President, Specular Interactive
Why did you return to developing arcade games after being part of Blizzard’s family?
My former company was Swingin’ Ape Studios, which got purchased by Blizzard, and I went from hands-on to being in management. Blizzard is an amazing company and that whole experience was amazing for me, but I missed the hands-on part of it. I just needed to have that part of my life again.
How has Specular’s technology evolved since shipped in 2009?
Well, we started the company with H2Overdrive, and then we went to Dirty Drivin’ and evolved the engine, but it was still DirectX 9. When we started working on Batman, we started working with that engine, but we quickly ran into a wall with performance… We made the decision to cut it loose and redesign from scratch a DirectX 11 high-performance rendering engine that we knew could be capable of rendering a city that is this large. I think there was a good section of time where I worked from home, but we got it done and the engine is amazing. It’s maybe not Unreal 4, but for a small arcade company it was definitely good. Arcade hardware is very cost-sensitive, so we tried to use lower-end PCs with midrange graphics cards. We had to build the engine knowing the PC was a low-end PC, and that’s where the majority of the work went. “There’s passion for the project,” Rai explains, “but that only gets you so far. You need to be completely efficient. I was a real stickler when it came to scheduling, making sure everyone was on task, but I was also a stickler about just reusing as much as possible. You’re going to get a variety of different enemies by reskinning them; you can have a variety of different buildings just by rearranging the bottom and the colour. That being said, there are hundreds of thousands of unique objects placed by hand with 30,000 lights filling the screen that’s only possible through clever engineering.”
The finished game is a 60fps open-world racer running in a custom engine on a Dell PC ones wouldn’t fit. We didn’t want to go with a cartoony looking game. We wanted to make it look as realistic as possible. We ended up just trying to shoot for that – within the time frame, of course – and we needed it running at 60fps, so we couldn’t have a lot of super-crazy shaders and we kept it fairly streamlined, style-wise. with a mid-range GTX 650 graphics card. All together, it’s about three hundred dollars’ worth of PC, Rai says, inside thousands of dollars of cabinet. Batman stands nearly eight feet tall with a 42-inch monitor and 500 lights, and every component from the wheel to the seat is a custom piece of engineering. This, Ranck says, is one of the most fundamental parts of modern coin-op design. “I was just talking to Eugene [Jarvis of Raw Thrills] about our next game,” he says. “I can’t talk about it, but right at the start we were discussing that we have to do a great cabinet. With Batman, we designed the cabinet in-house, but our designs are just concepts. We have no idea how expensive it’s going to be, and we send it to Raw Thrills and they figure out whether it’s ridiculous or not. With Batman, we got real close to having a second monitor on the dashboard for the map and characters’ communications, which Eugene was really excited about, but when it came to cost and sourcing, it wasn’t possible. I think Eugene and I see eye to eye about cabinet design: we love the bells and whistles, but then there’s the practical aspect of it, which always brings us back down to Earth. Cabinet design is huge. Absolutely huge.”
But in the end, Specular Interactive has made a game we’ll never officially review and only a few readers will play. Those lucky enough to live near a thriving pier, bowling alley or theme park might be privy to a Batman cabinet, but for most arcade games are distant, inaccessible relatives to the console and mobile games everyone plays. With Specular’s flair for building accessible games, it could be a powerful developer in the mobile space without needing to expand its team, but the team dismisses the idea with laughter.
“Mobile games are fun,” Ranck says. “They’re a fun pastime, but I love creating experiences that interact with as many senses as possible. With arcades, we get to think about controls and how the player is going to touch the game. We were adamant that Dirty Drivin’s weapon crank had to have this heavy feel like a slot machine, we had this complex force feedback system to put what’s onscreen in the player’s hand, and we embedded a big speaker in the seat… For me, that’s what’s really fun about making arcade games. We’re profitable at this, and with mobile being so crowded, we’re very happy doing what we’re doing.” The others agree. “I think there’s something special about it all,” Rai says. “And especially working with Raw Thrills on this piece of hardware. It’s nice to be exporting something from America for a change.”