Nathan Larsen on the creation of the Xbox’s premier snowboarding gem
PUBLISHER MICROSOFT GAME STUDIOS / DEVELOPER INDIE BUILT / FORMAT XBOX
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.”
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.”
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.