Session Interview: How A Tiny Indie Studio Made The World’s Best Skateboarding Simulator

After a long stint in Early Access, Session is finally hitting 1.0 on September 22. This '90s-flavoured skateboarding game is a simulation in the truest sense, where everything you do—whether it's a flip, a grind, or a primo—is governed by a realistic physics system. While the likes of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater and EA's Skate series take artistic liberties with the sport (or artform, depending on who you ask) to make it accessible, Session takes a more authentic approach. Like real skating, the difficulty curve is steep and you will spend a lot of time falling on your ass as you get to grips with your board. But mastering the game's idiosyncrasies and finally landing the trick you wanted to is infinitely more rewarding as a result.

With the 1.0 launch fast approaching, I quizzed Crea-Ture Studios producer Jeffrey Spicer about the journey Session has been on, its design philosophy, and what we can expect when the game hits PC, PlayStation, and Xbox next week. Session built up a passionate, dedicated following (myself included) while it was in Early Access, and I kick the interview off by asking Spicer how this process has benefited the game. "There's definitely so much you can gain from Early Access, especially when you're trying something unique like we are," he says. "We were trying to change the whole paradigm of how you interact with a skateboarding game."

"It was definitely critical for certain parts of the production, but to be perfectly honest with you, in the back-end it almost becomes a conflict. You're trying to manage a game that you're making, blocking out noise and focusing on what's important. But you've also engaged a community that you're trying to appease as much as you can." Session's playerbase, especially the early adopters, is deeply invested in the game—and, naturally, has strong opinions about the direction it should take and features the developers at Crea-Ture should include. It listens to all of this feedback, but a small 9-person indie team can only do so much.

"In the early days of prototyping, when we were figuring out how people will play the game and the barriers to access, Early Access was really important and valuable," says Spicer. "But in the latter days, there's a lot you have to do to get a game finished that people outside of the industry don't necessarily understand. It's a very complicated process, and juggling these two things has been tricky. But overall the benefit to us has been huge. Our early adopters are really dedicated fans. They're either super into the idea of a skating game, or the discipline of skating itself. We got a lot of hardcore gamers on board, but a lot of hardcore skaters too."

Session's physics-driven gameplay makes for a brilliantly dynamic, realistic, and exciting skating game. There are no hidden assists or invisible hand-holding designed to create the illusion that you're a pro skater. When you grind, you don't snap to the rail like in other skating games. You need to come in at the right angle and momentum to lock your trucks and nail it. "This helped us manage scale," says Spicer. "In a lot of games, things have to be exaggerated to make everything feel slick and balanced. But our natural forces just work and we don't really have to question it. It's all about approach and attack, like real skateboarding."

"But replicating reality makes developing a video game really hard," he adds. "So while our physics add a lot to the experience, it was challenging for our programmer to manage everything. He isn't even a physics programmer by trade. But we knew it was important to properly represent skating and make the world believable." It's remarkable that something as polished, unique, and genre-redefining as Session is the product of such a small team. But it makes sense. This is a game with the scrappy, lo-fi, undeniably authentic feel of a self-filmed skate video, clearly made by people who live and breathe the artform, even on their days off.

"The game is an homage to the 1990s, when skating was a subculture," says Spicer. "I used to watch all my skate videos on a TV/VHS hybrid where I had a sticker saying 'Skateboarding Is Not A Crime', and I wore that famous Mark Gonzales 'Use A Skate Go To Prison' Alcatraz shirt too. Nothing was designed for skateboarders in those days. It was more about how you as a skater perceived the world around you. You'd look at a bench and it wouldn't just be somewhere you could sit: it's a place where you could do this or that trick. We wanted to replicate that in Session. Let's not present a perfect flow for players, but let them find it themselves."

Session's depth means that you can spend an hour on one set of steps dreaming up different lines and combos. You'll probably land them 10% of the time, but when you do it feels amazing. What if you want more structure, though? "Some people like to just get in there and play freeform, like a sandbox," says Spicer. "I'm like that. I get obsessed with one ledge. Other players want a journey. We also have this hyper-complex control system to teach, with the triggers and the sticks. But while we don't have a story or voice acting, we can take these complicated skating mechanics and extrapolate that through a series of objectives."

"We have a roster of 16 pro skaters. You'll meet with them and learn about their passion and interest in skating, then translate that into the tricks we have in the game. We have a full mission flow that takes you from a nobody to a pro skater, introduces you to every skater in the game, and teaches you which tricks go well with which parts of the environment. It's a 'teach a man to fish' type deal. It's a more freeform approach to learning a game, which you can choose to engage with or not. But it's worth doing, because there's a lot to learn. For example, Beagle, the famous filmer, will teach you the finer details of the replay editor."

Session features a ridiculous number of tweakable controls and variables. You can customise the experience to within and inch of its life, which has obvious benefits in the long term. But I wonder if Spicer is worried that fresh, inexperienced players will stumble into these menus and make life harder for themselves. "We expect it," he says. "We know that with any game where you give players full control over everything, there's a chance someone will choose to give themselves the worst experience. We do have all these levers to pull, but to make things clearer we've taken what is critical to the core experience and put that at the forefront."

"We have a few control presets—Assisted, Easy, Default, and Hardcore—and some are more welcoming than others. You can choose what kind of experience you want, get used to it, and then customise it from there. I'm personally a big fan of hippy jumps. It's stupid, but I love them. In our latest gameplay clip you see someone doing a kickflip hippy jump. That isn't a feature, but it's totally possible. In the game's settings you can change the separation of player and board and your pop height. We give players a lot of agency to play Session in unique ways. We've decided to embrace the game's complexity and let players manage it."

"Skateboarding is an interesting art," says Spicer. "I've been a skater for over 20 years and we all do it differently. Some people like to bomb hills, others find it too scary and would just rather do manuals. You can't just say: this is skateboarding. It's grinding and flip tricks. There are fringes, and some of them are coming back—like the kind of super technical freestyle skating done by people like Don Brown, Andy Anderson, and Rodney Mullen. We have Daewon Song in the game, and in the '90s people went wild for Mullen vs. Daewon. We'd sit there for hours watching their videos over and over, trying to figure out how they did this stuff."

"We acknowledge that freestyle skating is important, so we've put the option to perform primos and caspers in the game. It's there, but it's optional and not part of the core feature set. We want to provide these experiences, but not make things too complicated for beginners. It can almost detract from the gameplay if you're trying to flip and keep doing a primo. Caspers and primos fully work, but we've gated them. We still have some rules that need to be cleaned up." Even though Session has left Early Access, development is still very much ongoing—and all future updates to the core game, of which there will doubtless be many, will be completely free.

I end our chat by asking what Spicer, as a real-life skater, gets out of playing Session. "I live in Montreal and we get 4-5 months of snow. I don't have to throw on a helmet, get in the car, and drive to the park to skate. I have 2 kids, and I have to bust my ass to get out there, get sweaty, and look after them. I mean, I'll still do it. I'm doing it tonight. But if my knee is acting up, my kids stayed up too late, or there are no homies at the park, I can hop on Session. I'm nearly 40, been skating since the '90s, and I'm still holding on strong. But age and gravity are gonna kick in at some point for all of us, and this game will let us keep the spirit alive."

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