Making Waves: Vector Unit’s Matt Small on “Hydro Thunder Hurricane”

Just before the Internet became a part of my daily life and a major source for my video gaming news, 1999 saw two Hydro Thunder cabinets splash down at the marquee location in my local arcade.  Around this time, most gaming magazines had seemingly already given up on the arcade industry, so I knew very little about the title, but its “large and in charge” nature attracted everyone seeing the game for the first time.  The sound volume was cranked to the proverbial 11 and the crazy onscreen antics made the title irresistible.  My friend and I spent at least $5 on that machine that day and, even today, the game has not been forgotten as my closest Red Robin location still has a machine featured right by the entrance.

Sure, there were home versions ported to the Sony Playstation, SEGA Dreamcast and Nintendo 64, but none of them really contained what Hydro Thunder excelled at.  While the Dreamcast Version hit close to the system’s launch, the title wouldn’t appear on the other systems until 2000, but, still, little was done to separate the title from the arcade release and with a blow to the presentation and limited multiplayer features stemming from a split screen, the title lost a lot of what turned heads in the arcade.

Thankfully, during Microsoft’s Summer of Arcade, the company will be publishing a true Hydro Thunder sequel to be released in July.  This new effort, Hydro Thunder Hurricane, is being handled by Vector Unit, which is creating a great amount of original content for the new title.  Even though the series is taking another step forward, Vector Unit isn’t losing sight of what made the original entry tick as players can still expect the crazy boat designs, blazing turbo boosts, fantasy levels and extreme jumps.

Although this is Vector Unit’s first title as a studio, co-founders Matt Small (creative director) and Ralf Knoesel (technical director) have an extensive gaming portfolio, which includes the Microsoft-published Blood Wake, solidifying the company’s roots in water-based games.  Outside of that title, the duo has also worked together on Hot Wheels: Turbo Racing and Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, but, separately, at least one of the members has had a hand in titles such as Madden ’97 and ‘98 for the PC, Demon Stone, Eragon, The Godfather, James Bond: From Russia With Love and more.

Those who were big into gaming around the turn of century no doubt know the title was crafted by Midway, leaving many to question how Microsoft holds the Hydro Thunder license when most of Midway’s intellectual properties were scooped up by Warner Bros.  Hydro Thunder Hurricane has been in development for some time now, with the original project being a general boat racing game.  After demoing the game to Microsoft, the company brought up the concept of taking the game forward under the Hydro Thunder name and, with that, Microsoft was able to secure the rights to the name amid Midway’s fiasco, just prior to the Warner acquisition of the company.  With the original Hydro Thunder code and assets delivered to Vector Unit straight from Midway, the studio then set out on an endeavor to relive the Hydro Thunder experience, but, this time, with the beefy Xbox 360 technology running under the hood.

Taking advantage of the hardware, Vector Unit is promising to deliver on its mantra of “big games in small packages.”  Hydro Thunder Hurricane will feature four-player local and eight-player online gameplay, new game modes such as a gate attack and gauntlet time attack mode, more boats, all-new tracks and a load of unlockable content.  With a bunch of gameplay tweaks, a game engine that pushes wave physics even further and additional content, Vector Unit isn’t messing around when it means the good name of the original arcade installment is on the line.

In order to give us a better idea of is involved with Hydro Thunder Hurricaneand its development process, Vector Unit Creative Director Matt Small took some time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions for us.  Thanks to his expansive and in-depth answers, you’ll be able to get an extensive look at what went into creating liquid environments, the fan service the studio is looking to include in the title and the pressures involved in developing a sequel to a fan-favorite arcade title.

J2Games: I’ve read a number of comments from Vector Unit detailing your love for games such as Hydro Thunder and Wave Race, and, of course, your experience in developing Blood Wake.  What is it about liquid environments that make a video game stand out from the rest of the crowd?  What is involved in programming water and how difficult is it to develop water in a video game?

Matt Small: We love the unpredictability that comes with water – when you have vehicles, explosions and other events in the game affecting the water surface, and you add on to that procedural waves and other perturbations, there’s just a lot of inherent gameplay that arises naturally out of the chaos.  Plus, as anyone who’s enjoyed Wave Race or similar games can tell you, when the controls are tuned right it just feels really good to jump and slice through waves.

Programming nice-looking interactive water involves combining techniques from various fields.  On the graphics side, we use elements such Fresnel-based reflections, ray-traced depth fogging, procedural normal mapping, depth-based foam and an adaptive LOD [Level of Detail] system.  On the simulation side, we developed a custom water system which calculates lift and drag for interactive objects such as boat hulls and allows various wave types to be emitted, including wakes, whirlpools, deep-ocean waves, point-waves, etc. The “magic sauce” was to take this realistic water simulation and tweak it to the point where it’s fun to play, but still gives the player the impression that the water surface is believable.  This was the most difficult piece of the puzzle.

