Some games are inspired by the developer’s deep, personal experiences. Others are sparked by real-world events, or love of other media.
For Skatebird developer Megan Fox, it all began with a gif of a bird on a skateboard.
Also, here: pic.twitter.com/Z0wPfDGrtf
— Megan Fox (🛹🐦 OUT NOW) (@glassbottommeg) June 15, 2020
Fox is a seasoned developer, having worked in AAA on LEGO Universe before going indie and releasing games like Jones on Fire, Hot Tin Roof, and Spartan Fist. She started working on Skatebird in 2018 after, she says, Spartan Fist “bombed” and she had to let her entire development team go. Whatever she made next, Fox at the time was certain she would need to do it mostly alone.
But that certainty didn’t last long. First, a fellow game developer who goes by KevKev offered up a physics-based, skateboarding prototype codebase to anyone who wanted it, after he found that putting humans on skateboards was “inconsistent and weird.” Fox began messing around with it, letting the inspiration from the gif she had seen lead the way, and quickly discovered it was much easier to put a bird on a skateboard than a human.
“You know what a human on a skateboard is supposed to look like,” Fox says. “Pros are supposed to look cool. There’s a particular look and a stance and so forth. If you put a bird on a skateboard, well, no one really knows how it’s supposed to stand on the skateboard. And if they flap a lot and look awkward, well, they’re a bird on a skateboard.”
Skatebirds of a Feather
Fox wasn’t the only one who thought birds on skateboards looked like fun. At E3 2019, Fox found a slot for Skatebird at the Kinda Funny Games Showcase and launched her Kickstarter simultaneously. The support was tremendous, enough for Fox to expand the scope of the game from a fun little skating gag to include objectives, a story, and far more birds than originally planned. Though she planned for this next project to be a solo fun, Fox started working with other people again to support Skatebird’s development. What began as a “whatever the hell” kind of gag had turned into a full, serious project.
“I think people think it’s a lot bigger than it is,” Fox says. “It takes about five to eight hours to beat. It’s not huge. But then I guess that’s the size of most skate games. So maybe it is.”
While the idea for Skatebird started as a bit of a goof, its expanded scope meant Fox quickly had to become an expert on two things she didn’t know much about: birds and skateboarding. The former happened organically once she moved to the Seattle area and started feeding birds as a hobby, gradually learning the names of and how to identify different species.
She also hired a skateboarding expert to teach her about the different tricks and techniques, as she wanted Skatebird genuinely reflect the sport rather than including a bunch of made-up tricks. Having only skateboarded briefly in the past “in combat boots while wearing a trench coat,” Fox opted not to get back on the board during development to avoid injuring herself, but intends to take up the hobby again now that the game’s launched.
Alongside the research, Fox wanted her skateboarding game to be accessible in a way that big-name skateboarding titles had grasped at, but ultimately fallen short of. To do this, she looked to the Tony Hawk games’ very clear button assignments (meaning they could easily be rearranged or mapped to a different controller if needed) and attempted to combine them with EA’s Skate franchise’s elimination of the more precise arcade aspects.
“You can collapse almost all of the buttons down to one button, you can make it so that a single button does the grind and flip trick,” she says. “And it’s not ideal, like you can’t pull off every single trick in the game this way. But you can totally play the game this way.”
The finished Skatebird is cute and whimsical and full of, as Fox desired for it, birds “trying their best.” It’s tied together by a story of a bird whose “Big Friend” (a human, of course) has given up skateboarding, motivating the bird to try and inspire them to pick it up again as they skate around tiny, bird-sized courses. There are objectives to discover and lots of customization for the bird hero. Though primarily a skate game, there’s no denying Skatebird’s meme-ability, true to the gifs that inspired it.
Skatebird comes at a time when skate games are seeing a bit of a renaissance, from indie title announcements like Bomb Rush Cyberfunk and goofy riffs like Street Uni X (think Tony Hawk but a unicycle), to AAA endeavors like EA’s revival of the Skate franchise and, of course, the return of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2.
Whether or not the genre sticks around for good or skates off into the sunset, Fox says that now turned out to accidentally be a great time to release a skateboarding video game.
“There are tons and tons of indies that are starting to play in this genre,” Fox says. “And usually, that’s the sign that the genre has blossomed and is really starting. And then when EA Skate comes out, that’s the sign that AAA is entering the space again, because indies have once again shown that this genre exists and it works and it makes money and AAA goes, ‘I like money.’ And then they come in and after that, I don’t know what will happen. They could kill the genre again, or maybe not. But at least right now it’s pretty cool.”
Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.