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Surfing's slippery coding

May 25, 2004|Nathan Myers | Special to The Times

"Programmers don't surf. For one thing, getting a tan would undermine the programmer street cred; for another, surfers get up early and programmers generally sleep past noon. Without personal experience, simulating the thrill of surfing is a matter of guesswork. You code what you know."

-- Sean Craig

Video game programmer

Maybe it's not my first time being schooled in the water by someone half my age, but it is the first time a few hours of surfing has blistered my thumbs. Now, when I say "in the water," what I mean is sitting on a couch, shades drawn, half a pizza and a liter of Mountain Dew between us and the television screen. And when I say "surfing," I'm specifically referring to the keypad controlling a robust 4-inch version of six-time world champion Kelly Slater navigating a complex polygon matrix updating itself 60 times per second to approximate breaking waves.

"This is lame," my young adversary complains. "Let's play Tony Hawk instead."

I nearly agree. Video game surfing hardly rivals other, more goal-oriented (read: fighting, killing, smashing) games. But mistaking his whining for weakness, I politely refuse. "Sorry, dude, but we're here to surf."

Grom-geek shrugs and continues "surfing." The waves are realistic, but his jerky, twitching technique chafes me as he executes rapid midface cuts and hops to "power up" his Kelly and enable more advanced (and realistically absurd) maneuvers, thus vastly outscoring my stylish and flowing Rob Machado.

"How about we try one of these other surfing games?" I suggest.

"Lame," the kid sneers. "The water's no good."

"No good?" I ask. "Like polluted?"

The kid frowns like he doesn't know what polluted means, swigs his neon Dew and says, "I mean it doesn't look like water. All the waves are the same too. Even on different levels."

Suddenly I'm impressed. Not with the brat but with the programmers who've actually tapped the core virtue of surfing. Here in "Kelly Slater's Pro Surfer," every wave is unique. Not just on the different levels, which simulate famous surf breaks, but also within individual levels. It's vital minutiae that I later learn consumed more than two-thirds of the game's memory and most of the programmer's efforts. Water textures. Colors. Reactivity. Weather. Tides. It's the reason surfers stare endlessly seaward: the unlimited possibilities of breaking waves. It's also why surfing loses players to action sports games with more static 'scapes, like skateboarding and snowboarding. Fluid dynamics remain elusive.

If surfing is a Holy Grail it's because "surfing is hard," admits game designer Kai Craig, who is freelance programmer Sean Craig's brother. "Simply paddling out and catching a wave are big challenges before you even experience an exhilarating ride. Gamers want immediate rewards, so the challenge is making a game intuitive to pick up, yet complex enough to play for hours. The trick systems in skateboarding are perfect for this, but surfing's thrills come from riding massive walls of liquid, the sensations of getting tubed or taking a big drop -- difficult things to re-create in the comfort of your living room."

My thoughts exactly, as my Machado collides with a land mine floating in the tube and cartwheels through a foamy whoosh of virtual wave sounds and carefully licensed surf-rock. The controller vibrates in my hand. Exercise.

My young nemesis wiggles his Slater to max power, unleashes a ludicrous Darkslide Alley-Oop Rodeo-Clown combo, unlocks the secret bonus level and continues surfing a black, star-encrusted point break somewhere coastal in outer space.

"OK," I submit, "where's that Tony Hawk game?"

"Just one more wave," he says. "I'm about to get the high score."

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