Nathan Larsen on the cre­ation of the Xbox’s pre­mier snow­board­ing gem

PUB­LISHER MI­CROSOFT GAME STU­DIOS / DE­VEL­OPER IN­DIE BUILT / FOR­MAT XBOX

XBox: The Official Magazine - - EXTRA - DARRAN JONES

Some games are made due to the sheer pas­sion the team has for a cer­tain sub­ject mat­ter. Other times a game comes about be­cause it’s deemed im­pos­si­ble or un­wor­thy to make, or be­cause the de­vel­op­ers want to cre­ate an au­then­tic ex­pe­ri­ence, or they want to har­ness the power of the lat­est games con­sole. For Nathan Larsen, cre­at­ing Amped: Freestyle Snow­board­ing was a cul­mi­na­tion of all of those things. “The orig­i­nal con­cept for Amped came from a bunch of jum­bled up ideas, events, ex­pe­ri­ences, tim­ing, be­liefs and ne­ces­si­ties,” he tells us. “There was also one highly mo­ti­vat­ing fac­tor. They (the con­ser­va­tive stu­dio man­age­ment) said we couldn’t do it. They not only said we couldn’t do it, they ac­tu­ally for­bade us from work­ing on a pro­posal. Telling us ‘no’ was all the mo­ti­va­tion that we needed to get Amped off the ground.”

Larsen has a pas­sion for ex­treme sports, particular­ly snow­board­ing, re­veal­ing, “I have al­ways liked the cul­ture, style, in­flu­ence and mu­sic of these sports.” The team at In­die Built (which was orig­i­nally started in the ‘80s as Access Soft­ware) was no stranger to re­al­is­tic sports games, hav­ing cre­ated the ex­cel­lent Links se­ries. “The suc­cess of Links was mainly at­trib­uted to its au­then­tic­ity,” con­tin­ues Larsen. “Real golfers built Links, and that was ev­i­dent to real golfers and golf fa­nat­ics. We all wanted Amped to be au­then­tic. We were less than 30 min­utes from some of the best pow­der and best snow­board­ing ter­rain in the world,” Larsen re­mem­bers. “To me, a snow­board­ing game seemed like a no-brainer. Our dev stu­dio was the per­fect fit.”

Of course, it’s im­por­tant to re­mem­ber that snow­board­ing games weren’t new at this point. They had ex­isted on con­soles as far back as Heavy Shred­din’ on the NES and con­tin­ued to be pop­u­lar thanks to ti­tles like Cool Board­ers, 1080º Snow­board­ing, Snow­board Kids and the PlaySta­tion 2’s SSX. De­spite their pop­u­lar­ity, Larsen was con­fi­dent that In­die Built could cre­ate some­thing truly spe­cial – namely by fo­cus­ing on au­then­tic­ity. “I wanted real-world moun­tain lo­ca­tions, au­then­tic snow­board brands and equip­ment, re­al­is­tic tricks, real pho­tog­ra­phers, real spon­sors and real pro snow­board­ers,” he en­thuses, his pas­sion for snow­board­ing clearly shin­ing through here. “That is the kind of game that me and my snow­board­ing friends dreamt about play­ing. None of us ever thought that snow­board­ing was about rac­ing down ridicu­lous slopes dressed as out­ra­geous car­toon char­ac­ters while do­ing ridicu­lously im­pos­si­ble made-up tricks. We all thought SSX was an in­sult to the sport and cul­ture of snow­board­ing. SSX looked to me like it was made by a bunch of out-of-touch, over­weight, mid­dle-aged ex­ec­u­tives that were try­ing to re­late to the ‘crazy kids’. They didn’t un­der­stand snow­board­ing or why peo­ple loved it. They were im­posters who did not have au­then­tic­ity. In my opin­ion, SSX was so far off from real snow­board­ing that we didn’t ever con­sider SSX as com­pe­ti­tion. I know SSX was a very successful game, but com­par­ing Amped to SSX (which many game crit­ics of­ten did) is like com­par­ing Mario Kart to Forza. They are just fun­da­men­tally very dif­fer­ent games.”

