The Making Of: Batman – the design, coding and branding of a modern arcade game

Batman cabinets under construction by Raw Thrills’ contractor UNIS Games, which also builds for Sega and Namco.

Brian Silva is Specular Interactive’s creative director, but he’s also a dialogue director, researcher, level designer and the voice of Mr Freeze. Specular’s new Batman arcade racer is a blockbuster game with a blockbuster hook – ten different Batmobiles torn from Bat-history in an open-world arcade driving game – but it’s also a game that was built by a team of just seven, and everyone had to multitask.

“I’ve been making games since the SNES and Sega Genesis,” says Silva, who also voices The Penguin, Scarecrow, and various goons and cops. “I grew up in the big arcade heyday, and to me arcade games are still the pinnacle of coolness in videogames. When you finish a project, you can walk into a room and see it – you don’t have to open a box or click a little app – and arcade gaming is so different from home gaming. With home gaming, you’re given a lot more freedom to gradually introduce the player to the game and the concepts, but in the arcade the player needs to get it in five seconds. You can’t stop the game, you can’t pause the game, you can’t do a tutorial system in the arcade; if they don’t get it on their own, you’ve failed.”

Less visible differences play out behind the scenes. Batman began shipping to American arcades in mid-December, marking the end of a two-year development project. But putting players behind the wheel of a Batmobile had to be done without costs ever approaching the budget of a Call Of Duty. “Those guys probably pay as much for food as we do for an entire project,” Andrew Rai, the art director in charge of replicating 11 Bat-vehicles and a sprawling Gotham City, jokes. “We’re aiming for triple-A quality with a C-game budget. I think we did pretty well for ourselves.”

Specular has made arcade racing games in collaboration with Raw Thrills before, and both H2Overdrive and Dirty Drivin’ were successful cabinets for the teams, but Batman is a more ambitious game by far. In it, players take one of ten Batmobiles or a single Batwing out onto the streets of Gotham. There, they’ll battle common criminals and the game’s three bosses across a mission-based campaign that the studio had to design with little room for redundancy. Silva’s recording sessions with the other voice actors had to go perfectly every time to keep costs down, Rai’s team had to stick to a day-to-day schedule and design every art asset with an eye on the clock, while studio president and founder, technical director and engine programmer Steve Ranck spent six months locked away while he built the game’s engine almost from scratch.

While Batman has ten Batmobiles, Specular sort of cheated with two. A silver variant of the 1966 Batmobile is based on a toy, while the camouflage Tumbler is the pre-Batman version seen in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises.

While Specular handles coding and cabinet concepts, Raw Thrills takes care of manufacturing and distribution of the $7,575 cabinets, placing them in a familiar publisher/developer relationship of sorts. After Dirty Drivin’ hit arcades in 2011, Specular moved onto a cops-and-robbers concept in need of a licence “because nothing like that has been done in the arcade”, Ranck says. “Crazy Taxi is the closest thing, but that only has one mission; we have 37. Doing racing games is pretty safe even now the market is smaller than it was in the ’80s and ’90s, but an open-world driving game where it’s mission based is something completely different. That’s the risk factor. [Raw Thrills] was a little nervous to make something like that, but tie it to a strong licence and that’s the tipping point.”

Spy Hunter was a likely candidate for the development team in the early days, but even that game’s arcade heritage was too weak for Raw Thrills. “One day we thought, ‘What about Batman?’” Ranck says. “He has all these tools, great vehicles and he’s the ultimate cop versus the ultimate robbers.”

Arcade games are a different kind of design with a different kind of starting point. Terminator Salvation and Aliens Armageddon are among Raw Thrills’ lineup, Namco trades off of Mario Kart in Europe and America, and Sega made more from Rambo in the west than it ever could with another Virtua Fighter. 2014’s first major release is the Sega-made Transformers: Human Alliance shooter. As arcades have changed, design trends have shifted to match, and today arcade veteran Ranck works to find the ground between instant appeal and a game requiring enough skill to be worth a second play.

