RedLynx's Tero Virtala
On experimenting with disruptive business practices, putting the community first and the future of Trials
Best known for the hit Trials games, RedLynx has over the past two years built a reputation for releasing very high quality games on PC, iPhone and Xbox Live Arcade, and at the same time experimenting with a number of business models, including releasing games for free and via torrent sites.
In an interview with GamesIndustry.biz at last month's Nordic Game, CEO Tero Virtala discussed the growth of the company, its philosophy of putting the community first, the thinking behind its disruptive business practises and why he's confident the company can establish itself as one of the leaders in new online gaming markets.
Q: Can you tell us how the RedLynx business has changed over the past couple of years since you began creating your own content for digital platforms?
Tero Virtala: Basically we were founded in 2000 and for years we mainly did sub-contracting work for hire for bigger publishers. At the same time we did a lot of prototyping of small games and throughout the years we have maybe made about 100 games. That has been very important for our current success. They are really small games and in a way we've been able to try to innovate new game ideas with these little games and polish them until they are really good. We did them for interactive TV, for mobile, for free web games. Back in those days part of the idea was that those games were also prototypes for potentially bigger games that we could pitch to publishers. Some of them were realised, but some of them, back in those days, we didn't think they would have been big enough to be retail games. But we created a lot of good game ideas and developed our skills.
Then it was about three years ago when digital distribution was starting to open completely new types of opportunities for high quality, but smaller to medium sized games. And we began to think now maybe we can self-finance, develop and publish our first game, which was Trials 2 for PC. It was very successful and it proved the potential in these markets. Then last year we had four games, two for iPhone. Draw Race was very successful in that immediately it sold over 100,000 copies, and then Monster Trucks Nitro, which to date has sold over 600,000 copies.
So now we have about 35 people split into five teams of different sizes. We have a really talented team, we have the knowledge base and we have the know how. The idea is that those teams try to come up with game ideas that are somehow different. We don't have to reinvent the whole wheel but they have to stand out, there has to be something different about them. Our biggest projects are about a year in development. This year we are coming out with eight games on different platforms – iPhone, online consoles, web, PC. There are a number of really good platforms and be they casual gamers or hardcore gamers, they are interested in good games, no matter what the platform.
Q: And you intend to remain on those digital platforms and not grow to create more traditional console titles?
Tero Virtala: The games industry is really interesting because it's changing rapidly but at the same time it's growing at a huge pace. Our approach is to focus on creating and developing really good games that always have something new and different and we'll try to reach a number of platforms. We're developing smaller and medium-sized games for digital distribution, and the prices can be set low but the games can still be high quality and deep enough. At the same time the world is changing so I think it would be risky for a small studio to develop a large game that requires three or four years time, because no one knows what the game world will look like.
Q: Last year was a record year for RedLynx – how are you aiming to repeat that success in 2010?
Tero Virtala: In 2008 we had one of our own games. Last year we had four and this year we're going for eight games and the quality of the games will be good. We've learnt a lot during those years.
Q: Do you intend to keep growing at a similar pace?
Tero Virtala: Maybe not double the output every year but I think there are new markets opening up. When you consider how big digital distribution is going to be, we have the multiplatform development skills, we understand the digital online distribution space. It's not just what games are good but what does the audience appreciate in terms of marketing and what do players appreciate after the game has been launched? There is a really high market space for quality smaller games that can expand to a number of platforms. There aren't too many smaller studios that are going after that and for the big studios it's still very new to them. So in the long term, yes, it's going to be a big market and there is going to be a number of players, but this is the time for new players to get a strong position in the market place, and we have the opportunity to be one of those.
Q: You've released games for free in the past - is that a model that you can continue to sustain as the company grows?
Tero Virtala: That's been part of our philosophy for developing new game ideas. We know we have really god staff, but part of development is that the world is changing so fast and we try to make games that are deep for the gamers and appeal to a casual audience that isn't familiar with games. In that way we try to be humbled, because we don't know everything. So when we have a good game sometimes we prototype it internally and we don't release it, but we still have people from outside the company testing the game and giving us their feedback to see whether they think the core mechanics would make a good game. Sometimes we do it so we'll release a free version of a game to see how people pick it up and how much they play it. It's an important feedback loop. No one can understand all of a changing market like this.
Q: You've also released Trials 2 on torrent sites in the past, and along with the free model, they seem quite disruptive practises...
