Q&A: 'Welcome to the Future' - Designing Trials Fusion

RedLynx's Trials series is based on a simple concept, but can be devilishly difficult. We spoke with Trials Fusion lead designer Karri Kiviluoma about the game's development
Sometimes games with the simplest concepts are the ones we obsess over the most. RedLynx's Trials series of motocross games posses that elegant simplicity: Just get your moto-racer across the finish line, preferably as fast as possible. Accelerate, brake, move back and forth. But anyone who's played Trials knows that this simplicity is accompanied by devilishly difficult tracks, designed in such a way that players will obsessive-compulsively retry their trials in an effort to shave a hundredth of a second off their time to move up on the leaderboards. Karri Kiviluoma is lead designer on Trials Fusion at Finland-based Redlynx, which is a subsidiary of Ubisoft. Here's what he said about the game's development.

Let's start from the beginning: When development on Trials Fusion started, what were your design goals for the game, and have they changed since previous installments?

I think through the years, ever since the first Java Trials game came out, we've had the same core design ideologies in mind. It needs to be simple fun that you can just pick up and play. We noticed very early on that because of the skill-based gameplay that this type of game has, it easily becomes quite competitive. You start comparing yourself to your friends because of the analog nature. There's very little on or off, true or false, in Trials. It's always about the small nuances. Even in a great run of a Trials track you feel like you could've done a few things a bit quicker and gotten an even better result.
"There's very little on or off, true or false, in Trials. It's always about the small nuances."
We definitely wanted to keep the core of Trials intact for Fusion. It's what people have come to expect from the series. In fact I think our first teaser trailer might have scared some people a bit with its focus on FMX [freestyle motocross] tricks. We wanted to showcase something new and cool but it was a perfect example of players becoming familiar with a game and beginning to expect a certain core experience from it. We were always going to give you that experience but we want to keep the surrounding elements fresh and exciting as well. Trials is a simple game but there's so much that can be done with it because of the competitive nature that we want to keep pushing in interesting directions.

What kind of development tools did you use -- engines, editors, etc.? I understand that for previous games, designers were actually using the in-game editor and game controllers to design official tracks. Was that the case here?

We feel that the only way to get our editor to be as pleasant and intuitive to use for the player as possible is to actually use it ourselves extensively. We still create all the tracks in the game with the same editor that ships with the game for players. It's important to actually use it, because whatever problems come to light with it become our personal problems as well, and people are thus very passionate about fixing things. It's a win-win situation for us as well because we don't have to spend extensive time creating tools that nobody outside the company will get to use; we're actually creating something players will see as well. Obviously there's the extra effort needed to polish everything, but seeing as user-generated content has become such an integral part of Trials, it's a given that we'll have some form of editing tools in the game always.
The game engine itself is our own but we use some middleware to help out, and we also use parts of the Ubisoft code library and server technology. It's great to be able to have access to such a huge resource base through Ubisoft now. We have a lot of help from studios within Ubisoft as well for various parts of the game. We have more people working on a single Trials project now than ever before, from design to programming to testing. We also use our own Robot Framework for automatic testing, where a builder can run automatic tests to speed up certain processes.
"The process and workflow we use at RedLynx can be 'chaotic creativity' at times!"

Our readers understand that game development can be a beautifully messy process. Can you talk about a few things that went right and wrong in the development of Fusion?

The process and workflow we use at RedLynx can be "chaotic creativity" at times! But we do have a clear structure regarding how things should ideally go. We focus on pre-production to get our ideas right and do a little prototyping to see how certain things work. Not everything needs to be prototyped obviously, if you're going to have a leaderboard filter that shows "only your friends", you'll know straight up design-wise that it works, but for example the FMX mode is a whole new gameplay system which is reliant on so many factors like how fast the character reacts to player input, how physics affect the system, how easy is it to trigger different moves or poses, how are the tracks built, do you need a lot of airtime, do we need a new kind of bike or are the current ones suitable for it, and so on. It's just best to try it out in a simple test environment because you can only design so much on paper for something like this. We also have a mentality in which when someone on the team has an idea for a feature they're free and highly encouraged to discuss it with the designers. We discuss it together and often end up putting it in. It's only possible to create a game with the scope of something like Trials if everyone is passionate about what they're doing. Everyone wants to get the best possible features in. That's why lots of people suggest ideas and when they get to implement their own idea into the game they'll go that extra mile to get it working perfectly. I would say we have a family vibe at the studio and that's something I hope we'll never lose. People are joking around and very friendly, which leads to a pleasant working environment and ultimately more work getting done.
"It's only possible to create a game with the scope of something like Trials if everyone is passionate about what they're doing."
We've also worked with other studios within Ubisoft on Fusion including Shanghai, Kiev, Pune, Bucharest, Paris and Montreal. It's a great collaborative effort and I think our odd sense of humor and fun has spread to them as well! I'm sure some crazy emails have raised a few eyebrows but they know we're only joking around so it's all in good fun. We have a wrestling mat next to the design area at the studio where we "debate" about things and injure visiting journalists. But obviously not everything always goes according to plan. You can expect with a big project such as Fusion not everybody is always synchronized regarding what's been decided that same day. It's important to send daily update mails and keep your designs and wiki up to date but we're only human and sometimes you forget to update something or there's conflicting information, and that's why the leads for each discipline have to be very well versed on all aspects of the game and what the current direction is. A game like Trials is also very sensitive to physics changes and a small change can drastically affect the leaderboards so we're extremely careful not to tamper with the core gameplay even if the change is perceived to be something very small. One time a change made all bikes in the game move just a tiny bit slower due to wind resistance being increased and nobody noticed it except for a level designer who said he was positive he could make a certain jump in a track he was making the day before but somehow failed today. We brushed it off as his lack of skill. Eventually he had the last laugh though. They're quite vocal about skill within the level design team. In weekly track reviews, if you can't pass your own track with 0 faults in front of the entire studio you get yelled at by your peers. "Oh come on! Boo! My cat could've cleared that jump!" It's all part of being in the family.

We're not obsessed with Trials Fusion's theme song around here or anything...

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