Global Game: From starting out to selling up – RedLynx on how to thrive in Helsinki
Why its indie spirit lives on with Ubisoft
While many of the most successful game developers in Helsinki have chosen to remain independent, one has taken a very different route to secure its future and retain its creativity.
RedLynx, one of the first developers set up in the city, was acquired by French publishing giant Ubisoft in 2011.
Did the studio's purchase stifle its creativity, or did being attached to such a major player actually open new doors?
On day three of our Helsinki week on PocketGamer.biz, we spoke to the man with the answers, RedLynx MD Tero Virtala, to find out what the developer has learned two years on.
RedLynx began life in 2000 – long before "indie games" had become fashionable and at a time when the notion of mobile games matching the revenues of console and PC games seemed fanciful.
"The company was founded by two brothers – Antti and Atte Ilvessuo," Tero told us.
"When they first got started, it was just the two of them making games on their own, so at that stage they were naturally unknowns and they didn't have a choice but to work as independents in the region they were from.
"Also when RedLynx was started in 2000, the game industry was much smaller in Finland than it is today, so there weren't even the type of incentives that other parts of Finland outside the capital area now offer to gaming start-ups."
Despite the lack of support from the Finnish Government at the time – or, indeed, any awareness that games could be big business - many small studios began to spring up in Helsinki.
Throughout our look at the city, companies have recalled the early success of Nokia as a springboard for all sorts of technology driven companies in the city. This experience was similar for RedLynx and, since then, the studio has been able to mature along the same path as the growth of mobile gaming.
"Finland has an excellent education system with an emphasis on math and sciences, plus a very creative, design-oriented culture in the capital city, so maybe it is natural that a creative, technical industry like games would flourish here," Tero continues.
"Even though it might seem that the game industry in Finland has risen very fast, that is not the case. Dozens of gaming companies were founded in early 2000, but the console development-train had already grown past their small size. So instead, passionate and talented small teams focused mainly on web and mobile games.
"The fast rise of Nokia and their early interest in gaming also helped many small teams at that time. Then finally when online console gaming started to take off with Xbox Live Arcade, many thought that companies like RedLynx had come out of nowhere with Trials HD.
"But that is not the case, we at RedLynx and the rest of the Finnish games industry had been honing our skills for a long time. So by the time Apple came to market with iPhone and App Store, there was a flood of Finnish game studios.
"But again, that's because we all had been making mobile games for years, waiting for the mobile game market to really take off."
Strength in numbers
It seems that the Finns had a great sense of timing and perseverance when it came to finding success in the mobile games industry.
There seems to be a real sense of community amongst all of the studios we have spoken to, as so many of them shared the good and bad times together as they waiting for mobile games to hit the big time.
RedLynx's XBLA hit Trials HD
Tero believes that this shared experience has made a massive contribution to the Helsinki's overall strength.
"Everyone knows that none of the success we have had so far would have been possible for any one company alone.
"Companies have co-operated, people have gathered experiences from different projects and companies, experiences are being shared, there has been a major focus of making sure the networking happens regularly and as effective as possible, and knowledge accumulates much faster than it ever could in just one company."
"Naturally, no one is sharing any proprietary information, but there is plenty of other information, such as good and bad lessons learned, experiences, that on their own maybe don't have a lot of value, but built up from a lot of different projects and people over the years, make a huge difference to the big picture," he adds.
"Everyone knows that despite a great start, we are just in the early phases of growth. And the growth of the industry helps us all."
On the up
Despite being in the early phases of growth, the demand for talent in Helsinki has spiked dramatically in recent times.
The support network built by the studios and contributed to by the government has enabled RedLynx and others to find the people they need to continue to expand.
iOS hit MotoHeroz
"The industry here employs only about 2,000 people – which, in a country of only five million is quite nice, but is still considered just a start," Tero told us.
"Nonetheless, companies are doing really well, growing fast, and we have huge recruitment needs. In that sense, sure at times game companies are fighting for the same talent.
"However, with this growth, and our common vision in partnership with the Government, of making the game industry a major part of Finnish society, we see a much bigger positive effect for recruitment.
"Our Government is putting much more emphasis on helping game companies grow, the Finnish media is praising the opportunities, and at least ten universities are now offering education programmes in game development.
"All in all, we are drawing in much more young talent, and we are also attracting lots of senior level people from related industries, like IT & software, media, marketing, and entertainment in general.
"At the same time, we do need international talent, and it definitely is easier for experienced international talents to make the decision to come to Finland, when they know the 150 game companies we have here are booming."
TEKES – Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation
The Government support in Helsinki seems to be one of the defining factors in sustaining the success of the dozens of smaller studios located here, as well as the juggernauts like RedLynx, Rovio and Supercell.
The TEKES programme, which has helped so many of the developers we have spoken to, is the key to what is arguably some of the best support that the games industry receives from government anywhere in the world.
Tero has some remarkable insight into how TEKES works and what is has achieved for Helsinki's many gaming start-ups.
"For a long time, a portion of all the taxes that government collects, has gone to TEKES, originally a national technology development agency, but which is now much more widely an organisation for developing new businesses and growth industries," he adds.
