Neversoft Never Got a Chance to Shine

Neversoft got a bum rap. They were connected with two of the most popular franchises of their time, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater and Guitar Hero, pumping out game after game for series with rabid followings. But that assembly line of skating and music games earned them disapproval from core gamers who condemned the lack of improvements and changes to the series’ respective formulas. Neversoft were criticized for a lack of innovation, but they were not responsible for that deficiency. With the official death of Neversoft’s brand and the merging of the studio with Infinity Ward, they leave a legacy of mass success and mass criticism. Neversoft were never a bad development house; they were simply dragged down by business practices that prevented them from showing their biggest strengths.

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Neversoft came from humble beginings, a third-party developer who made some forgettable cartoon tie-ins and FPS ports, before they made bank with Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. With the extreme sports boom of the early 2000’s and Tony Hawk’s rise to stardom, an official video game tie-in featuring Hawk and other real-world skateboarders seemed like a no-brainer. Enlisted by Activision, Neversoft created a skateboarding game that set realism aside, one where superhuman feats of finesse and skill were easily accessible. The first Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater was released for the Playstation in 1999, earning critical acclaim and securing Neversoft’s as the industry leader in extreme sports games. Neversoft kept the wheels spinning year after year with multiple sequels for the PS2, Gamecube and Xbox, all the way to Tony Hawk’s Underground 2 in 2004. But with a yearly release schedule, innovations and improvements became much less common. By the time Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland was released (in addition to a version on the Xbox 360), the series’ spark was fading. After Tony Hawk’s Project 8 and Tony Hawk’s Proving Ground, Neversoft had reached the bottom of the well, and they retired from the franchise.

Despite the Tony Hawk series’ eventual falter, Neversoft also dipped their toes into licensed games with the PS1 version of 2000’s Spider-Man. The game featured the same engine as Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, while also broadening the scope of superhero games. Spidey had plenty of new web-slinging combat moves, in addition to a more fluid navigation. Neversoft’s advances in the Spider-Man series would be remembered, as the gameplay would be revisited in the first tie-in game for the Spider-Man movie. The company also made the ambitious open-world Western game, Gun, which despite messy graphics was the first game of to take wild west aesthetics and create a full frontier to explore, a la Grand Theft Auto.

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With the Tony Hawk series out of commission, Neversoft’s next major endeavor was another big franchise, Guitar Hero. After original Guitar Hero developer Harmonix was purchased by MTV Games, Activision enlisted Neversoft to continue the critically acclaimed rhythm series. Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock marked Neversoft’s breakout into rhythm gaming, but thanks to steep competition from the innovative Rock Band series (helmed by Harmonix), it ended up being an opening act for a bigger band. Neversoft kept moving forward with 2008’s Guitar Hero World Tour, the first game in the series to use a full band setup. Neversoft produced four more Guitar Hero games in 2009, which ended up oversaturating the market. Guitar Hero fell further behind Rock Band, which updated with weekly downloadable content instead of full retail games. Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock was the last game in the series, marking a second powerhouse franchise to die on Neversoft’s watch. Neversoft’s final project was the Extinction Mode for 2013’s Call of Duty: Ghosts and they were merged into Infinity Ward a year later.

Neversoft was dogged at every turn by publisher Activision. They took on two huge series and created some fantastic installments for each. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater was the defining extreme sports game, influencing everything from SSX to Aggressive Inline to Evolution Skateboarding. With a simple control scheme and level design that perfectly accommodated the massive trick chains, the Tony Hawk series represented arcade-style athletics at their finest. Similarly, Neversoft’s Guitar Hero games were competent follow-ups to Harmonix’s smash hits. While the series was constantly playing catch up to Rock Band, Neversoft managed to keep things fun. Improved setlists and varied new modes kept the series going well into the seventh generation of systems.

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But both series suffered from a common problem: market saturation. Both Tony Hawk and Guitar Hero had annual releases with little differentiation between installments. Neversoft was under pressure to create a Tony Hawk game for every year from 1999 to 2007. There was little time to break new design ground and the public became exhausted with the endless stream of releases. Guitar Hero suffered from this problem even more, with Neversoft manning four releases for 2009 alone. With the plastic instrument fad dissipating, the release congestion become too much for the public to handle. Neversoft had too much on their plate and the masses were tired of getting the same servings every year.

But were Neversoft responsible for this? Were the sparse innovations in Tony Hawk’s Project 8 and the reused gameplay in Guitar Hero 5 really their fault? It all comes back to the same thing: too many releases in too little time. Neversoft was pressured by Activision to keep the assembly line moving, so risk-taking was never within the schedule or budget. The endless development buried the innovations of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1, 2, and 3, leaving a series of stale, overused ideas. Guitar Hero followed suit and any innovation was diluted in a sea of releases. Neversoft were talented developers – they proved that with Tony Hawk’s debut – but that talent was stretched well beyond its limits.

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Because of the saturated market, Neversoft was condemned. They were treated as an accomplice to Activision, the publisher who turned them into a sequel mill. With Activision’s public reputation falling fast, Neversoft were dragged down with them. It’s unfair to think that Neversoft was responsible for the implosion of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater and Guitar Hero, as they were the ones fighting hardest to keep those series relevant. But relevance can’t be earned every year; you need to cultivate that effort. Neversoft were never given the opportunity to evolve, and even though the studio has a new home as a component of Infinity Ward, it’s sad to see them taken down by circumstances beyond their control.

Neversoft’s talent can’t be ignored, even with the shadow of Activision looming behind them. We’ll always remember that skateboarding Eyeball.