Interview

Shaun White Snowboarding

Ubisoft Montreal's Thomas Simon talks shifties with us

When Shaun White won a gold medal at the Torino Olypmics, Ubisoft's attention was well and truly caught, the publisher joining forces with the self-confessed Prince of Persia fan to create a realistic snowboarding title aimed squarely at the masses. With the game due out this Christmas, we sat down with game designer Thomas Simon to learn more about the PS3 and Xbox 360 version of the new extreme sports title.

Thanks for speaking with us. Was Shaun involved from the very beginning of this project?

Yeah, he was involved from conception, he advised us a lot on the gameplay front... and also the dialogue, the story. He wanted the player to experience his vision of snowboarding, so, he really wanted to show to the player what snowboarding is for him.

Having played the game, I'm impressed by the nice view, the graphics, etc. But obviously the gameplay has to be accessible, so are there perhaps arcade elements? How do you pick and choose where you want realism, and where you want accessibility?

In fact we wanted to provide the player with a true snowboarding experience; so we wanted the game to be true to the sport. But at the same time we wanted the game to be accessible. So, we let players pick the controls, the path, how you carve, where you go... if you go to the peak, it's going to be a bit riskier... we have cliffs, you need to be more precise. Stuff like that. But really the remit was to provide players with a true snowboarding experience, to be able to really carve big in the snow. Everything is physics-based, so gravity will pull you down... it's not animation. There's a lot of physics - it's a real challenge.

What was the most important thing for Shaun when you were designing the game?

The thing he really likes in the game is being able to provide the experience of riding the peak - so he went to Alaska and did work for the game. It's not everyone that can visit the peak. But with your character here you can. He really wanted that in the first-person, too. So at any time you can choose... switch to the first-person. See what Shaun sees through his goggles when he goes to a peak. So he pushed a lot for that... so we did that. We showed him, got feedback, it's really a challlenge... you don't want to make the player motion-sick. You have to be really careful with extreme sport, so... it was a challenge. Shaun wants the player to experience the real feeling, so when you're in first-person you can't see as much. It's a great experience.

We have massive environments, everything is open so that's another thing Shaun wanted in the game - the open world, big environments, so you're free to go wherever you want, whenever you want. Also, the fact that you can play with your friends... when you go snowboarding, even though it's not a team sport, you almost always ride with your friends. The fact you can do that online as well - we have a 16 player online 16 experience - is really cool, too.

How do you add social elements to the multiplayer mode?

The way it works is that - for example - you can create a session, and go to your mountain. Then your friends can join your session and they're on the same mountain. These are not multiplayer maps... they're really big, real, mountains. We have Alaska, Japan, Europe and Park City... you can go where you want, whenever you want on these mountains. We have challenges, other conditions, you can do all this with your friends, or you can just go riding. There are some interesting challenges - freestyle challenges, and you can bet. So you can bet your friends 100 dollars you will beat them... it's really interesting.

Going back to the singleplayer. Obviously your audience here is fairly casual... how do you make Shaun White challenging for the players who want it?

The way the controller is made; there are a lot of layers. You can just ride casually with the left stick, also the basic triggers let you do some tricks - but if you want to do grabs, you're going to use the right stick. Presses on the rails - the right stick. Advanced moves are done with the right stick, too... if you jump super-high the right stick will control shifties. So you can re-align you're board, get landing orientation, there's a lot of stuff that still surprises even us game designers. There's a lot of depth there... but at the same time it's really accessible.

Does the PS3 version of the game use the Sixaxis at all?

At the moment that's not something we have shown yet. It might be shown later... it's not in the current test version... but it might be shown in the future.

So... it will use Sixaxis?

There's a possibility!

The game uses the Assassin's Creed engine. Which locations do you take in?

We go to Europe, Japan, Park City USA and Alaska. Those are all mountains based on real-world references. They're not direct translations. They're not 100% real... that would be too restrictive, for the design. If you take the same dimensions as in real life... you'll say that it looks too small. You really want to make it big. So we have huge cliffs, slopes, everything is more massive, but at the same time we have realistic gameplay. Shaun... for the peaks... Shaun was giving us a lot of feedback. How different parts should look.

Would you say that to create a realistic sense of speed, to make a true experience, you actually need to exaggerate?

Yes, I think so. You need to exaggerate because in the end this is a game, and because if you rely on the reality - it's important to be true to the sport - but at the same time you need to make a good game. So, you have to compromise and make some modifications.

How do you bring snowboarding culture to life in the game?

We have a lot of stuff... you can ride with your friends. The whole game is about seamless multiplayer, you'll be able to do everything on a mountain with your friends, whenever you want. That was one of the core things, the snowboard lifestyle. We have real companies in the game, real brands. Big players in the industry. A lot of snowboarding hardcore fans will be really pleased with that.

What about music...?

Rock music. Shaun had a lot of involvement, and he really likes classic rock, so the game has a lot of that. In the menus... stuff like that. We also have other styles of music. Players are going to enjoy metal, electro, alternative - many genres. There are over 40 tracks. So, there's a lot - and you can choose a playlist from your Xbox.

Ubisoft don't normally make sports game. Why are they involved now... will we see more sport titles in the future?

When Shaun won at the Olympics, I don't know exactly what the deal is with Shaun and Ubisoft, but they decided to do a true snowboarding experience-based game. He's a huge fan and he really wanted to offer to players a game with the best snowboarding experience. He's a huge Prince of Persia fan - so that helped.

Will there be more Shaun White Snowboarding games? Is this a new franchise?

It's a new snowboarding brand, yes. It's going to be out on PS3, Xbox 360 and PC in holiday '08, there's also the Wii version - and a DS version. Its a big brand for us.

Well... good luck, and thanks for your time.