Josh Tsui | Interview

He spent his childhood wandering a boat-shaped arcade with a sack full of video-game tokens; now Josh Tsui is all grown up and creates some of the industry’s highest-profile titles. The Robomodo cofounder and River North dad talks with us about reso-looting the Tony Hawk franchise, how filmmaking and game design are converging, and more.

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  • Photo: Erica Gannett

    Josh Tsui at ROBOMODO

  • Photo: Erica Gannett

    Josh Tsui at ROBOMODO

  • Photo: Erica Gannett

    Josh Tsui at ROBOMODO

  • Photo: Erica Gannett

    Josh Tsui at ROBOMODO

  • Photo: Erica Gannett

    Josh Tsui at ROBOMODO

  • Photo: Erica Gannett

    Josh Tsui at ROBOMODO

  • Photo: Erica Gannett

    Josh Tsui at ROBOMODO

Photo: Erica Gannett

Josh Tsui at ROBOMODO


Late in 2007, Electronic Arts closed its studio in the Northwest Suburbs, prompting Josh Tsui, 45, and a team of his colleagues to open their own video-game design firm, Robomodo. When we paid a visit to Robomodo’s new West Loop nerve center on a sunny afternoon in early April, some boxes from its previous location in downtown Chicago still hadn’t been unpacked.

Move-in was going slowly due probably to a big deadline: Sitting at workstations nearly all of which had at least two monitors, Robomodo’s artists, engineers, game designers and testers were putting the finishing touches on Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD, available in July from Activision. The latest installment in a 13-year-old series of skateboarding games, THPS HD revisits classic levels from its earliest days and updates them, Tsui explains, to “take advantage of the extra horsepower from the [Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3] consoles, to make it feel like a whole new experience.”

While we didn’t get a chance to play an early build of the game, Tsui did offer a sneak peek. He also shared with us the painstaking attention to detail that skateboarding star Tony Hawk brings to the project and how THPS HD combines three of Tsui’s lifelong passions: ’boarding, gaming and filmmaking.

What’s the relationship between Robomodo and the game publishers you work with, such as Activision?
Basically, they pay for the game and we make the game. It’s a lot like a book author–publisher relationship: As the publisher, they obviously own the rights to the Tony Hawk games, do all the distribution and funding of them, and what happens is they’ll look for developers to make the games. They contacted us about working on Tony Hawk and we said, “Oh, [heck] yeah.” [Laughs]

How much creative license do you have?
Maybe surprisingly, quite a bit. We get asked that a lot. It varies according to the game. [Publishers] have certain ideas about what a game should be. They give us high-level information [such as] what the demographic is and anything that has to be included. Activision understands that it’s the developers who bring the game to life. If there are too many guidelines, it just dies right then and there.

In the case of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD, what was that high-level information?
Activision wanted another Tony Hawk game but wasn’t sure what direction they wanted to [take the series in]. Tony had always wanted to revisit the original games, like, “Hey, let’s take a break and go back to the originals that came out 13 years ago and HD them up.” A lot of longtime fans had been asking for this for quite a while, actually: People our age have great memories of games from 15 years ago. Now you can port games over [to new consoles] and play them on your HD TVs, but we didn’t want to just port over old graphics to a nicer TV. We wanted to take all of those memories people have of the classic games and do a full remake, with all new graphics, but keeping gameplay the same.

What emerged as essential to the originals through that process? What couldn’t you change and retain that connection to nostalgia?
The levels themselves. We knew right off the bat that those had to stay the same, in terms of the scale of them, what the props were, how it all was laid out, all of that. Not just for players’ memories but as a muscle-memory thing. Players remember, “In the warehouse, I would go down here and then I would pop up onto this.” At first it seemed like an enormous amount of work to reconstruct all that, but we were fortunate to find that the original developers of the original games were cool with sending us all of their assets. They were 13-year-old assets, so the texture mapping all looked really ancient, for example, but it gave us a head start.

Those assets are the raw architecture of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD?
Exactly. The foundation was there for us to build on top of and do a great job.

