SNOW: PC gaming’s triumphant return to the slopes

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Screen Robot speaks with the director of SNOW, the game that will bring winter sports back into the spotlight

Whatever happened to the winter sports game? For a genre that was once quite the crowd-pleaser, it seems to have slipped from the spotlight, just as many other extreme sports have in recent years. Audiences who are wanting to spend time on the piste are finding that there aren’t anywhere near as many games as there once were. However, SNOW, a free-to-play title from Swedish developers, Poppermost Productions, is something for fans of the genre to look forward to.

Looking back over the history of the winter sports genre, it’s easy to see a range of games that have inspired SNOW, such as Skifree, an early classic of the genre. SkiFree came pre-installed on many Windows computers through the early 90s, and its simple but satisfying gameplay has led to it becoming a cult classic from the early days of PC gaming. I asked game director and CEO of Poppermost Productions, Alexander Bergendahl, if SkiFree had been an influence on the game: “It’s hard not to draw parallels to SkiFree when playing SNOW, as there really haven’t been any true skiing games since. Especially ones where you speed down a mountain dodging trees”.

When you play SNOW, it’s easy to see what Alex means. It’s rare that games in the genre have put such an emphasis on avoiding obstacles, but in Snow you have to constantly watch out for rocks and trees, that can send your skier ragdolling down the mountain. SNOW evokes the same challenges of SkiFree, although it’s far more complex and refined.

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It’s also true that, for the most part, video games have neglected skiing in favour of snowboarding. Through the 90s and into the early 2000s, games like Cool Boarders, 1080° Snowboarding, and SSX were  hugely popular, but all limited players to snowboards. However, with skiing making a resurgence in popularity, it’s high time that the sport gets its time to shine in a video game too. Skiing has started to shift its stigma of being a posh holiday for the middle classes. It’s become more affordable, leading to a boom in students and other twenty-somethings hitting the slopes. You only have to look at the ongoing Winter Olympics in Sochi to see how public perception of skiing has changed, with more ‘extreme’ events, like slopestyle, proving that skiing is no longer snowboarding’s prim and proper elder sibling. It’s clear that SNOW hopes to take full advantage of this, with Sochi’s slopestyle course being added into the game just this past weekend.

Alexander and his team have certainly been getting their fair share of time in on the piste, or off it as the case may be. “The entire team have a passion for snowsports,” he tells me. “My family lives in the Swiss Alps, so I’ve been spoiled by the access to the mountains that gives me. To compensate for the lack of mountain exposure when we are locked up in our office in Stockholm, we instead spend a lot of time watching the latest skiing and snowboarding movies that come out at the beginning of each season.”

The beta version of the game, which is currently available on Steam Early Access, demonstrates that the team’s research has paid off handsomely. Whilst single-player events aren’t currently available, the basic skiing gameplay is more than enough to keep players going for the time being. “Skate is definitely the most recent inspiration for us,” says Alexander. “Seeing how they successfully translated skateboarding into an authentic gameplay experience influenced our design greatly.” SNOW has a similar focus on challenging players to control their skier precisely, and nail the feeling of skilfully landing individual tricks. The most recent big budget winter sports game, EA’s attempted resurgence of the SSX franchise back in 2012, went  in the other direction with enormous combos that largely felt a little soulless. The feeling of landing even a simple jump in SNOW gives the player a sense of accomplishment, as the controls put you in full command of your character. As Alexander said of Skate, it feels completely ‘authentic’.

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At the moment, the early access version of the game only offers the mountain, without any of the wide-ranging single-player content that will come with the full release. Alexander tells me that the games full release will include “a whole range of events, challenges and competitions to test the player in all possible skills.” However, the open-world experience that is on offer at present is hugely compelling in its own right. It’s a lot of fun to just set off down the mountain and see what new spots you can discover for yourself. There’s a real sense of exploration, and when you find a particular run that grabs you, you’ll want to ski down it over and over again, until you hit every jump and avoid every obstacle perfectly. “What I love is how everyone has a different favorite area on the mountain. It’s a clear sign that we’ve successfully reached our goal of creating a large environment with diverse terrain,” Andrew says when I ask him about his favourite spot on the map. “My usual go-to place on the mountain is a little bit above the dam. There are a couple of nice jumps that lead into the trees that I like to hit.”

After checking out this particular corner of the mountain, I realised that it’s entirely typical of the open-ended nature of SNOW. Once you have the basic mechanics of the game down, and you’re familiar with when to time your jumps, and how well your skier handles various surfaces, you have an enormous range of options when tackling any run. I tried to recreate the run that Alexander described, focusing on speeds, whipping through the trees, and more often than not, finding my skier plastered across them. I then attempted the same run, going for as much big air as possible off of the various humps and bumps. The game changed completely, and it’s an enticing look at the variety that the full game will offer. It’s difficult to say whether the races or trick competitions will prove to be more compelling, but it’s certainly an attractive prospect considering that both look so appealing at this early stage.

Whilst winter sport titles have been on the decline in recent years, the PC never saw much of the genre outside SkiFree in the first place. As such, it’s surprising that SNOW is a PC exclusive, at least for the foreseeable future.  I ask Alexander why the team made this decision, given that the PC is not exactly known for sports titles in general: “I think the reason behind this is that traditional sport games (team-based) like FIFA and NHL are more enjoyable on a big television where you can play with a bunch of friends”. “We think SNOW would be great for that as well, but also think that the single player experience is equally enjoyable when sitting at your desk.” With controller support for the game on the horizon, this might be an indication that there are plans for SNOW to reach home consoles in the future, but not quite yet. “As we are developing the game on PCs, it’s much easier for us to focus on a single platform while the game is still in development, rather than stretch ourselves thin by trying to meet the requirements of multiple platforms”, Alexander adds.

Whether the game finds its way to home consoles or not, it’s difficult to imagine SNOW not being a huge success when it does eventually release. Even in its current form, there is a lot of mountain to explore whilst you’re getting to grips with its unique take on winter sports. The game gives you a real sensation of being in control of your character, reminiscent of the back-to-basics approach of Skate, but still managing to carve out its own distinct personality. If you have been waiting for a triumphant return to the slopes for the winter sports genre, it may be that SNOW is the game to begin a return to former glory for the genre.

Images: Poppermost Productions.

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