Every once in a while, a bike brand does something a little bit enigmatic. Sometimes it’s things like selling NFTs of their bikes for more than their bikes, or entering into left-field collaborations with skate brands. For at least some segment of the Specialized team, it seems to be commissioning online games.
The first dabblings in this direction came way back in 2018, with the launch of a new Stumpjumper model that first birthed a hilariously self-aware ad, and then a vintage arcade-style game. Players piloted pixelated avatars in day-glo outfits across a scrolling track, collecting coins and launching off ramps. But there was deeper thought behind it. Little interstitials built a narrative, with the character ‘Hughy’ – pink-and-purple-clad, long flowing blonde mullet – facing off against an ominous Big Corporation Racing Team, or fighting against overdevelopment of the trail network.
The project’s genesis was via an approach to the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) Computational Media department, where Nathan Altice – an associate teaching professor specialising in game design, programming, and history – took the lead as producer, working with a student team. After more than six months, Altice and his team of five students completed the project. Understandably, the Stumpjumper game was a hit – an easy and enjoyable diversion during the day, with a pitch-perfect nostalgia at its core.
Last week, Specialized released a new game – an altogether more sprawling, complex, and disorienting one. This time, instead of a simple 2D arcade game, the bike company set its sights on the Roblox platform.
Specialized’s new platform
Roblox? I’m glad you ask, because I had the same question, and unfortunately the answer will probably make you feel old, as it did me (as well as CyclingTips colleagues a decade younger than myself).
The Roblox platform is a massive game play (and creation) system that has exploded since the start of this decade, its growth fueled by the COVID pandemic. As of August 2020, there were more than 164 million monthly users – according to Verge, more than half of all kids in the US were using the platform. As of Q2 2021, 43.2 million users were categorised as ‘daily active users’, averaging 156 minutes of daily gameplay. 67% of users are under 16 years of age, with the biggest cohort between the ages of 9 and 12.
Unlike other tween/teen hits like Minecraft or Fortnite, there’s not any one Roblox game (the company calls them ‘experiences’). Instead, there are more than 40 million of them – a hugely competitive market where creators can earn tens of thousands of dollars. Because yeah, there are financial cogs churning behind much of the platform. Users can buy upgrades and items for their avatars in an in-app currency called Robux, funded by real transactions in actual dollars and cents, sometimes in the time-honoured format of ‘borrowing mum or dad’s credit card’.
At this scale, there are also ethical questions around moderation of the platform and its chat function, with sexualised content sometimes slipping through the cracks – despite more than 1,600 moderators employed by Roblox Corporation to nip it in the bud, a kind of pervert whack-a-mole. Seediness has a way of working its way into most things in this world, however, and for the most part the platform seems to be positively regarded by those who know about it – which wasn’t me and probably isn’t you, but might be your kids, or grandkids, or younger siblings.
This is the world into which Specialized has lobbed ‘Specialized Bike Game’, its newest foray into online gameplay.
So how is it? What is it? Where did it come from? Why? There are interesting answers to those questions, and there I find myself, in some sort of hazy space of knowing and not-knowing.
To begin: you come across it on Specialized’s Instagram or TikTok or Discord pages. The public responses are instructive. On Instagram, the presumably older demographic of commenters are not kind. “It’s not April Fools Day,” one comment with 200 likes reads.
On the more youthful platform of TikTok, the kids are thrilled. “This is the exact reason why these guys are my favourite bike manufacturer,” one writes. “FINNALY A WORTHY ROBLOX EVENT THATS ACCTUALLY COOL AND RELATED TO MY HOBBIES,” bellows another.
So here’s how it goes: follow the link. Download the app. Set up an account with a knowing name. Tweak your avatar’s hair, its face. Enter Specialized Bike Game. Maybe you’re a natural, puzzling out games quickly, or maybe you’re more like me, riding into walls constantly. Either way, you set off on a quest to collect yellow coins and green Big S tokens, a little blocky body with little blocky legs on a little red bike.
The graphics are kinda retro, but the world of the game is a vast place of canyons and trees, waterfalls and snowbanks. There’s a map to navigate around, with micro-habitats – Treeline Towers, The Lodge, Bike Bone Desert – where you have micro-challenges, like collecting drink bottles to stay hydrated. In the time I spent playing, I crashed a lot, got trapped in an alpine gully next to a wall of shipping containers, bobbed up a river, got frustrated enough to quit and then, for some reason, felt compelled to come back.
It also sounds incredible; immersive ambient soundscapes with stirring melodies nestled within – not hook-based, necessarily, but mood-building. It reminds me a bit of Sufjan Stevens’s later-era diversions into electronica with maybe a bit of Tim Hecker thrown in, like a good minimalist indie film score.
The other thing to understand about the game is that it’s on a massive multiplayer platform, but it hasn’t really been discovered yet – 10 days since it went up on Roblox and four days since it was first pushed on social media, there have been fewer than 600 plays (the Specialized promotional machine hasn’t gone hard on it yet, so I’m sure that will change). That means that playing it is a strangely insular experience – a kind of meander around this alien world, looking for something but without the stakes that push a narrative forward or bring it to a crunching, crashing end. Through it all, your character just bobs along, its simplistic face like a Sharpie drawing on a balloon.