Have you done a remake before, a process similar to this one where you’ve updated an existing game for a new platform?
The best example of something similar to this that we’ve done is, a lot of guys on [the THPS HD] team worked on a game called Fight Night Round 3, that was done through EA [Electronic Arts] Chicago. It was a remake of Fight Night Round 2, more or less, but if you look at the graphical differences between the two, Fight Night Round 3, when we developed it for Xbox 360, we just went nuts with it. We put such incredible detail into graphics that we were able to take out the life bars, for example. We wanted the way the boxers moved to express how much life they had left. It was monumentally different than the previous game in that franchise, just a year before. So that was the approach that we used [for THPS HD].

How many people here are working on Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD?
It fluctuates depending on what stage of development we’re in but, at its peak, about 30 people. On average, probably closer to 20 or 25 people.

How does that number break down, in terms of specialties?
That’s variable as well. In general, it’s fairly evenly split, about one-third programmers and engineers, one-third artists and then a mix of technical artists and people working on the user interface. But it’s pretty evenly split overall between engineers and artists. Oh, and game designers! [Laughs] I forgot to mention the game designers.

Are those teams working simultaneously, usually, or do they tag-team?
We’ll definitely draw more from one side or the other depending on what stage of the process we’re in, but it blurs. A lot of our game designers have computer-science backgrounds and so they might jump in and do some of the coding themselves. In a small studio like this, everybody does multiple jobs and is all over the place.

How much has real-world skateboarding played a role in the process for this or any previous Tony Hawk games?
Very little because, ultimately, it’s a game. Skateboarding experience did play into the [development of] the first two games [on which THPS HD is based]. Quite a few people who were great skateboarders helped design those up. Quite a few guys here [at Robomodo] skateboard and that helps out more with the animation, making sure the tricks look authentic, that if we make up a trick that it complies with the rules of physics. [Laughs] And I always joke that Tony is our most expensive tester. He plays the game constantly and gives us a ton of feedback on it.

You send him preliminary builds?
Yep. People are shocked by how much he plays the game. Out of everybody at the studio, he might log the most hours. Seriously. And he’s probably also the best player. He was in Australia for a while and we held off on sending him the latest version until the day he got back [to the U.S.]. I swear that, within six hours, I had two phone calls from him asking about the game and offering critiques. I’m like, “Dude, shouldn’t you be relaxing?” [Laughs] Tony’s been such a huge part of the process. I don’t know if Tiger Woods and John Madden are sitting there playing their games and giving critiques.

What kinds of suggestions does he make?
Usually notes about the animation, the tricks looking right. He takes it down to, “See the way the guy’s foot is on the back of the board? That’s not how you would do that kind of move.” That’s how granular he can get.

It’s important to him that the game looks realistic.
Exactly, although we have come up with some crazy moves and we’ll ask him, “Okay: We know nobody’s ever done this trick, but can you envision someone doing this 20 years from now, and help us figure out what it would look like?”

Which makes him, in a sense, the “first person” to do those tricks.
Exactly. It’s so cool to be able to refer to such a giant base of knowledge about skateboarding. Here, because we’re remaking some of these games that helped catapult him to another level, he’s been extremely hands-on helping us with what the controls feel like, because he knows what the controls should feel like. Controls have evolved so much over the past 13 years, but for something like this to really work, you have to kind of go back to the basics and he knows those really, really well. The heaviest criticism from him on this project has been stuff like, “This control just doesn’t feel right, this button-press is off.”

Has he invented any of these hypothetical skateboarding tricks of the future?
We’re usually the ones who come up with the crazy tricks. He’s the one who helps us make them believable.… We have a great relationship with him and, as far as Chicago—I think some people are like, “Why are they making a skateboarding game in Chicago?” In all honesty, Tony—and you’ll hear him say this in other interviews—he made a point of saying to Activision, “I want Robomodo to do this,” which, for us, is just such a huge morale booster, to get called out like that. He comes here to Chicago, quite a bit.

