Back in the early 2000s, surfing was one of several sports being well-served in the video game space. Treyarch’s Kelly Slater's Pro Surfer, published on Xbox, PS2, and GameCube under Activision’s long-defunct Activision O2 brand, is one high-profile example – but there were plenty of others. Krome produced Championship Surfer for PC, PlayStation, and Dreamcast in 2000, and also Sunny Garcia Surfing for PS2 in 2001. Angel Studios (which later became Rockstar San Diego) released Transworld Surf on Xbox, PS2, and GameCube between 2001 and 2003. The surf-obsessed may even remember Surfing H3O, although you might be better off forgetting that one.
And then, the tsunami of surfing games stopped. Waxheads were waiting for more, but the surfing sub-genre was sunk.
“Perhaps I need my head read,” jokes Bungarra Software CEO Andrew West when asked why he thinks it’s been effectively two decades since a sport-focused surfing game surfaced. Based in Fremantle, Western Australia, Bungarra is the developer of Barton Lynch Pro Surfing 2022 – an ambitious new surfing game bearing the name of 1988 ASP World Tour Champion and Australian Sporting Hall of Famer Barton Lynch, available now on Steam Early Access.
“We started back then and we were working on a version of surfing for a publisher, so we actually lived through all of that time,” says West. “It’s an interesting question. Back then it was a Tony Hawk and SSX-inspired gold rush of sorts.”
West attributes the wipeout to low sales and a perceived lack of depth in the genre.
“For a large, publicly-listed entity like Activision, the sales for games like Kelly Slater or Mat Hoffman were probably never going to see sequels because, for Activision, I guess the numbers for them didn’t stack up,” he says. “So perhaps the thinking among other publishers is that if games like KSPS, Sunny’s game, or Transworld don’t get sequels, then why bother?”
West concedes those are fair questions to ask, but also points out Bungarra doesn’t need to make “an Activision-like amount of money” to service its audience and survive.
“But to do that we have had to address that nagging question of gameplay depth and frankly, it’s taken us two decades to figure it out,” he says. “The other thing that has changed over the course is the whole digital and streaming thing – I can’t even begin to tell you how liberating that is compared to when we started. But as you point out it’s been 20 years between drinks, so we really hope that people will get behind us and support the game because, if I am brutally honest, the simple fact is that it just may not happen again anytime soon.”
With its expansive world tour mode, commentary, weather options, and a full character creator, Bungarra describes Barton Lynch Pro Surfing 2022 as a “truly sport-focused surfing game.” West confirms the team are surfers themselves who are truly passionate about the sport and the culture. Pressed on the best surfing movie, West himself can’t narrow it to a single answer.
“South to Sian, Rubber Soul, Billabong Surf into Summer ’87, Asian Paradise, and I love the Sessions series on Red Bull TV, in particular the Andrew Mooney East Canada road trip,” says West. “For anyone who’s lived out of a car – or a cave – hunting for waves, that seven-minute short movie just makes you feel so good and is sure to bring a smile to your dial.”
Of course, surfing credentials are just one part of the equation, but as an eight-person studio (four full-time, four part-time) West is philosophical about the question of balancing expectation with the realities of what’s possible for a small team making an ambitious, contemporary sports game of this type.
“That’s a really tough one,” says West. “We understand that people work hard and they expect their entertainment to be at a high quality, especially if they’re going to give you their time.”
“I mean if you’ve had a tough day, the very last thing you want to come home to, is a lousy piece of entertainment right? No one wants that, so we are upfront with people and hopefully they understand that we are not a large AAA studio with a massive budget. Once our audience realises that then generally the expectations are reset because most people are reasonable.
“At the same time the game has still got to be good, and you can’t hide behind the indie excuse either. So our aim is to create an offer that is solid visually, offers something new, has depth, and is largely bug-free at launch. The goal is to focus on the core experience – get the basics right, and then when the time comes downstream we can then try and build upon that and then add those nice-looking extras. For us, right now it would be pure folly to even try and compete with the likes of Electronic Arts on those beautiful cut-scene movies that you see in their sport games.”
Interestingly, Barton Lynch Pro Surfing 2022 isn’t Bungarra’s first surfing game; the studio previously had a little-known game called The Surfer launch on PS3 in 2017. No, not PS4, PS3 – a curious four years after the PS4 had arrived. West explains development of The Surfer was incredibly tough, but it taught them several valuable lessons.
“The Surfer was a mission and you wouldn’t be alone in not being familiar with it,” says West. “It was a super-tough project because we funded that ourselves, worked part-time jobs for years, and there were only three of us working for three days a week.”
“We literally crawled over broken glass to get that game to market and by the time we did the PS3 was already long gone. I think the development issues with the PS3 are well documented, and by the time we were finished we had no time or energy to look at any other platform. It was exhausting. I could be wrong but I think we were quite possibly the last game to release on the PS3 – or close to it. But perhaps that’s a story for another day.
“What we learned was how to develop a gameplay and scoring loop for surfing that actually made sense, and also just what it takes to get a console game to market – which is by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life and nothing else comes close. So The Surfer informed us in many ways about surfing game design and the sort of production values people expect and deserve.
