The 13-year veteran development studio behind Trials has lost none of its youthful exuberance
How Finnish studio RedLynx has retained its playful spirit since its acquisition by Ubisoft
Unwavering dedication. That’s all you need if you want to pull off an unblemished run on one of the Trials series’ Extreme tracks. But with each inevitable failure you’ll become a slightly better rider until, eventually, you find the perfect balance of technique and power. And if you speak to company CEO Tero Virtala, it’s apparent that RedLynx approaches game development in much the same way.
“We have made over 100 games, in all types of genres and with all types of game mechanics,” he tells us. “By trial and error, we just found out that we seem to be really good at developing physics models and creating designs that fit with those physics. We have the persistence to keep on polishing and tweaking and polishing and tweaking, accepting some errors and then going back and trying to redo it.”
It’s an approach that resulted in Trials HD, one of XBLA’s most successful games. It was also the game that brought what was then a small Finnish studio to the world’s attention, blending note-perfect riding physics with incredibly challenging tracks. But it was a nine-year journey before the studio found its niche.
Founded in 2000 as RedLynx Laboratories (itself spun out of Wah-Software, a studio set up in the ’90s by RedLynx co-founders Antti Ilvessuo and his brother, Atte), the studio started as a work-for-hire studio specialising in Java games. Among its early releases, which included Micro
Rowing and Micro Boxing, was a simplistic stunt bike game called Trials. Among its numerous other projects, that game has been iterated on many times over the company’s 13-year lifespan, the most recent entries being Trials Fusion and
Trials Frontier, itself a mobile game (albeit a little bit more advanced than a Java app).
These days, RedLynx has around 100 employees, not including the Ubisoft studios it can now call on since it was acquired by the French publisher in 2011. There are two development teams (one focused on Fusion and the other on Frontier), a live operations team that deals with community feedback and technical issues, and an in-house quality control team. With between 15 to 20 people, depending on what’s required at the time, the internal QC team can react faster than Ubisoft’s own QC services. “In addition to our developers, we need to have people who really like Trials and just keep on playing the game and finding those details that have to be in order,” Virtala explains. “I actually come from the game-testing world,”
Trials Frontier lead designer Justin Swan says. “I was a developer and tester a while ago at Microsoft, so I’ve always valued testing very highly. I’ve worked at different studios that handle things in different ways. I was at PopCap before here, and they didn’t have much of an internal QC studio – a couple of people. Having our test guys in the room over there is great. You’ve got the guy in all the meetings who’s stressed out about the bugs, and that’s a good thing many other companies need to, because they have existed from the start. To always challenge yourself, always try to create games that would be different. It’s easy to come up with designs, but the really innovative parts are actually created when you give freedom to the people who are developing something.”
That freedom and “crazy humour” is aptly demonstrated when creative director Ilvessuo bursts into the room at considerable speed sitting astride a micro trials bike – one of two displayed in reception – to say hello. On a previous visit, we were lured into the studio’s wrestling room by the creative director and physically attacked. “Yeah. I sit right next to him,”
“WHEN YOU SEE THE CO-FOUNDER WRESTLING, MAYBE YOU’RE GETTING LESS DONE, BUT YOU’RE CHILLING OUT A BIT”
sometimes, especially from a design perspective. I just want to go willy-nilly crazy, but I need the guy who says, ‘This is going to cause a few bugs and it’s never going to get tested in time.’”
While the company has expanded from a handful of friends to a 100-person Ubisoft subsidiary, the studio culture and ambition established in those early days remains at the heart of the company. “I think there are a lot of similarities between the company at the beginning and what it has become,” Virtala says. “Part of it naturally comes from the fact that, when I consider us being 20 people a long time ago, actually ten to 15 of those people still work here. So they actually formed the core of the company back then and, of course, the early employees who have been here for over ten years, they create some of the habits and how we behave in those early phases without even noticing.
“I’d say that’s a lot of crazy humour, innovation, openness and being very frank, and I think that’s been one of the reasons why we haven’t had to impose those types of values that says Swan. “I’m the main buffer between him and the real world, mostly. It’s been… interesting. I had to get very large headphones at one point during crunch time, otherwise nothing was getting shipped!”
But Ilvessuo’s ineffable personality represents, in Swan’s opinion, RedLynx’s unique way of doing things. “When you see the co-founder and one of the biggest people in the company riding a little motorcycle around, wrestling people to the ground and having a good time, maybe you’re getting less work done, but you’re chilling out a bit and coming up with some crazy stuff. The culture is super-open; it’s amazing how open it still is, even after the Ubisoft acquisition. We’ve been able to maintain who we are, our identity and things like that.”
