There are sports that feel naturally suited to a game controller. Snooker and pool come to mind, as the precision of the analogue stick allows you to trickshot your way to success. But at the other end of the spectrum are the games that feel pretty far removed from the controls that a gamepad offers.
Surfing is definitely one of them. Unless you have someone next to you, spraying you with salt water, you’re going to be missing its sensations. The dopamine hit of riding a wave is going to be diminished too. It makes us wonder why on earth anyone would try to bring the experience to Xbox.
Well, lucky for us, we got some time from Andrew West, creator of the upcoming Barton Lynch Pro Surfing to ask precisely those questions. He’s dedicated his life to cramming surfing into game consoles, so we couldn’t be asking a better person.
Hi, could you please introduce yourself and your role on Barton Lynch Pro Surfing?
My name is Andrew West, and my role on BL Pro Surfing is producer & game designer.
Could you give us a short summary of the game?
Barton Lynch Pro Surfing is an in-depth leader-board sports game, meets free surf exploration at 12 large real world locations. The game focuses on the actual sport of surfing and features a unique momentum based control, along with some pretty cool weather and customization tools. BL Pro Surfing is somewhere between a simulation and an arcade experience; so it is definitely pick up and play, but hard to master. It’s not as hard as a core simulator like a MS flight simulator or Session, but then it’s probably not as easy as a game like Kelly Slater Pro Surfing either – it’s somewhere in between.
It feels like an absolute age since we got our hands on a top surfing sim. We’d probably have to go all the way back to Kelly Slater’s Pro Surfing in 2002. Was that a motivation for Barton Lynch Pro Surfing? To fill that gap and give surfing the game it deserves?
Yes, absolutely. We wanted to build a game that is specifically for an underserved niche audience – primarily us as surfers. We’re aiming to try and make it as authentic as we possibly can, but at the same time, we still need it to be a fun game.
Was there ever a point where you were deciding between making a sports simulation game like this, or a more arcade interpretation of the sport?
That’s a good question because this has really been 20+ years in the making. We started out building a surfing simulation when we began as a studio back in 1998. Then when we started working with our first publisher, it was decided that a simulation wasn’t the path they wanted to take so our code ended up morphing into this unrecognizable arcade version of our original game. It was quite a disaster.
Fast forward to 2017, we released a small arcade surfing game on PS3 called The Surfer – there were only three of us on that project and it was quite possibly one of the last games released on the PS3. Then in 2019 we started BL Pro Surfing, which is for all intents and purposes, a much bigger version of the same simulation game we started building back in the late 90’s / early 2000’s. So, we’ve come full circle.
How did you decide what aspects of surfing made it into the game or not? There’s a lot of downtime in surfing, which you probably didn’t want to include, but you also want it to feel as real as possible. Where do you draw the line?
We’ve gone about it in the way we should have 20 years ago and so instead of drawing a line as you say, we did the opposite and included as much as we could that makes sense. Our core audience is the surfer, and surfing has a lot more to it mechanically than its younger cousins in skateboarding & snowboarding.
For example, in a skateboarding game a layperson can simply pick up a control and move forward. Those two genres lend themselves to the video game experience more naturally than surfing does. Surfing is trickier in that you’ve got to paddle to get to the wave first, & then you’ve got to understand how and which way the wave is breaking… plus, if you’re new to the sport, that person has then got to position themselves to catch the wave and move forward.
In the past we’ve been “encouraged” to remove parts of the surfing experience just to make the game easier in order to speed up the game loop and lower the learning curve. Instead, we’ve created an in-depth gameplay mechanic out of the whole experience – paddling, duck-diving and surfing – the lot, all linked and built into the game’s meta and core game mechanics. So for non-surfers or casual gamers, if there is a general taste for games that offer more of an authentic challenge, then hopefully people will come along for the ride. Snowboarders and skateboarders might get it, but at the same time we can’t be all things to all people.
What is the aspect of surfing that is the hardest to capture in a video game?
