Q&A

Steve Ranck

EDGE - - CREATE -

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.”

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