumbsticks concept.

Did you start alone, or did you talk to friends about it?
Yes, in 2008ish I worked at EIDOS and I had a programmer friend and I talked to him about the project, just to do it in the evening. And he said to me “Yes it can be cool, we can try.”

The first version was 2.5D, on a plane side scroller.

Like Double Dragon!
Double Dragon, exactly! And that’s when we started playing with the sticks, and already at the time we felt that there was something super interesting.

In 2015, I met my partner Vincent, we made a lot of prototypes together, and I told him “hey it would be cool to bring this concept together.” I gave him the pitch and he found it super interesting. We started and we began to make the concept grow. We left the limitation of the 2D to bring it in 3D. For me, it’s super important to have a purist skate experience. Without making points with each trick, or grinding fireworks.

Or that’s it, realistic pop, with gravity trying to get as close as possible to ours, and things like that. The project started, then it was put aside, then it was started again, and then on the tablet.

The last time we met, it goes back almost 2 years, in 2017.

You our project of the game again at that time. In brief, what has happened since?
So much, man! It’s crazy! Well, the biggest is when we had the official financing of the project by the FMC, we had enough to make the prototype, we did the Kickstarter, it went really well.

After the Kickstarter, it has a snowball effect. We have a closer deal with Microsoft, we have been invited to E3, the FMC has granted us the financing to go into production. And it did not stop, it was infernal, in the good sense of things. It has progressed a lot since. The game is not the same as what we saw at the beginning.

Yes, there is a lot of evolution since, you had the first Early Access where you could play the little skatepark in the prison.
Yes, it was in 2017, in November or December.

At the time, when it was out, what was your vision of the game and what was the feedback you received?
It was very positive, but with a good enough vocal wave too, people did not understand the state of the project, at what stage we really were.

Many people thought that it was a game from a big production, they did not understand that it was independent.
That’s it, we were not even at the prototype stage. We were at the concept stage. We took the essential elements of our design which was a stick for each foot, used the triggers to turn, control the speed of the flips, and catching the board. We made it quite functional, to be able to validate if the concept was possible or not.

And we put it in people’s hands during the Kickstarter campaign. The goal of this little demo, it was to give a feeling of what it is to play a game of skate where you control each foot, worse when you change stance, it changes, and it becomes more complex. You go from regular to fakie, it’s not too complicated like in real life, but go switch, you mirror everything, literally you’ll relearn to skate.

For you, it was really going towards a simulation game, not an arcade game.
Definitely, even though at one point we had gone too far in the simulation, we had to open the doors a little more. The essence is the same, we want to please skaters. We are skaters. We want people who skateboard to continue to live the same passion in a video game without being treated like children or teenagers playing in a park.

At one point, we were so in the hardcore simulation, it made the project much more inaccessible. People who did not skate ended up not knowing what to do. They needed to be guided a little. This is where we decided, without denaturing our project roots, we began to open a few more options to be able to appreciate the game.

“the whole community turned to us “you make a skateboard game, pay attention!” The pressure was intense, we received emails like “if you do not make the game, I will kill myself.”

You told me that at first you wanted to keep the project in the spirit of the 90s, did you change that too?
Yes, I think that the essence is still there, especially in the artistic direction, skateboarding has changed so much since then, it would be a shame to miss it. Skateboarding have really progressed in the last 15/20 years, and staying in the 90s skateboarding was not yet super tech. It would have been a shame not to be able to do manual tricks, or things like that. These are things we see a little more today, but not too much at the time.

There is also the whole video generation, at the time we filmed in 4: 3 x 280pixel, small resolutions. We were very close to going in this direction, but again, it closed too many doors. It made the experience a bit strange. People wanted HD, so we decided to open it again. The 4: 3 will be available in the game, but you will also be able to play HD. Everything will depend on the experience you are going to want to have.

You’ve had a break for over a year, is that it?
Yes, we did a little teaser in 2015, it was not supposed to happen like that. We were already talking about the concept at his origins, it could be interesting in fact any small video, put it on the internet, and see if the reception is good. Then it exploded!

You had pressure?
Yes! Immediately, the whole community turned to us “you make a skateboard game, pay attention!” The pressure was intense, we received emails like “if you do not make the game, I will kill myself.”

Haha seriously?

It’s intense! It was creepy a little this time, we received emails “You can not fuck that, I know where you live,” people are really intense on the internet, it’s crazy!

Yeah really.
He knew exactly where I lived.

