Earlier this year we learned about a new arcade title in development by Specular Interactive called Dirty Drivin’. In 2009 they created a spiritual successor to Hydro Thunder called H2Overdrive. Some of the team members responsible for that title were also directly responsible for Hydro Thunder such as Steve Ranck (the creator) and Brian Silva. Their latest creation is a step in a different direction, all of the dirty details to which you can find below.
As we spend a lot of time discussing the games, we don’t often get to look into the development side of the industry and the individuals who put in a lot of time and sweat into making these games a reality for us to buy and play. Here is one of the few times where we get a direct look at a machine with one of the developers and in addition to getting into a lot of details for their latest creation, I also got to hear some more about H2Overdrive and Hydro Thunder. Read on.
(For any image, click to enlarge; also you’ll find some information regarding the development of Hydro Thunder 1 & 2 at the bottom of the article. A video of two team members playing DD can also be found below)
I had a semi-early start on Saturday, catching a morning flight from Salt Lake City to Irvine, CA. I met Steve at the John Wayne Airport and after a brief drive got a chance to step inside Specular’s present offices. You wouldn’t realize that there was an arcade developer anywhere around as there are no signs of it. There I met with Andrew Rai (artist for DD, now lead artist at the company), Jordan Edell (UI designer), Brian Silva (creative director) and Detmar Peterke (lead programmer). After some introductions we got right into checking out Dirty Drivin’. They had two production units setup to play, although the number of cabinets available has changed as the development process has gone on. In the primary room where the team members work they had four prototype units setup showing various stages and ideas they had attempted. How Dirty Drivin’ actually began was “H2Overdrive with wheels”. As such, three of the prototype units were actually modified H2Overdrive cabinets, with foot pedals, and proto Cranks. One prototype for the crank actually happened to be a slot machine crank; another used the H2Overdrive throttle as the crank and another cabinet also had a brake which was removed as it was rarely used. The game has been in development since 2009 and at the time of writing expect it to start showing up in arcades around October.
Two prototype cabinets for Dirty Drivin’ (click to zoom)
A detailed, hand painted model of the Lock N’ Load in Steve’s office . This was modeled and painted by Paul Forgy, senior artist on the Specular team who designed many of the vehicles for both H2Overdrive and Dirty Drivin’. This was sitting next to a couple of Lil’ Kahuna models from H2Overdrive made on a 3D printer.
(Some early models of the cars, Riptide, Lock N Load, Doom Buggy, Battle Axe; click to zoom )
As the game progressed it soon became apparent that the H2Overdrive on wheels concept just wasn’t working so the team decided to scrap a lot of the work they had already put into the game and start over in the lacking areas. These changes would make Dirty Drivin’ what it is today – a fast paced racing game where the goal is to do whatever it takes to reach 1st place and I have to tell you, it’s a blast.
Dirty Drivin’ in Detail
At first I got a feel for the game by watching Jordan and Brian race against each other. I learned very quickly that the point of DD isn’t to be a joyride from one point to another – it’s every man for himself warfare, with some racing involved. Each race has twenty different opponents you can dispatch, in fact when they are dead, it’s permanent. The only vehicle which can’t be killed off is you and your Rival – if in single player it’s an AI player which gives you a run for your money; in multiplayer it’s anyone else you happen to be racing against. Naturally as arcades go, the more units linked up with another, the messier and more entertaining the game gets. Up to 8 units can be linked, just like H2Overdrive. I asked if they knew of any places out there that had 8 H2O’s linked up and there is at least one that they know of. That would be quite a sight to come across!
Here is a video I took of two of the team racing against each other, which shows all of these things in action. I did notice afterwards that some game scenes appear dark but that’s my camera, when sitting in front of the machine
After watching them have at it for a short time, I gave it a crack, racing against the lead programmer Detmar. I input a PIN to save my progress, picked a truck and went on from there. He gave me a good run for my money, I think I only managed to squeeze out a first place win once out of several matches but you not only compete for placement, but also your ranking at the end of each match and a couple of times I managed to get a pretty high rank (determined by the in game scoring system). Using a PIN is a good idea, as you expect as the game will show how much of the game you have completed, track your achievements, best times and rankings. At the end of each race it shows the stats of who set which record recently on that track and what vehicle they used. I’m not exactly sure how many races I played through, I lost track of that as I became immersed in the experience but by the end of the day I did get to play each track at least a couple of times. I also got to race against Steve several times, whose screenname was VGER (nice little nod to Star Trek: The Motion Picture). He usually bested me but there were a couple of times I managed to squeeze out a win.
