Vector Unit

Things You Should Know about Matt Small – Co-Founder and Creative Director

When you talk to Matt, you can almost sense that the Beach Buggy franchise (Beach Buggy Blitz and Beach Buggy Racing) was meant to be.  After all, he’s lived his whole life in California, loved beach buggy television shows (like Speed Buggy and Wonderbug) growing up, and had a hobby of building intricate plastic models of classic American muscle cars.

While you may have read Co-Founder Ralf Knoesel’s team profile, it’s interesting to hear another side of the Vector Unit co-founding story.  (And because you get different answers when you ask different questions.)  While maintaining day jobs (and girlfriends and social lives), Matt and Ralf had been working on a boat combat game in their spare time, but weren’t making much progress.  Matt agrees that the Vector Unit timing was right as a “now or never” moment. Both had some money saved up, neither had hardcore financial obligations, and both were optimistic about the risk.  After all, they could try out the start-up for 6-12 months, and if things didn’t work out, they could probably go back to regular jobs in the games industry, right?

So Vector Unit came to be on January 29, 2008. Matt and Ralf worked out of Ralf’s house for a while, then found super cheap, super tiny office – room for only two desks and a printer.  Code-named “Barracuda” at the time, their boat-racing demo (which later became Hydro Thunder Hurricane) was finished that July.  Ralf and Matt started shopping it around to publishers. Several were seriously interested and they were in the midst of negotiating terms.

But then in September 2008, the economy collapsed. Publishers started pulling out of deals altogether.  Matt and Ralf were soon down to the last of their savings, and job prospects in the game industry were looking pretty bleak.

In the end, Vector Unit signed a deal with Microsoft for Hydro Thunder Hurricane, and they didn’t starve. But that experience contributes significantly to how the company approaches partnerships today.  Matt and Ralf would rather hedge their bets on the uncertainty – and potential reward – of self publishing rather than depend on a publisher for financial viability.

“We learned a core lesson and central truth to negotiating in business,” Matt says. “If you’re negotiating from a place of strength, that’s obviously the best place to negotiate from.  You lay out what you want, and if the other party can’t match that, you need to be able to just walk away.”

Matt has no formal business training, and while he originally thought that running the business was going to be a necessary evil in a way, it’s actually been part of the job that he really enjoys.  Reading contracts is a bit boring, he admits, but he likes strategically deciding on game platforms, choosing which partners to work with, and getting to do a bit of everything including game development, creative direction, art, voice acting, and sound design. (As co-founders, Matt takes care of legal matters and Ralf takes care of financial matters. They share business operation responsibilities.) 

Maybe Matt was meant to be a dabbler.  After all, his career path certainly lends itself to being a Jack-of-all-trades.  After majoring in English Literature at UC Berkeley, Matt got into desktop publishing, laying out advertisements for local businesses. The job was right next to Berkeley Systems, then popular for making famous screensavers. Armed with his art skills and limited programming knowledge from college classes, Matt “faked his way” in with an animation portfolio and says, “They were nice enough to give me a job.”  Learning 2D and 3D animation in his spare time and on the job, this is where he got his original game and management training. In addition to screensavers, Berkeley Systems developed games (including the You Don’t Know Jack! franchise). Matt was responsible for writing proposals for games, negotiating deals for new projects, and through this, eventually worked his way up to creative direction and management. 

English degrees can be put to good use, kids:  “In game development, there’s actually a lot of creative work that calls for you to express ideas clearly.  Being able to write descriptively and use correct grammar and punctuate sentences is always useful,” says Matt.  Matt went on to work at Stormfront Studios, then Electronic Arts before going indie with Vector Unit.

In terms of career advice, Matt encourages people to identify what it is that they enjoy and really go after it, taking chances in advocating for themselves.  “It sounds obvious, but sometimes people are so grateful to have a job in the games industry, and then get pigeonholed into something they don’t really like.”  With Vector Unit being such a small team at the moment, there’s a lot for each person to do, but Matt plans to maintain the mindset he experienced at Stormfront.  Managers were encouraging and supportive of motivated employees who wanted to try new roles, and it’s where he was able to go from artist to art lead, a managerial role with a bit of design bent.  “Most of the things I’m happy with in my career are the things I got because I reached out beyond the job I was doing, and then proving I could do it. That’s really important for any job you’re in.”

If you want to find out even more about Matt, check out this interview from November 2013 at Teck Comes First or just ask in the comments below (which you can do for any of our team members too!).


Matt at E3 2014

The Hydro Thunder that wasn't

We often get the question from interviewers:  "How did a small company like Vector Unit end up with the Hydro Thunder license?"

We usually give the short answer.  But now that the Tempest Pack DLC is out of our hands and flying (I hope, flying) through Microsoft Certification, I thought it might be interesting to take a more in-depth look at how this whole thing started.

