Interview: Vector Unit's Small On Starting A Studio And Reviving Hydro Thunder
San Rafael, California-based independent studio Vector Unit has been operating under the radar for about two years, but at the recent PAX East consumer gaming event in Boston, the studio revealed its debut Xbox Live Arcade project: Hydro Thunder Hurricane
[YouTube video trailer
], the first true sequel to the 1999 arcade and Dreamcast powerboat-racing hit.
With only two core employees, creative director Matt Small and technical director Ralf Knoesel, along with roughly half a dozen more contractors during peak development, Vector Unit has stayed lean -- which is exactly how the founding pair likes it.
The Indie Catalyst
"Our goal is to make games that, as far as we are able to, feel like retail games, but are stripped down enough that we can produce them with a small team," Small explained to Gamasutra.
Small and Knoesel met in the late 1990s at the now-defunct Stormfront Studios, where they worked together on a number of projects, including Hot Wheels Turbo Racing
and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
. The seed for the pair's future plans was sown when they collaborated on the Xbox boat combat game Blood Wake
, which shipped in 2001.
"There were a bunch of water games that came out around that time, but especially Wave Race 64
and the first Hydro Thunder
were big inspirations," Small recalled of Blood Wake
's development. "About three years ago, we started talking about we wanted to do another boat racing game, and it all came together when we decided to start our own company and quit our jobs."
So in December 2007, Knoesel quit his job at Stormfront, Small quit his job at Electronic Arts, where he had transitioned, and the following month Vector Unit was born.
Origins of the Project
"I've always really been a fan of water games," Small told us. "I love the dynamic of being able to race on a field that's changing all the time."
"I think there originally were doubts as to whether you could make a game that was fast-paced enough on water, because boats tend to be slower than cars," he added, "but [1999's] Hydro Thunder
showed you could make a really fast-paced racing game on a water surface and still have the water feel believable."
That love of the genre led Small and Knoesel to begin working on a boat racing prototype in 2008, before any publisher or license had been secured. In addition to their experience with Blood Wake
, Knoesel's own background helped considerably.
"Ralf has a physics education, studying aerospace and fluid dynamics in school, and he came up with a water-based engine and built a combat boat game around that," Small said. "We were totally self-funded, and we spent the first six months or so working on our tools and our game engine, and coming up with a prototype for the boat racing game."
Armed with a core game, Vector Unit starting shopping the unnamed project around, and Microsoft expressed interest. After some discussion, "the idea of attaching it to Hydro Thunder
came up," and Microsoft licensed the property from Midway, whose assets have since been acquired by Warner Bros.
Along with the new name, Hydro Thunder Hurricane
, Vector Unit continued to modify its underlying mechanics, to fit both the license and the pair's own intuition.
"The original prototype was a little more sim-like," said Small. "There's this one particular feel, and you know it when you feel it on the controller, of the boat rocking over water -- when you're going over the water, you can carve into the slopes of the waves."
One of the key elements of a water-based game is believably selling players the notion that they are navigating through water, but one of the key elements of an arcade racer is maintaining high speeds and exaggerated mechanics, and those two necessities can be at odds.
"It's an interesting balancing act," said Small, discussing that conflict. "If you start going really, really fast, you start bouncing over the waves, and you lose the sense of digging into the water."
"We started with something pretty realistic, and then we spent a lot of time proving that we could crank the speeds up to 200 miles per hour and still have the boats straddle that line," he went on. "It's a question of keeping the realistic parts of the physics that feel good, like carving into the wave, and playing with downforce and dampening the buoyancy so that when you start going fast you don't get out of control."
Running the Studio
Hydro Thunder Hurricane
has now been in full production for a little over a year, and Vector Unit plans to ship the game for Xbox Live Arcade this summer.
Small says that while developing a game with a core team of two plus a few contractors has been a big change from his days with large teams at Stormfront and Electronic Arts, there have been surprisingly few hitches, and the ability to operate in many roles has been mostly welcome.
"Some of my time was spent managing the contractors and the outsourcers, and doing a bit of art direction, but I got to get my hands in and do a lot of the modeling for the boats and tracks," Small said. "Ralf's title is technical director, but he programmed all the basic water physics."
Overall, he estimated, "you get to choose at least 80 percent of the time which hats you wear, and then sometimes you end up forced into wearing a particular hat."
The biggest challenge? Everyone on the team is critical. "With a big team, if somebody catches the flu and is out for a week or two, it's not that big a deal," Small explained. "One thing that caught us off guard is that when you have three artists on the team and one of them is out for a couple weeks, your production for the month can drop by half."
Thriving with a small team has largely been a product of maintaining focus, he said. He stressed the importance of "stripping out the stuff people expect in bigger games, like cinematics or elaborate scripted set pieces, and focusing on the core of the experience -- which, here, is the racing, the physics, the interaction with the other boats."
"Once you have the core engine and physics," he added, "you realize what parts of the game are surprising and fun, and you can find different ways of capitalizing on them."