Exclusive interview with the head of arcade-developers Specular Interactive

From left, Jordan Edell, Dale Henderscheid, Brian Silva, Steven Ranck, Chien Yu, Thang Nguyen and Andrew Rai. They are some of the team behind the upcoming “Batman” arcade game.

Steven Ranck, creator of “Hydro Thunder” and CEO of Foothill Ranch, CA-based Specular Interactive, gave GCV an exclusive interview detailing his career in the video-game industry as a developer and revealing new information about his company’s upcoming Batman arcade game.

What follows is question-and-answer style transcript of the interview between Ranck and Parker. The bold text represents questions from Parker, and the following normal text is Ranck’s answer.

What is your history in the video-game business?

I made my first game when I was 13, before personal computers were available. I had seen this TV commercial for the “Star Trek Phaser Battle,” an electronic game by Mego back in 1976. With no means to buy the game, it dawned on me that perhaps I could build something like it.

Up to this point, I had taught myself basic electronics and mechanical design by spending pretty much every free moment I had experimenting with an electromechanical construction toy called Fischertechnik. But it wasn’t until that TV commercial that I had the idea to make something much bigger than anything before.

I started by jotting some ideas on paper about how the game would work.

Sketch of the front screen and controls of Ranck’s first game.

Sketch of a side view of the internal mechanics of the “Star Trek game.

Next, I worked through the electronics:

A schematic of the electronics used in his first game.

Then I began on the construction. I carved out some boxes to house the game, and even found a semi-translucent screen to project the Romulan and Klingon ships from behind. I used a Radio Shack 100-in-1 Kit for the sound effects, and everything else was built using Fischertechnik. After some iteration on the design, my very own “Star Trek Phaser Battle” electronic game was fully playable.

A frontal view of the finished game.
The rear view of the game, showing the internal components

The entire project was a great experience, and I really enjoyed watching my friends play the game I had worked so hard at. I knew that this was what I wanted to do for my career.

After my “Star Trek” game, I went on to build many more electromechanical games, such as this “Star Wars” game:

Rank created several games as a child, including this “Star Wars” game.

And this “Pong” game:

This game is based on the classic “Pong

And this puzzle game:

As a child, Ranck also made a puzzle game called “Computation 3k.”

When the Apple II personal computer came out, I mowed lawns for a summer to save up enough money to buy the monitor, which my father required me to do before buying me the computer for Christmas. It had 16KB of memory, a tiny black and white monitor, two game paddles, and saved programs to an audio-cassette tape.

I stayed up all night the first night I had it, and taught myself assembly language which allowed me to make games that ran much faster than those written in the computer’s more accessible language of BASIC.

Over the years, I ended up writing hundreds of games and programs for my Apple II, and eventually designed an add-in sound effects and music synthesizer card that also supported speech generation using the Votrax SC-01 chip (which cost me a whopping $70 at the time!).

About this time, I worked my way through Cal Poly Pomona and received my BSEE. After graduating, I was working for an electronics company when I received a phone call from a friend who was doing some employment recruiting for a company by the name of Midway Home Entertainment in San Diego. 

“Cruisin’ USA” was Ranck’s first major project at Midway.

Always wanting to get back to video-game development, I accepted an interview and got the job. I incurred a 70 mile daily commute and a 50% reduction in salary from what I was previously making, but I knew this was only temporary and that I’d work my way back up with a lot of hard work.

My first project at Midway was to work with a senior programmer to port Crusin’ USA from arcade to the Nintendo 64.

I took this opportunity to learn as much as I could and took on greater and greater programming challenges along the way.

How did you get into game design? And how did you find your way into arcade games specifically?

Although I was working on an N64 game for Midway, the company’s bread and butter at that time were arcade games. In 1996, arcades were still around and Midway was still selling a good number of [games for] them. I had always wanted to work on an arcade game, but didn’t know how I could get myself onto an arcade-development team there.