The on-road mayhem takes place via two methods – you can either jerk the wheel when right next to any opponent to smash them or you can use weapons, which are picked up by grabbing the gear power-ups on the track. With smashing, if it pans out right sometimes you can bash your opponent multiple times, but you have to be quick about it. It’s ultimately satisfying to smack a rival three or four times until they go flying off a cliff (which I actually managed to do once to Steve, all in good fun of course ) Also when you smash someone, a Polaroid photo graphic appears in the lower left showing who is is you smashed. If you are racing against a human player(s), a green Taunt will appear at the bottom of the screen showing who you bashed – and vice versa (red if you are smashed to show you who it was). For me this was perhaps the most enjoyable part of the game – yes you can play through an entire race without ever wrecking another rival but you’re missing out on what the game is ultimately about if you decide to go that path.
As far as the power-up system goes, it’s not exactly Mario Kart as it might seem at first glance. There is a scoring system in place and you get points from doing things like smashing into your opponents or wrecking them with your weapons. Your score will directly affect your final ranking at the end of each round and it also affects which power-ups you have access to. The more points you grab, the more weapons you unlock on the “Jerk-O-Meter”. That’s right, the game incentivizes you to be a total jerk. The weapons you have to unlock in a race include a gatling gun, missile launcher, speed boost, Tiny Truck, MegaWheels, Mine Launcher and the Frostbite. While some of those are obvious as to how they work, let me explain a couple. With the Tiny Truck, it miniaturizes your vehicle and gives it “on-rails” handling and speed for a short time. Any other truck you run into gets smashed. Megawheels gives your truck 2x sized wheels with steel spikes that crush and pummel enemy trucks(not hard to miss if you see a rival with it activated). The Mine Launcher is a great weapon that is sort of like a shotgun – several mines are thrown out in front of you and you can kick them along, almost like soccer balls. It works out much better than your typical mine weapon. Then there is Frostbite, the most powerful weapon in the game. Activating it will freeze all opponents within a spherical radius that quickly expands from your truck. If frozen, you have to jerk the wheel side to side quickly to shake the ice off (one idea was to have the feedback change on the wheel to make it feel like you were shaving ice but that didn’t work out). While not a weapon, it’s worth noting the Speed Boost – unlike a lot of modern racers there is no boost button on the cabinet, this is only an occasional pick-up to give you a one time advantage. Once you collect a weapon an icon of what it is will hover above your vehicle and you activate it by yanking the crank(pictured). As with the throttle on H2Overdrive, this crank was engineered specifically for the expected abuse of the arcade environment – the skull you see there isn’t screwed on for people to take off.
Another function the crank serves is at the end of the race in a mini-game called “Yank The Crank”. This is a great idea that plays upon the idea of a slot machine but serves as an incentive for the players to play again immediately. You have a wheel on the screen(that reminds me of the big wheel game on The Price is Right) and yanking the crank will spin it. There are a number of special items you get a chance to win, which can give the player a distinct advantage at the beginning of the next race. One of the best items you can get are the mines, since you can shoot those out and start the next race off with a blast – unless you get a “You Lose” of course.
There is one last weapon of a sort that you can’t pick up, it only is activated when one human player reaches the finish line. That activates bundles of dynamite on every truck that hasn’t reached that line. If you don’t reach the line before 5 seconds is up, you’re toast. Also worth mentioning are the crates scattered through each track. Crates are placed randomly for each race, so it’s different each time. There are 3 types of crates: X2 (powers up your next weapon for double the firepower), extra points (gives you 5K points so you can unlock the next weapon faster), and free race (awards you a free race – you can also win a free race on the prize wheel). Smashing into the crate yields its payload to you.
