You’d be forgiven for not having heard of Ultimate Studio, a Supercell-funded gang of senior ex-EA Firemonkeys staff. Until today, that is.
The remote-first, but mostly Melbourne, Australia-based studio just launched its first game, the Trackmania-like premium racer Hot Lap League. It has been operating in stealth mode, until now – so why so quiet?
“We actually purposely stayed under the radar,” CEO Tony Lay tells us. “We just didn’t want any attention. We’re a very simple studio, and it should always be about our games. So yeah…you’re the first person we’re actually talking to.”
Happy to help, Mr Lay. Ultimate was formed in 2018 by Lay and co-founder Mark Zaloumis, a duo that between them had run some of EA Firemonkeys’ biggest games – its Real Racing and Need for Speed titles, The Sims FreePlay, Mass Effect, Mirror’s Edge and more.
So Hot Lap League is a natural first step for Ultimate, says Lay, who describes his colleagues as the “heart and soul” of the teams that made those hit EA racers. The 18-strong team is also in the early stages of making an action game for PC, having killed one other non-racing title already.
The way Lay talks about Ultimate sounds very Supercell. “It’s a very simple kind of strategy: we get great teams, and we think that will equal great products,” he tells us. “Give them creative control and responsibility, some business understanding and as much time as possible to make that work.”
“We do give people a quite scary amount of autonomy,” he continues. “I understand what Ilkka [Paananen, Supercell CEO] is saying when he talks about being the least powerful person in the studio…I feel that too.”
So it’s perhaps no surprise that Ultimate has received three rounds of funding from the Finnish giant to date.
“There was only the two of us when we spoke to Supercell,” Lay explains. “We pitched them, and yeah, they really liked us. And it was great because Ilkka said he was quite inspired by what we wanted to do, which is humbling. It’s humbling for them to be a sponsor.”
“I think they treat us exactly the same as their other studios,” he continues. “They give us complete autonomy in terms of how we operate the business. They’re fantastic in that way – just allowing us to find our way and find out whether it’s the right or wrong way.”
What could go wrong for Ultimate with all that talent, and a benefactor like Supercell? Well, launching a premium game in the current mobile market is certainly a bold move.
“The team actually tried to make it free, but couldn’t get the business side of the game working without compromising what we thought were the best bits of the game’s core experience,” says Lay. “The early access players were loving the game though, and we really wanted to get that game out, so we made the decision to release it at a fixed price.”
Premium on mobile isn’t the only option for the studio, either. “We’re a platform agnostic studio, and we’re upfront about that,” continues Lay. “We’ll come up with the concepts and just find the audience, that’s what we’re going to do with Hot Lap as well – we’ll start off with mobile, see how that goes and potentially move it to other platforms as well.”
In that context, Lay doesn’t really see launching a premium game in today’s market as a big deal. “Every game’s a risk,” he shrugs, with the demeanour of a man who’s seen and done it all. And to be fair, he probably has during over 25 years in the business.
With Supercell’s backing, Hot Lap League isn’t an all-or-nothing deal for Ultimate Studio; it’s an opening gambit. “This is a first step on our journey to find something that’s remarkable and long lasting,” adds Lay. “Similar to Supercell – if it doesn’t work, then, you know, we’ll just try again.”