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Interview: Vector Unit's Small On Starting A Studio And Reviving  Hydro Thunder
Interview: Vector Unit's Small On Starting A Studio And Reviving Hydro Thunder Exclusive
April 1, 2010 | By Chris Remo

April 1, 2010 | By Chris Remo
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

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.

The Evolution

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."

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John Byrd
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.... and Warner Brothers, owners of the Hydro Thunder franchise from buying out Midway, will be sending in the stormtroopers in 5... 4... 3...

Chris Remo
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Are you implying Vector Unit and Microsoft are developing this game without Warner Bros.' permission?

Thomas Grove
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Ralf is bar none the best gameplay programmer that I've every worked with. It's great to see that his studio is still going and I can't wait to buy their game this summer!

Scott Jordan
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"the first true sequel to the 1999 arcade and Dreamcast powerboat-racing hit." is a serious stretch compared to H2Overdrive, a game already in arcades made by many of the original Hydro team.

Here is the trailer:

It is frustrating to see games (and movies) labeled as sequels or even reboots when really they are interpretations at best. I enjoyed Blood wake and this may be a good game but as a rule, and as an artist I think the only people capable of making a "true sequel" are the people who created it in the first place.

Buying a license does not make it so.

Chris Remo
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I think that's a completely valid point of view, but given the way this industry works it's probably not a practical one in a newswriting context. I think the only way to practically do it is treat the term "sequel" as a logistical one and not a qualitative endorsement, otherwise there are many scenarios that become far too muddled for concise discussion.

For example, is BioShock 2 a sequel to BioShock? The great majority of the team did not work on the first game, but several of its leads did -- but it has a different creative director. It was led by a different studio, but that studio was initially staffed with former members of the original studio. What percentage of the original team needs to work on a new game for it to be considered a sequel? And are some roles irreplaceable, but others more fluid? How is that determination made?

I think it makes a lot more sense to simply identify BioShock 2 and Hydro Thunder Hurricane as sequels, and then have the qualitative discussion over whether they are WORTHY sequels, or whether other games might be more fitting successors. In any case, in this kind of article I don't see it as my place to make that determination.

Scott Jordan
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Ahh, I see. I was confused because the phrase "the first true sequel" sure sounds like you have made that determination.

Chris Remo
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Fair enough, that was probably not ideal phrasing. I intended to draw a distinction between this game and the later PlayStation, N64, and PC ports of the original game, which probably wasn't clear.

Scott Jordan
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I guess I am a bit disappointed that in an article about a Hydro Thunder "sequel" there is no mention of H2Overdrive...which IS your daddy's Hydro Thunder.

Sure, the arcade biz ain't what it used to be but there are some great games being produced, and yet it is a sector that gets zero love from the gaming press.

Shame that.

Chris Bell
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I was also very disappointed that an article on a Hydro Thunder sequel makes no mention of the spiritual successor, H2Overdrive.

Matt Small
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Chris just wanted to chime in and say, thanks for the article -- it was great meeting with you at PAX, and I appreciate the attention you put into your questions.

Wanted also to clear up a couple of things:

First of all, regarding John's comment about Warner and Midway. Chris's article states it pretty clearly, but in case there's any confusion, there is no licensing conflict with Warner. The HT license started at Midway, but now we deal directly with Warner.

Also one small point of clarification to the article -- The only combat boat game Ralf and I worked on was back on Blood Wake, at Stormfront. At Vector Unit, our game engine was written completely from scratch, and was designed from the beginning for a boat racing game.

Thanks again!

David Wessman
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Can't wait to play this!