This article is part of a new initiative on IGN where we spend a whole month exploring topics we find interesting in the world of video games. June is Icons Month, where we’re profiling iconic video game industry figures, characters, series, and themes.
With the notable exception of John Madden, few celebrity monikers are as synonymous with video games as Tony Hawk. Activision’s renowned and long-running extreme sports series is one of the world’s most recognisable video game franchises. While The Birdman himself is always quick to stress it takes talented teams of experts behind the scenes to assemble Tony Hawk games, with his mugshot on every box, Hawk remains the very literal face of this $1.4 billion juggernaut.An extreme sports superstar like no other, Tony Hawk’s stamp on skateboarding culture was cemented well before he set foot in Activision’s corridors. The first man inducted into the Skateboarding Hall of Fame, Hawk’s career is one barnstorming bullet point after another. At 12, Hawk found his first sponsor. At 14, he went pro. At 16? He was the National Skateboard Association champion and widely considered the best competitive skateboarder in the world.
By the time Hawk was just 25, he’d competed in 103 pro competitions, winning 73 outright and scoring second in another 19. Add to this the fact that he was the vert skating world champ a whopping 12 years in a row (and invented over 100 tricks) and these staggering stats indicate Hawk was more than just a master of skateboarding. In fact, it’s not really a stretch to suggest Tony Hawk could rank amongst the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Don Bradman, or Michael Jordan as one of the most dominant athletes ever.
Tony Hawk didn’t necessarily need a personal video game series to cement his legacy any further, but in 1999 he was certainly the perfect candidate.
So Here I Am, Doing Everything I Can
“I was down the line a little bit with a couple of different publishers and Activision called me because they had heard that,” says Hawk, relaying an anecdote he’s discussed many times. “And they said, ‘We heard you might be working on a game or want to work on a game; we are actually doing that right now and we’d love for you to come see what it is.’”
“It felt like this would be the kind of game that you don’t have to be a skater to appreciate.”
“And so my first recollection was driving up to Santa Monica and being in a boardroom with a bunch of people in suits and them handing me a PlayStation controller and it just clicked.”
Hawk immediately felt like they were onto something, despite the fact the build was cobbled together from the bones of developer Neversoft’s 1998 third-person shooter Apocalypse, and the skater avatar was simply “Bruce Willis with a gun strapped to his back skating through a desert.”
“There was something intuitive about the controls,” says Hawk. “It felt like this would be the kind of game that you don’t have to be a skater to appreciate because you can understand how to use the character and I think it would be really fun for skaters who don’t play video games as well.”
“So my goal was that with my influence, with my voice and resources, we can make this game authentic to skaters. The goal was to have skaters want to buy a PlayStation, in my eyes.”
Admittance Requires No Qualifications
How many skaters ultimately bought consoles as a result of the original Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater is impossible to quantify. However, the number of console owners that bought Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater is huge. While Activision reportedly aimed to move 250,000 copies of the game, it ultimately sold 20 times that amount. Sales for the PlayStation, Nintendo 64, and Dreamcast versions combined are estimated to be over five million.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater had exploded in a way Neversoft, Activision, or even Hawk himself had never quite anticipated – even after the now-legendary ‘Pizza Hut demo’ and Hawk landing the first-ever 900 at the 1999 X-Games and propelling himself into an unprecedented global spotlight.
“You know what?” Tony begins, grinning. “There’s all these conspiracy theories and whatnot about all that, and all I can say is I could never have executed a plan like that.”
“Everything just had to come in place. I was never that methodical about anything in my life and nor did I even think that the game would be big. Truly, I thought the game would be, like I said, well-received by skaters. I knew it was fun as a gamer myself, but skating just wasn’t that big.”
“And yeah, that X-Games 1999; the fact that I made the first 900 and that transcended just skating where people started to recognise that as a feat outside or in mainstream sports, that definitely helped. But in no way was it a plan.”
But while the sheer scale of success surprised all parties, Hawk did feel there was something a little special brewing – and he suspected Activision did, too.
“When the demo disc hit, it was undeniable,” says Hawk. “People were asking me about it all the time and Activision, I think, could feel that momentum as well and they famously offered me a buyout of future royalties as the game was being released.”
You could just tell there was something in the air. It was the right place, right time
“You could just tell there was something in the air. It was the right place, right time.”
Hawk doesn’t like to regard the well-known buyout proposal as his defining moment, but he notes it was a huge decision.