There are some tactics involved here as well. Double tapping the gas at any time will make your truck jump. Jumping is a way to shake any target lock off of you in the case of missile and gatling gun attacks. If you can time it right then you can also avoid getting hit by other attacks thrown at you (which will be often). You can also use the double tap to get more air off of jumps which aside from being fun, can also be used to reach secret areas and power-ups.
There are 14 tracks to enjoy, 7 more than we saw on H2Overdrive. You have seven areas and then the “flipped” version, which they tweaked to stand out from just being mirrored tracks by changing power-up placement, the time of day and a few other minor things. One track, Revenge of the Nile is also a homage to the Nile Adventure course from Hydro Thunder. Most of the tracks follow the point-to-point formula (start at one point and head to another without laps) although two in particular,the Brawlessuem(pictured) and the Iron Circuit are actually looped and you have three laps to finish. As noted, there are achievements for you to grab, roughly 50 total – per track (so about 700). And speaking of secrets above, there are hidden paths to explore and even better, invisible power-ups – at least a few per track. Sometimes its a matter of making a turn just right, or jumping off the ramp at just the right angle and time, others its about taking a risk and maybe trying to smash through walls, which may or may not have a path behind them.
Also available are 11 vehicles of differing designs, mostly monster truck style machines made for mayhem. All of them share the same speed and handling but differ in aesthetics; one of the trucks is locked and awarded to players who create a PIN using the keypad on the right of the dashboard. You also accumulate coins called “bones” as you play and can spend those coins in the Gearbox (which appears right after selecting your vehicle) on tricking out your vehicle with mudflaps, dice, different paint jobs, tires etc. You can even purchase a bobble head that sits in the lower left corner of the screen.
The cabinet for Dirty Drivin’ has a bit going on that is worth noting. Above is a picture of the dashboard – they have some gauges here (they actually wanted to use some realistic gauges but those turned out to be cost prohibitive) but they also have these dash lights. The lights will actually indicate the status of your vehicle in the game, which is a nice touch. The lights overhead on the marquee will also light up for the race leader. Here’s a key of what the dashboard lights mean(from left to right):
1. Service Engine – Player has been attacked or DNFs
2. Check Tires – Player loses tire (multiplayer), or player is using MegaWheels (single player)
3. Bonus Miles – Player smashes open a crate
4. Stop Ahead – Finish line ahead
5. Cargo Loaded – Weapon loaded
6. Gear – Weapon launched
7. Airbag – Player attacks enemy
8. Seatbelt – Player is wiping out
Admittedly, I didn’t really notice them while playing but they are more to assist in the overall aesthetic than something essential that you must know.
Graphically here are some stats for you to chew on – the game runs at a consistent 60 fps at 1366×768 resolution running on a 42″ LCD monitor. Achieving that is one of the more difficult parts of the development process they mentioned. They use high resolution textures with bump and normal mapping, and some level of anti-aliasing. Dynamic lighting is used along with shadows (such shadows happen to be one thing H2Overdrive didn’t use). The environments are richly detailed with plants, structures and vibrant color; dirt and snow can be caked onto your vehicle which is a nice touch(seen in some detail on the picture to the right). While not many, there are a few animated objects in the game such as some large spiders, a T-Rex dinosaur and a Yeti – all done by an animator who worked on James Cameron’s AVATAR(the movie, not the game). I have a few direct screens here on the article but they certainly don’t do the game justice when you see all of this going on in front of you.
As far as sound goes, the game uses a sound system that when set to an appropriate volume, manages to shake the cabinet well, producing it’s own feedback in that manner. One thing I noticed when I saw the first footage of the game is that it uses dynamic announcing. The announcer is the main character of the game called Bone Daddy, whose vehicle you have access to once you use the PIN (called the Bone Wagon). He has hundreds of lines to share which is another thing to give players something to come back to and it helps give the game further depth.
At present the game will be made available in two languages – English and Chinese (we saw a picture of the Chinese version recently at the GTI Asia China Expo). They even made sure to record all of Bone Daddy’s commentary in Chinese as well. I’ve pointed out many times that China is a growing market for amusement and that has been confirmed to me by increased developments lately to include Chinese versions as one of the first languages available.