In short, after this video, we tried to continue a little, but it was too difficult, I was full time at home, but I had to stop, I had no more funds, it was necessary that I had to go back to work. From this moment on, we put the project on the side again, for a good 2 years. In the meantime we have more work on the financing side, more business. We said, we’ll do it, but we’ll do it right, it’s not the kind of project we’re going to do on a part-time basis. We must really be invested and we leave our jobs, to be thoroughly in it.

This is where we were looking for funding, and we were approved in April 2017, a week after we left our jobs and we went to the bottom.


Since all this time, are you there full time?
Yes that’s it! We tore everything with Vincent Dasilva, we left Zero. We thought we would do the kickstarter later in the year, which we started in October 2017. Between April and October, that’s when everything really started. We made the prototype of the prison, and after that began the prototype of the indoor park.

It was funny because all the essence of the game was very street, we wanted to keep it very authentic, and we just offered parks haha.

Haha it’s true!
It was very ironic. It was funny, we laughed! From a practical point of view it was essential, we could not start building a street, to test things, the quick solution was to make small parks.

To have flow.
Yes that’s it, to have some flow, to allow people to test the stuff. But it was funny because we just talked about the street.

It was also in the footage of the first teaser, with the gap in the street.
Yes with a big heel fakie.

Everyone expected this haha.
Yes, and we arrived with a park, it was funny. But we went back to the sources, it was just for the test phase.

Good things take time!
Early access is 100% street. We are not close to making parks, but it is not the focus for now.

So, after you released the 2nd version with the indoor park, did it open more opportunities?
The indoor park, it was not planned at all, but the reception was super good during the kickstarter campaign, we thought it would be cool to do something. People tripped on the small demo, it was download something like 300k times.
For a small prototype of the campaign, it’s not bad. The indoor park was more than a thank you gift. There was nothing else behind it. It was an increase version of the prison, which was given to all the people who backed the game.

After that, we made Dev Build, it’s versions where we tested mechanics. The prototypes of the prison and indoor park, it was really a first step, but we wanted to go far in the simulation, or we could play with the speed of your flips, your scoop, and even give inputs to catch your board. Like if you did a kickflip, but you did not bring your foot when the grip came, you would fall. And it was also super well received, people were stoked. It’s something that has never been done before in skate games. And with the fear that it was going to be too difficult, but that’s skateboarding. It’s difficult.

If it’s too easy, it quickly becomes boring.
Exactly. You go down to make a trick, after a 30 or 40 tries you succeed. Man, you’re happy! It’s crazy.
It’s really what we try to accomplish, it’s not to punish the player. But the more of a battle there is, the more the accomplishment is going to be satisfying.

“Microsoft were told “there will be no video.”
The answer was “I think you do not understand the opportunity it is.” The message was clear enough.”

You started with 2 people, how many are you now?
The Kickstarter was a great success, it allowed us to hire 2 juniors, in programming and art.

What is your role?
At first I took care of everything that was design, creative, artistic, animation. Vincent, my partner, took care of everything that was programming, the gameplay and physics.

Then when we had our first junior, he was much more to do 3D assets, I also helped, but I began to move away from the creation of 3D asset, to take care of the artistic side. And in June we had a senior who came in the project, but it did not work, we were separated. And then we hired a new person, who was doing really well in the project, he’s been a Montreal skateboarder for a long time, he has a solid understanding of the concept.

How many are you in your team?
We are at 6.


You work at home, you do not have a studio?
After we had our first funding, we thought to go in a studio, but in our own way, very chill. 9 to 5 hours are really not for us. We are more the kind to know what to do, we try ideally to have the same hours to communicate. And when we saw how much it was going to cost, we realized that a large part of the team was very comfortable working at home. To have this freedom.

To program in boxers haha.
We decided to take the money that was going for the studio and use it for the project instead. And it was super beneficial. Thanks to that, we were able to do a lot more than we planned to do.

You have worked in a large video game studio, what was the challenge of being independent?
The biggest challenge is the budget and the resources. You want to do things, but the time constraint, and the money constraint always has a big impact.
We are always in a situation where we are short on staff and time. And trying to juggle all that.
And do stuff we did not do before, like budget.

It’s boring haha
It’s boring, but it’s essential, it’s part of the game.
When you promote or deal with Microsoft. We are pretty much the last in the list.

How did it go with the Microsoft / XBOX deal?
In fact, it is Chris Charla, who is in charge of the independent games department at Microsoft, he is a long time skater. And when he saw our project, he fell in love with it. And we started talking with all that, and it ended with a 3 month XBOX exclusive deal. It helped us a lot to progress the project.

