It’s often a dream of developers to be handed an open yet ambitious brief. But that’s just what happened at Ubisoft Toronto in 2013 when CEO Yves Guillemot charged a small team “to combine a technology breakthrough, with an innovative gameplay concept to make something we’ve never seen before.” Of course there’s upsides and downsides to such a mission.
“I’ve been in the industry 13 years now and I’ve never seen this kind of wide open mandate, it was incredibly liberating for our team and incredibly terrifying – having so few constraints in place to come up with something brand new,” Matt Rose, a producer at Ubisoft Toronto tells us.
With such an open playing field, Rose took a small, multi-disciplinary team of around ten, packed with triple-A experience, and got them iterating like indie developers or university students – they game jammed, hard.
“We brainstormed and prototyped,” Rose explains. In two-week cycles, the team would split into pairs and come up with concepts. Then everyone would vote on the top three pitches. These three would then be made into prototypes by the team: ”We rinsed and repeated. And that way we made dozens of prototypes across different genres, different platforms, different technologies, and some of them were pretty cool.”
Team lead programmer Matthew Severin adds: “And then we’d shelve them.
“It was about being agile and being able to adapt to different things, we weren’t developing these ideas further – just do a prototype and then leave it, don’t get hung up on anything early.”
In this way the team created around a hundred different prototypes.
“Some were board games, some used the Microsoft Kinect, some were more traditional, some focused on online play…” Severin recalls, with each cycle, like any good game jam, having a challenge or theme. “And for one of them it was ‘needs a physical presence’.”
And it was out of that theme, that the kernel of Starlink: Battle for Atlas was born.
“It was this idea of a modular spaceship. What if you could replace the rockets, the cockpit, the wings?” Severin explains. “The very first prototype, me and a couple of other people on the team whipped it up out of construction blocks and an off-the-shelf circuit board. It was stuck together with tape and hot glue with wires sticking out, and we did it in an afternoon. Then we built a simple game that went along with it, so you could see the effect, and then we put it on the shelf with all the other prototypes and we moved on.”
But when the time came to look back at everything they’d created it stood out, Rose remembers: “It wasn’t much to look at, but anyone who played with it, you could see their face light up, and they started to fill in the missing pieces – even making their own sound effects [as they played the silent demo]. This is something really cool, lets double down and look into this.”
Starlink’s magic comes from that instant connection between the space fighter mounted on your controller and the one in the game world. You can switch out the pilot, the wing pieces and the weapons, and these changes are instantly reflected in the game. Because of that, the team set about building their own technology to power its vision.
“That instantness was so important, right from the start, that we knew we were going to have to build something custom,” Severin says. “It’s a custom chip with our own circuit board and the connector is designed by our industrial designers. It has to have enough force on it that it doesn’t fall off but it has to be easy to build. It’s actually a really interesting design challenge in and of itself.”
And that challenge required staff with enthusiasms beyond just games, Rose tells us: “We got all this attention [within the studio] from people with completely different skill sets, people who had backgrounds in industrial design. Vlad [Adamenko] joined the project [as an embedded engineer]. He was a major electronic enthusiast, he’d scratch built his own quadcopter and chemical etched his own circuit boards.”
But even with the right talent in-house, it was a long road, Severin tells us: “It was a huge process of iteration and development. Going from that simple one with wires and tape, we moved to getting a 3D printer on the team and actually starting to 3D print things and after doing cycles of those, you run up against the limits of the 3D printer. So we’d get even better 3D printers and then eventually working with industrial model shops, who do these very professional results.”
GAME, SET, MATCH
With all that fancy technology, and with toys-to-life titles being something of a rarity these days, it’s all too easy to forget that there’s a video game alongside all this. And trying to make both together had its challenges – most obviously notable in Starlink’s relatively lengthy five-year gestation. We wonder to what extent the two aspects, toy and game, sat happily side-by-side in production?
“There were certainly discrete phases and certain phases where you have to make decisions which are irrevocable and you can’t come back from,” Severin says.
For example, once you’ve settled on a weapon, designed the toy for it, prototyped that in plastic, then it’s not quite so easy to completely change tack later. The art team in particular was heavily impacted by the project’s dual-nature.
“It was a hugely interesting challenge for the art team. In games you can essentially make anything you want, but for us all these pieces actually have to work as real objects,” Severin says.
And then the game itself had its own challenges. Ubisoft Toronto hadn’t compromised on its ambition for the game just because it had a complex toy element. The key Severin tells us was “being a space explorer, being able to travel seamlessly from planet to planet and around these planets.”
And those planets created a challenge for Ubisoft’s Snowdrop engine: “We’ve got these spherical planets, which is a difficult challenge in and of itself. Most games exist on a flat plane, but these are actually round, so a bullet travelling is going to leave the atmosphere, and the AI needs to behave on the sphere in a logical way.”
Now, Starlink doesn’t attempt to create an endless universe, like No Man’s Sky for instance. Instead it’s a hand-crafted solar system with each planet having its own distinct feel, with flora and fauna, inhabited by factions that you can recruit to your cause.
Creative director Laurent Malville explains: “Each world we’ve created is completely circumnavigable, you can go on the dark side of them, you can find places where the factions are setting up their outposts, we created the planets making sure they would be unique. The giant skeletons you see are remains of sea 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.”
But these thriving worlds are all under attack by the Forgotten Legion, a persistent enemy that threatens the world’s of Atlas even in the player’s absence.
“The dynamic enemies were something my team focused on,” Severin explains. “While you’re not on a planet the enemies are working to take that planet over, they are advancing on their own and my team worked with the AI team and the missions team to make sure that system worked. It’s an interesting challenge – this is something that is constantly running in the background and the player is having to deal with it.”
Starlink: Battle for Atlas is an incredibly ambitious title then, even if it’s a game ostensibly for younger gamers. And there’s few other companies that put this much effort into family-friendly games. But Guillemot’s initial mandate “to combine a technology breakthrough, with an innovative gameplay concept to make something we’ve never seen before” in retrospect, is very much the kind of lofty aim that Nintendo sets itself, with say Labo.
It’s not surprising then that Nintendo was intrigued by the concept. Ubisoft unveiled their partnership at E3, revealing that the Switch version of Starlink would come with exclusive Star Fox content. And Star Fox, in retrospect, is a perfect match for Starlink.
Laurent Malville explains to us that the initial jubilation at having Nintendo onboard, after a number of visits to Kyoto, was soon tempered by a gnawing fear of discovery, especially after the leaks of Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle before E3 2017. That problem was compounded by the physical nature of the game, with prototypes that had to be manufactured.
He recalls that fear was still with him even as he went on stage at E3 2018 to present Starlink for a second time. Walking to the wings as the Star Fox reveal video played, he realised with huge relief that they’d done it: “No one could leak it now, it was playing,” he says.
And Starlink had just gained a huge advantage, not just on the Switch platform, but a PR coup of epic proportions for the game as a whole.
And it’s one the game may well need, for while it’s undoubtedly brilliant, it’s still impossible to predict its impact at retail. Few companies make high-budget games for a young audience these days, fewer still make accessible space shooters, and practically no one makes toys-to-life games. Ubisoft, and its Toronto team, are well outside anyone’s comfort zone here, exploring the unknown – just like their tiny plastic pilots – and they wouldn’t have it any other way.