My interview with Steve Ranck of Specular Interactive on H2Overdrive and more
A few months back Arcade Heroes was privileged to reveal H2Overdrive to the world and now I have done an interview with the man whose company is behind the game’s development, Steve Ranck of Specular Interactive. We go into more, never-before-revealed details on Raw Thrills’/Specular Interactive upcoming boat racer and a few other arcade related things. So without further adieu, let’s get started and remember to click on the link at the bottom to read the full thing.
First, about Steve:
Steve Ranck is the President and founder of Specular Interactive, Inc. He’s been developing games since age 12, and professionally since 1994. Prior to Specular, Steve cofounded Swingin’ Ape Studios, Inc. which developed the critically acclaimed Metal Arms: Glitch in the System before the company was purchased by Blizzard Entertainment in 2005.
Q: Tell us a little bit about your company and history in the arcade sector.
Specular Interactive was formed in 2007 to develop great arcade games. Most of our employees have worked together before at former companies, and a good number of us worked on the original Hydro Thunder arcade game back in 1997-1999. Collectively, we have a lot of seasoned arcade developers here. But at the same time, our team members have also worked on a number of console games and so we have a lot of experience with modern engine architecture and graphics hardware. Our goal is to develop a series of high quality arcade games by combining our arcade design experience with modern graphics technology and hardware, and do it all at a price point that’s affordable for today’s operators. Our first game which we feel delivers just that is H2Overdrive, a high-action, addictive power boat racing game.
Q: How did the idea for H2Overdrive come about?
In early 2007, Eugene Jarvis, developer of arcade megahits such as Defender, Robotron: 2084, and the Cruis’n series, was receiving feedback from arcade operators that wanted a boat racing game that would succeed Hydro Thunder. Eugene’s company, Raw Thrills, had already developed a number of very successful arcade games before getting requests for a boat racing game. Eugene called and proposed the idea of me forming a team to develop the game. The idea of developing a high-action boat racing game on modern graphics hardware for the arcade sounded like an incredible opportunity. I formed Specular Interactive shortly after and we began the ground-up development of H2Overdrive.
Q: How long has the game been in development and how large of a team has worked on it?
H2Overdrive’s been in development for 2 years, starting with a team of 3 and growing to 14 developers during the peak of development.
Q: There are several aspects that H2Overdrive shares with Hydro Thunder, what makes H2Overdrive not only different from HT, but better?
Hydro Thunder’s a great game, but had a few issues that we didn’t have time to address. The boat physics were a lot of fun once you learned how to drive the boats, but we found that it took 3-4 races before an average player would be able to control the boat without zigzagging back and forth throughout the entire race. This was really frustrating for the Hydro team to watch, but addressing it would have required a significant change to how the boat physics were implemented, and we simply didn’t have that kind of time. So we endured, and although the game won over a lot of fans, it did turn off some of the more casual gamers. Since we started H2Overdrive from line 1 of code, we were able to prevent the steering learning curve issue while at the same time have the boats drive like boats.
A problem that Hydro Thunder fans brought up often was that boosting in the air didn’t change your trajectory. You’d hit a ramp and start heading toward a wall, and although you could turn the boat’s orientation, its velocity couldn’t be changed even if you boosted. Again, as much as we wanted to address it in Hydro Thunder, we just didn’t have the time. H2Overdrive’s boat physics model allows the player to have much more precise control over their boat, including trajectory changing in air through boosting.
H2Overdrive is a very deep arcade game with lots of features to discover and use. For casual players, it’s a simple and fun, action-packed boat racing game. But for more experienced players, there’s enough depth to keep you coming back for years. H2Overdrive has a leveling-up feature which allows you to take your boats from L1 to L40. As your boat levels up, it becomes faster and more powerful. And at certain levels, your boat will be physically upgraded with a component that introduces a new gameplay mechanic. The mechanics include things like super boost (a second set of boosters that deploy to give you a burst of insane speed), stunts for bonus boost fuel, HyperSlide for turning corners instantly, and randomly placed crates which when smashed open will give you boost fuel, release surface mines for weary competitors on your tail, and even equip your boat with HullCrusher, an incredibly powerful hull smashing weapon that draws nearby boats into it. Reaching L40 with your boat unlocks some secrets, too.
H2Overdrive allows you to create your own profile to save the state of your game so you can come back to the arcade later and pick up where you left off. Once you’ve created a profile, you can start earning achievements. We have over 50 achievements per track. As you earn more achievements, you increase in naval rank. It’ll take a dedicated fan to reach the ultimate rank of Fleet Admiral. Your ranking is displayed in the leader boards for all to see.
We also have boost fuel stealing. When you MegaHull an enemy boat, you siphon some of his boost fuel. This is especially gratifying in multiplayer! You steal all of your victim’s fuel if you can Super MegaHull him. Doesn’t happen all that often, but when it does you’ve earned definite bragging rights.
We support 8 linked games which is an insane multiplayer experience, especially when you’ve all leveled up your boats.
There’s a lot more than I have room to describe here, so keep checking www.h2overdrive.com for when it goes live for a ton of additional information!