Tak­ing a risk

Amped had no prob­lem stand­ing out in the Xbox’s line-up. Although it wasn’t the only ex­treme sports game at the sys­tem’s launch – Transworld Surf, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 and Dave Mirra Freestyle BMX 2 were also avail­able – it stood out thanks to its im­pres­sive graph­ics, strong me­chan­ics and eclec­tic sound­track.

In fact, it proved so pop­u­lar that two fur­ther games ap­peared; one for the Xbox in 2003 and a third for the Xbox 360 in 2005. It al­most wasn’t to be, though. “The whole de­vel­op­ment process from con­cep­tion to com­ple­tion was a scary, huge learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for me,” ad­mits Larsen. “I mean I lit­er­ally had to put my ca­reer on the line to help get Amped ap­proved for de­vel­op­ment. My ac­tual role on Amped was stu­dio art di­rec­tor, but the of­fi­cial Amped cred­its lists me as ‘orig­i­nal con­cept’. I don’t think it was an ac­cu­rate de­scrip­tion, be­cause there were lots of peo­ple who con­tributed to the orig­i­nal con­cept, but I guess I earned that hon­orary ti­tle be­cause I was the dumb-ass who directly dis­obeyed my stu­dio man­ager who told me in these ex­act words: ‘Nate, I for­bid you to show this con­cept to­day.’ Need­less to say, I gam­bled my ca­reer on Amped, and dur­ing the lunch break of our big Xbox meet­ing, while my man­ager was out of the room I slid an Amped pro­posal across the ta­ble to the VP of Xbox Games, Ed Fries, and pitched the con­cept of Amped to him while the other man­agers were at lunch, and he loved it! That is how Amped of­fi­cially be­came an Xbox launch ti­tle. It’s hard to imag­ine, but if the ul­tra con­ser­va­tive stu­dio man­agers had their way, Amped would have never seen the light of day.”

Amped did hap­pen, though, and Larsen soon found him­self work­ing with a pas­sion­ate team over a de­vel­op­ment pe­riod of roughly 18 months. Larsen re­calls that around 50 peo­ple worked on the game, with the num­ber ris­ing to closer to 100 a cou­ple of months ahead of the Xbox’s launch date. Dur­ing that hec­tic pe­riod lots of re­search was done to en­sure Amped looked and felt as ac­cu­rate as pos­si­ble. “One of the im­por­tant lessons we learned was how crit­i­cal it is to ob­tain on-site ref­er­ence video and pho­tos to re­pro­duce real-world lo­ca­tions. Amped was no dif­fer­ent than Links in that re­gard,” Larsen tells us. “We formed an ac­qui­si­tion team of four to six peo­ple who had the ‘ter­ri­ble’ job of rid­ing on ev­ery sin­gle moun­tain, film­ing and pho­tograph­ing ev­ery sin­gle run be­fore it made its way into the game. We wanted the re­sorts and moun­tains in the game to be au­then­tic, and cap­ture the feel­ing of be­ing there in real life. This was one of the best things about work­ing on Amped. The ‘re­search’ trips were so much fun. I am sure that al­most ev­ery­one on the team knew that we were hav­ing the time of our lives, get­ting paid to live like snow­board­ing rock stars. It was awe­some! Mi­crosoft, and ‘Un­cle Bill’ (Gates) spared no ex­pense launch­ing the Xbox. They sent us off with credit cards with­out spend­ing lim­its, and access to the best snow­board­ing lo­ca­tions in the world. The ‘re­search’ trips were def­i­nitely some of the most fun, big­gest ad­ven­tures of a life­time.”

Power trip

Those trips might have been fun, but Larsen and his team still had to turn those ex­cur­sions into a game, and that was far from easy, even with the pro­cess­ing power of the Xbox. “One of the big­gest chal­lenges we faced dur­ing the de­vel­op­ment of Amped was try­ing to de­velop a game for hard­ware that didn’t ex­ist, with prom­ises of ca­pa­bil­i­ties that seemed im­pos­si­ble up to that time,” ad­mits Larsen. “The art team and pro­gram­mers, in some cases, couldn’t even process the ge­om­e­try of the moun­tains and trees us­ing the most hard­core, cus­tom-built PCs, let alone imag­ine that a con­sole was go­ing to be able to de­liver that kind of per­for­mance. But in the end,

“The ‘re­search’ trips were so much fun. I am sure that al­most ev­ery­one on the team knew that we were hav­ing the time of our lives”

the Mi­crosoft hard­ware team de­liv­ered in a big way, and the rest is his­tory.”

