Surfing The Xbox

Surfing has caused hardly a ripple in the twenty-billion-dollar global video-game market, despite the wide attention and solid sales figures posted by other action-sports titles. It’s estimated that fewer than 75,000 surf-related video games have sold through at retail — compared to 5.2-million units for snowboard games like Cool Boarders 3.

But soon, three corporate titans — Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo — will spend billions waging a war for the hearts and minds of gamers everywhere, and surfing may be called up to play an important role in this epic corporate battle.

Hawk Points The Way

Any discussion of action-sports video games begins and ends with the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater (THPS) franchise. THPS wasn’t the first video game to accurately portray action-sports athletes (that honor goes to X-Games Pro Boarder, launched in November ’98), but its record-breaking success has pushed skateboarding into the mainstream and landed Hawk on the cover of TV Guide.

Of the seven-million skateboarding video games sold since Street Sk8er hit retail shelves back in February 1999, an astounding 6.1-million have been THPS titles. Along the way, the game has earned Hawk millions in royalty payments, solidified the importance of action sports to the video-game market, and introduced millions of gamers to skateboarding.

“It’s gotten people interested in skating who have never been exposed to it,” says Hawk. “I can only assume that skateboard sales in general increased in the process.”

According to TransWorld SKATEboarding Business Editor Miki Vuckovich, “The popularity of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater has not only acquainted many non-skaters with the intricacies and specific maneuvers of skateboarding, but I think it’s turned a lot of people on to the sport who may not have otherwise tried it. And even if they don’t take up the sport, at least they understand it a bit more.”

TransWorld SKATEboarding magazine Publisher Fran Richards sees it this way: “If you do the math, more people have seen THPS and its characters than most movie releases from Hollywood. It’s definitely helped the sport and the athletes.”

It’s also lead to some surreal moments: “I got an e-mail asking if I was a real person or just a video-game character,” recalls Hawk.

Thanks, in part, to the success of THPS there’s been a rash of action-sports related games in the past few years. “The video-game industry is a bunch of followers,” says Lisa Hudson, co-founder of Black Sun Production, a video game production company specializing in action-sports titles. “Nobody wants to go out on a limb and do anything unproven, so once you have one hit, everybody jumps on the bandwagon.”

But despite the success of THPS and despite the spate of new action-sport video games, surfing hasn’t capitalized on its widespread appeal in the video-game market. Why? The answer mostly boils down to technology.

“Surfing definitely has the same potential for success as THPS if it’s done right,” says Black Sun Productions Co-founder Jack Rebbetoy, “but it hasn’t been until the Microsoft Xbox that there has been hardware powerful enough to render a naturally fluid three-dimensional wave. In surfing games, the wave is not a static landscape, and each has its own unique characteristics.”

Microsoft: Ready to flex its Xbox muscles?

Video games have become an integral part of the youth-media landscape — right up there with music, television, and movies. They are also on the vanguard of a whole new wave of computing, dominated by cell phones that gather your e-mails and PDAs you can use like wireless bank cards. Microsoft, a company that built its 300-billion-dollar juggernaut on the humble operating system for desktop computers, seems most at risk within this new wireless epoch.

That’s why so much is riding on the Microsoft Xbox gaming console and why the company is expected to spend ten-billion dollars over five years just manufacturing the box itself, and a half-billion dollars in advertising and marketing in first eighteen months after launch.

Targeted at video-game savvy kids fifteen- to 26-years-old, the Xbox comes with a ton of raw processing power to render believable three-dimensional landscapes, a hard disk drive to store games, four ports (instead of two) for added players, compatibility with new digital high-definition televisions, and high-speed Internet connections that will support rich online gaming.

In other words, it will be a 299-dollar gaming platform that will compare favorably to a desktop computer costing thousands. With it, Microsoft not only hopes to establish a foothold in the gaming market, but revamp its entire image toward becoming a complete entertainment company. The hype alone is staggering: “Xbox is going to change video games the way MTV changed music,” claims Robbie Bach, Microsoft’s chief Xbox officer.

What’s even more staggering is that according to Merrill Lynch estimates, Microsoft will lose about 125 dollars on the sale of each Xbox — or nearly 6,250,000,000 dollars if the company hits its goal of selling 50-million consoles in the next five years.

The company will recoup that money only if it captures the lion’s share of the 70-million households expected to own video-game machines by 2005. Developers pay a liscening fee of around seven dollars for each game disc sold, so Microsoft wants the Xbox to get big enough, fast enough that it becomes the platform of choice for game designers.

The stakes are high and the competition will be fierce. In addition to the Xbox, Nintendo will also launch its new GameCube platform in time for the holiday season. Sony, who has been on the market for a year now with its PlayStation 2, has an effective lead over both Microsoft and Nintendo of seven-million consoles. It’s shaping up to be a battle royale.

Getting the installed base to critical mass is relatively straightforward — given each company’s nearly unlimited funds. But in order to get developers behind the platform, you have to offer them a system that’s easy to program and with clear technical advantages over the competition.

That’s where surfing, unexpectedly, comes in.

Most surf video games up to this point were basically static halfpipes with water textures pasted on. The consoles simply lacked the processing power for real-time “bump mapping,” which realistically draws the reflective patterns of water and makes it look alive. With the Xbox processor, however, surfing finally has a gaming console with enough power to do the sport justice.

Black Sun Productions, Angel Studios, and Infogrames are in the process of developing TransWorld SURF, the first of three branded actions-sports video games designed for the Xbox. “Microsoft came in and saw the TransWorld SURF game and they flipped through the roof,” recalls Hudson. “They were like, ‘Oh my god!’ Basically Angel Studios and the TransWorld SURF game have become a showcase for what their Xbox technology can do.”

To be sure, the TransWorld SURF video game won’t make or break the launch of the Xbox, but the fact that a surf game has captured Microsoft’s attention and is scheduled to be one of the Xbox launch titles should bode well for the entire surf industry. At the recent E3 trade show in Los Angeles, the game was named runner-up for “best in show” in the sports category, just behind NCAA Football — another Xbox title.

“With the launch of the TransWorld SURF video game, I think surfing could see the type of video-game exposure similar to what you see in skateboarding right now,” says Hudson. “Generally, it’s hard to give surfing the exposure it deserves. Skateboarding has the X-Games, the Gravity Games, and all the televised competitions. Surf events are difficult to televise and make exciting. I think the TransWorld SURF game will finally take the message and lifestyle of surfing and giv
e it to the masses in a way they can enjoy and understand. Obviously, you’re not going to see a bunch of people running out and buying boards, but I do think they’ll start looking at the trunks, T-shirts, and the surfing logos as something that’s more accessible to them.

“Everybody pretty much knows what surfing is,” continues Hudson, “but not many people can do it. So the idea is you make a game that appeals to the ‘core; that’s legitimate, authentic, and takes all the coolest things that a surfer would know is true then adds incredible game play. It’s never been done right, but we think we finally have all the pieces together to surfing the game it deserves.”

Note: TransWorld Media is the parent company of TransWorld SURF Business and owns the copyright to the TransWorld SURF name.