Aside from, obviously, the quality of the work, to what would you chalk up his interest in continuing to build this series of games with Robomodo?
In all honesty, I think it’s the Midwest thing. We know what we’re doing and we’re confident about that. We’re not out there trying to B.S. anybody. Coming from skateboard culture, [Hawk] likes people with credibility. From the beginning, we weren’t afraid to tell him no about certain things. I think that helped build a trust. We were still fanboys of his, we still try as hard as we can, but sometimes you have to say, “Look, this isn’t working.” That’s hard to do, of course, but it’s important.

Shifting gears, what was your path to game design? Did you come to it as a player?
You know, it’s funny: not really. I started in the industry 19 years ago, but I studied film and video at Columbia College Chicago.

As a Chicago native?
At this point I am—I’ve been here for 24 years now. But I’m originally from Los Angeles, I came here to go to school. So that was in the early ’90s and a friend of mine got a job at Midway Games, which used to be here. My last year in film school I was studying video and computer graphics at the same time, and that was my entry to Midway Games, because that [combination] was exactly what they were doing with Mortal Kombat.

Making video games that were more cinematic?
Exactly—it was the very beginning of that. I call those “the Wild West days.” You’d have six people making an arcade game, getting it out there and moving on to the next one. Now, some game teams are 200 people. So I started at Midway Games, worked on Mortal Kombat, worked on some wrestling games and stuff like that, and then me and some of my partners quit to form our own studio, called Studio Gigante. We did a fighting game for Microsoft and a wrestling game for THQ. That was around a strange time for the industry because the Xbox was dying and the Xbox 360 hadn’t come out quite yet. So we basically closed down [Studio Gigante] and a bunch of us went to EA Chicago, which used to be in Hoffman Estates, worked on the Fight Night games, Def Jam: Icon and were in the middle of a Marvel game when EA closed EA Chicago and we decided to form Robomodo.

Were you a gamer before working at Midway?
Oh yeah. Growing up in California, there were three things that I did: skateboard, play video games and read comic books. I’m lucky that I turned that into a career. [Laughs] My older brother managed an arcade, this gigantic, Mark Twain boat* with three floors of arcade games and, when he used to babysit me, I would be there ten hours a day with a big sack of tokens. When I got the chance to work at Midway Games, I didn’t even care about going back to film and video—I was like, “Holy smokes!” My heroes growing up were all still at Midway, the guys who did Defender and Joust and those classic games. The chance to be in the same room with them was amazing.

Do you still skateboard?
Yeah! I live in the River North area and, whenever the weather’s good, I skate the maybe 20-minute ride down here [to Robomodo]. Skating on the streets of Chicago, now, that’s pretty treacherous. My wife isn’t overly thrilled when I do that.

Do you wear a helmet?
Uh…most of the time. I really should.

Do you have kids?
I do: two girls, a seven-year-old and a three-year-old. Among all the skateboards you’ll see around here I have a long board and I’ll put them in front of me and we’ll scoot around. [Laughs]

Ride tandem?
Yeah, exactly. So do you want to see some of the game, what we’ve got going on?

Sounds great.
Great. So, this presentation I’ll give to game press is to show them what the game used to look like 13 years ago.

[Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater (1999) boots up to its menu screen; Tsui raises his voice over a song by Speedealer on the soundtrack.] Okay, so this is original PlayStation. This was state-of-the-art, back in the day. The really ironic thing is that, when my partners and I left Midway Games, we didn’t really know what we were going to do beyond “start a game studio.” This is 1999, and I remember I went to a friend’s house and we were, like, “What are we gonna do? We just quit our jobs!” He had a PlayStation and put this game in and, honestly, I remember saying, “I would absolutely love to do a skateboarding game someday.” So being able to remake this game has been—it’s a total bucket list type of thing, a dream come true.

[Tsui switches the TV’s input and launches the latest build of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD.] Okay so, 13 years later, this is the exact same level, the exact same layout and everything but, as you can see, there’s quite a bit more detail. Everything’s in the same place, though. Not only are the graphics better but, you can see, the way the guy is animated, the way he reacts when he lands… Let me make him land a little bit crooked… See: There are those little corrections in the upper body. Watch before he spins: He twists his torso a little bit… [Tsui’s avatar falls down; he laughs.] And there’s a little bit of blood. Back in the old game, it was so low-res—

Just a couple of red pixels.
Yeah. This is so detailed that we’re debating taking some of that out.