Okay that’s a good question. I’m not sure there’s just one aspect – it’s a hard one to answer because of all the multiple factors and feelings you experience when you’re out in the ocean. I think the first thing is the takeoff, the drop down the wave. There’s a kind of quiet, windblown sense of speed – a rush that you feel in your stomach and your brain when you first take a steep drop. Quickly after that there’s a point where your rail and fins lock into the wave before your first bottom turn. But the other thing is, that freaky base feeling of water just lifting you up and pushing your body forward with force – you’re literally riding a wild natural element and you’re trying to tame it, albeit with a well designed foam and glass object under your feet. I’m not sure the current game hardware will ever be able to quite capture that feeling fully, that tiny level of detail – who knows, maybe by the time PlayStation 7 or 8 comes around…
Then depending on the conditions, you’re then trying to turn this manmade object with conviction, or alternatively at other times, you’re simply trying to survive the wave’s wrath. On the wave face, while you’re flying down the line it can feel almost too quick, you don’t want it to end and you know it’s only going to last a short time. But then inside a barrel – it’s both loud and quiet at once and then it can also feel like time is slowing down. So it gets to the point where in order to get that next buzz, you want to flick off your dying wave as quickly as you can in order to then frantically get straight back out into the next one, just to do it all over again. It’s an exquisite feeling.
So for us as surfers, we’ll see someone pulling a turn on a wave in footage or a photo and we get super excited by just seeing that turn – I get why people shake their heads and think we’re nuts because we collectively drool over what seems to be an innocuous surfing image; but surfers just see it differently. We know that for that turn to occur at that moment in time a whole bunch of things had to come together just to get to that point. I could go on – but in this game we hope that we can capture just a tiny bit of that feeling, just to help people know and understand what surfing is and why we do it.
It’s fascinating to see external factors like health and cash come into play. How does the stuff surrounding the actual surfing affect the game?
Most surfing games to date have been on the arcade side of the spectrum, games like Kelly Slater and Transworld Surf. Those games are beautiful pieces of work in their own right, and although they touched on the sport in certain game modes, on the whole they are largely closer to that objective based style of gameplay. We chose not to repeat that. So as we’re a sport oriented game, the logical thing for us to do was to focus on the pieces that you mention – player health, cash, and equipment etc. That’s the gaming depth side that we really needed to bring to the fore if we were going to make any break from the past – so we’ve added those typical RPG elements to directly impact the gameplay itself. These components are new for surfing games, but as you already know it’s nothing new for the sports game genre. This amount of depth and detail was an enormous job for us to undertake – especially for a small team but we took on the challenge and now it seems people are enjoying it.
Perhaps one of the cool things we’ve managed to do with BL Pro Surfing, is to focus on stats that take into account the character ability side, combined with the equipment plus the surf conditions (which are random conditions on the Tour) in order to = in-game performance. So these combined facets actually impact the gameplay. We’ve designed systems in a macro sense as well as at a micro level that work together. For example, on the macro side, you need a certain amount of money earned in order to get from one event on the main tour to the next. If you don’t do so well or you blow your budget, you still progress but only on a lower tiered event – where you can earn more money to progress back up on the main tour. All of this is captured by the leader-board, where the aim is to try and win a World Title. There’s no holdup in progression – so you never get stuck anywhere or out of money and out of luck.
On the micro management side, players can manage their boards by either shaping them themselves via the board shaping tool, or selecting a warmer wetsuit for colder conditions (impacts your stamina) or getting medical treatment for those ailments and injuries that you pick up along the way. You can buy different PWC’s (Jet-skis) which you drive yourself in game and they perform differently and the driver you select to partner with will speak in the native tongue of the country they belong to (i.e. Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese, US English, Australian, Japanese). There is also a sponsorship component that allows you to earn and select either a board or wetsuit sponsor (real brands) that are tiered, so you can earn different types of equipment via the one sponsor if you remain loyal (your notoriety with them), or if you want to take on different sponsors as you progress, you can do that too. So it’s pretty deep, and there’s a solid foundation to build upon with this game if we’re able to.
Barton Lynch Pro Surfing sounds like a full-time job for your licensers, with real surfing legends, legit surfing brands, and a soundtrack that includes bands like Smoking Martha and Kilns. What have been the hardest things to licence? What licensing headaches have you hit?