Q: Are there any other games that have influenced H2Overdrive’s feel?
Not really. We knew from the start how we wanted the game to look and feel, but it took months of iteration and fine tuning to get things just right. We have a saying around here that you should never get attached to any piece of work you create. If there’s a better way to go, we need to have the freedom to go that new direction. One example is that in November 2008 the game’s UI was nearly complete, but it just didn’t have the feel we wanted. We made the decision to completely redesign the UI, scrapping months of work and rebuilding it all in the two months before the ATEI show. That was a bit stressful, but in the end it was a huge payoff.
Q: What changes have been made to the game since it was last seen at ASI?
We’ve added a lot to the game since ASI. Mines, HullCrusher, boost crates, the achievement system, naval rankings, more tracks & boats, new secret boats, improved HUD, 8-player support, leader boards, profile summary screen, improved attract mode, AI improvements, many UI enhancements, some secret stuff, and lots of iteration and polish throughout the entire game. I think that about covers it.
Q: Are there any cheat codes or easter eggs in the game for people to find?
Not so much cheat codes, but there are definitely lots of secrets for players to find.
Q: Are there any ideas that you wanted to implement in the game that did not make the final cut?
Yes, quite a few. Some will probably end up in our next game.
Q: Are there any plans for DLC that will add more content to the game in the future?
Not at this time.
Q: What kind of hardware is powering the game?
We’re using a Dell PC running an embedded OS and driving a GeForce 9800 GT graphics card. The game also has a set of proprietary hardware boards that do various things.
Q: What game engine does the software run on?
We’ve developed our proprietary Spec engine and content creation tools from scratch for H2Overdrive, and will be evolving our technology for our next game.
Q: H2Overdrive has received a bit of press on the internet well before its release, which is sometimes unusual for US-made arcade titles. How do you feel about the player response that has been generated about the game online? What about player response in location tests?
From what we’ve seen, player response on the Internet has been genuinely enthusiastic. It’s great to see how many Hydro Thunder fans there still are, and that they’re excited about what they’ve seen of H2Overdrive. We’re all looking forward to hearing from fans once they’ve had a chance to play the game!
We have H2Overdrives out on test in various locations around the U.S. and the input we’ve received has been extremely positive. The earnings have been strong with both novice and experienced players. In a nearby Boomers, there was a player who played the game for 4 straight hours, and then came back the next day and played for another few hours. Watching players having a great time with the game is what it’s all about for us, and the experience has been tremendously rewarding.
Q: How has distributor and operator response been towards the game so far? What would you say to an operator who is hesitant to buy the game, to tip them over the edge?
Distributor and operator response has been incredible, too. We’ve actually worked closely with Raw Thrills and our distributors and several key operators to get their feedback throughout the development of the game. It’s been very valuable.
H2Overdrive offers operators an unusually high level of value for the money. Not only is the game affordable, in the ballpark of other Raw Thrills racers, but it has a beautiful 42” LCD screen with 60Hz HD graphics, a powerful sound system with seat rumble, a beefy boat throttle, a custom seat, a fully animated instrumentation panel, a sleek keypad for code entry, and a ton of high-intensity LED lamps around the entire cabinet, including a lit infinity mirror booster under the seat pedestal. The cabinet is essentially a deluxe unit for the price of a standard unit. Hopefully we haven’t given an operator any reason to be hesitant!
Q: What are your thoughts on the current state of the arcade industry? What do you think can be done to improve our industry as a whole?
The state of the industry has changed pretty dramatically since Hydro Thunder’s release 10 years ago. In fact, the industry was in the middle of a sharp decline just as Hydro hit the arcades, but the game still sold something like 10 to 20 times the number of units than the competition was selling at the time for most of their games. I attribute Hydro’s success to a number a things. First and foremost, it was fun and addictive and the complete opposite of a rigid sim. It was light hearted with tongue-in-cheek humor throughout. The game’s graphics were ahead of its time, and the cabinet had a cool boat throttle and rumbling seat. It all added to the fun experience, and players really got it. From the operator’s point of view, the game earned well, was affordable, and had no violence.
Today, the formula of a fun and addictive game that earns well and is affordable is more critical than ever for success. In addition, you need to have a name that operators know & trust. We worked very closely with Eugene Jarvis and his team at Raw Thrills throughout the development of H2Overdrive. Eugene’s put his logo on the game – his stamp of approval – and that means more than anything to operators because of the trust he’s built up with them over the years with the success of his games.
To improve our industry, we need to continue to bring affordable yet high quality experiences that players of all ages and skill levels will be driven to play. That may sound fundamental, but it’s a difficult thing to truly achieve and requires more effort than most companies are willing to commit for an arcade game. This is where Specular steps up to the challenge, and we hope we can ultimately make a positive impact on the industry.
Q: What are your plans for the future after H2Overdrive?
We’ve already signed with Raw Thrills to develop our next arcade game. It’s top secret at this point, but we’re really excited about it. Stay tuned!
Many thanks to Steve for doing this and be on the look-out for H2Overdrive in arcade within the next few weeks!