“It was a risk for me and I had, up to that point, lived through some very lean times as a skater and as a provider; as a father,” he says. “It was really hard to do that and try to focus on skating all the while. And then, when Activision offered me a lump sum of money – an amount that seemed absurd to me; more money than I ever imagined – it was hard to justify turning down.”
“But, as I’ve said before, I was in a position that I felt like I was living comfortably and that I had enough other income that I could let it ride. And so obviously that was the decision I made – and not just the finances but the success of the game completely changed my life.”
Watch Your Back Because the Next Man Is Coming
Marrying exquisite arcade extreme sports action with a soundtrack that launched a million mixtapes had proven to be a masterstroke, but could lightning strike twice? Could a follow-up to such a pioneering, punk-rocking success story ever hope to outclass its forebear?
Could it ever.
Enter Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2, a game that isn’t just regarded by many as the most monumental game in the series and one of the greatest sports games ever made – it’s one of the highest-rated video games of all time, wedged between the likes of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Grand Theft Auto III, and Halo as an eternal classic.
“I was excited for them to really unleash their potential.”
Hawk recalls only excitement, not pressure.
“It’s funny, I don’t think of it as pressure,” says Hawk on the development of the first supreme sequel. “I remember as soon as the first game was released, I remember them immediately calling me and saying, ‘We’re working on a sequel’ and to me, that just meant, like, ‘Oh, we had some success.’”“But I think that, for Neversoft, it was a chance to include all the things that they were unable to include because of timing and because of technology. And so I was excited for them to really unleash their potential of what they could program into it and there were all kinds of things that I wanted to add too that either weren’t possible or we didn’t have time to include them [in the original].”
“And so it was more just an exciting project. It wasn’t about the pressure of having to outdo what we’re going to do; we already knew it was going to be better because we already had the ideas and the time to develop them.”
Ride, Ride, How We Ride
Beginning with the echoing twang of East Bay Ray’s unmistakable descending intro to Police Truck, the trailer for Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 Remake was announced back in May, and the reaction was overwhelmingly positive.
[Activision CEO Bobby Kotick] casually threw out, ‘Why don’t we remake THPS?’ And I said, ‘You don’t understand how many people ask me that’
“We’ve been having talks over the years of the potential of it and finally, I literally sat down with Bobby Kotick, who is the CEO of Activision, and we were actually talking about other things in regards to my charity and he just casually threw out, ‘Why don’t we remake THPS?’” says Hawk. “And I said, ‘You don’t understand how many people ask me that.’ And he said, ‘Well, we’ve had success with a couple other remasters and why don’t we think about it?’ And fast forward, he puts Vicarious Visions on the task and off we went.”Hawk was just happy to be able to finally serve the dedicated fans who had been clamouring for a project along these lines for a long time.
“I was just so thankful because really it was more that it was an answer to the call of the hardcore fans,” he says. “And my only answer up to that point when people were asking me about doing a remaster was that, ‘I know it’s my name, but I don’t really own the rights to Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater and I can’t just suddenly fabricate a whole dev team behind me to make this happen. It really was about Activision that would have to pull the trigger, and they did.”
The original two games were remade in part with 2012’s Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD but, with only a cherry-picked selection of levels and songs (and no park creator or splitscreen), it was never going to truly scratch the itch. Hawk had hoped a more faithful rendition would be possible one day.
“It got more challenging after Neversoft disbanded because that was the team, they were the core; they’re the reason it is what it is or that it became what it was,” says Hawk. “But I had worked with Vicarious Visions before and I knew that they had such reverence for the game and to keep it the same, to keep it feeling the same.”
“And they actually did tap some previous Neversoft employees just to get their feedback on it and they did a great job. So it was the absolute perfect team besides Neversoft to be doing this.”
Are You Ready to Go?
The reaction to the trailer wasn’t the only thing that was overwhelmingly positive, either, with Hawk confirming the response from his skateboarding peers who were included alongside in the first two game was very enthusiastic.
“They were all so excited that we get to do it again,” he says. “I mean, a lot of them just couldn’t believe it. And they were telling me that… they were committing to the game through me without even hearing any of the financial details; they were just, like, ‘Yes, please, let’s do it.”
Despite the two-decade gap between the originals and the remake, Hawk is confident players will be able to get back on board rapidly.
“I think it’ll come back very quickly,” he says. “I have been playing extensively and saw just my combo scores go from 50,000 to upwards of a million over the course of a week. So, the learning curve is fast and the muscle memory will come back.”