“We shipped Hydro Thunder in 1999/2000, and that was probably right before the arcade industry took a huge nosedive,” he says. “Hydro Thunder was a skill-based game and [the boats] were difficult to drive, but players in that era loved the challenge of skill-based games. Nowadays, there’s a saying in the arcade industry: ‘Skill kills’. But we always try to build in a level of skill, even if it’s not required to play the game well. If we made a lousy game and put the Batman emblem up, I think we could probably get a lot of first players just from people walking over to have a look. The difficult part is to get that second play. That’s what we’re really after; if we get that second play, then we’ve done our job.”

Joel Schumacher neon meets Burton’s Gothic aesthetic and Nolan’s realistic Gotham in a world built to support any Batmobile.

In a space where skill kills, the first challenge for a game initially named Batmobile was making Batman’s cars feel like they’re being driven by Batman, rather than a clumsy first-time arcade player. Giving players full control meant throttling the cars to an unacceptable degree. “You felt like you were moving very slowly in this car,” Ranck explains. “And that was no good. You’re Batman. You have to be sitting in the cockpit and moving at really high speed. I don’t know if you’ve ever watched someone play in the arcade – we watch people a lot – but there’s a lot of overcorrecting going on. Now imagine that amplified to Batmobile speeds and add right-angled turns at intersections. That was a lot to ask [of] players in this open-world environment, so we decided to try something unique.

“We came up with this idea to do a slot-car system. If you hold it straight, your car will drive down the road straight. If you want to change lanes, you turn and as soon as you straighten the steering wheel the car straightens out. Players aren’t even aware of it, but the car just seems to be more responsive. When they hit an intersection, the player just wants to crank the wheel, so it automatically skids and then moves the vehicle in the right direction. It was a several-month project getting that to work, but once we had that down, it was a great day. Nobody knew what was going on; they just felt like they were in charge.

“There’s always the point in the project where the game goes from nobody wanting to play it to everybody wanting to play it. Hydro Thunder was not a fun game at all [at first], but then one day I remember it being two or three in the morning and the team staying in just to play the game. The same thing happens with the games we make here at Specular. There’s some magical turning point midway through the project where it just changes.” Batman was in development for two years, Ranck adds, but it wasn’t fun to play for the first year and a half.

The handling model had to be perfect to ensure the Batmobiles were the stars of the show. Batman features two versions of the 1966 Adam West open-top, the Batman and Batman Returns Tim Burton gothmobile, Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever and Batman & Robin neon missile, various versions of the Batmobile from The Animated Series and The Brave And The Bold, Chris Nolan’s Tumbler, and even Rocksteady’s Arkham Asylum Batmobile, drivable for the first time.

Batman’s drivable vehicles span the ages – from the 1966 Adam West open-top through to Chris Nolan’s Tumbler.

“There are hundreds of Batmobiles,” Silva says. “I think what it came down to was the time we had for the project and what we perceived as being the most recognisable. There are some super-cool Batmobiles from the comics that are a little more on the fringe for most Batman fans, and we gradually whittled down the list to a shortlist, and then that list down to the ones in the game. The last to be cut was the original Batmobile from the 1940s.”

As a bonus, Specular included an 11th vehicle: the Bat from The Dark Knight Rises, built using the movie’s CAD models, as supplied by Warner Bros itself. “I was honestly very impressed with Warners,” Ranck says. “For such a large company, I was really surprised with the responsiveness we received. They seemed excited from the very beginning. We actually received the computer model of the Bat and they got us the Arkham Asylum Batmobile from Rocksteady. I reached out to Rocksteady twice and I didn’t get a response, so I went to Warner and they said ‘Sure!’ and sent us the model right away.

“We had to submit everything through Warner,” Ranck continues. “Every aspect of this giant game we had to submit to them for their approval. Typically, we would get it back within one to two days. Sometimes up to one week, but typically one to two days.”

What support was on offer was essential to Specular’s art department, as small as it was. “We tried to stick to the materials Warner gave us,” Rai says, “but many of the materials provided were all very comic book based and the bottom line was we had to make Gotham City look like any of the Batmobiles from any of the movies and any of the TV shows could fit within it. If we made something too cartoony, then the Tumbler wouldn’t fit in there. If we made something too desaturated, then the Schumacher Batmobile or the Animated 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.

Though it was drivable in 1993’s Batman Returns, the 1989 Batmobile by Tim Burton’s production designer Anton Furst is more appealing in its modern coin-op guise.

“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 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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