J2: What kind of pressures do you feel in crafting a successor to an extremely popular racing franchise?  Are there instances of key items that were present in the original production that you decided to scrap because they didn’t meet your vision of Hurricane or you felt you could do them better?

MS: Obviously, it’s a lot of responsibility.  We know gamers always approach a sequel with equal doses of hope and skepticism, especially when the sequel is developed by a new team.  When we were first prototyping HTH, we distilled out what we felt were the really essential features that made the original game great: The boost mechanic, the sense of speed, the huge jumps and drop-offs and the crazy theme park environments filled with imaginative surprises and shortcuts. We knew we needed to nail all of those elements for our game to be a worthy successor and if the response the game has received from press and fans who’ve played it is any indication, I think we got all those elements right.

We did change a few things from the original.  The Xbox 360 hardware is capable of so much more physical simulation than what the original HT developers had to work with.  We knew we wanted to push the dynamic interaction with the water and we built a lot of gameplay around that interaction.

For example, all the boats leave physical wakes in the water behind them; when you’re driving behind another boat, you bounce and move over that wake.
We built a drafting mechanic around this so when you steer into the calm water in the middle of the wake you get a speed boost – then you have to pick the right time to drive out and slingshot past.  This became such a central and fun part to the game that we decided to get rid of the “Mighty Hull” mechanic from the original HT – it just didn’t feel that challenging or interesting if you could simply plow through the other boats; we wanted you to actually have to pass them.

J2: With the original arcade release, Hydro Thunder went big with the air fans, booming speakers and, obviously, the steering wheel and throttle.  While HTH will maintain usage of specialized controls thanks to the wireless Xbox 360 steering wheel accessory, what has it been like for the team to take this massive arcade spectacle and twist it into a home exclusive?  What features in HTH allow the title to keep the “big time arcade” feel players experienced when HT first released?

MS: We do support the wireless steering wheel and it feels great – the force feedback tightens up when you’re carving through waves and really makes it feel like you’re driving over a moving surface of water.  Of course we also tried to punch up the sound effects to make the whole thing feel crunchy – it sounds great in 5.1 Surround, especially if you have a good subwoofer.

And, of course, a lot of it is just the spectacle – the giant Thor smashing monoliths at the end of Storming Asgard or the dinosaurs jumping out of the water in Monster Island.  Every level feels like a theme park ride and, in some ways, they kind of tell a story that leads the player through to a spectacular climactic moment at the end.

J2: I would expect fans of the original title will be among the first to snatch the download when it becomes available – what are some of the elements of HTH that will bring smiles to these fans’ faces?  How difficult has it been to balance everything that was great about HT in the first place with everything the Xbox 360 now makes available with the jump in technology?

MS: We’ve tried to add in as much fan service as possible.  All the favorite boats are there – Rad Hazard, Tidal Blade, Damn the Torpedoes – and we really punched up the animations when they transform after they pick up boost.  I think players will really like the new boats.  We kept the spirit of the originals alive but we also tried to tune them so they’re all fun to drive.  For me, personally, Thresher was always kind of a bummer in the original game; in our game, it really handles great because it’s a catamaran and grips the water differently than the other boats.

And, of course, there’s the big drop-offs with the copilot yelling at you and the announcer yelling “GO! GO! GO!” at the start of each race – all that stuff combines to make the game feel very close to the original.

We did have to make some tradeoffs to try and attract a wider audience.  The controls are a little more intuitive.  For instance, we took the boost jump and just put it on a single button, instead of the control combination you had to pull off on the original, and the difficulty ramps up more gradually.  We also changed the way you unlock stuff; you earn credits for wins on any event, so if you’re stuck on a level you can replay an earlier level, try a different game mode or play online, and you’ll earn the credits you need to progress.

J2: What has it been like working with Microsoft on this endeavor?  What is your opinion on the Xbox LIVE Arcade service and what is your view on how HTH fits in with the service?

MS: We love working with Microsoft and I’m not just saying that because they’re paying us.  They were really open to all the stuff we wanted to do with this game and gave us a ton of creative freedom.  Also, of course, the 360 is great to work with – the hardware is really intuitive and you can do so much with it right out of the box.

XBLA is a great service too – I love the fact that you can download a demo and buy it after you’ve had a chance to play it.  When XBLA first launched, there were a lot of classic arcade ports and remakes coming out for it, but the service has grown so much over the years.  Nowadays, you see all these original games coming out that look and play as good as anything released in a box, and you can get them for just 10 or 15 bucks a pop.  I think Hydro Thunder holds its own against that standard.

