Interview: Todd Batty discusses the creative inspiration behind reviving SSX

There might come a single day in 2012 when I spend the afternoon checking out the 21 Jump Street redux starring Jonah Hill, make my way across town later that night to catch a reunited The Promise Ring for the first time in more than a decade, and perhaps close out the evening with the first version of Electronic Arts’ snowboarding title SSX to be released since 2005’s SSX Tour. Obviously, pop culture is lousy with remakes, but how to explain the hiatus taken by SSX? In the early 2000s, SSX was a best-seller and critical favorite on a near-yearly basis. Then it disappeared for a half-decade. Ask anyone who bought the recent Duke Nukem Forever how well brand loyalty and nostalgia endure a long absence.

I had the opportunity to speak with Todd Batty, creative director on the new SSX, about the inspiration his team was waiting for. The short answer is “NASA technology.” Photographic data of Earth has been integrated into the first SSX available for this generation of game consoles: even as you perform the most eye-popping tricks imaginable, the world’s physics and geography remain staggeringly realistic. Below, Batty describes SSX’s 2012 relaunch as being something of a collaborative result of Electronic Arts, YouTube, Skrillex, and of course, the Obama administration. 

What do you think made SSX more relevant in Electronic Arts’ eyes in 2012 as opposed to, say, 2008?

 There were a few things that got us going in the early days. SSX needs to compete as a triple-A title now, and we need to build a massive game with 10, 20, 30, 50 hours of content for people. It’s traditionally a time-consuming, expensive game to make, particularly building the levels that SSX is so legendary for. We got really fortunate in the early days where one of our technical directors discovered that NASA has photo data of the entire planet Earth that they released into the public domain. At the same time, we were building a proprietary tool called Mountain Man build the levels. We got to a point where we could type in the latitude and longitude of any point on Earth and Mountain Man would generate a 3D model of that mountain and the surrounding mountains in 28 seconds. So we got a tremendous leg up from that.

NASA leaked it?

It was totally intentional. When we were down at [the Electronic Entertainment Expo], we handed it to someone who works in the office for the Chief Technical Officer at the White House. And he told us that it was part of the Obama administration’s plan to look at all these things they kept private from NASA and release it for the good of Americans. They took this huge study in collaboration with the Japanese government and released it to the public. We asked if it was OK for us to use that data for a videogame, and they thought it was really cool.

What was the original intention of that space mission? 

I’m sure using satellites to map out the entire planet Earth was not intended to make a videogame. I’m sure it was for studying weather patterns, but they thought it was neat that it could be useful in pop culture.

What was the rapport like with the NASA team? 

They said “no problem.” When the guy came down to E3 and saw that we were using it, it ended up being a cool press story for them too. We became part of a White House press briefing that we were pretty stoked about. Being on a White House conference call never happened to me before, and probably will never happen again.

Are you a snowboarder yourself? 

I’ve snowboarded, but not well. We have a bunch on the team. My hours are mostly spent making this videogame. But it definitely makes me want to do it more, though I can’t imagine the silly things I’d try now. I fear what might happen to me.

What about the other guys on the team-do they take SSX moves out on the slopes with them?

The absolute coolest, most insane snowboarding trick someone can do in real life is a base-level trick on SSX. The things our characters can do completely defy reality. 

I can assume the physical consequences from failing these insane tricks aren’t realistic in SSX.

Absolutely. We allow people to completely push boundaries. The most insane trick we’ve done in the game is a 5400, which is 15 360s off a single jump, and he just landed and rode away like a superstar. 

Which do you feel is better for a videogame, a more realistic experience or the most exaggerated one possible?

We think the better experience happens when we let people defy reality. We look at our fan base and every time we put out more crazy tricks, 98 percent are like, “Hell yeah!” The other 2 percent say, “It’s so unrealistic, we want a sim.” I guess what we say is, if you want a realistic snowboarding experience, just hop on a snowboard. If you want to do over-the-top stuff, like jumping off a cliff in a wingsuit, doing a triple backflip on your snowboard, and landing, uh, that’s us.

Was there any proposed addition to the game that was just too crazy?

One of the craziest things we saw during early development was people going out in the backcountry with homemade charges. They planted them on the mountain, and one guy jumps down and starts skiing, rides a slalom, and it’s extremely dangerous … you can start an avalanche and kill yourself. We have an avalanche simulator in our game, and we considered allowing people to plant charges and toss grenades to set off avalanches intentionally for extra trick points. We had to cut the grenades, though. Everyone would just want to toss grenades at other riders. That’s not SSX. 

What can we expect as far as the soundtrack goes? That’s always been a major component of SSX.

We had some huge shoes to fill-the Qemists are a huge part of it. We had Amon Tobin do some custom songs for us too. But the coolest music feature is our remix capability-when you ride on rails, it scratches your music; when you catch air, it gets all quiet before it comes back in huge and loud. When you carve left and right, it stereo pans too. [You can] import custom music, and remix it on the fly, depending on how you ride. 

What do you remix?

Jay-Z, Kanye West. I’ve heard metal remixes, old-school disco, anything you can imagine.

I often associate snowboarding and SSX in particular with extreme electronic music; and these days, Skrillex and Swedish House Mafia are headlining rock festivals like Coachella. How is the current musical climate integrated within this version of SSX?

That style of music is the absolute perfect thing for our game, because it’s so fast-paced and twitchy-that style of music is a natural fit. We definitely loaded our soundtrack with that stuff, but we wanted to make sure we had our bases covered. 

Do hardcore SSX fans tend to be snowboarders themselves? SSX was the only game a woman’s ever asked me to buy for her, and she’s never been on a snowboard in her life. 

One of the great things is that it’s a game when you don’t need to understand anything about snowboarding to appreciate it. If you look at other simulation sports, like FIFA, it’s enjoyed by millions of people around the world. But if you don’t know the rules or teams of soccer, the leagues or stadiums, it’s a really difficult game. A lot of people learn things from our simulation titles, but there’s no prerequisite knowledge here. It is so far removed from simulation snowboarding, and that’s why it holds so much appeal for action, sports, even role-playing fans, when you consider all the character building. It’s a universally appealing game. And yeah, tons of female gamers love SSX as well.

Ian Cohen