Ilvessuo remains modest when we put Swan’s assertions to him, but agrees that RedLynx is built on freedom. “Take, for example, the three [optional] challenges on each Trials Fusion track,” he says. “It’s not like I or some other lead designer decreed, ‘These are the challenges
you must do.’ We have eight really good guys who were given freedom to invent stuff, make them amazing – and that shows in the game when you play it. We don’t have people who sit there and are ‘creative Gods’. Everyone can be creative in their own work, and I think that’s the really big part of RedLynx.”
Swan also believes Ilvessuo is the driving force behind RedLynx’s culture of obsessive polishing, which while not always applied in enough coats to every element of its games, has ensured that the studio is peerless when it comes to physics-based gameplay. “Where it comes from is definitely Antti,” Swan says. “He’s like, ‘Why isn’t this right, right now?’ It’s such a no-bullshit thing from him, which is really great. He really pushes a lot of that. It can cause a lot of friction when you’re trying to get a game shipped; whenever he shows up over your shoulder and says, ‘Why is that like that? It’s stupid,’ And you think, ‘Yeah it is stupid,’ and you have to change it. The perfection thing comes from the culture, top down, which is what Antti is providing, [and from] really good hiring.
“You can guarantee that the studios that are making really polished games, they are super passionate, they have great leadership, leaders on the team who are making something they’re proud of. We’ve had teary-eyed moments talking about the game releasing, and nice things people have said about it. At the same time when you have things like 5/10 reviews coming out and they only want to talk about the free-toplay component, that’s hard.”
Edge’s 5/10 Frontier review found problems with more than just the business model, but we certainly found the game’s free-to-play element overbearing. Any internal upset over the game’s widely negative critical reception would have been mitigated, we imagine, by the six million downloads it enjoyed in its first week – a record opening seven days for a Ubisoft mobile game.
“We all knew what we were stepping into with [ Frontier],” says Swan. “First off we had a hardcore game, traditionally for a hardcore gamer, and we turned it into free-to-play. There was no way we could get away with that without some critical backlash. We all knew that. We said, ‘Don’t expect this to be nothing but sunshine and rainbows when we ship it.’ It doesn’t matter how good a free-to-play game [it is]… you even have Hearthstone getting grief for its free-to-play mechanics. If people are going to complain about that game, there’s no winning.”
It’s fair to say that RedLynx would have faced less cynicism if Frontier didn’t carry the Trials brand, so why didn’t the studio create something new instead? “It’s a good question,” says Swan. “It’s a risky thing to do because we’ve all seen what can happen when you take a beloved and hardcore franchise and make it free-to-play and mobile. Look at Dungeon Keeper – that’s the prime example of how badly that can go. I definitely think it was a risk, but it was partly because of the fact that Trials is so well-known, and I knew myself that I wanted a Trials game on my phone. I loved Trials on PC and on console, and I’m mostly doing my gaming on mobile now. And there are tons of Trials clones out there. I downloaded every single one, because I was psyched: ‘Finally, Trials on my phone!’ Then you load it up and it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ It’s never right. The physics are never even close.” Virtala says that each time one of these
Trials clones was released, the studio would be bombarded with requests from series fans for an official mobile game. “They weren’t able to explain what was wrong with these other games, but when we played them, we knew it,” he says. “The physics model wasn’t polished enough. If you played the game on a harder level, and you made a mistake, it felt frustrating – but you didn’t think it was your fault; you thought there was something wrong with the game.”
The problem of player frustration, even in the face of apparently insurmountable challenge, is one avoided by Ilvessuo’s design philosophy. “Personally, I don’t like the kind of game design
EACH TIME A TRIALS CLONE WAS RELEASED, THE STUDIO WOULD BE BOMBARDED WITH REQUESTS FOR AN OFFICIAL MOBILE GAME
where you make the player overpowered but then punish them in some way for failure. Instead, I like to keep the game challenging but then help you – for example, in Trials, an obstacle might look impossible, but actually it’s easier than it appears. You make a move, and you’re like, ‘I got it! I feel good.’” If you’ve ever achieved a platinum medal in
Trials, then, you have Ilvessuo’s generosity of spirit to thank. And it is clear, too, that despite now being corporately owned, RedLynx has lost little, if any, of its non-conformist spirit over the years, and Ubisoft hasn’t tried to stifle it. “It’s crazy how much they let us keep doing,” Swan says. “Of course, they’re paying attention, but they’re giving us a lot of rope to hang ourselves with – or bungie jump with. We have a lot of rope and we’re going to do something with it.”
Antti Ilvessuo (left), RedLynx’s co-founder and creative director, and Justin Swan, lead game designer on Frontier
RedLynx’s current offices wrap around an open well in the centre of the building, which makes them perfect for riding laps on the studio’s selection of scooters and motorbikes