At one end of a conference table in the West Loop headquarters of video game studio Robomodo, cofounder Josh Tsui, 45, turns on a very big, very thin television. The set warms up and shows the menu screen for Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater.
At 13 years old, the skateboarding game is nearly twice the age of the older of Tsui’s two daughters (with whom he sometimes shares his own board). Its graphics are chunky, and there are wide black bars on each side of the screen, because televisions in ’99 were more square than rectangular. “This was state-of-the-art, back in the day,” Tsui tells me over the race-car-sounding guitars of Speedealer, a band featured on the game’s soundtrack.
Controlling an avatar that only vaguely resembles skateboarding star Tony Hawk, Tsui obviously knows the grungy, deserted warehouse he navigates like the back of his hand. He botches Tony’s landing of a jump on purpose, picks up a remote control, and switches to a test version of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD, available in July for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.
Within seconds, we’re back in the same grungy, deserted warehouse and I’m looking at, no doubt about it, Tony Hawk in a hooded sweatshirt and loose pants. Tsui zooms Tony down the exact same ramps, catapults him into flips off the exact same quarter-pipes and slides Tony’s board along the exact same rusty stair railings.
It’s as if I’m wearing glasses now and I wasn’t before. The hood floats just slightly away from Tony’s back as he glides through the air, then settles gently back down as he lands—not perfectly, and I watch Tony take a second to find his balance. The sound of the board’s wheels on pitted concrete is incredibly realistic. “Watch before he spins,” Tsui says proudly. “He twists his torso a little bit.”
Tony falls again, this time not intentionally. There’s a tiny spurt of blood. “The game is so detailed now, we’re debating taking some of that out.” I ask if any of the game’s characters, based on real-life skaters, wear helmets. Some prefer not to, Tsui says, but “Tony is one of a few who insists that his character has a helmet on. He’s aware he’s a role model for kids.”
One of those kids is Tom Schaar. On March 26, the 12-year-old from Malibu became the first skater to successfully land a “1080,” three full rotations in the air. (1080 = 360 degrees X 3.) Hawk, who in 1999 became the first skater to land a 900, says Schaar “has a good perspective on his success and many great years to come. He’s very determined, yet appreciative of his opportunities.” One of those was performing at Hawk’s invitation at Stand Up for Skateparks, his annual fund-raiser, in 2010.
Hawk’s own role models were pro skaters Steve Caballero and Eddie Elguera, “but once I started learning new tricks,” he says, “I took my own path, because aerial tricks were relatively new.”
Hawk’s still got skills—he repeated his record-breaking 900 last year at age 43—but Tsui helps him invent virtual-world tricks no skater can do. (Yet.) Tsui calls Tony his new game’s best player and credits his detailed feedback for the game’s pitch-perfect realism. “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.’ ”
Read our complete interview with Tsui here. Download Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD later this summer for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.