Toys-to-life has had something of a rough ride of late after the shutdown of Disney Infinity. As some analysts have argued in the pages of MCV, that downturn may have been overstated, but it’s clear the genre still has its problems. Ubisoft’s exciting new Starlink: Battle for Atlas, however, looks to be the revolution toys-to-life needs.
In theory, toys-to-life could revolve around almost any kind of toy, but to date the genre has been almost exclusively based around characters with little actual play value. Especially guilty are the statue-like Amiibo characters. While Skylanders and Lego have brought more variety, characters still form the core of each range.
Ubisoft has taken a big step away from all that. The main toys in Starlink are cool-looking spaceships with interchangeable weapons and parts. Putting the game aside entirely, these are a breath of fresh air for a genre that should have a lot more of them.
Ubisoft seems to be brimming with good ideas of late, such as its collaboration with Nintendo on Mario+Rabbids, and the return of Beyond Good and Evil II.
But Ubisoft Toronto had mixed emotions when an order came down from CEO Yves Guillemot himself: ‘To combine a technology breakthrough, with an innovative gameplay concept to make something we’ve never seen before.’
No pressure there, then, as Matt Rose, producer on Starlink tells us: “I’ve been in the industry 13 years now and I’ve never seen this kind of wide open mandate, and it was incredibly liberating for our team and incredibly terrifying – having so few constraints in place to come up with something brand new.”
It wasn’t the team’s first idea that stuck, however. “We brainstormed and prototyped,” says Rose. “We paired off and we pitched back to the group, we made prototypes across dozens of different genres, and we rinsed and repeated. But there was one prototype in particular that was really special and it looked like this.”
Rose shows us a picture of a WiiMote, duct-taped to a consumer electronics board, with wires sticking out at all angles. It was this rough-and-ready prototype that eventually became Starlink.
While many toys-to-life products sit on a reader in front of you, Starlink’s ships are mounted directly onto the controller (see picture above). It feels very much like you’re playing with the toy, as you’re playing the game. You can play without a flat surface to hand, too, and it means swapping parts and weapons is simple and immediate.
Very immediate, as creative director Laurent Malville, demonstrates for us, explaining that “this is a completely modular, ‘smartbuilding’ collectible. [With] no complex menus, I remove the part and it disappears from the game, plug it back and it reappears instantly.”
It really is as quick as that. The proprietary technology means the game picks up on weapon, ship part and pilot changes, and reflects them on-screen straight away, whether you’re in the middle of a firefight or in a setup screen. “We’ve designed those parts to be completely compatible with each other,” Malville says. “There’s no giant table of ‘this-works-with-this’. Different parts give you more speed, weapon energy or armour, mix or match for the best combination.
“We have a lot of playtesters coming in, different ages, and just seeing their face when they connect the parts is really something that’s dear to us,” he says before demoing a space dogfight and a planet-based battle, in which he dynamically switches weapons to take on varying foes.
We’re concerned about the weight of the ship on the controller, but it turns out to weigh almost nothing. “We worked hard on that, we made sure the starships are as light as they can be and also that the weight is properly distributed on the controller,” explains Malville.
It’s been very important to us to have a very focused collection. Where every part brings a very meaningful difference to the game.
Matt Rose, Ubisoft
A new lease of life for toys-to-life would be a boon for physical retail, so we’re keen to find out how Ubisoft plans to sell Starlink. But details are pretty thin at present, says Rose: “We’re not revealing the full details of the SKU plan at this point. There’s a starter pack and then there’ll be other things you can buy to add to your collection.”
He does expand on the strategy, though: “What I can tell you, is that it’s been very important to us to have a very focused collection. Where every part brings a very meaningful difference to the game. Each pilot, each ship. I think back to when I was a kid, and you’d look at the back of an action figure box and you’d check things off. We really want to have focus where people understand the value of every single part.”
The genre can be something of a balancing act, making sure that additional parts make significant changes to gameplay without creating a game that’s essentially pay-to-win. Rose replies: “We’re trying to be as player-friendly as possible. None of the content is gated in the game, there’s no hard gating. [You get] full access from the starter pack, you can play the entire game and beat the entire game,” he states.
(pictured above: Matt Rose announcing Starlink at Ubisoft’s E3 press conference earlier this year)
“Adding more things to your collection gives you more creative options, to build new combos, new play styles to really customise the experience.”
With a Switch version in development, as well as PS4 and Xbox One, you might not want to cart your collection of ships, weapons and parts around with you. Ubisoft has foreseen the issue, though, as Rose explains: “Each physical collectible unlocks a digital version of itself, so if you want to play co-op, or if you want to take the game on the go, you’ll still have full access to your collection.
“And if you’re a minimalist, you want to de-clutter, you don’t want to have more and more toys, you can even get all the parts purely digitally. You can buy the game digitally and you can buy the parts digitally.” So Ubisoft is, to some degree, hedging its bets on the toys-to-life part of the game. It’s possible the digital component will tie into some kind of DRM system for the physical collectibles, but Ubisoft isn’t talking about that today.
Starlink isn’t just about the toys, though, There’s a genuinely impressive game to match, one that looks to have wider appeal than many toys-to-life titles. The game centres on a small group of pilots exploring the seven-planet star system of Atlas, while defending it from the invading Forgotten Legion.
“Each world we’ve created is completely circumnavigable,” says Malville. “You can go on the dark side of them, or find outposts set up by the various factions of Atlas. We created the planets making sure they would be unique, building their geological history.”
Flying over a desert world, he expands: “Those [gigantic] skeletons you see are remains of creatures that were once roaming the seas of this world when it was covered in water, before it evaporated, and new life forms took over.
“In the game, you’ll be assembling your team of star pilots, starships and weapons, using ‘creative combat’ to find devastating weapon combos to use against the Legion. You will be exploring the exotic worlds of the Atlas star system, and you will be uniting the factions against the Forbidden Legion, who is trying to take over these planets,” Malville enthuses.
Just how big is the game? Rose interjects: “We’re at pre-alpha, but I will say it’s an epic, epic, game. The enemy threat is completely dynamic, they will take over planets even when you’re not there. And so even when you’ve completed the main storyline of the game, it’s still a completely evolving, dynamic, living system that you can keep playing for as long as you want to,” he claims. That all sounds like Starlink may get co-operative play too, becoming something like Destiny, but once again Ubisoft remains tight-lipped about the game’s future.
Between the action, you get to see the pilot characters in cutscenes – which have slick design and scripting to match the best that Netflix Originals have to offer for kids. We wonder if the game has already been licensed back to a TV production company to further build out the IP? Rose admits it’s “an intriguing idea” but there’s nothing to announce.
Starlink: Battle for Atlas is looking incredibly strong on this early showing. If it sees the success it looks to deserve, it might just be the first in a new wave of more varied toys-to-life products. The only problem is that it’s not available until late 2018, so we have sometime to wait before we can see if its various elements really link up into something truly special.