With the E3 it was a surprise, at the last minute. “Hey, we would have a place for you this year at E3” with a 2 weeks notice haha. Worse, the way we’ve developed the game, there was not much effort on the aesthetic, it is on the experience that was focused. To arrive at the E3 with something not beautiful, it is impossible.

Where were you in the game at this time?
It was in January, we had to leave all the stories of park, we were thoroughly in New York already. Before leaving E3, we had just 2 sections, it was the Police Plaza and the Banks. It was 6 times smaller than we have in the end. We just had the layout, nothing in detail or catchy, we did some video editing to see how it would look.
This is as an independent studio, we have nothing, no background.

Everything to prove!
And they say,
– « Man, it’s disgusting! »

And we were
– « Don’t worry! It will be beautiful! ».

And they say,
– “But who are you? “He tells you it must be beautiful”

– « If you want to return. I can not sign you and not see the result. »

From there, we had 1 week or 2 to give a big push to make the video, and for us it is important that there is game play in the video.

What did you show to Microsoft? The game or a video of the game?
At the base it was supposed to be a video of 3 minutes. In the end they were told “there will be no video.”
The answer was “I think you do not understand the opportunity it is.” The message was clear enough.
From there, we asked them if making a video of 1 minute was cool, and they said yes.

So we knew the camera shot of the video, put our artistic efforts on the visible plane in the video. It’s cool and it’s not at the same time, because the anticipation increased. Microsoft told us “make us a demo.”

It gave us a lot of credibility, it opened the dialogue with Microsoft, and with many people in the game industry and skateboarding. And it gave us a lot of confidence as a developer. With what we were able to do in 2 weeks, we looked at the map, and said “hey, I think we can offer much more than that.” This is where we started to extend the map and build everywhere around, to give what it is today.

At this time when you had your deal with Microsoft, that’s when the Califonians came with SkaterXL, it was almost East Coast against West Coast. Do you put some pressure on your board?
It was still beneficial, I am convinced that it is 2 completely different experiences. Without saying anything bad about SkaterXL they are closer to what Skate3 was, while we have moved more towards simulation.
And it allowed us to refocus. It’s important not to forget our roots, which are hardcore simulation.

What was a surprise for us, we were at E3 in June, and SkaterXL came in late December a little surprise.

They did not really promote, they released their demo overnight.
It’s probably a coincidence, but we knew that Session was going to be postponed. After the public release, we said “sorry but we think that the project is not ready, we will be back this year,” and then SkaterXL arrived 2,3 weeks later. When we saw that we made the jump.

Yes, you are no longer alone!
Yes, it was a good thing in the end, it kicked us in the ass. We were doing our little things, it will be ready when it is ready. And another in the scenery, with controls similar to ours and similar concepts. It gave us a little boost!
It’s a healthy competition.

East Coast / West Coast is 2 different worlds anyway, haha.
That’s it! We started in New York because for me it was the driving force behind street skating. Especially in the 90s, skateboarding exploded. At that time on the West Coast, it was a pretty good school. And when Brooklyn Banks started to get popular, people did cool stuff on it, and it looked like it all lit up the New York scene.

We were guys from the East Coast, so we thought it would be cool.


Why did you start from New York instead of Montreal, where you’re from?
Without removing anything in Montreal, it is still not the same scene, from an international point of view, compared to New York. And at that time, there was a lot more going on in New York than in Montreal. That’s why we headed for New York, and it is still close. It’s a vibe very similar to Montreal.

But nothing said we have put Montreal aside…

Let’s talk about the game, we all stopped at the Indoor Park, with Eliot Sloan who got it for the transition part. There are 4 video clips that have been posted from the current map in the last few weeks, the game comes out in Early Access version today. What are the novelties?
For us what was important, it was when people went to buy the game, it was worth the amount.

“we would like Jamie Thomas to be there. Ed Templeton too, Toy Machine is also a good brand that I like a lot. Louie Barletta too!”

How much will the game cost?
$20 US, about 22 -23$CA, for Early Access, and more as we add features. The price will increase when we come closer to the final version of the game.

When we had the Kickstarter campaign, we had a stretch goal, to reach an amount to be green, after we managed to add mini games, stuff like that. But there are many goals that we have not been able to reach like to place objects, customization.
And we thought it was a shame, it’s a bit of experience that we want to offer. And since we were able to economize to be effective, we discovered that we could add these features.

