I think it's fair to say that no-one was expecting the developer behind slightly shonky games as Bet on Soldier and The Cursed Crusade to become the next big thing in the racing genre, but here we are. The Parisian studio Kylotonn has been around a fair while, having shipped some 25 games since it was founded back in 2002, but it's a name I - and I'm sure countless others - was unfamiliar with when it took over the WRC series back in 2015. It was a fairly inauspicious start, but the progress made since then has been nothing short of phenomenal.
Kylotonn made the decision to switch to making racing games for one simple reason - and it's a pretty good reason too: studio founder Roman Vincent loves cars, and enjoys racing them too. He campaigned a E-Type in some vintage racing, a past-time I'm sure could get expensive given how much one of Jaguar's finest sportscars is worth ("Well," says Vincent, "the goal was not to crash!")
"10 years ago, something happened," Vincent recalls. "I don't know why exactly, but I just realised that I really wanted to focus on what I love. It was a very personal thing." That notion coincided with Big Ben renegotiating the WRC licence on which developer Milestone had been working on for some years - and Vincent sensed an opportunity.
"It was in fact a sort of competition at the beginning," he says. "The WRC promoter wanted something new, in fact, and they went about opening the licence to new developers. And at this time, Big Ben was only distributing the game, and they wanted to become the official publisher.
"So, you know, it was a lot of different small things. I spent a lot of time convincing the Big Ben president to let us make a test on WRC - and that's the real beginning of the racing story for Kylotonn. And he said why not? Of course, the Milestone guys weren't happy. But that's the rules..."
Of course, it's not as easy as just acquiring a licence - Kylotonn had to acquire some expertise, and it began with Alain Jarniou, a developer whose resume takes in games such as V-Rally 3 and Test Drive Unlimited. Jarniou joined the team in 2014. "From that point, we only make racing games," Jarniou says. "That was a big move for the company. Also, it's a big advantage for us because we can focus on what is important for racing games, and not for adventure games and all the stuff we could have made before. We have our own technology which is called KT engine and it's focused on racing. That's a big advantage for us.
"WRC 5 was our first big step in the genre, so it was not perfect. But over the years with WRC 6, 7 and 8 I think you can see that we improve our technology, we improve our gameplay and we also improve what you can do. That's the story of Kylotonn."
There are a few facets to Kylotonn's output, too. WRC is at the centre, with the newly announced WRC 9 coming this September and with next-gen versions set to follow, while an extension of the licensing deal to 2022 means we'll also have WRC 10 and 11 over the next few years. Meanwhile 2018's already impressive TT Isle of Man outing just got an even more impressive sequel, and on the horizon there's the revival of the Test Drive series to look forward to as well. Binding all that together is a single philosophy when it comes to driving games.
"The best way to do racing games is to start with the most simulation possible," says Jarniou. "Once you've got something that is working with all the systems, with all the mechanisms, all of the engines, tires, suspension, brakes and everything that makes a car go on the road, then you can start to do something with the driving. My objective from the start is to get to simulation level then make driving aids for easier access. It's not easy to get to simulation level - that's why WRC 5,6 and 7 are not perfect. And I won't say they are simulations. But the games are better, and what we've got in the engine is better and better - I'm very confident with what we've got and what we can do with it."
Bikes, of course, pose a very different problem. "Well, you could say it's easy - we can manage four wheels, let's let's put the stuff on two wheels and see what happens. Of course not! It's something that is very, very different from four-wheel vehicles. So we've got to really change the philosophy of what we do. In the engine there are many things that can be reused, of course, but in terms of behaviour it's totally new. It's more about finding the right balance. On a bike you're always looking for the right balance - if you just stopped you would fall off which is not the case with a car! Everything has to be rethought in terms of the vehicle, the centre of gravity, the rider's position. It's very difficult."
It's easy to imagine we'll see both disciplines combined when Test Drive makes its return, though Jarniou is being tight-lipped on what to expect there. "What we can say that is we have the licence and we are making racing games in Kylotonn... I can't say anything about it really - just that we're working on the next Test Drive."
Given the pedigree of that series, and of Jarniou and the team at Kylotonn - where the Lyon office is home to many of those from Eden Games who made the Test Drive Unlimited games - that's still enough to get excited about. I'm equally excited to have another serious player in the racing game space, one that's gone from strength to strength and surely has even more exciting things planned for the future.
"It's my job to find new horizons for the racing genre," says Jarniou. "WRC was a really good licence for us, with TT it's bikes, Test Drive is more about competition and street cars. I worked on Test Drive Unlimited when I was younger. Back then we used to hear a racing game is a racing game - this is not true. You always have something to invent. When we created the Unlimited aspect of Test Drive, it wasn't new for video games - it was new for racing games. And it created a revolution in the genre. We're always working on a future way to make racing games."