The hardest things to license were perhaps the board brands, because as you can imagine the shapers are super into design and high end aesthetics. So, explaining how a video game works with its rendering and memory constraints in comparison to say a 3D Autocad render was a challenge.
But we’ve been very lucky on this game. The brands have been very supportive, plus Barton and his business partner Simon opened up a lot of doors that, realistically, we didn’t have any hope of accessing ourselves previously. We pitched to the brands. Once they could see what we are trying to build from the ground up, they backed us and we are really grateful for the faith they’ve shown in us.
How involved has Barton Lynch been? He’s got a packed schedule – was he hard to pin down?
Yes, he’s certainly a busy guy and he wasn’t involved in the goings on in the studio each and every single day, but he checks in regularly and has been involved in the important key moments. Barton’s easy to work with, he’s humble and he’s got a keen and inquisitive mind. It never takes him long to understand new pieces of information and technology – for example, when we were working on some of the animations. As you can imagine, surfing’s not the sort of sport you can go out and motion capture easily. So everything needed to be hand animated and had to work in tandem with the wave’s physics.
Because our wave technology moves along a plane and the wave morphs as it moves (so it’s not a static, never-ending wave), the physics and animation system needed to take all of that into account. It’s a highly complex system. Barton would feedback with our animator and me to hone certain animations that just weren’t working aesthetically. Really tricky stuff to get right and it takes a lot of time. So Barton would relate and describe things in surfing coach terms, and we needed to convert that understanding back into specifics within the game engine and various software programs to effectively bend them to our collective will in order for us to get the results we needed. What might look weird in Maya could look great in the game engine and vice versa. So at times, there has been a lot of back and forth with pieces of footage, images and a lot of sleepless nights thinking about how best to hone certain animations.
How ‘method’ did the team get in making Barton Lynch Pro Surfing? Has the team been out surfing as a bonding experience? Have you all visited the locations like Jeffreys Bay and Aileens?
No, unfortunately there wasn’t too much of that going on. I mean where we are located here in Fremantle, the waves locally can get good every now and again, but in general they’re not great. At the very least we keep reasonably paddle fit, and you don’t have to go too far to surf really good waves here in W.A. So, Rottnest Island is just out the front, Yallingup & Margaret’s are not too far either, and an hour north or south of here for a quick mildly-better-than-Perth surf is always available too if you need it. Then there’s the far north and south coasts, so plenty of surf here in WA. A few of the places in the game I’ve surfed, but some of these locations (like Mundaka) are on the bucket list.
What has the experience been like in Early Access? Is it something you’d recommend to other devs?
Well for us it has been a positive experience on the whole. The feedback loop is very helpful if you’re really in it to listen. But if you’re only there to pay lip service and you’re really just pretending to listen, then you could be in for a rough ride. The Steam community does not mess around, and they’ll tell you directly whether they like something or not and we found that out quite quickly. So it’s up to the developer to analyze if what is being said is reasonable, and if possible a developer should incorporate the community feedback to strengthen their offer.
Some of the ideas are seriously good, and others are not so great but I think as developers, we need to be circumspect and try and sort the good from the bad. For us, we’ve listened intently and tried our very best to incorporate the feedback – and I think purely as a result of the community feedback, we’ve built a much stronger product for them as a result. Way better. So while a developer might have their ‘vision’ and there’s an argument to maintain as much of that vision as you can, in the end we’re building a piece of entertainment that is purely for the people we serve.
And finally, how good is Barton Lynch at playing Barton Lynch Pro Surfing?
Ha! Well, I think as a world champion he’d probably be better on his feet in the ocean than with his thumbs ☺
Huge thanks go out to Andrew at Bungarra Software for giving us some time in the lead up to release of BL Pro Surfing.
If you’re a surfhead, then there’s not long to wait before you can play Barton Lynch Pro Surfing. It has a release date of November 17th of this year, so begin waxing the board…
You’ll find Barton Lynch Pro Surfing on Xbox, PlayStation 5 and PC. We’ll let you know how it plays in review.