It’s easy to for­get just what a pow­er­ful ma­chine Mi­crosoft’s con­sole was at launch, and it’s no sur­prise that there was con­cern from the devs when they were told the specs that Mi­crosoft’s first games con­sole would possess. “The Xbox truly was a cut­ting-edge gam­ing ma­chine,” re­calls Larsen. “It was more pow­er­ful than the most tricked-out gam­ing PCs that were avail­able at the time. The orig­i­nal specs for poly­gon counts and the enor­mous size of the moun­tains posed a con­sid­er­able prob­lem for the level design team. The Xbox specs for the lev­els re­quired more video pro­cess­ing power than was avail­able at that time. We ended up us­ing Mac G5 Power PCs with pro­to­type video cards, along­side the most tricked-out, loaded PCs that you could buy. Even then our dev team still had to write a bunch of spe­cial tools that would sort of sim­u­late the video pro­cess­ing power that would be pos­si­ble with the fi­nal Xbox hard­ware. It was cool tech­nol­ogy for its time, but it sure made the level design dif­fi­cult.”

One thing that did ease the dif­fi­culty of Amped’s cre­ation was the Xbox’s hard drive, which ended up be­ing used for a va­ri­ety of pur­poses by Larsen’s team. “Yes, we used the hard drive for mu­sic stor­age, and we also used it for caching the trees from the lev­els, as well as the physics, and ge­om­e­try from the moun­tains,” he re­veals. “One of our di­rec­tives for the launch of the Xbox as a Mi­crosoft Game Stu­dio was to find cre­ative ways to use the hard drive.”

Nailed it!

Ul­ti­mately, one of the rea­sons Amped was so pop­u­lar at the time was how ac­cu­rate it felt. The slopes con­sisted of all dif­fer­ent types of pow­dered snow, which could af­fect the move­ment of your rider. Their equip­ment also had an im­pact on the game’s physics, while the abil­ity to choose dif­fer­ent parts of the moun­tain, com­plete a va­ri­ety of tasks and face off against pro­fes­sional snow­board­ers meant there was al­ways a rea­son to re­turn. Pre­sen­ta­tion also played a huge part of the game’s ap­peal, thanks to a scrap­book that would slowly get filled up with in­creas­ingly bizarre pic­tures as your snow­boarder climbed to the top of the leader­boards. “We were go­ing for re­al­ism, and the style matched the cul­ture,” con­tin­ues Larsen. “I think that Amped grew into its own unique style as the se­ries pro­gressed and was ac­cepted by the snow­board­ing in­dus­try as au­then­tic.”

Amped ended up be­ing more than a sum of its parts, scor­ing well in re­views and sell­ing well enough to lead to two se­quels (as well as a planned fourth ti­tle called Amped World). It re­mains one of Larsen’s proud­est achieve­ments and high­lights just how good a game can be when the team un­der­stands what it’s cre­at­ing. “One of the hard­est things to de­liver in a snow­board­ing game is the amaz­ing feel­ing of fly­ing down a moun­tain, whether carv­ing on fast groomers or float­ing and slash­ing deep pow­der turns,” con­cludes Larsen. “The tricks were easy, the cul­ture was a nat­u­ral fit, but suck­ing gamers in by the balance be­tween jacket-flap­ping-out-of-con­trol speed, and re­spon­sive con­trol on our huge moun­tains was dif­fi­cult.” De­spite all that dif­fi­culty, the re­sult was one of the best snow­board­ing games to grace the Xbox. n

ABOVE Larsen’s team was made up of a bunch of snow­board­ing en­thu­si­asts.

ABOVE Real-life pro­fes­sional snow­board­ers can be found on each moun­tain. Beat them to learn new tricks.

TOP Mul­ti­player doesn’t al­low for split-screen play, but the se­quel fixed that prob­lem. ABOVE MID­DLE One of Amped’s chal­lenges re­quires you to pull off spec­tac­u­lar tricks for nearby pho­tog­ra­phers.

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