The spark

My friend Ralf Knoesel and I met at Stormfront Studios, where among other things we worked together on a boat combat game for the first Xbox called Blood Wake.  Blood Wake had its pluses and minuses, but the feature in the game that everybody on the team loved best was also the one feature that was almost completely hidden as an Easter Egg -- a multiplayer boat soccer game called Blood Ball.

Years later, in 2007, Ralf was still at Stormfront and I was at EA.  We were both feeling itchy in our jobs, and we came up with the idea of starting a little side project, something to work on in the evenings.  We'd always been bummed that Blood Wake 2 never happened, in particular because the design spec called for networked multiplayer and it would have been twelve kinds of awesome.  We figured we'd bust out a quick network-enabled Blood Ball tribute, stick it up on the Internets and see what happened.

Well, it never happened -- turns out its pretty hard to make a game on the side when you have a regular job to work at, and a house to take care of, and friends and family to spend time with.  We kept talking about it, but it kept not happening.

Then late one night in May of 2007 we were online chatting about the idea and how it wasn't happening.  And in the middle of this chat, all of a sudden Ralf comes up with this doozy:

"So I've been having these thoughts....about quitting and doing the small games thing."

Enter Barracuda

Every developer I know daydreams about taking the plunge:  quitting your job and working on your own game.  Most people don't do it, because, let's face it, it's scary as hell.  How will you pay your mortgage?  Where you will you get health insurance?  And -- worst of all -- what if you spend months developing your idea and nobody wants it?

We'd both saved up a little money, and we figured it would be worth the gamble.  We gave ourselves 6 months to make a prototype.  Worst case scenario, we'd spend 6 months working on something we loved, and if it didn't happen we figured we could give it up and go back to working for the Man.

By January 2008 we'd quit our jobs, liquidated every personal asset we could live without, upgraded our PCs, and incorporated a new company -- Vector Unit. 

The first thing we did with the game was to throw our original concept out the window, with the irrefutable logic that we actually wanted to make a game that more than a few dozen people would want to play.  But we stuck with the idea of boats.  Ralf and I are firm believers in the emergent awesomeness of water-based gameplay, and aside from minigames in titles like WiiSports there hadn't been a decent water racing game in about 10 years.  Plus with our experience on Blood Wake, we knew boat gameplay was something we could make happen.

The game we set out to make was code-named Barracuda.  The basic idea was speedboats meets Supercross in a futuristic post-global-warming flooded Earth.  Gameplay was built around catching air off big wave sets and pitching your boat forwards and backwards to land perfectly on the next wave, or dip under it to shoot out the other side.  You could also custom-build your boats from different parts that would affect how the boat performed.

So after 6 months of work we had a playable prototype.  Which is pretty awesome for a couple of guys working out of a garage, if you ask me.   Here's a slightly-touched-up screenshot from the finished pitch. (If you've played Hydro Thunder Hurricane, you might recognize the beginnings of the Tsunami Bowl in the background.)

Is it Hydro Thunder yet?

In July 2007 we started shopping Barracuda around.  We took it up and down the West Coast publishing gauntlet, showing it to every publisher who'd give us the time of day.  Eventually -- thankfully -- three publishers were interested, and one of those was Microsoft Game Studios.  I won't go into all the why's and wherefore's, but let's just say we liked Microsoft's style, and the deal ended up happening with them.  

While we were hammering out the details of the publishing agreement, there was this one producer at MGS who kept talking about how with a few tweaks Barracuda would make an awesome Hydro Thunder sequel.  At first we were like, yeah right, that'll happen.  But the more we all talked about it, the more it started to make sense.  

It wasn't a complete no-brainer for us.  Ralf and I both loved Hydro Thunder, but we also thought Barracuda had great potential as an original concept.  Ultimately we decided that for our first game as a new company, we'd be better off going for the publicity and attention Hydro Thunder would bring to the game.

In January 2009 we told MGS we'd be into making the switch if they could get the license.  Right around that time Midway was going out of business.   I don't know what all went on between them, but suffice it to say Warner Brothers bought the HT license from Midway, MGS was able to acquire the license from Warner, and we signed our deal with MGS in April 2009. 

We were off and running.

And the rest is history

There's a lot more that could be written about exactly what changes we had to make to our prototype to turn it into a worthy successor to Hydro Thunder.  Barracuda was more about the physics and precision control -- Hydro Thunder is all about speed and spectacle.  We had to tweak the physics and boat performance, and completely revamp our level design.  Maybe in some future post if people are interested I'll go into the particulars of just how we broke down the Hydro Thunder design, what we decided to keep, what to throw out, and what to add.

In the meantime, I still sometimes think about the game that Barracuda could have been.  Who knows?  Maybe someday it'll happen.  Personally I think there's room out there for plenty more water racing action.  I just hope we get more chances to add to the catalog.