Like bored, listless teenagers in the middle of summer vacation, we’re standing around an empty parking lot, patiently, but only half there. We’re not a particularly diverse group: white, male, late teens to early 20s, baggy pants and hooded sweatshirts. If this were a real parking lot in a real city, we would probably be trespassing, or at least loitering. But the lot belongs to “Threadly Apparel,” a fictional clothing store in the virtual city of San Vanelona, and we’re loitering with some sense of purpose: We’re playing a game of “Spot Battle,” one of the six online multiplayer modes of EA’s skate. Between minutes of nonchalantly watching our peers’ attempts to grind, manual and kickflip their way to the high score, we’ll each have three opportunities to “own the spot” ourselves by pulling off the sickest, most off-the-hook sequence imaginable.
And yet, I get the distinct feeling that none of us really know why we’re waiting around in a parking lot in the suburbs when we could be skating anywhere else in the city, which stretches for virtual miles in every direction. The objective in skate‘s single-player campaign is to become the most famous skater in San Vanelona – not necessarily the best. You achieve this by plastering your image in every magazine and sponsorship video you can and watching the cash roll in; high scores and gold medals are optional. Of course, you can choose to battle it out directly with other local skaters in addition to your print and online marketing efforts, but these in-the-flesh public appearances almost feel tacked on and obsolete by comparison. Why bother physically competing when a photo-op will provide twice the exposure for half the effort?
Our unenthusiastic Spot Battle reeks of this kind of casual defeatism: It’s fun to pull off a difficult sequence in front of a captive audience, but there’s no pressure to succeed when a good spill is just as fun to watch. Winning just isn’t all that gratifying. But maybe this type of “competition” is more fitting of the sport’s punk heritage, with its contempt for rules and authority. Place first in one of the best trick competitions in the single-player campaign, and you’re actually mocked by the stoner-esque announcer who emcees most of the game’s events. “That’s what I’m talking about,” he says. “Skateboarding is all about winning.” Of course, EA and the consultants they hired to help produce skate know what skateboarding – at least, modern skateboarding – is all about: image.
At the start of the single-player game, you’re presented with the same dilemma that presumably affects every aspiring professional skater: How can I get paid to do this? While winning competitions may provide a fraction of your salary, you quickly learn that the real money and attention comes from sponsorships. Each time you’re introduced to a new pro, you’re treated to a 30 second clip of him skating around the area, interrupted every few seconds by gratuitous logos of the brands that have allowed him to put off getting a desk job for a few more precious years. Your role models firmly established, it’s up to you to attract the sponsors’ attention and acquire some logos yourself. You can earn sponsors for your board, wheels, trucks and shoes, which gives you access to free gear and allows you to earn up to an additional $300 each time you complete one of the game’s challenges.
In all, there are over 45 unique brands occupying prominent space in San Vanelona, from clothing to billboards to themed stores. It’s up to you to “create your perfect skater with products and sponsorships” from these brands, in EA’s own words. What I imagined as some kind of marketing alchemy actually becomes central to the gameplay – after all, you need something to buy with all that cash you’ve accumulated. I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit I probably spent as much time coordinating my outfit as I did learning how to pull off a Nollie Inward Heelflip. The sheer volume of products you can buy is mind boggling, especially when you consider that most (if not all) of the products featured are available for purchase with real money in actual stores. If, as the pundits have suggested, violent videogames allow troubled children to “rehearse” aggressive and dangerous behavior, skate is providing sorely needed training for our nation’s youth to navigate their local shopping malls.
It’s to EA’s credit that decisions about which board to ride and which shoes to wear are purely cosmetic: No combination of gear will allow you to ollie higher or spin faster. The only thing that increases your character’s performance is your own mastery of the controls, which are considerably more nuanced than any skateboarding game to date. This makes outfitting your character a more deliberate and personal process than simply picking the “best” items in each category. And depending on your outlook, it also makes most of the challenges unnecessary. If you’re satisfied with the generic board and basic logo T’s available to you at the start of the game, you could spend hours simply finding fun spots to skate without giving the “plot” a moment’s notice.
And yet none of my four Spot Battle competitors are wearing the default green cargo shorts and basic black sneakers. Maybe we all want to show expertise – some merchandise is only available after completing specific challenges – or maybe it’s simply the innate desire to make our mark on whatever is placed in front of us. What’s clear is everyone gets something out of showing off his apparel as much as his ability, even if it’s only seen by a few random strangers hundreds of miles away.
But, like the competitions in the single-player campaign, skate‘s online multiplayer takes a back seat to its video editing and screenshot capabilities, which allow players to create and upload footage from the game onto an EA-hosted site where visitors can watch and rate it. Currently, the most popular videos fall in the “blooper-reel” category, and for good reason: skate’s physics engine is realistic enough that a good crash will produce a visceral response from viewers, and actually pulling off a truly impressive trick can take hours of repeated failure. But some players are taking the simulation to the next level, forming teams to create virtual sponsorship videos for their real-life brand of choice.
In skate, EA has created a simulation that educates the player as much about the commerce of skating as it does the art. What’s most notable about the game is how seamlessly branding is integrated into the core gameplay, and how little the game suffers because of it. Of course, some attempts are more transparent than others: You manage your character’s saved photos and films through a T-Mobile Sidekick, and you can buy “exclusive” Adidas clothing at their posh downtown outlet without a Nike Town in sight – a piece of virtual real estate that Adidas must have paid dearly for. But ultimately, whether you’re picking a sponsor or a T-shirt, the brands are the main focus of skate. EA’s created a $60 advergame … and it might even be worth the price.