"After 10 years, you become pessimistic that nobody's going to buy the game," says Antti Ilvessuo, creative director at RedLynx, but with a laugh. He's talking about how he felt going into Trials HD, this summer's big success story on Xbox Live Arcade. He's relaxed because Trials HD has sold over 500,000 copies, which translates to about five million quid.
RedLynx, not entirely surprisingly, turns out to be an office of petrolheads, where lunch-breaks consist of stunt-biking and hospital visits. Nestled in a stark, concrete portion of an otherwise picturesque Helsinki, Finland, it's a quiet place. The building used to house architects, so the small team of 25 people is spread around half a dozen rooms, some for iPhone teams and others for other things. Trials may be the game RedLynx is mostly widely known for, but the developer has done a lot more than the bike stuff.
The studio, co-founded in 2000 by Ilvessuo, has made more than 100 games, most of which are interactive TV, mobile or web games. Notable development time was poured into Nokia's ill-fated N-Gage (Reset Generation, Pathway to Glory, High Seize), and the studio worked with THQ on Warhammer 40,000: Squad Command for DS and PSP. Trials was simply one of many games - an experimental Java effort built around a love of physics, not motorbikes.
"It wasn't about any special game, it was about, 'oh we can use the physics in this way', and we thought hey, this could be cool," recalls Ilvessuo, whose brother helped him invent Trials back in 1999. The idea of sticking obstacles in the way was purely a requirement to prevent players racing to the end of a level, which needed to be small to keep Java file sizes and therefore load times to a minimum. Talk about luck.
Sure enough, Ilvessuo and his brother realised there was more to Trials than they thought. "Suddenly I noticed I can make jumps longer or higher using these techniques." He wiggles his fingers as if holding a pad, demonstrating a bunny-hop manoeuvre familiar to the Trials elite. "And that lead to building tracks differently for better riders. That was the point in the first Java versions that I thought it was pretty fun, because there were moves that I didn't believe I could do before."
Ilvessuo wasn't alone in his newfound appreciation of Trials, as the fresh-faced Java game soon ground Finland's biggest internet operator to a halt. "There were millions - maybe 1, 1.2 million people - pouring in from central Europe to play the game," RedLynx CEO Tero Virtala tells us. "And the Finnish language is like Chinese for most people, but they came from Germany, France, UK, Netherlands, and the internet operator was quite stumped by what this thing was. That was quite a good sign." Yet it was only after seven years of toil and tinkering that RedLynx had enough confidence and "bread on the butter" (er) to realise: "Trials definitely had the potential for something much bigger."
The big breakthrough, says Virtala, was Trials 2. Publishers weren't buying the idea, so RedLynx embarked on an independent venture, in the knowledge that there would be a good prototype to show off if all else went wrong. "We knew we could make a great game," Virtala says, "but could we make it a commercial success? We didn't know. It was a risky approach, but we thought it was worth a shot."
It was, as Trials 2: Second Edition, released early 2008, had Eurogamer enraptured. Media reaction to Trials 2 was one of two "eye-opening" moments for Virtala, the other being, naturally, consumer reaction on Steam, a platform to which RedLynx attributes a large portion of its independent success. Trials 2 has sold over 130,000 copies to date. "Trials 2 was a success," states Virtala, "and publishers wanted to take it elsewhere."
Xbox Live Arcade was picked for two reasons: the partner and the feature-set. Virtala looks back on the decision as "an excellent choice", as was my reindeer carpaccio and smoked salmon fillet later in the day. Taking Trials to console would involve a lot of self-inflicted work, though, as Ilvessuo hates ports and requires every RedLynx game to "fit" with a platform. Virtala agrees: "We are small and whatever game we do for whatever platform, it has to be an excellent game - it has to be something that the players find exceptionally good. We only need one or two or three flops and it's really a radical situation for us. And that's not where we're going."
"Trials HD took the next big step as a completely new game," Virtala explains, onto a platform the audience for which RedLynx wasn't sure about. Would they understand the game? Would they even understand what something called Trials was about? He admits there were "uncertainties", but RedLynx was confident by now that Trials had a core that worked.