“It allowed us to understand what the design requirements are in regards to forming the basis for a larger project such as this one. It also allowed Bungarra to get this project off the ground, because as at least people could see that we actually had a game out on console. We came out on the PC via Desura originally, and then later on the Sony PS3. We are still learning and we certainly don’t know it all, but we owe everything to The Surfer and I’ll be eternally grateful to my colleagues Matthew Strickland and Jack Nelson for the work we did on that project.”
Barton Lynch Pro Surfing 2022 brings with it a large list of licensed gear and equipment (including Billabong, Quiksilver, Roxy, MR Surfboards, Lost, Pyzel, ONeil, Creatures Of Leisure, Futures Fins, and more), and West notes there was enthusiasm amongst them for a new sports-focused surfing game, “but it was understandably tempered.”
“I mean, when you’re a no name and you’re asking for access to an established brands product – whether it’s a multimillion dollar brand or a smaller brand with street cred – that’s always going to be a tough ask,” West admits. “But, this time around we were fortunate enough to have Barton and his business partner open those doors for us. Once they were opened then people could see and understand where we were taking this.”
“As you say, people appreciate authenticity in sports games and it was important for our audience – our people, to have the brands in the game in order to reflect some semblance of reality. Plus, we wanted to mainly focus on the sport simulation side and largely avoid that objective-centered arcade approach of the past. Surfing’s an established rules-based sport and it’s rather combative, so when we pitched that idea I think the brands understood what we are striving to achieve. We hope that this is step one in a much longer process.”
Barton Lynch Pro Surfing 2022’s career mode takes players all around the globe to some of the world’s most recognisable surf spots, and West explains a great deal of thought has gone into the locations themselves and the cadence of the tour Bungarra has created.
“We had to think long and hard about this because we wanted to create a tour that would be rooted in some form of reality and we took into account a range of logistics,” says West. “So the way we’ve structured this is that we have based the tour on the time of the year, when each location would have their most optimal conditions – as you would in reality – and then we also looked at the actual gameplay requirements for new players. So a lot of thought and planning went into this.”
“We reviewed Europe first because January is the northern hemisphere’s winter/spring and because of that it made sense to start there. For this you’ve got to take into account swell directions, tides, and winds that work at certain times of the year at the varying locations. We also looked at other factors such as locations that are iconic and look amazing, such as Mundaka in Spain. Mundaka can be a fickle wave, but it’s absolutely all-time when it’s on and, from a game design perspective, it is perfect to introduce early because it’s a left-hand barrel, plus the wave is long. So this means that new players have the ability to come to grips with the game mechanic relatively easily because of the length of the wave and it runs in one direction.
“Aileen’s in Ireland was next, again because it’s an intense underground big wave in Ireland and the playing field is massive. Aileen’s is a magnificent looking location but it’s also a long right; again, perfect for players coming to grips with the control and scoring schematic. From there we followed the weather and design factors again and so Snapper, Margaret’s, Jeffrey’s Bay, Hossegor, and all the others came to pass. We actually outsourced the location modeling initially, but after some time we discovered some really amazing high-end tools that allowed us to model the locations accurately internally and we were then able to finish that work off ourselves, to really get the look we were after.”
Bungarra has observed the recent revival of skateboarding sub-genre over the last few years, but West stresses the audience for Barton Lynch Pro Surfing 2022 is a little different from sports games like skateboarding, or even snowboarding.
“Our core audience is the surfer,” says West. “We’ve looked at the skate and snowboard games out there as a matter of course, with a view to looking at design ideas and visual techniques mainly. So we do study them. For both of those sports, a casual gamer can simply pick up a controller, move their avatar forward and then start skating or snowboarding immediately.”
“Over the past fifteen years, since Skate, the innovations for those games have largely centered around the controller and the scoring schematic and in general, those games have become harder to play. The question of taste is a trickier one to answer because as you know, surfing has a lot more natural barriers to entry than skateboarding and snowboarding, so by extension we are naturally harder to play. Surfing has a lot more going on – you’ve got to paddle to get to the wave, then understand which way the wave is breaking and then if you’re new to the sport, somehow catch the wave and move forward.”
West goes on to explain how Barton Lynch Pro Surfing 2022 is different from older surfing games; he admits that they’ve previously been pushed to remove parts of the surfing experience, like paddling and duck-diving, to make the game easier and “speed up the loop.”
“However in this game, we’ve done the very opposite and created a gameplay mechanic out of the whole experience – paddling, duck-diving, surfing – everything,” he says. “So for non-surfers or casual gamers, if there is a general taste for games that offer more of an authentic challenge, then hopefully, yes, they will come along for the ride.”
According to West the ocean system for Barton Lynch Pro Surfing 2022 features waves that actually traverse across the levels themselves, which is also a new approach.
“You might have noticed that with almost all surfing games, the wave is effectively static?” West asks. “By this I mean, that you never actually get any closer to the shoreline? But in this game you do. It’s full on.”
“To be clear though, BL Pro Surfing is somewhere between a simulation and an arcade experience so it is definitely pick up and play, but hard to master. I guess because of our past experiences, we felt that for a long time that we needed to appeal to everyone rather than our core constituent – the surfer.
“Time is a great leveler though, because we’ve learned that we just can’t – and should not – try and appeal to everyone. We are niche and we happily accept that.”
Barton Lynch Pro Surfing 2022 is available now on Steam Early Access, and is dropping in on Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, and PS5 at later dates.
Luke is Games Editor at IGN's Sydney office. You can chat to him on Twitter @MrLukeReilly.