P&L speaks to Ralf Knoesel, Technical Director and Founder of Vector Unit about game development, Beach Buggy Racing, and Riptide GP2.
Can you give us a brief history of how Vector Unit started?
Before starting Vector Unit, my co-founder (Matt Small) and I had been working for larger studios for over 10 years. When we first started in the industry, teams were small and each individual was able to have a large impact on the quality and success of a game. Over the years, however, teams grew larger to the point where two to three hundred people working on a game was not unusual. At that point, you were either a full-time manager or a specialist on a particular aspect of a huge game, which wasn’t really that fun/interesting anymore. In the summer of ‘07, we had a little chat about how much fun it would be to again work with a small team on a bite-sized game. At that time the best match for our skill-sets and knowledge seemed to be XBLA/PSN on the Xbox360/PS3. So we decided to quit our jobs in order to start working full-time on a water-racing game demo that we’d shop around to publishers (developers were not able to self-publish on consoles in those days). Vector Unit Inc was founded (and incorporated) in January 2008. We were fortunate to be of similar mindsets and between the two of us we had the knowledge to create a complete game (Matt being a generalist artist and me being a generalist programmer). Off-the-shelf game engines were not an option for what we wanted to do, but I knew what kind of engine I wanted to build. It took the two of us about 6 months to build a water racing demo from the ground up, which we then shopped around to all the publishers and then some. The timing was bad: This was late 2008, which happened to be the start of the global financial crisis. The GFC took its toll on some potential publishers, but but we still had some options. We decided to go with Microsoft, since they had the most reasonable terms. During the initial back-and-forth, Microsoft asked us if we’d be interested in retargeting our demo to be a Hydro Thunder sequel. This would of course change the terms of our contract, but we were both fans of the franchise and figured it would propel the game into the mainstream. We started development of Hydro Thunder Hurricane in April 2009.
When you were growing up and first played video games which were the ones you have the fondest memories of and did they help build the vision of Vector Unit down the line?
Having grown up in the 80’s, my gaming youth was spent on the C64, Amiga, and in arcades. I have countless fond gaming memories from those days, but one that stands out from the rest is Hard Drivin’, a 3D physics-based driving simulation with force-feed back in 1989, wow! That experience definitely influenced my take on what makes games fun.
Beach Buggy Racing and Riptide GP2 gave us instant arcade fun and we loved them. Which is your proudest moment or standout feature in these games?
With Riptide GP2 I’m very happy with how the water looks and feels to drive on. As with the rest of our games, we start with a realistic physics simulation, which is then tweaked/tuned to make the game fun. What you then have is a fun driving game with a subtle but noticeable additional layer of interaction with the environment. The other vehicles, for example, leave physical wakes in the which affect how your vehicle handles. With Beach Buggy Racing, I get a huge kick of of playing split-screen here at the office with everyone else. It’s too much fun to activate ‘Big Tire’ mode while everyone is going off a huge jump!
The soundtrack in Riptide GP2 is excellent. Can you tell us more about it?
For Riptide GP2, we took the style from the original Riptide GP (mostly trance) and added some dubstep. For this style of music, there’s a ton of licenseable content out there, and one of my many tasks on the project was to scour various music licensing sites and gather potential candidates. As a team we then narrowed this list down to the final soundtrack.
Here is a list of the tracks featured in Riptide GP2:
menu music Launching
and Landing (by Michael Musco)
game music 1 When
Angels Fall (Stefan Bode)
game music 2 Atari
Euphoria (by Paul Wilki)
game music 3 Uplifting
Vocal Trance (by Caramusic)
game music 4 Zero
Gravity (by Crispy Sound)
game music 5 Astronaut
(by Vincent Tone)
We licensed these from a variety of sources: audiomicro.com, premiumbeat.com, audiojungle.net, and shockwavesound. com. The level of detail crafted into both games shines through.
How easy is the process of bringing a game from iOS to PS4?
The task of bringing BBR and RGP2 from mobile to console consists of building a higher level of detail for most models, increasing the resolution of textures (including normal maps), and adding various posteffects that weren’t possible on mobile (SSAO/HBAO, antialiasing, etc). Luckily our mobile games were already targeting highend devices, so our games supported features such as gamma correction and cascaded shadow maps out of the box. Our engine (graphics, audio, input, etc) was built from the ground up to be cross-platform with a nice abstraction layer, so the port of the core systems wasn’t much of an issue. The tricky part of bringing these games to console, however, are the various technical requirements from the platform holders (Sony, Microsoft). They want their users to have a consistent and high quality experience with all their games, so there are lots of cases to handle around sign in, trophies, friends lists, etc.
Let’s talk trophies. We feel some developers don’t understand trophy hunting as some games require far too many hours to complete or have tasks that are unrealistically difficult. Was it a conscious decision to make your games with obtainable Platinum trophies?
We generally like our trophies to be a mix of skill and progress. When deciding our final list, we aim for a skilled player who loves the game and plays it all the way through to be able to obtain all the trophies (thereby achieving the Platinum). This is a bit of a fine balance to strike in order for it to feel like an accomplishment without seeming too grindy. The learning curve can either make a game or kill it off. Testing this to create a fine balance must be an important job.
Whose job is this or does everyone have a say?
Being a 4-5 person company, everyone has a say on the tuning and balancing of the game. For Riptide GP2, we actually hired a projectduration intern who handled the details, using input from the rest of the team. We also invite players of various ages and skills to our studio in order to do some playthroughs before the final game balance is reached.
Would you have liked to put a proper multi-player in Beach Buggy Racing rather than share play and spilt-screen?
Yes, Beach Buggy Racing definitely would benefit from online multi-player. At the time we converted the game to console we weren’t sure how the game would be received on the platform, so we decided not to invest the additional time and resources required. By now both RGP2 and BBR have done well enough that going forward we plan on doing real-time multi-player on all our console efforts (if appropriate). We were impressed with the price set for both releases.
How did you finally end up at the asking price?
Riptide GP2 was our first game that we brought to console from mobile. Due to a lack of online multi-player we decided that $6.99 was a fair price on the PS4. For Beach Buggy Racing, we had much more fun playing local split-screen mode, which is key with any good karting game. We thought $9.99 was good in this case. There really isn’t too much of a system, we just want to make sure that players get good/lasting value.
Will Beach Buggy Racing and Riptide GP2 appear on PS Vita given they are originally mobile games?
It’s not something we’re currently planned on, but we have indeed discussed it and may do a port in future, if there’s enough consumer interest.
Do you have plans to port more game to PS4?
Definitely! We’ve had so much fun working on consoles again that we’re making consoles our lead platform. This means the environments, vehicles, and effects are designed with higher detail in mind. Our next game, Riptide GP: Renegade was just announced at PAX where we had a booth that allowed gamers to play on console kiosks:
Who in the development team is the Riptide GP2 speed freak?
Oh man… the answer to that question could have some consequences… during development we all get pretty good playing split-screen mode while finetuning the various tracks. But I have to say that once things get competitive, it’s usually pretty close between Matt and myself. The last race of a championship is often the deciding race. It gets real! We can’t wait to play with our fans online in our next game!
Many thanks to Ralf Knoesel, Technical Director and Founder of Vector Unit for his time. Also thanks to Deborah Chantson for making this happen.