Tony’s not wearing a helmet here. Was there a conversation about whether or not he wears one?
Yeah and, actually, Tony’s alternate costume to this one has a helmet. Some of the skaters that we use don’t want to have a helmet on their characters, but Tony’s one of a few who insists that a version of his character has a helmet on. He’s aware he’s a role model for kids.

What element was the most challenging to “HD up” from the original game?
Making the environments convincing, I’d say. Every time the technology improves, the cost of developing games goes up because you have more opportunities to add more detail. The level of artist that we hire has to be greater and those artists are expensive. [Laughs]

To what you were saying earlier, game design and filmmaking techniques are converging.
Right. A lot of the artists and even some of the engineers that we’re bringing in now have backgrounds in film. It’s great because they understand how to approach something like a close-up of Tony’s face, for example. We actually have highly detailed scans of all of the skaters, down to their pores, that level of detail. Now, we don’t use all of it, but that detail is available to us. Traditional game artists won’t necessarily have that experience, but if I get someone from ILM [Industrial Light & Magic, founded by George Lucas] or Digital Domain [founded by James Cameron], they understand how to work with that kind of data.

And in the future, if someone wants to do to this game what you’re doing to its sources…
Most definitely. Most of the surfaces are a lot higher-res [as raw assets] than what we’re putting into this game. Should another console come out, or some super-duper tablet that supports more detail, we’re kind of futureproof.

Or it buys you some time, at least.
Some
time. [Laughs]

What type of game would you like to develop that you haven’t yet had a chance to? What’s still on the bucket list?
It’s not so much a type of game as it is a technique that goes back to my film and video background. We’re at a point where some of the old-school [game-design] techniques can get dredged back up [and reused at] higher quality. This might be a horrible example, but do you remember Dragon’s Lair [Cinematronics, 1983]? That level of animation and clarity, but fully interactive: I think that would be a great experiment. There are some prototypes out there with incredible photorealism but we’re not quite there yet, I don’t think. We need just a little bit more of a push.

What was your first console?
All of my friends had [Atari] 2600s, so I never had one myself. I would just go over and play games at their houses. The first console that I bought with my own money was actually a ColecoVision [1982]. And I bought it because it had the best port of Donkey Kong that I’d ever seen. The 2600 had Donkey Kong and Intellivision had Donkey Kong but ColecoVision’s—as an arcade freak, when I saw how faithful their version was, I was, like, “Okay: That’s the system I’m getting.” It drove me crazy how horrendously bad the 2600 version of Pac-Man was, because I played that and everything else at the arcade. I skipped the Nintendo [Entertainment System, 1985], the Super Nintendo, all of those, until the first PlayStation [Sony, 1995]. That was the first console that felt like it could be as good if not better than what you could play at an arcade. [Laughs] Which is exactly what happened: As soon as PlayStation came out, the arcade industry started dying.

And that was the console that launched this series, with the first Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater.
Exactly! Full circle.

*Do you remember the name of the boat-shaped arcade that your older brother managed in California?
I do. It was called Showboat Golf and Games, in Puente Hills. My brother managed it and my other brother also worked there. I actually made a giant piece of artwork and they hung it up. I was so proud. But [Showboat] is gone now, they demolished it! And I can’t find any pictures. There’s no archives of that place and it was such an incredible arcade!

Can you describe the artwork you made?
There’s a dyeing technique for fabric that I had learned, called batik. I was in junior high, probably. I did a giant batik of the [Showboat] logo and showed it to my brother and he freaked out. The arcade bought this incredible gold frame for it and hung it up. I was just a kid and, man, that was such a stellar moment. When they knocked [the Showboat] down, I was like, “What’d they do with my artwork?!”

Have you checked eBay?
No, I haven’t, but I should! It’s probably out there somewhere.

Both of your brothers were older?
Yeah, I’m the youngest, the baby of the family. Like I said earlier, when my parents had them babysit me, that meant leaving me alone in an arcade for, like, ten hours on end.

Play Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD this summer on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.


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