"We have a really good team that knows the game. And we have always known that if we keep the focus clear on the core things, then the game will be really good. We have been quite confident all the time that Trials HD will be a really good game." Ilvessuo tells us his "click moment" making Trials HD came when Xbox Live Friends functionality went in, as aliases were swapped in a heartbeat and the inter-office competition began. In the end, 10 people made Trials HD in one year, and half of that, Virtala says, was spent tweaking how riders and bikes behaved in the "totally new" engine (read more about the technology behind Trials HD in our Trials HD tech interview on Digital Foundry). "It might be a small thing, but if something doesn't feel right for the player, the fun factor would be gone."
Trials HD was released during the Summer of Arcade campaign in August and Eurogamer awarded it 9/10. Ilvessuo and Virtala recall how, one week after launch, fans sought them out at gamescom, Germany, to shake their hand and pat them on the back. Combined with promising early XBLA sales, these signs enabled RedLynx to breathe a well-earned sigh of relief. Eurogamer even went on to vote Trials 2/Trials HD as one of the top 10 games of the last decade.
RedLynx has had enough bad luck to understand good fortune, says Virtala, but he's still cautious, and hopes that background in misfortune will prevent the team getting "lost" in success. "We have been through the uphills and the downhills over 10 years. Being on N-Gage and expecting a lot and seeing it not succeed commercially, making interactive TV games - which was a really promising market - that were good but commercially didn't fly. So we know how to appreciate this success," he says.
Downloadable content is next, and for RedLynx it's a way of giving something back. Virtala tells us to expect a "big package" this side of Christmas that is about "serving the community" and "definitely not about trying to make more sales". Eurogamer will run a proper exposé on the DLC as the date nears, but for now rest assured RedLynx is looking at expanding the whole game and not just adding more levels.
"We'll release the DLC and [gamers] will certainly feel like they've been served well," reckons Virtala. "It's really big. We're still working on it. Then when that is out - and we feel it's an excellent package - we will definitely plan well what we are doing next and nail down the core things we are focusing on." As for the near future, Virtala says he's wants to serve the audience responsible for creating the success and make sure they're happy before looking elsewhere.
However, he admits that "Trials has the type of core that would work on a number of different platforms", and that within the Trials brand are "a number of expansion opportunities" (like taking the game outside of a warehouse). A PS3 version, though, is unlikely for "the foreseeable future", as is Trials on Wii, although he does find Nintendo's platform "interesting". It's much more likely that RedLynx, a self-confessed multiplatform developer, will create something new and tailored to those audiences. "One day we will [make more Trials]," says Virtala, "but we don't have the exact plans or ideas for that yet."
One area RedLynx is already exploring is the iPhone App Store. The studio has already made and released two games there: DrawRace (over 100,000 sales) and Monster Truck Nitro (over 200,000 sales). Virtala shows us the iPhone room of the studio where one lonely worker busily beavers away. There are others, we're assured. "iPhone has changed the mindset," he says. "Everyone has been expecting the mobile market to boom for 10 years. It didn't. But now iPhone has opened the eyes to what it could be. Consider that there are maybe three billion or four billion mobile phones out there, and there are maybe 20 million or 30 million iPhones - there is a far bigger market out there waiting."
There is one other room within the RedLynx building that I'm not allowed in, because the team in there is making something new. I punch Virtala and make a run for it, but I'm wrestled to the ground by a herd of reindeer [this wasn't funny earlier either - Ed]. "We've been developing close to 100 games and many of them are smaller but definitely, we believe, there are other diamonds in there," Virtala says once he's recovered. "We have a number of well-tested game ideas we can take further in the next few years. Most have gathered close to 10 million unique players, the free versions, so we know that the core works."
But with success comes renown, and with renown comes scrutiny. "For the next games, everyone's expecting a lot from us," says Virtala, "but now we've had such success we can also really focus on the next game we're doing. We don't have one month or two or three to come out with the game - it's now made sure that nothing can prevent us from planning well, implementing well, focusing well on whatever game we're coming out with next.
"The expectations are high, but I think we're able to turn that into a really positive thing."
There's a full gallery of my trip to RedLynx elsewhere on Eurogamer. Apologies for the horrendous photography.