While on vacation at Lake Powell during the summer of 1996, I had an idea for a boat racing arcade game. I began fleshing out the idea, first on paper, and then hired a concept artist with my own money to sketch out some ideas. I also worked at night on my own rendering engine using the 3dfx Voodoo graphics card. It was all coming together, but I still had the huge challenge of turning this idea from a home-grown concept to an official Midway project.

As fate would have it, that opportunity came to me when a manager asked whether I would mind helping out another team for a few months on their project which was behind schedule. I told them that I’d be happy to help, and asked if they’d loan me two or three guys afterward to flesh out an idea I had for an arcade boat-racing game. And that’s exactly what happened – I helped the other team wrap up their project and then started working on a full-blown presentation with my small team.

Ranck created “Hydro Thunder” with a small team at Midway.

Using the rendering engine I had been working on at night, we built three real-time scenes that depicted a boat floating on reflective water with real dynamic lighting.

It looked amazing for its time.

We also created a bunch of storyboards and artwork, and decorated the work space around us.
The CEO of Midway stopped by for a visit and was whisked into our work space at the end of his day’s visit.

He was only told that there’s a new concept some of his employees wanted to present to him, but knew nothing else.

We walked through the idea with him, showing him everything we’d been working so hard on. When we were done, he stood up and approved the project on the spot. “Hydro Thunder” was born!

Talk a bit about the upcoming Batmobile arcade game. What’s the title? What is the release date? Describe the gameplay.

Batman arcade is Specular Interactive’s latest game, and will be released [Nov. 18] 2013 and distributed around the world. The game was originally going to be called Batmobile, but we changed the name to simply Batman.

“Batman,” Specular Interactive’s latest game, will show up in arcades Nov. 18.

“Batman” gives the player the experience of selecting their favorite Batmobile and driving through the open streets of Gotham City to fight crime. Although it’s a driving game, Batman arcade is not a racer, but instead is a mission-based combat driver.

The game has 36 missions over 6 stages, and ten Batmobiles, including the Batmobile from “Batman: Arkham Asylum,” and the Flying Bat from “The Dark Knight Rises.” Gotham City itself is roughly ten square miles in size and loaded with popular locations from the Batman universe, giving players lots to explore.

The gameplay is high-action, not unlike being in one of the Nolan movies. You’re given a mission by Commissioner Gordon and take to the streets in your Batmobile of choice.

In one type of mission, bad guys armed to the teeth in various types of vehicles swarm the streets of Gotham City. The player uses a variety of Batman’s weapons and gadgets to defeat the enemies, ultimately battling The Joker, Bane or Mr. Freeze at the end.

You can read more about the game on the Specular Interactive website.

Where will people be able to find the game when it’s released? Any specific arcade chains or other places?

It’s too soon to know specific locations, but we’ll hopefully end up in all of the larger locations around the world. If any of your readers finds a Batman arcade game out there, please have them post the location to our Facebook page or on Twitter.

Do you have any tips or advice for those looking to get into game design or the industry at large? What are some lessons you’ve learned throughout your career?

The video game industry can be difficult to get into. There are more applicants than there are positions, and so companies can generally hire those with the best skills and experience.

If you want to get into the game industry, there’s no substitute for hands-on experience, hard work and dedication to learning the craft. Download the free version of Unity 4, search Google and YouTube for the hundreds of Unity tutorials, roll up your sleeves and start making stuff.

You may find it a steep learning curve at first – discouraging even – but if you consistently invest several hours a day, it’ll get easier and easier over the course of several months. After a year, maybe you’ll have some big projects under your belt which you can demonstrate to prospective employers and stand out above the crowd.

I think that people who really love playing games sometimes tend to think they’ll love making games just as much. This hardly ever turns out to be true.

Making games is a lot of very hard work and although it can be fun, it can be very difficult and discouraging at times. If you really have a passion for making games, put in a year of dedicated hard work to learning the craft. If you still love it after that, game development is probably for you!