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Midlife Gamer Meets: Matt Small Of Vector Unit

August 9th, 2010 by

We adored Vector Unit’s Hydro Thunder Hurricane when it was released on to XBLA this year, so much in fact that we gave it an 8 out of 10, hailing it as “one of the most fun and compelling racers in recent memory”. We wanted to know more about the team behind the game, so we caught up with Matt Small to talk about the resurgence of the racer, future DLC for HTH,  and the possibility of another entry in the ‘Thunder’ series…

Xero: Could you introduce yourselves to the Midlife Gamer community, who are you and what do you do?

Matt Small: My name is Matt Small. I’m the Creative Director at Vector Unit, which at our company is kind of a hybrid between a Lead Designer and an Art Director.  For Hydro Thunder Hurricane, I designed all the tracks, built the 3D models for several tracks and boats, and art directed the game.

X: The next question is one we always ask everyone we interview here at Midlife Gamer, what is your favourite beverage and what is your favourite biscuit (also called cookies outside the UK)?

MS: Favorite beverage is unquestionably beer.  (Do you ever get any answers other than that?)  Specifically IPA – although I’m partial to smooth frothy cask ales like Boddington’s too.  Favorite cookie is either peanut butter or ginger snaps – I can’t decide!

X: Your latest project was Hydro Thunder Hurricane, can you tell us a bit more about the title?

MS: Hydro Thunder Hurricane just shipped on Xbox Live Arcade this last week. It’s a return to the classic arcade racers of yore – colorful, fun, fast with crazy shortcuts and ridiculous set pieces like dinosaurs and giant Norse gods that attack the track. The kind of racing games they don’t make enough of any more, IMHO. HTH is an accessible game – it’s not a realistic simulation like Gran Turismo – but there’s a hard core racing mechanic there for players who want to try and shave tenths of seconds off their best time.

X: Are you treating this title as more of a sequel or a remake to the first Hydro Thunder? In addition, which elements from the original did you feel were essential when first designing the title?

MS: It’s a proper sequel. Our goal was to create a game which captures the spirit of the original while providing the depth, controls, and graphics you would expect from a modern console title. To do that, we had to rewrite everything from scratch, and then play test the hell out of it to make sure we kept the stuff that made the original game great.

One of the first things we did was to make a list of what people remembered most favorably from the original. Obviously this included the crazy fast transforming rocket boats, the giant drops off cliffs and waterfalls, the over-the-top “theme park” environments, the secret shortcuts, the announcer, etc. The list is actually pretty long, but we were able to include just about all of these elements that made the original game what it was.

But we didn’t want the game to be just a graphic upgrade of the original. All of the tracks in Hurricane are new, for instance.  We also added a few new game modes as well, such as the Ring Master slalom game and the Gauntlet event, which is a time trial with exploding barrels. The most important new thing is the water physics engine. It’s completely interactive, and constantly changing as boats drive through it, or giant avalanches splash into it. The water is really the star of the show – every race feels a little bit unpredictable.

X: Can you tell us a little more about the multiplayer?

MS: Multiplayer is a very important feature for us.  We support up to 8 players over Xbox LIVE, and the implementation is silky-smooth, if I do say so myself. You won’t see boats jumping all over the place. I think we got that part really right. We also support 4 player split screen, and you can play split screen online, so you can have 2 friends playing locally against 6 other people online.

I think the Multiplayer is really one of the most fun features in the game. We spent a lot of time balancing the boats, and tuning the boost system so that races always feel close and competitive. Plus the tracks are designed to be played quickly – maybe 2-3 minutes per race – so if you lose one, no big deal, you can just jump back in and try to win the next.

X: Are there plans for supporting the title long-term with DLC?

MS: Yes. I can’t say too much about it yet, but there definitely will be new tracks and new boats.

X: Have you had much input from the original Midway team on the project?

MS: Not a ton. Midway gave us their assets from the original game to look at, and we studied them closely but didn’t directly use any of it. Also one of the producers from the original game was able to play it and give us the thumbs-up. He really liked it, which was great for us to hear.

X: We’ve seen a recent resurgence in interest in racing games, racing games with an action heavy edge especially (Blur, Split/Second Velocity, Modnation Racers etc). Why do you feel this is?

MS: Racing games will never go away – they’re like the essence of competition. That said, you can only go so far with a sim, in my opinion. All you can do is make it more and more realistic, and pile on tons of options. If racing games are going to attract new fans from outside the hard core racing gamer base, they need to make the games accessible and add some kind of flashy hook. The trick is balancing that so you don’t lose sight of the pure racing principles, or you’ll make it too casual and lose the core audience.

X: What’s next for Vector Unit after the release of Hydro Thunder Hurricane? Are there any plans to take on other Thunder properties in the near future?

MS: We don’t currently have plans for any more Thunder properties, although we’ve had a lot of requests for a revamped Arctic Thunder. We’re just focused on creating and tuning the DLC, and pitching new ideas to publishers.

For more information on Vector Unit and Hydro Thunder, visit their website.

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