2. Ruthless Design Scoping
We started Riptide GP with four pretty straightforward underlying design goals.
First and foremost, as a showpiece for Tegra 2 it had to be technologically and visually impressive. Second, it was aimed at mobile platforms, so we wanted an accessible, easy-to-pick up game mechanics and short, two to three minute play sessions.
Third, we wanted the game to have enough replay value to justify a "premium" price point; not that we have anything against the Freemium or 99 cent app models, but we presumed that there wouldn't be enough of these new devices on the market to support a high-volume revenue model.
And finally, of course, we had to be able to make the game with two people in just four and half short months... primarily because we wanted to be one of the first titles available on the emerging platform.
Our second set of goals -- simplicity, brevity -- dovetailed nicely with the tight schedule. But striving for console quality visuals and scope within that time was a challenge. To create sufficient content -- particularly for environments -- we built everything modularly, instancing and repurposing geometry and textures wherever possible.
This reuse had the added benefit of keeping our pack size small; in the end we came in under Google's 50mb limit without requiring an additional data download, and our load times are quick enough that we didn't need a loading bar.
In our initial design specs and throughout development, we were ruthless about stripping away any elements that might distract from our core goals. Many otherwise desirable features -- online multiplayer, customizable characters and vehicles -- were left on the cutting room floor.
This stripped-down focus on core gameplay allowed us to make fast progress. After about two months of development, the game was coming together and the controls felt great. But the overall experience still felt a bit shallow, and we decided to reintroduce a mechanic we'd cut early on. We added the ability for players to earn extra boost by performing stunts with different combos of thumb-swipes on the screen when in mid-air.
Stunting provided the extra kick (ahem) that the game needed. The gestural stunting was fun, and tying successful stunts to boost provided the risk-reward tension the game had been lacking.
3. Easy Does It
Riptide GP was our first experience designing and building a mobile game, after years working on console titles. We didn't want the game to be casual per se, but we felt that the game should be more accommodating to casual play styles, both in terms of difficulty and control mechanics.
Racing games on console -- even arcade racers like Hydro Thunder Hurricane -- tend to be very technically challenging. Much of the fun and reward comes from mastering the vehicle controls and physics, carefully managing speed, and picking out the perfect racing line through a variety of corner angles and track widths. The conventions of mobile racing games, on the other hand, with accelerometer steering and pedal-to-the-metal auto-acceleration, don't exactly lend themselves to nitpicky perfection.
Rather than struggle against this, we decided to embrace it. Our vehicle specs and track layouts were all designed to be driven at full speed, with braking only really necessary when the player takes a corner wrong. We wanted the game to feel fast and flowing, and we looked to the Wipeout series for inspiration on track layout. There are very few irregular or hard corners where players can catch edges or get stuck -- when you hit a wall you slow down, but you keep moving forward.
As a result, Riptide GP is incredibly easy to pick up and play. On most tracks, you can almost let the game play itself -- you'll finish in last place, but you'll finish. Depth and challenge come from learning how to keep your speed up in the corners, interacting with the waves and other riders' wakes, and knowing when it's safe to pull off a stunt for that precious extra bit of boost.
At first, I was concerned that the game might be too easy. But we playtested the hell out of it with friends and anyone else we could get our hands on, and by providing three different difficulty levels, we found we could accommodate both casual and hardcore play styles without overly frustrating the one or boring the other.
A previs concept rendered in the Hydro Thunder engine on the 360, before we ported to Android. We had to lose normal maps and fogging, but otherwise managed to come pretty close to our visual target.
Jumping on board the Tegra 2 train just as it was pulling out of the station proved to be a big win for us.
From a production standpoint, it meant a manageable target. Unlike on iOS, where you have this sort of benign dictatorship mandating consistency in hardware and software updates, hardware and OS fragmentation is a serious challenge for Android developers.
By focusing on Tegra, we had a relatively consistent performance and tech standard to steer towards. And because most of these devices are new, we only had to worry about a few different versions of the Android OS. All of this vastly simplified our requirements for compatibility testing... which is good, because we didn't really have any time in the schedule for it.
Additionally, because we were exclusively targeting its platform, NVIDIA was incredibly helpful. The company provided development hardware and soon-to-be-released devices to test on. Its tech team helped evaluate our builds and provided critical optimization feedback. And the marketing team introduced us to many of the carriers and manufacturers launching new devices, who of course were looking for new games to differentiate their products. Their support helped generate buzz and gave us much needed exposure.
Okay, we all know this, but I need to say it: the traditional game financing model, with its publisher advances and royalty recoupment, sucks.
One of the best things about Riptide GP is that we managed to skirt the traditional system and fund the game with a mixture of our own cash and third-party investments. As I mentioned in the Introduction, NVIDIA helped us with this. The company introduced us to Flashman Capital, a company in San Francisco that helps small studios with development financing. Flashman agreed to pony up some of the cash we needed, in exchange for a revenue share; we scrounged up some other investment and covered the difference out of our own pockets.
There were two key benefits to the deal we managed to pull together. First, we got to keep the IP, which among other things means that, after a brief exclusivity period on Tegra, we can take the game onto whatever other platforms we want.
Even better, we and the other investors all share in the game's revenue. With the traditional publisher model, the developer doesn't see a penny until the publisher's initial investment gets paid back out of the developer's royalty share. By the time that happens, if it ever does, the publisher has made back several times their initial investment. In the revenue share model, all the investors -- including us -- share in the proceeds from day one, more or less according to respective investment levels.
As a result, Vector Unit is much more invested in the game's success. We're motivated to promote and nurture the game and its community, because we see a direct benefit from every additional sale. And just generally, we're happier, because the whole thing feels strangely... fair.