To answer a question about online connectivity, no this game does not use the Coin-Up system for stats tracking. Specular gets a lot of questions about home ports of their arcade games and they do recognize the interest in such things but also know that they need to keep operators needs in mind. So there is nothing to pass along in this regard.
All in all, Dirty Drivin’ is a worthy successor to H2Overdrive, something I would gladly put into my own arcade as it’s fun, addicting and I know it would do well. They are in the process of working on their next title although at the moment they were very tight lipped about it, all I manged to find out was that they are super-excited about it but for now we’re going to have to wait to find out anything else as to what it will be exactly.
In case you missed it, the official trailer for Dirty Drivin’
Not just Dirty Drivin’
With H2Overdrive being the most recent title the company has released aside from Dirty Drivin’, it was brought up a few times in conversation. The game has done very well for the company and has created more than a few fans. A lot of fans want to see it ported to consoles one day, which is the number one thing they get emails about in this regard. It’s also done very well overseas, which is always a good sign for any company. They had a couple of 3D models of the Lil’ Kahuna boat there, which were made on one of those cool 3D printers; one had been made and painted for a huge fan of the game in Australia, an autistic boy who plays the game almost non-stop. They also had a production unit of H2Overdrive at the Specular office, although it was the personal property of one of the team members, Brian Silva. Each team member gets their own arcade unit as a reward for their hard work on the game, which is an awesome perk.
As Steve was the creator of Hydro Thunder, he also shared some great experiences from how that came to being. He got the inspiration from visiting Lake Powell in my home state of Utah. At first management at Midway didn’t think it was worth the effort but Steve pressed on to have a concept put together. The first big break for Hydro Thunder came when the CEO of Midway, Neil Nicastro made a visit to the San Diego studios to look at all of the projects in the works by various teams. He was brought in to see what Steve and his small team were working on, which wasn’t a whole lot at that point – they had a paper document and 3 real time animated scenes of a boat floating in water using an engine Steve was developing in his little spare time. Based upon what Mr. Nicastro saw there, it impressed him enough to greenlight the project on the spot (after sitting through the presentation silently, which is always nerve-wrecking and lighting it with a “OK. Let’s do it!”). After the game was green-lit, they began the hard work of moving the game from concept to professional product. A year later, Mr. Nicastro returned to see how the game had progressed. Steve pointed out that the Friday night before Neil would return the worst had to happen – the throttle for the prototype broke. This had to happen of course at 1AM in the morning before the presentation, and it didn’t help that company management had been pressuring the team to drop the throttle in lieu of a gas pedal. So they had to scramble early in the morning to get something suitable put together, which they did. All of the hard work and hours paid off however as Neil was scheduled to check out the game for 10 minutes, but ended up playing it for an hour. His interest in the game was a premonition for what was to come as Hydro Thunder became Midway’s most successful game at the time. As typical with these video games, it still took a lot of effort and time to get the game to it’s final production version – something that is common for all professional video games but the massive amounts of overtime team members put into their work is not something we always realize.
Brian Silva who works for Specular as their creative director also worked on the Hydro Thunder team and he just so happens to be the guy you see on the Hydro Thunder sideart (pictured, not at Specular’s studios but via KLOV). A Hydro Thunder cabinet sits right at the entrance to Specular’s offices.
Both Steve Ranck and Brian Silva were involved in the development of Hydro Thunder 2 before that was canned by Midway’s closure of it’s arcade studios in the early 2000’s. Brian mentioned that the game was nearly complete, with many of the tracks and vehicles completed; Steve also mentioned toying with the idea of using things like heated air bladders to blast some hot air into the player’s face when they would fly through explosions and one of the team’s family members adamantly wanted a water mist spray feature to be added to the game on top of that.
I’m grateful for the opportunity I had to visit the Specular Interactive office and spend some time with the people who make these games a reality so arcade operators like myself have a product to offer to our customers and to bring people into the arcade. If you come across Dirty Drivin’ at a local venue, don’t hesitate to check it out. My thanks again to Steve Ranck for being patient with all my questions and giving me the grand tour, and to the rest of the guys who also answered my questions and showed the game off.