But here’s the thing. Catch yourself in the right moment, it almost feels profound. In solo play mode it feels more to me like an art piece than a game, and when you try to join a race – the most conventional ‘there is a winner’ thing – you just regenerate again and again at the start unless there’s someone else there to play with. So you go back to exploring, listening to the peaceful drift of the music, trying to navigate around enormous bike components, bouncing on trampolines, just … meandering, meditating.
When toggling between exploration and ‘race’ mode, the game credits pop up for a few seconds, and here I recognise some names. Nathan Altice, the producer of the 2018 Stumpjumper arcade game; Jared Pettit, one of his students at the time (since graduated). Having been entertained by their work then and weirdly stirred by it this time, I tracked Altice down for a chat.
The Roblox project has been about 18 months in the making, Altice said, and it was sparked by Specialized liking the work Altice’s team did on the Stumpjumper game. “They asked if I knew anything about Roblox, because they wanted to do a 3D bike game,” Altice tells me. “I knew a bit, but not much, so I wrangled one of Stump Jumper’s artist/programmers, Jared Pettitt, to help me do some research and put together a prototype. After we got some good bike physics and a test level working, Specialized approved us to work on a full project.”
The game’s design objective was “Tony Hawk Pro Skater meets Super Mario Bros. 64, and we wanted the art direction to lean toward late 90s consoles like the PlayStation/Nintendo 64,” Altice explains. After working for a few months on what I call a “meditative meander” and someone who knows what they’re talking about describes as an “open world exploration game with a few circuit races, parks where you compete with points and collectibles strewn around the landscape,” Altice and Pettit added Ilda Aguilar as a 3D artist. Her work, Altice enthuses, is “incredible … I was blown away” (she has since been hired by a Roblox developer.) Since January the small team has worked in earnest, completing the project this month.
Specialized’s motivation behind the game is, from the outside, a little unclear. The Roblox platform is not a philanthropic venture – its market cap as of a year ago was US$43 billion – so there’s money to be made, and, I wondered whether Specialized was angling for some of that in-app cash. Refreshingly, that’s not the case at all.
“For both games, Specialized gave us almost complete creative freedom,” Altice explains. “They didn’t ask us to put in ads or charge for the game. This was especially important for our team, especially with the Roblox project, because that platform’s primary user base is children, and a lot of the economics surrounding the platform are pretty shady.” There’s no squeamish in-app purchasing on a parent’s credit card – “We asked early on that our game not include skins or clothes or other items for sale, and Specialized agreed,” Altice says.
“Their primary directive for both games was to make something fun that included their bikes,” he continues. They’re not even recognisably Specialized bikes – apart from the occasional logo and the green S symbols you collect, it’s a pretty soft sell, as was the case with the Stumpjumper game. “In both cases, our teams were really proud of what we accomplished,” Altice says. “A lot of branded advertising games are awful, and we wanted to do better.”
For me, the game’s sort of interesting, but it’s the music shrouding it that completes the package – that shifts it from just noodling around a blocky world to something more profound. Most of the music is courtesy of Altice himself, who before being an academic was a musician working at the intersection of indie rock, post-rock, and shoegaze (he was in the bands Gregor Samsa and The Silent Type).
Again, Specialized’s creative influence was light, as it was when he’d composed the music for the first game back in 2018. “In Stump Jumper, they just wanted the music to fit the 80s era, so that meant 8-bit chiptunes style. I decided not to go fully authentic and write music on vintage hardware. Instead, I tried to imagine what chiptunes would sound like using modern tools. It’s similar to how nostalgia works — things we played when we were kids look and sound better in our minds than in reality,” Altice explains.
For the Roblox game, Altice created musical interludes late in the piece, following Specialized’s sole brief – ”that the music not sound 8-bit this time around.”
“I tried to make everything sound kind of hazy and lightly melancholy,” he explains. “I had Minecraft’s soundtrack in mind a lot while composing. In that game, music cycles in and out at various times, and it’s this really beautiful, somewhat sad ambient music that contrasts with the vivid voxel world you see around you. I wanted that same contrast.”
As he explains this I realise that ‘light melancholia’ is what I’m drawn to in this weird branded game, currently played by almost nobody, designed for children for no grander reason than because it could be. The Roblox platform sits in this strange space somewhere between wholesome and skeezy and the ethics of a brand wading into it could be questionable – but Specialized’s hands-off approach sidesteps that issue, in large part because of the rigorous way that the team they approached for the gig navigated it.
And now ‘Specialized Bike Game’ is out there in the world, waiting for people to discover it.
Maybe the discovery’s the point. As Altice says, “Roblox has this weird, Lego-like aesthetic, and our world has this oversized feel with big scenic vistas, towering machinery, giant bike bones, and so on. I wanted the level design to give kids a sense of wonder and sneak in some music that might seem weird or unexpected to them.”
That sense of wonder, the weird, the unexpected – that’s what I love about music, but it’s what I love about cycling too. And this is cycling, in the form of a Roblox game for tweens. Maybe that’s a gateway in itself. Maybe it’s enough, even if it’s not – a weird nebulous thing that blurs the lines between gameplay and art, isolation and connection.