Learning how to skate in Skater XL is like learning to play a musical instrument. One joystick is your front foot, and the other joystick is your back foot. You use the triggers to move left and right, and a face button to push off the ground. It’s a novel experience; according to developer Easy Day, there isn’t a single line of code in the game that makes the skater do a kickflip. So that means you have to do it yourself by bringing your back foot down, popping the tail, jumping, and flicking your front toes off the nose of the board with enough time to catch it under your feet and land smoothly on the concrete. I’ve been playing the game for a little over a month now, and I still can’t land a kickflip every time I try. And believe me, I’ve tried a lot.
For casual players and fans of the over-the-top Tony Hawk games, the aggressive commitment to realism in Skater XL will probably be a barrier for entry. At times, playing the game is as hard as doing the real thing. But I think that’s just the point. For skaters, or anyone who's ever tried to learn how to skateboard, Skater XL feels like the first truly authentic skateboard simulator. As in real life, you have to learn everything from the ground up, and it’ll punish you the moment you get something wrong. But skateboarding, after all, is about masochism, isn’t it? Skaters love a good bail. And you’ll eat shit constantly in this game.
A remaster of the first two Tony Hawk games will be released in early September, and invariably, the Pro Skater comeback will win the most sales and mainstream success of any skating game this year. But with over a hundred thousand members in a devoted pre-release modding community, where fans have created their own maps, sneakers, in-game clothing brands, and even a full-blown magazine, Skater XL has already proven itself to be a renowned skating game in its own right. The game, which released this week, won’t become as famous as Tony Hawk, but it’ll no doubt win the most respect from people who actually skateboard. And for a group where respect is measured by broken limbs and towering stair sets, that's no small feat.
I first caught wind of Skater XL on a Nintendo livestream back in April. I’d just picked up skating for the first time in over a decade, attempting to keep my brain and body active during the quarantine. XL looked like the perfect game to keep my reclaimed interest in skating alive, so I purchased it on Steam to try it out in Early Access. And, like the actual sport, the learning curve was rough. When you flick your front joystick too hard, your board goes flying; if you don’t pop the back joystick enough, you end up tumbling over your board. As I tore up my ankles trying to land a heelflip in real life, my poor avatar in XL was flying face-first into rails and park benches like a trendy little street-wear crash test dummy. But I eventually landed my first heelflip (it’s all about catching the top lip!) and began to understand the XL controls, too. I realized that the joy from XL, as it does in real skating, comes from the practice of developing a new motor skill, not the outcome. Though, nailing your first stair set in Skater XL is very fulfilling.
But there’s a lot more to skateboarding than footwork. Skating has a culture all to itself; indie music, anarchism, fish-eye lenses, and flat-bottomed sneakers collide to create a scene that’s as colorful and distinct as they come. It’s only natural that the world’s most authentic skateboard simulator would have a community of its own. What surprised me is the size of the Skater XL community and the level of devotion in it. After the Easy Day devs showed me spots in the game’s Downtown LA map, they started breaking down some of the XL custom maps—levels in the game that were built from scratch by enterprising modders, just for fun. And these maps aren’t dinky polygons cobbled together in the form of kicker ramps and quarter pipes. They’re gigantic, meticulously detailed environments, many of which are faithful recreations of famous skate spots around the world. Three of them, in fact, are so good that Easy Day decided to include them in the full release of the game: a grungy suburb spot called "Streets," an indoor skatepark called "Hudland," and "Grant Skate Park," a smooth, rolling set of ramps and rails on the outskirts of a foggy metropolis. (I like Grant the best.)
i need u to see this new ultra realistic skate game, skater xl. this took me 6000 tries and i am so proud of myself pic.twitter.com/3KV4uUitw6
— dom nero (@dominicknero) July 28, 2020
It's not just maps, though. I spent some time in the Skater XL Discord, a community messaging forum where users can share assets and links to their latest creations. There you can see modders piggybacking off each other’s creations, swapping Unity code, spit-balling new ideas, and naturally, fighting over bragging rights. "Not gonna lie," I saw a Discord member post along with a gameplay clip, "I’m proud of this rail." XL modders created an entire ecosystem here. Ideas begin in the "discussion" chat rooms, get hammered out through "creation" and "asset" conversations, then move on to the "test" and "feedback" phases. They’re creating new gear, textures, wheels, decks, and hats. You’ll see sneakers in the Discord that are based on real-life kicks, but there are also shoes, threads, and hardware from completely imaginary brands, like The Dead Ringer Collective and Crayon, all of which are unique to XL.
The modders also completely revamped how the game plays. I spoke with a community member who created a multiplayer option for the game, which has over ten thousand downloads and counting on mod.io. For this particular modder, the blank slate of the game offered an opportunity for some creative coding and ingenuity. "Honestly, the first video I watched about Skater XL, it looked really barren and I was super interested in modding the game," he told me. "I knew it was made in Unity, and since I used to make game cheats I knew it'd be easy to mod." There was no price tag or job opportunity lying ahead, just the idea that it might be fun to play XL with friends. And according to an Easy Day press release, adding multiplayer could be a possibility down the line.
Modders have changed the gravity of the game, the board physics, and even recorded and implemented their own sound effects. Of course, to use any of these mods, you’ll have to download the game on PC and spend a little time familiarizing yourself with folder structures and file placement. (I’ve been on Mac my whole life, and I was able to figure it out on PC within a half an hour.) Believe me, it’s worth it, too. I’m not surprised Easy Day decided to include some of the community maps in the official release of the game. Unlike in other skateboarding sims, these levels were built by players, not to serve any higher studio or publisher, but for the love of the game. It doesn’t get more grassroots than that.
Speaking of grassroots, there’s also a Skater XL magazine. Yeah, they have a completely homegrown publication dedicated to the world of “fakeskate” called The YZ Magazine, with six issues so far. Players can submit screenshots of their gameplay, advertisements for their fake brands, and The YZ even publishes interviews with prominent figures in the XL modding world. When I chatted with the editor on the Discord, he told me that he recently worked with Easy Day to put together a physical copy of the mag to coincide with the release of the game, "which is super sick." A real magazine about fake skateboarders in a real video game...reality is starting to get blurry.
At the end of the day, Skater XL is just a video game. That means you’ll never really get the thrill of being momentarily weightless above a stair set, not knowing if you’re going to land on the ground in one piece or double over right there on the handrail. At the same time, it also means you’re not going to get your ass kicked quite as much; playing XL won’t leave you with busted teeth and a bruise on your hip the size of a football (I should have never tried to drop in on that half pipe, believe me, it was a mistake). Tony Hawk is sure to please a lot of players this fall. If you want the more genuine experience, though, skate over to team XL.
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