"TEKES feeds money - financing with no ownership or traditional financier obligations - both into potential growth sectors, start-ups, growth companies, and risky growth projects.
"From any Government organisation, I would say it was pretty visionary to name game development as a strategic sector ten years ago, when the sector only employed 200 people, in small, inexperienced teams. But they took a long-term view, and saw proof in the global market outlook, passion and talent of the people, and the potential that there could be.
"They not only accepted the risk, but also demanded it. This was important funding for the early stages of Finnish game companies, helping them in developing their skills, finding their focus, learning from failures and successes, and simply to survive before finding the path to growth."
This remarkable attitude to supporting local businesses in creative industries will surely make many game developers around the world a little jealous!
Tekes is the Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation
Tero even points out that the Finnish government doesn't think that TEKES has been successful enough.
"Only a few years ago, after all the success TEKES has had in supporting many industries, the head of TEKES actually said publicly, that TEKES has not been successful – because too many of its projects have succeeded!
"What he meant was that despite doing their work as professionally and as well as possible, it is their role to find and support those truly high-risk and high-potential growth opportunities.
"And if they have succeeded too often, it means they have not taken enough risks. Now that's an unorthodox and maybe even too critical attitude for a government agency, but also one we appreciate!"
From N-Gage to iPhone
Unlike many of the other studios in Helsinki, RedLynx has always been a multiplatform outfit.
Supercell and others have argued that focusing on one platform allows them to specialise and create the best game possible for that machine.
RedLynx, however, has tried to predict trends in the success of different platforms and capitalise on their potential reach.
2011's DrawRace 2
Tero explains, "If we had focused exclusively on a specific platform, who knows if we would be still be around. One of the platforms in which we specialised in the early days was Nokia's N-Gage.
"However, as we considered ourselves as a multiplatform studio, all the time we were developing other, smaller online and mobile games. Also, many of our technology choices were not aimed to be single platform dependent.
"All this allowed us to expand to Nintendo DS and Sony PSP, and later to PC and Xbox Live Arcade, where Trials HD made a big break-through. Then with iPhone, we were immediately ready to go on this new wave of mobile gaming.
"At the moment it's easy to say that multiplatform has been the right path for us. Considering the future, it's even more obvious. The world – especially the gaming world – is evolving and changing so fast, that no one can forecast what the exact winning platforms are going to be in few years' time."
Selling out to secure its future
The big question for RedLynx of course, is whether its acquisition by Ubisoft has forced a change in the company's culture.
As one of the few independent studios in Finland to be bought out by a major publisher, how has their attitude to creating games changed over the last couple of years?
"Our primary thought has always been on making the best games we can possibly make," Tero says.
"We saw that, for example with Trials, we had reached a certain level, but our ambitions have always been far greater. When considering the strategic alternatives we had for making our greater vision come true, our thinking and culture matched perfectly with Ubisoft.
"Becoming part of Ubisoft seemed to provide much better basis for making our vision come true than arrangements with other publishers, outside investors, or remaining independent could have provided. "
Tero claims Ubisoft is known for being "very focused on innovation and quality in its games", which allows the studios under its wing to have their "own creative DNA".
"Also, with the vision we have, there are naturally also risks – but that is well accepted: We cannot create big innovations and new benchmarks for the game industry, unless we go also for unknown areas. So in a way it feels like we are more independent than we have ever been."
As with many other acquired studios, it's Tero's belief that becoming part of the Ubisoft family has enabled it to deliver the games it wants to deliver – the finances available as a result of its purchase naturally aiding that process.
Daring to dream
"To create the game of your dreams, you have to be prepared to innovate, prototype, to make a number of changes in the project along the way," he told us.
"Even though you had the original financing for the project, for any innovative project, chances are high that you will at some point need more time, developers, or money. Unless you have a certainty on the availability of this unspecified money from the start, the team needs to make a lot of compromises all the time.
"Secondly, both for financing and business development needs, studios make deals with external financers, publishers, media houses, etc. These partners are definitely often needed and bring a lot of experience and value to the table. However, at the same time they gain lot of power over the studio and its games - veto rights, exclusivities, option rights, etc.
"All this is normal and is a fair business arrangement, but it is far from the glorified image that the public has of fully independent studios."
Ubisoft acquired RedLynx in 2011
"Thirdly, it is not very well understood how much effort all the important support functions take: finance, administration, human resources, public relations, sales, marketing, partnerships, legal, etc., etc. RedLynx has the full trust and support from Ubisoft.
"We get all these important support services from professional teams that have tens of years of experience and are serving over 20 studios."
The story of RedLynx is also the story of gaming in Helsinki: starting with small beginnings, receiving terrific Government and community support, then following and predicting trends in platforms and exploiting them for massive success.
The studio may have taken a different path from others by relinquishing its independence for the increased security of becoming a subsidiary of a huge publisher, but it has brought it everything those working at the firm wanted: the chance to focus purely on making great games.
"We have a common shared vision for RedLynx developed games within Ubisoft," concludes Tero.
"We can focus fully on developing innovative, excellent games and on the core parts of those games, which we are best at. That is a dream come true."
Have you worked in video game development in Helsinki? What was your experience of the area and what do you think the future holds? Is the region diverse enough in its creativity? Let us know what you think in the comments below.
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