Culture

Birds of a Feather Kickflip Together in a New Crowdfunded Video Game

A breakout hit, ‘SkateBIRD’ is a pet project for one seasoned developer and avian fan.

Who among us wouldn't want to rip around a skatepark made from office supplies as a delightful, wobbly bird? It’s a thrill we can all soon experience, thanks to “SkateBIRD,” a video game for PC, Mac, and Linux, set to be released next year. 

Announced on Kickstarter less than a month ago, with more than $60,000 now raised by fans, the game plays like an updated version of the popular “Tony Hawk's Pro Skater” series. There’s a button to ollie, another to do flip tricks, another for board grabs, and yet another for grinds. Combine the stunts to do big numbers, and score new levels, characters, and pals while you’re at it. 

Of course, the twist is that you have to pull off the moves in the less-than-flexible body of a bird. But that’s creator Megan Fox’s whole shtick: The company she founded, Glass Bottom Games, specializes in single-user animal-themed play, often inspired by her own encounters with wildlife. “SkateBIRD” just happens to be the first idea to involve birds that skateboard around with attitude. The game places its avian contestants—with fun and appropriate headgear—in miniature parks made from pencils, thimbles, Solo cups, and similar knick knacks. The environs are embedded in more familiar settings, including rooftops, office floors, and a post-party dorm room. 

Like all good things on the internet, the genesis of “SkateBIRD” can be traced back to a single GIF. In this case, it was a parakeet riding a fingerboard down a quarterpipe that Fox's partner showed to her. After about six months of trying to adapt the concept, Fox landed on “SkateBIRD.” She demoed it for the first time at an indie showcase in March of 2019, with help from animator Alex Price and composer Nathan Madsen.

When Fox launched a Kickstarter earlier this summer, timed to the video game industry's largest convention, the $20,000 goal was met within the first 24 hours. In the weeks since, more than 2,000 backers have contributed to “SkateBIRD,” allowing Fox to add more features: tiny owls, custom vests, and levels that venture outdoors and into the clouds. 

While Glass Bottom Games has yet to set a release date—the estimate is sometime early next year—it is sharing a demo of “SkateBIRD” through the Kickstarter page. Playing it, avian experts might notice that the Zebra Finches and budgies move just like they would off the skateboard. It's a purely aesthetic choice on Fox's part, but it's one she feels is important, given that there are so few games out there that depict birds realistically.

Just think of all the great birds in gaming. The owl-like Kaepora Gaebora in “Ocarina of Time,” which greets you the second you leave Kokiri forest and refuses to leave you alone. Then there's Kazooie, one half of the bird and bear duo of Banjo-Kazooie,” spends most of her time cooped up in Banjo's backpack. There are Chocobos and Angry Birds and Owl Boys, but very few good “birbs,” as Fox likes to call them. Her game aims to engender a fondness that you just don't get with the other caricatures. 

“The bird doesn’t have to look like a human on the skateboard,” Fox says. “For instance, it's not like a bird is going to lean into a turn. Birds don't do that.“

What Fox is trying to capture is a lighthearted verisimilitude that can make game play more informative. Her characters hop around as they shift their weight on the board; they flutter their wings to maintain balance; and they nuzzle up to the giant hand when it descends from the sky to pet themThe birds even look off to the side while they’re skating. In actual life, “they don't point their beak in the direction of travel; they point their beaks where they want to get depth perception," Fox says.

The game maker’s dedication to realism is, in part, driven by her own budding love of birds. Fox developed her avian affinity like most folks—slowly at first, and then almost all at once. She'd started feeding birds from her home in Seattle—French fries and human snacks, and eventually seeds and suet—and soon began wondering what species were showing up. 

“There's been this gradual progression, and now I'm the crazy bird lady that's buying three suet blocks every time I go to the store,” she says.

The visitors in her yard provided plenty of reference material for designing the shapes and motions for her avatars. But it was a special Song Sparrow that helped her visualize what a bird might do to catch some air on a skateboard. One Foot, as Fox affectionately calls this individual, has an injury or disability that makes it favor its left leg. As a result, it has to pull off dramatic maneuvers for basic tasks.

“You can see when he's leaning over to peck up some feed—he does this single-wing flutter to catch his balance when he gets back up,” Fox says. “Or whenever he goes in for a perch he has to flutter a little bit to balance, which translates well to skateboarding.”

Skater birds don't lean; they tip with style. Screenshot: Courtesy of Glass Bottom Games

While people use a combination of their legs, torso, and arms to stay steady, One Foot demonstrates that birds rely on their wings. It's a small detail, but crucial to communicating that a player is controlling an actual bird, even in a virtual, skateboarding universe.

Apart from wanting to capture the beauty of how birds move, Fox says her goal was to make a “cozy game” for users—that is, a game that doesn't focus on winning and goes out of its way to avoid stressful situations. Where the Tony Hawk series is more of a skateboard power fantasy, challenging players with strict time limits, a list of obstacles, and a series of rewards, “SkateBIRD” is more of a meditative experience that offers much-needed soul balm in today’s political and environmental climate.

“SkateBIRD is a game about trying your best. It's not a game about succeeding; it's not a game about being a pro. It's a game about getting back up after you fall,” Fox says. “My hope is that it will get players to be more willing to make small efforts in the real world that could eventually lead to something big.”

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