Reflections, the Ubisoft-owned UK studio, is not known for small games.
Most will know it for the popular Driver series, while in recent years it has contributed to and co-developed a number of its parent’s triple-A blockbusters: Watch Dogs, Far Cry 3, Tom Clancy’s The Division and the last four Just Dance games.
Which is why Grow Home, a cutesy PC game based around procedural generation and a botanically enthusiastic robot, is so striking as a new release. A title unlike anything the studio has produced before, the departure does not signify a dramatic change to Reflections’ remit, but the first public outing for its best kept secret.
In its Newcastle HQ, away from the departments dedicated to triple-A projects with strict deadlines is a small team with a far looser purpose: experimentation. It searches for new game ideas that may or may not fit with everything else the studio is working on.
“The idea for the team really came about from wanting to challenge how we make games in Reflections,” explains Pete Young, producer of Grow Home. “We’ve got a track record of developing massive triple-A games and a strong technical heritage. We created the opportunity to experiment on a smaller scale, with some very challenging constraints. The team itself is a mix of very experienced developers and bright new graduates, each with a broad range of skills but the ethos to help out in whatever way we can.
“Our motivation is to create genuinely different experiences. We are not interested in cloning other games; we want to create gameplay that players have not seen before. This is quite an explorative process and can be risky in development terms.”
The creation of such a team is perhaps less surprising when you look at the wider family of Ubisoft studios. In recent years, the publisher has encouraged its most creative talent to branch out from their day-to-day tasks, rewarding key members with the chance to embark on personal projects once their main games are completed.
Far Cry 3 creative director Patrick Plourde, for example, was able to devote time to RPG Child of Light, while other Ubisoft experiments have resulted in the touching Valiant Hearts and neon-lit mayhem of Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon.
Reflections’ experimental team has already garnered comparison with these games following the launch of Grow Home – something Young is more than happy with.
“We’re loving the parallels people are drawing with Valiant Hearts and Child of Light; they’re both fantastic games,” he says. “However, Grow Home is also very different from those experiences. Both of those are still small team developments by Ubisoft standards, but the our team is even smaller.”
In fact, Grow Home was developed by just eight people; a mix of junior and senior members with plenty of experience with triple-A development. Three were programmers, Young was producer, and they were joined by one artist, one game designer and one audio designer.
“Keeping the team this small helped us stay focused, move quickly and make sure we found creative solutions to our problems, rather than just throwing more people at it,” he said.
He adds that the team’s experiments are based around more than just “blue sky” research into new gameplay possibilities. Instead, Young’s division constantly works with the mindset of treating each prototype as if it could become a commercial product.
“The goal for us is to keep innovating, keep trying different approaches to gameplay and technology, but we do that in a product shell,” he says. “Research and development is great, but there is a fantastic focus that comes when you bear in mind how you will make and ship a game from it.
“Grow Home is the start for us. We want to prove that the approach we’re taking successfully positions Reflections as a studio that does more than make great triple-A games – it also innovates and experiments.”
Planting the seed
So how does a team most experienced in vehicle-based action game and motion-controlled dance titles stumble upon a concept as inventive as that of Grow Home?
Young says the experimental team began by playing around with the possibilities afforded by procedural generation and animation. In one of its early demos, one of the character models started to take on more shape and significance in the developers’ minds.
“One of the toys we created had a charm and personality, a real character coming from its movement that many people connected with,” he says. “They enjoyed how they could influence and guide it around the test environment, while feeling there was some personality coming in from the avatar itself.
“We developed this character into BUD, the robot in our game. Players love that the robot can climb and they are able to control his hands individually. It’s a really interesting and different experience.”
It’s been an extremely illuminating experience for us and one which could benefit any triple-A studio.
Pete Young, Reflections
In fact, BUD’s ability to climb and the nature of using this to move around the level was so enjoyable, it became another central pillar of the prototype that would evolve into Grow Home. Young recalls the team was particularly intrigued by the freedom to explore a game world vertically.
“For once, we didn’t have to level design specific routes that a player could climb on,” he says. “You could climb anywhere, and that was both liberating and challenging. We set out trying to think of an exciting and dynamic environment that would make the most of the climbing freedom, and this is where the Star Plant idea first took seed.
“Being able to control how this giant plant grew and what form it would take was a revelation to us; we felt that, as a player, you were creating your own vertical playground as you went.”
Grow Home’s focus on guiding the Star Plant in any direction you choose is a far cry from how the title started out. In September, Develop visited Reflections and played a very different prototype in which players used a then-unnamed BUD to climb an endless, procedurally generated rock formation.
The addition of rising water levels added a tension that is absent from the final product, as you frantically attempted to climb as high as possible. The experimental team tested the concept not only on their Reflections colleagues, but also on other Ubisoft studios as well.
“That prototype was an exploratory mini-game we developed very early on,” Young explains. “We were interested in seeing how the climbing mechanic felt with the player under time pressure. It was surprisingly popular internally – we set up a global leaderboard tracking the highest players in each studio, which kicked off some great competition. The team at Massive Entertainment got really competitive on this, but the top spot ended up going to one of the line designers at head office.
“But what we learned was that the climbing was more enjoyable when you could take it at your own pace and really use it to explore the world in whatever way you choose. Grow Home is just that: the world and the challenge are set out before you and you can decide which way you want to tackle it and how fast you go.”
With the mechanics in place, the experimental team also had to refine the visuals. While the prototype bore a similar style to the finished game, colour has injected new life into the its appearance and made it stand apart from anything the Newcastle studio has produced before. Again, the solution came from the loveable BUD.
“His character movement is very childlike, playful and naïve, so we needed a tone and art direction to match,” explains Young. “This led us to investigate simple, geometric shapes and bright colours. Another consideration was our tiny team size and tight schedule, so we needed a style that was very fast to work with.
“We were inspired by origami designs, paper cut-out and collage styles and especially the recent wave of ‘low poly’ digital illustrators whose work was a real inspiration. This is how we developed a striking-looking game that we were able to produce in a few short months with our one-man art team.”
With such a small team, you would think experiments would take shape slowly, but Young reports that the final build of Grow Home came together a lot quicker than you might expect. His crew had already been trying out procedural animation, but it was in June that they first hit upon the idea of the Star Plant. With Grow Home launching globally the following February, it took just eight months to create a final commercial product.
Thinking about games design differently even prompted the experimental team to try new ways of pitching games to their superiors.
“Ubisoft has more than 9,000 team members, so we decided to launch the game internally to all teams worldwide,” says Young. “The feedback we got was amazing – they loved it. This made a lot of noise internally, spreading virally to the point that we were given the opportunity to develop it for release externally.”
And so Grow Home found its home on Steam. It was a pivotal moment for both Reflections and its experimental team: proof that setting aside a few members of the team could benefit the studio as a whole.
Ubisoft already encourages personal projects and experimentation, but Young urges other triple-A developers to consider a similar strategy.
“It’s been an extremely illuminating experience for us and one which could benefit any triple-A studio,” he says.
“Having small, highly agile projects enables you take risks and be explorative with your whole approach to development.”