Trials and tribulations

Trials and tribulations
Michael French

By Michael French

September 23rd 2009 at 5:39PM

Part One - Trials HD developer RedLynx discusses the physics of fun

As studios such as Rockstar, Bethesda and Criterion see their digital offerings morph into retail product, debate rages on regarding the long-term sustainability of digital gaming.

Finnish developers RedLynx has clearly achieved commercial success in the digital space with Trials, a game series that started out as a modest Flash-based browser game. The latest edition of that series – Trials HD – has now sold 300,000 copies in six weeks through Microsoft’s XBLA service.

Develop sits down with Tero Virtala to discuss the rules of online distribution, as well as the intricacies of Trials HD itself.

Are you encouraged by what platforms like XBLA, iPhone and Flash offer indie developers?
Virtala: Yes. The games market in general is an exceptionally interesting market at the moment.  It is at the same time expanding and growing fast, but it is also undergoing significant structural changes. 

There are number of change drivers of course, but the internet and the rise of digital download channels are definitely among the really important ones. 

If you look at any industries that have undergone major changes, the re-structuring of the whole distribution chain has often been one of the most significant.

In the games business this could be even more significant than with many other industries, because now there is finally a major opportunity for talented smaller teams to have direct access to digital distribution sales channels.

Digital channels make it possible to introduce new types of games and game innovations to consumers - though this hasn't been easy with traditional retail distribution.

Adding into the fact that digital games can be sold relatively cheaper, there's surely a basis for completely new breakthroughs.

Overall, we are undergoing a radical and huge change that helps the industry expand and grow even more.



Do you think Flash versions and free trial versions have helped Trials HD's sales over time?

They've definitely helped. The benefits of free, downloadable trial versions are clear, and they are easily measurable. 

There has been  some trial-and-error in this process, and of course different types of games require bit different things, and still, there is some uncertainty involved. 

Overall, we’ve had conversion rates at 30 per cent in some games, so it’s easy to say that free demos count as a huge thing.

We are quite heavily using free flash games in marketing our sellable games. We can see they reach large gaming audiences and we have seen we are able to move quite significant masses with them. 

However, it is difficult to estimate what is the exact percentage of these flash-game-players that eventually end up buying the full games. 

In any case, it is an important tool for us, and as our logic is multiplatform, we definitely believe that we can reach potential customers for downloadable games also via smaller free flash games, and we will keep on doing that.

Compared to the PC versions of the game, in terms of gameplay Trials HD appears to have a narrower focus. Is that fair to say, and if so, what motivated that design decision?
We would definitely not say narrower. There is far more to play, and HD is far more polished than with Trials 2 for PC. 

What might at first create a feeling of narrower is that we succeeded really well in making Trials HD a big solid package.

Almost all of the highly praised features of Trials 2 are there, but they are taken to new level. Then there are many new elements, like the mini-games, level editor and sharing possibilities.

But each one of these is selected and done in a way that we feel it fits the game, and makes it truly a better game.

No features have been added just for the sake of having more features – everything is there for a purpose.

Physics racers are often defined by economic control schemes, and eschew the complexity of, for example, extreme sports titles with a similar skill/achievement based progress model. Why is this?
That’s a really good, and important point.  It is actually simple controls, combined into realistic physics, twisted in the right way, that is a key thing in many games we have developed. 

In Trials, that is exceptionally important.

At the heart of Trials HD there are simple controls combined into realistic / highly developed physics model. 

A sign that a game's difficulty curve is working is  when a player gets into a game quite fast. There is no need to start learning the complex controls, which many games have.

And this not only important to newcomers; poor difficulty curves can put off even the most experienced players. If a player has to re-learn everything after a two-week break then there's a good chance they won't bother.

Yet if a game is centred on realistic physics, it means that there's no predetermined actions; the player is intuitively in control of the bike. There isn’t anything complex in the controls that you could blame, you understand them instantly. 

When those simple controls are connected to very realistic physics model, there's a basis for continuous development.

With what Trials HD has is actually impossible ever to master to perfection. This is a game of developing your skills – not the skills of your virtual avatar, or game character – but your own skills.

And that game of skill development never ends, there is no upper limit.

The game rewards, it punishes, and it teaches you all the time when you play. And you learn all the time. When you make a mistake, you unconsciously know it was your mistake, and you quite often understand why that happened.

We strongly believe that manygenres can benefit from using this blend of simple controls and realistic physics.