Stu­dio Pro­file

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,”


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


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

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