I think it’ll come back very quickly. I have been playing extensively and saw just my combo scores go from 50,000 to upwards of a million over the course of a week
“I let Greyson Fletcher – who is a pro skater who grew up playing THPS; it’s what he said got him into skating in the first place – he came over the other night and within 10, 15 minutes was pulling million-point combos and he hasn’t played in 15 years.”
“I truly believe that the hardcore fans of our original series are going to be satisfied and probably overwhelmed by how good this is. And we might have had a few missteps doing games in the past and I think that this will really turn the tide. And they want it; I don’t sense a lot of hesitation with this especially when people have seen our trailer and seen some of the demos. And I’m having a blast playing it; I’ve been relearning all my skills, I’ve been burning through the levels and all the challenges and it does take you back to that time and it does take you back to that feeling and I hope that people embrace it.”
So what’s Hawk most keen to hear from players of the remake, come September 4?
“That it feels authentic and true to the original series in terms of playability and response, and that they want more,” says Hawk. “That’s what I want to hear. That if all goes well we can do some more remasters.”
Not everything is a 1:1 recreation, though. “I’ll let you in on one secret,” he lets on with a grin. “[THPS] 3 is when we introduced reverts, and I basically insisted that reverts be part of this program, this bundle. So, now you get to revert through levels that you didn’t in the past. I’ve gotten my absolute highest scores on the Downhill Jam level by using the revert function, so I think that people will enjoy that.”
It’s Just Another Saturday
While the first two games suck a lot of oxygen out of the room – they’re the focus of the upcoming remake for a reason – the long-running series boasts plenty of other fan-favourites, from the massive Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 (which marked the series’ debut on PS2 and Xbox) to the fondly-remember Underground games.
“The fact that we improved them every time that justified a new title,” says Hawk, ruminating on his memories of the series following the breakthrough first pair of games. “We weren’t just recycling everything; we were innovating with the gameplay, with the challenges, even with the approach of the storyline like when we started doing THUG and THUG 2 and American Wasteland.”
On the latter, Hawk thinks American Wasteland is a potentially underrated game in the series.
I think American Wasteland was really good and I don’t hear people talk about that as much
“I don’t really know what all the reviews are; I didn’t ever obsess on all that stuff,” says Hawk. “[But] I think American Wasteland was really good and I don’t hear people talk about that as much.”
“I just thought it was really fun and the storyline was great and I loved everything about that game.”
Turn That S–t Up
The Tony Hawk series immediately inspired a horde of other extreme athlete-endorsed rivals – several from within the halls of Activision itself. Hawk regards Kelly Slater’s Pro Surfer as a personal favourite.
“Kelly Slater was one of the most underrated games,” he reflects. “And I don’t know if it did that well financially for them, but people still talk about it; that it was probably the best representation of surfing that anyone had for that time period or for many years after. I was really stoked to be a special character in it.”
I firmly believe that the reason skateboarding is so widely popular now, and a big reason that it’s been accepted into the Olympics, is that our video game inspired a new generation of people to try skating
“I mean, I still hear that especially in the surfing world; if I ever go to an event or there’s a picture of me surfing, that’s immediately one of the first comments.”
More crucially, however, the Tony Hawk series inspired an entire generation of new skateboarders.
“I firmly believe that the reason skateboarding is so widely popular now, and a big reason that it’s been accepted into the Olympics, is that our video game inspired a new generation of people to try skating,” says Hawk. “And I hear that a lot. I hear a lot of people, successful professionals these days say, ‘Yeah, I started skating because of the game.’ And some even started mimicking the combos that they were doing in the game.”
“A perfect example is Shane O’Neill, who was a big fan of the game, and if you look at his skating now, it’s THPS; it’s insane.”
“I think that a lot of people identify their childhoods very closely with the game in terms of that time of their life and how much fun they had playing it with their friends. The influences that it had on them, whether it be through music or through the appreciation of skating – or even just the attitude of skating. And I sense that there’s a very special bond there and, honestly, over the last five years, I would say the majority of my social media replies and comments have been, ‘When are we getting this game again?’ Or just nostalgia about it.”
“I joke about it where I call THPS the low-hanging fruit of my social media because if I post anything that has to do with that, it explodes. And it’s almost like it’s too easy, which is awesome. That just shows how much people love it.”
