They call it ‘sisu’ in Finland. It’s a small word for a big concept, one large enough to define the national character. In his book From Finland With Love, Roman Schatz describes it as an ability to finish a task in the face of adversity. Nokia chairman Jorma Ollila once translated it as a special kind of guts, a mindset of endurance against all odds that allowed the company to dominate the mobile market. It’s a shorthand for Nordic determination, and a belief that giving up isn’t an option.
Anyone who’s played Trials, the motorbike-based franchise kickstarted by Helsinki-based developer RedLynx in 2000, will be familiar with sisu. It’s a series that’s renowned for being ostensibly simple and yet fiendishly frustrating. You can spend hours trying to complete a single jump, pressing the restart button so often it becomes an obsessive compulsion. These are some of the most punishing and hardcore games ever made.
“Sisu can be translated to perseverance,” explains RedLynx co-founder and creative director Antti Ilvessuo. “It’s something you need when faced with routine sub-zero temperatures, driving winds, and a small population surrounded by large and hungry neighbours! So maybe we approach our games the same way: if life gives you challenges, it’s best to tackle them head on and keep trying, whether you succeed or not.”
It’s a philosophy that also informs RedLynx as a developer. Since it was founded in 2000, the company has tackled everything from Pathway To Glory on Nokia’s N-Gage to MotoHeroz on Wii. In 2008, though, it faced a unique challenge: taking the cult-hit Trials franchise from its Flash and PC roots to the more mainstream audience of Xbox Live Arcade.
Somewhat surprisingly, Trials HD was the multiplatform studio’s first game for 360. And with a 12-month development cycle and a team of around ten, the challenge of developing for a new platform was nothing to be sniffed at. It would require sisu, a yellow wrestling mat and several-dozen crates of energy drinks to survive.
Being a biker isn’t just about riding a motorcycle, it’s also about being able to keep the machine running through regular maintenance. RedLynx isn’t scared of doing its own overhauls either. Every new Trials represents an evolution of the franchise that breaks the last iteration down to its component parts, and HD was no different.
“Sometimes we feel that we’re taking it apart too much after each game,” explains Sebastian Aaltonen, the lead programmer on Trials HD. “Every Trials game has been a total reiteration, where almost everything has to be done again. Even if the basics are about the same, we always try to improve things.”
And the result of that approach? “It means people have to work really, really long days because of that,” reveals graphics designer Sami Saarinen.
Moving from the PC focus of Trials to XBLA meant porting the team’s existing development tools between platforms. It also meant grappling with Trials 2’s memory-hungry graphics engine. “Many developers had been developing for about four years for the Xbox platform before we came to it,” says technical lead Jorma Sainio. “They had second-gen engines and we thought we’d be compared to them, so we had to do a lot of technological refactoring and stuff, making it more consistent, in order to make the Xbox version look better than the old PC version. It was a big change technologically, because we had to rewrite everything.”
Among the components that needed to be overhauled was Trials 2’s deferred renderer. “We actually had over 20 realtime lights, all dynamic shadows and things like that, in Trials 2 onscreen at all times,” Aaltonen recalls. “Everything was dynamic and really high quality. But the lighting system wasn’t designed in a way that was going to run well on Xbox, so we had to try a couple of different techniques.” It was eventually replaced by a slim-platform deferred renderer.
A key aim was to keep the framerate high. As Aaltonen explains: “It’s such a time-critical game that you need to be able to react to everything that’s happening onscreen quickly. It was really important for us to have 60fps rendering. That was the hardest thing for us… So many console games now are 30fps, and we only had half the time to create one frame compared to those games, but we still wanted to have comparable graphics quality. It was a huge step for us.”