Red Barrels: gaming is in their blood

Just over a month after the launch of their last game, these Montreal specialists in spine-chilling games are taking some time to let their next idea percolate, wanting to develop something new, with a different tone. “We’re going to have fun animating rainbows and Care Bears now...” jokes Philippe Morin, President of Red Barrels.
These independent creators of single player video games play hard, as can be seen by their flagship products Outlast, the Outlast Whistleblower extension and Outlast 2. Red Barrels’ first games are based on the theme of “horror and survival,” a niche market with huge potential that had not yet been exploited in Quebec and had been ignored by the big industry players.
Distributed by Valve (through the Steam platform), PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, the dark worlds of Red Barrels demonstrate, with extraordinary creativity, that the most terrifying monsters are those who inhabit the human spirit.
Outlast is a game straight out of a nightmare that places the hero in excruciatingly petrifying situations. In 2013, it was named Best PC Game by Gaming Bolt in 2013 and Scariest Game of 2013 by PressPlay TV, in addition to receiving the Fan’s Choice award during the Canadian Video Game Awards.
The main markets for Red Barrels are the United States, Russia, China and Germany, with the Outlast game having brought terror to more than 8 million players worldwide. Red Barrels has already sold 550,000 units of Outlast 2 since its launch on April 25, 2017.
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Wanting to create high quality games that are achievable by a small team of the best developers Quebec has to offer, the cofounders of Red Barrels decided to launch their company in 2011.
After having realized various key projects with big players like Ubisoft and Electronic Arts, Philippe Morin, David Châteauneuf and Hugo Dallaire were looking for a change. “We wanted to go back to working with smaller teams, in order to stay more hands-on and spend less time in conference rooms,” recounts Philippe. “We wanted to make games, not just talk about them.”

Philippe Morin studied film and started working in the video game design sector somewhat by chance, when he applied for a screenwriting position. The president of Red Barrels, who also taught at the INIS and Université de Montréal, is inspiring and visibly passionate about his field. He humbly gives the impression that creating a major company is as simple as it is exciting.
Philippe and his friends began the funding search for Red Barrels with great enthusiasm, as well as a dose of realism acquired during the startup phase. One and a half years later, with $1M from the Canada Media Fund, $330,000 of love money and a loan guarantee for $150,000 from the SDVEM, Red Barrels took on the production of the PC version of their first game. “We’re proud of having delivered Outlast, which was an immediate success, without exceeding our budget and while conserving our independence,” asserts Philippe. “Sony and Microsoft showed an interest in offering the game with their consoles and the game was very well received, so its distribution was quite simple after that,” he recalls.
After creating their own IP and consolidating their success with the release of the second version of Outlast, the visionaries behind Red Barrels are catching their breath and attempting to take a bit of a step back. And what comes next? Well, Red Barrels does not exactly function with a long-term vision: everything depends upon the projects that come forth from their fabulous imagination. “It’s the beauty of being entirely independent and remaining small. We can be flexible. Our ambitions as developers are as important as our ambitions as owners,” explains Philippe.
3 to 12 players
For Philippe Morin, the secret to Red Barrels’ success is in its team that is now comprised of 12 members. “Game production, more than any other artistic technique, is a product of team work,” he indicates. “For this reason, it’s imperative that we hire talented and passionate developers, which we have succeeded in doing.”
The indie darling of horror fans is not rushing to become a big organization, like some of its competitors. “In our daily work, there are various advantages to being able to organize a team meeting at any moment, or discuss a question that affects the projects by simply visiting a colleague’s desk that is several steps from your own,” explains Philippe. “Also, staying small allows us to continue to do what we love most, creating games.”
Among the challenges that arise for a small game creator, Philippe underlines: “It’s important to find a good balance, focusing on priorities when assigning tasks, and knowing how to identify the most cost-effective choices.”
In addition, the president of Red Barrels mentions the current context in Quebec, where those in the industry still rely on stable, permanent employment. “Finding talented people who will accept medium-term contracts is not easy in a context where projects are temporary.”
Adjustments also have been made along the way as the company has grown. “We realized that we prefer to avoid developing a big-company culture, even with the large scale that our activities have taken,” he indicates. “Team members seem happier in the context of a small-company environment, where transparency and friendliness prevail.”
Technology at play
The present era of digital publication offers Red Barrels a more direct link with consumers. “We have never had to negotiate with stores, nor spend money to manufacture boxes and discs for the game,” mentions Philippe. This link accelerates commercialization, in addition to facilitating the optimization of products for this video game creator.
Improving the product for the player is definitely a priority for Red Barrels. Philippe highlights a challenge that presented itself with Outlast 2, which was designed with the same game engine as its first version: “It was necessary to evolve the technology, so that our game was not outdated.”
In order to create worlds that are compelling to users, Red Barrels relies on expertise from various sources. “For example, we consulted McGill students for the original version of Outlast. The game’s action took place in a psychiatric hospital, so we needed information for the psychological profiles of characters,” describes Philippe. “Outlast 2 takes place within a cult, which made things easier – we could draw inspiration from the copious content found on the Internet,” he adds.
Red Barrels also uses freelancers for their games’ music (Samuel Laflamme) and screenplays (JT Petty), in addition to calling upon partners for voiceover recording (Game On), user testing (Enzyme), additional animations (NewBreed, Game On) and movement capture (Game On, CDRIN).
Playing the future
Philippe Morin notes that the video game industry here in Quebec increasingly resembles that of California, where he worked. “A healthy industry needs both big and small companies. That kind of context offers various experiences to developers, who then improve their skills, which benefits the whole industry,” he specifies. “Several years ago, mobility was seen only as a negative in Quebec. With the arrival of numerous independent studios, things are changing.”
The president of Red Barrels also remarks upon the excellent spirit of collaboration that characterizes video game studios. It’s an advantage that encourages their development, much to the delight of fans everywhere! 
Source: Mélanie Pilon, Writer for the ICT Partners Vitrine TI Program and translated by Jenn Mireau
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