Five Lovely Lessons Learned Today
After virtually countless interviews about the games, about himself, and about skateboarding, Hawk is confident there’s likely little that hasn’t been covered at length. One thing he wants to stress, however, is Neversoft’s earnest and unwavering commitment to the skateboarding universe.
I get the spotlight and I get to shake hands and kiss babies, but there’s a whole team of people developing these games
“I would say that the one thing that people don’t realise is how deep into skateboarding Neversoft dove,” says Hawk. “There were skate magazines everywhere; skate videos everywhere. They had a company field trip every week to Skate Street skate park. They had a kickflip challenge. I mean, a couple guys broke bones.”
“They fully devoted themselves to it and I thought it was really cool because it just showed that they were determined and they were passionate, and it wasn’t like I had to keep giving them lessons in what this is all about.”
“A lot of times people don’t really delve into the details of it or what it took, and especially from the development teams who I have to give much more credit to. Because I feel like a lot of people, because my name’s on it, I get the spotlight and I get to shake hands and kiss babies, but there’s a whole team of people developing these games that they’re just grinding through and we get to benefit from it.”
Every IGN Tony Hawk Game Review
Funnily enough, as excited as Hawk is to help answer the call of fans clamouring for a resurrection of the incredible THPS 1 and 2, he’s not especially nostalgic about that development era.
“Yeah, I’m not real nostalgic and when people ask what was the best time or era of skating, it’s now,” says Hawk. “There are more skate parks than ever, there’s more interest than ever, there’s more support for people who want to start. There’s more appreciation; I mean, it’s right here right now.”
“And so I loved living through all those different years and I loved living through the development time and the development cycle of the game, but it wasn’t necessarily simpler. It was a lot of work and we came through and I really am thankful that it brought us here.”
Strong as Any Man Alive
Perched atop a veritable skateboarding empire, Tony Hawk is a lot of things in 2020. A retired athlete (or, at least, as “retired” as you’d call a man still landing 720s at 50) and a businessman, a philanthropist and a father. However, Hawk’s time front-and-centre of his eponymous video game series has formed a massive part of his life over the past 20 years.
“Well, I mean, they were the biggest thing financially for me,” says Hawk. “It was the thing that I focused on probably the most consistently over the years and I think it is the reason that I’m here today.”
“To think that a skateboarding game would even be popular at all was absurd.”
“It’s the reason that people still know who I am or that I skate. I don’t take that for granted or undervalue that, for sure. My name, now, is synonymous with video games. And when people say Tony Hawk, you maybe don’t even know if they’re talking about me as a person or our video game franchise.”
So how baffling would teenage Tony find that, in the 2000s, he would turn into a video game icon? Hawk is adamant he’d have considered such a future preposterous.
“I would never believe it only because I lived in video games my whole life,” he says. “I played Missile Command, Pac-Man at the arcade; I had a ColecoVision.”
“When 720 was released, that was the most exciting thing in the skate world, I tried to buy a machine and I couldn’t afford it. That was the closest I got to a video game was with 720. And I guess ironically, way down the line when our series started hitting, I went and bought myself a  cabinet just to show that I’ve come full circle.”
“But I wouldn’t believe it when I was younger. Well, first of all, home video games didn’t seem like it was going to be the biggest thing, and to think that a skateboarding game would even be popular at all was absurd. So, it would all be too unbelievable to even accept.”
Never Touchin’ the Brake
At nine, Hawk famously found himself on a skateboard for the first time, rolling down an alley behind his San Diego home and shouting back to his older brother that he didn’t know how to turn. At 52, with an unrivalled skateboarding legacy and more than two decades of video games in his back pocket, he doesn’t know how to stop. After 20 years, and as the face of a billion-dollar franchise, does he have another 20 in him?
“If Activision wants to, I’m in, for sure,” replies Hawk without hesitation. “I follow their lead and I trust them implicitly.”
“I think that we finally found how to make what is THPS; like, the original engine feel in the new consoles and the new technology. And so yes, remastering is awesome but, if we want to continue further, we’re going to have to come up with a new whatever. New levels, new games, and stuff that no-one has seen before.”
“And the idea that we finally figured out how to make the game feel like it used to is promising. And so, I mean, I’m jumping way ahead – but that’s a possibility and I would love it.”
Luke is Games Editor at IGN’s Sydney office so he had to Zoom with The Birdman at 4am. You can find him on Twitter at more sensible times of day @MrLukeReilly.