Originally what was planned is the experience, a replay and editing. In addition to that, we were able to add a map that is 6 to 7 times larger than expected. We have challenges that are self generating per day and per week. Historic Challenges, for the skate nerds, who will be able to redo the tricks of old skateboarding videos. We also have a replay tool and an editing tool. We have a tool to place and make your DIY spots. Customization with a female character, brands. An apartment is your spot where you can do all your little things, do your editing, and watch your videos, change clothes.

The next steps, it will be expand the map, add features, open the skateshop, we wanted to open for the early access, but we preferred to wait.

What are the brands who signed in?
We were very selective for brands, we wanted to have brands that were skater owned, and we had a similar identity to the project. Heroin Skateboards, we also have Roger Skateboards, Jenkem, No-Comply. It’s brands that have the same philosophy that we do not see skateboarding as a sport, but as a culture. Or you do not need to have a score to make you fun.

We did not want to open too much, we wanted to establish a functioning game where we could update the easy content, and have a good relationship with the brands, it’s something we want to grow in an efficient way, without it being a pain for brands. It’s our way of contributing, remaining authentic and giving visibility to both small and large companies. And at the moment we wanted to take care of small because we too are small. Even if Heroin is not so small.

It’s not big! But it’s not small either haha. Also tell me about the in-game monetary aspect?
This is a philosophy of the Studio, we did not want to embark on the trend of in-game transactions, to ask 50 cents for anything. “Did you break your board? Put a $2 to keep playing.” We found this a little dishonest on our part, if we went in this direction.

We made a virtual money inside the game so that you can buy your clothes, your boards etc etc. the additions of brands and all that, it will be free.
What will be sold, it’s going to be pretty big piece of content, like a new city, a team with all the guys, the clothes and the boards, a big pack.

You have added characters like Ribs-man and Donovan Strain who is doing a lot of promotion lately for Session.
We want to add riders that exist, without the desire to go to the big bankable riders, we like to offer visibility to others. Dane Burman is not bad, we are very happy to have Dane with us. He is super happy, I think it’s a nice addition.
So we have Ribs-man who is a mystery skater.

There are people who say that Ribs-man hide several skaters ..
I know the truth.. but I would say nothing haha. Ribs-man worked well with our project, not to dwell on the identity and put your skills forward. And Ribs-man is exactly that, it’s erased, it’s just skateboarding, that’s it! Donovan is the humorous touch, it’s a game, but it does not need to be serious. It’s not because we are in a very hardcore simulation, that we have to be dramatic! We are here to have fun. Donovan has a humorous twist and is a very talented skater who deserves a lot more exposure than that. And Dane Burman, it’s Zero.

Zero is one of the brands I’ve always followed and loved. I really like the Zero vibe. And like the others, Dane is a guy who is always laughing, and who is a super talented skater. Having these 3 as a starting point is super cool!

As for Elliot Sloan, we are still discussing, he is super excited by the project.

The transitions part has been set aside for the moment?
Yes, the reason we’re not talking about Elliot right now is because we did not have time to deal with the transition part, but we’ll be doing it very soon. We’ll talk about Elliot again in the weeks that follow.

Which skater would you like to add in Session?
We are a very 90s vibe, I would like to bring back the old skaters, a good old roaster. Of course, starting with Dane is not complicated, it’s like 1 + 1. If we have Dane, we would like Jamie Thomas to be there. Ed Templeton too, Toy Machine is also a good brand that I like a lot. Louie Barletta too!

Oh! Louie would be awesome, it would fit so well!
It really would be, it’s people who want to have fun. That’s the essence of skateboarding!

For those who are like me, who do not know the Steam platform, can you explain to us how it works to download in Early Access version, which is available today?
It’s simple! 2 basic things, a PC (PC only for the moment) and Internet haha in 2019 I think it’s possible.
Steam is like an AppStore. You download the Steam application, you open an account, it’s free.
From there it’s like going to the library, you can buy, you can have free games. And in October the Early Acces of Session will be available for the XBOXONE.

And finally a very popular question on social media: When does it happen on Playstation?
Hahaha! this question became a joke, we love it! For the moment we are exclusive 3 months with Microsoft, so we will respect our agreement. The exclusivity will be finished 3 months after the final version of the game, the version 1.0. And when we will be done we’ll start looking for other platforms.

Thank you Marc andré!

SESSION is available today in Early Access version (means its not the complete game) on Steam platform here, PC only. And will be available for XBOXone in October.

More infos about SESSION and Crea-ture Studios here

Text & photos by Babas Levrai
Text translated from French.
Correction by Sasha Zeidler

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