J2: HTH certainly isn’t the first cherished series being re-imagined for digital downloads.  What do you think about the “updated retro” trend?  What do these updates do for fans of the original, or even the common player that has never heard of Hydro Thunder?  Is this just a fad or do you think we’ll continue to see updated classics?

MS:Well, for a while you had a lot of these games coming out that basically were exactly the same as the original but with updated graphics and network play.

I think that trend is passing.  Gamers expect more – I mean, you can always go back and play the original if you want to.  I do think people will always look back at classic games for inspiration but you have to bring something new to the table.  It’s not enough to just make the same game over and over again.

With HTH we worked hard to make our game a true sequel and not just an HD update.  All the tracks are original, the whole game engine is rewritten from the ground up, there are new game modes, etc.  Also, we spent a lot of time tuning the split screen and online multiplayer modes.  I think the multiplayer is where the game really shines.  We’ve been working on this game for a year and we still play multiplayer every day, just for fun.

J2: If you had to pick out a single favorite aspect of HTH, what would it be?  How does this aspect compare to how it appeared in the original title (if it applies)?

MS: Well, I think I just gave it away in that last answer.  It’s definitely the multiplayer.  The eight-player races are really frenetic, with boats jumping over and under each other off ramps and shortcuts, and we’ve tried to tune the powerups and the mechanic to keep the racing really close.  It just never gets old for me.  If you were lucky enough to ever find an arcade with a whole row of Hydro Thunders linked together, you can get some idea of what this is like, but the console versions of the original never supported online multiplayer.  I’m really glad we were able to get it in and spend the time to refine it.

J2: I know your title is already drawing a lot of parallels to the recently-released H2Overdrive, so could you picture HTH as an arcade title or does the additional content such as multiplayer, leaderboards, etc., go beyond what you would want to provide to gamers? Have any of the developers of H2Overdrive shown any interest in your project

MS: We haven’t ever met or talked with the H2Overdrive devs, although, of course, we’ve followed the development of their game.  I’m all for it – I think the more arcade racers out there, and the more water racing games out there, the better.  I know some of those guys worked on the original Hydro Thunder and I hope that when they play our game they feel like we did the original justice.

Making a great arcade cabinet game is a whole art form unto itself and, while I think our game would be fun in the arcades, it really has been developed specifically with console gaming in mind.  There are lots of unlockables, like extra boat skins and game modes, and we have full leaderboard support, including the Leaderboard Opponent feature that lets you race against your Xbox LIVE Friends’ best times in Single Player mode.

J2: We saw HTH first unveiled at PAX East and the reception seemed quite positive.  As a developer, what does player feedback mean to you and the quality of the product?  Will you look to player feedback to influence any factors such as gameplay tweaks released as patches after release or even DLC?

MS: Player feedback means a lot to us.  PAX was really our first chance we had to put the controller in the hands of Hydro Thunder fans and their support and positive response really energized us. We did make some tweaks afterwards – one example is that people felt like the boats didn’t sink into the water enough after big drops.  So we went back and played with the physics to get the big drop impacts feeling more dramatic.

We are planning on some DLC and we’ll definitely be looking to see how players respond to the first set of levels and boats to find ways to fill in gaps or add more of the stuff that players enjoy.

J2: Hydro Thunder Hurricane started out as a general boat racing title and we’ve seen the title pan out to include the Hydro Thunder name and style – overall, what has your experience been like throughout the course of the entire project?  Did you ever expect the project to become this big?  What can we expect from Vector Unit in the future?

MS: Deciding to go with the Hydro Thunder license wasn’t easy, but looking back on it, it was definitely the right decision.  There’s just so much there to inspire you and, of course, the response the game has gotten has been bigger than anything we could have expected with an original title.

When we started Vector Unit two years ago, the goal we set for ourselves was to develop “big games in small packages.?  In other words, to try and deliver the kind of quality gameplay and visual style you expect from full retail games but squeeze that experience into a small, downloadable game that you can buy without putting a huge hole in your wallet.  And I think with HTH we’ve shown we can do that; I hope when people try the game out they feel like they’re getting just a ton of fun and value for their money.
Now our goal is to bring that same level of fun and quality to some original titles we have in the works.  I can’t talk about anything just yet, of course, but we’ll let you know when the time is right.

Hydro Thunder Hurricane is being released next month amid Microsoft’s highly-publicized Summer of Arcade – if you would like to follow the title until then, please visit Vector Unit’s official Web page.

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