Tero Virtala: They are but the world is changing so fast. There used to be this retail related business model and there was the free web-based business model and the MMO subscription business model. But now the online space, where you have a number of new game platforms that are connected and online, we need to do a lot of planning and analysis. There are many things that no one has tried yet and we don't know if they'll work or not but it needs to be tested. The torrent networks reach a lot of people and yes there is the possibility that they eat your sales, but on the other hand it wasn't the full game that we released. It didn't have all the multiplayer features and leaderboards, it didn't have all the tracks in the game. In a way it was like a demo or a paired down version of the game which people got a lot of value out of as a free game, an it might have ate some sales but on the other hand when our idea is to go step by step to new platforms maybe it expanded the fanbase of the game, and maybe that fanbase has picked up Trials HD as well.
Q: With social gaming there's an emphasis on analysing data and using that to influence design, but by releasing something on a torrent site I'm presuming it's difficult to monitor that data. Are you losing valuable research there?
Tero Virtala: It's certainly a new opportunity when we think about game design and our core development people are still in-house. Most of our ideas for design come from inside the company. In a way we have to think like gamers and if we think a feature would be really good in game the we prototype it, and we have to trust our people. But then there are a number of things we don't know for sure and it seems like a good idea, so we put it out there and gather the data and the metrics. There's a lot of statistics and a lot of data and we're not always sure we know what we're looking for but when you have something new out there and we start following how people use it, at times we see what we're expecting and other times we learn something new that we didn't expect. And then we have to ask is there an opportunity, is there a development need, is there a possibility for something new?
Q: Trials HD has been your big hit on Xbox Live Arcade, but how do you continue to promote a game like that on a format that's so busy and sees so many releases? Digital services have unlimited shelf space but that can also lead to crowded and overwhelming choice for the consumer.
Tero Virtala: Trials HD has been a big hit for us and the total amount of leaderboard users is over 900,000 now. The amount of unique players is getting close to one million, which is pretty good. We create new videos, we promote tracks that users have built, we run a lot of competitions. So we feed the game and we can see from comments on websites that the users really like that and it's our responsibility to support the game and the user-created content is a really good way to promote the game and bring in new users.
In the online space if people like your game, your product, your service, they can start promoting it to their friends. In the end people appreciate the fact that if you're releasing the game it isn't just a one off and we continue to monitor and support it, we listen to the players, we're gamers ourselves so we appreciate their feedback. Eventually that becomes a snowball that keeps on growing and growing. In the online world you definitely can't control everything but you can do a lot of things to make sure people are talking about your game.
Q: After the success of Trials HD are you working on a new Xbox Live project?
Tero Virtala: We haven't yet detailed what games we're working on but as we've said there are eight titles coming out this year. A couple of those are for the online console space and there are many games for iPhone and one for the PC online space. One thing that we are definitely doing is making sure the Trials community is still served. It has been a big success for us, players have liked the game and we're still trying to be active with the market.
Q: How are you finding the iPhone market? Last year there was a lot of interest in it but there are the complaints that there isn't much in the way of quality control on that platform, it's difficult for some titles to stand out etcetera.
Tero Virtala: In the end the most important thing is to think about the end user, and the quality of the game has to be good for them. So yes, there is a lot of content on the App Store but why release something that isn't that good? If it's cheap and starts off well, it won't stay at the top for long because in this world you need users to recommend your game to other users. We think we have the skills to make games that really stand out. The online space requires different types of marketing efforts. We have specialised PR and marketing director and a team that are thinking about that all the time. It's not traditional PR and marketing, it's serving the gaming community and making them aware of really high quality and well priced games. You simply need to be systematic and put effort into that, especially in the iPhone space and the Facebook space as well. The barrier to getting a game on those platforms is so low that if you approach it with the traditional developer point of view that you release a game, put it out there and leave it, people won't find it. So there has to be a completely different type of approach. It simply holds true that on the iPhone it's not just about games, it's also a service.
Q: As your portfolio of games grows is there potential to create your own online RedLynx portal to host and serve your customers or are you happy to go through others partners?
Tero Virtala: I don't think we'll have that type of portal. We've learnt a lot in the online space and we think there are certain features and ways how we can really serve our user base, so we're developing ideas. But on the other hand in today's connected world there are so many good partners that you can work with it's better to build and be part of those important ecosystems and networks and provide something good for our partners and benefit from that ourselves. We don't need to own the communities, we just need to serve them as best we can. We're certainly going to develop our partner network further
TV is CEO of RedLynx. Interview by Matt Martin.