As video games begin to overtake the popularity of other forms of pop culture, community, and expression, game developers find themselves playing catch-up to that evolving demand.
The title, which has players piecing together a model starship strapped to a video game controller and seeing the creation come to life inside a complex game in real time, was prototyped around a very specific concept: Today’s young children are much more advanced and tech savvy then the games they are meant to play give them credit for.
“Children have grown up surrounded by technology, they’re completely fluent in technology, and video games are a big part of that,” “Starlink” producer Matt Rose told Variety. “The reality is that many kids these days are already intimately familiar with video games and have mastered them by the time they are six to seven to eight years old.”
The problem, Rose added, is that video games simply haven’t kept up with that. So the titles designed for children to play often aren’t sophisticated enough to keep their interest. The result is that they move on to games that were never intended for them to play at that age.
Ubisoft hopes to address that issue with “Starlink” by creating a “game for gamer kids.”
“They’re looking for a game with depth, freedom, an open world experience,” Rose said. “They want to lose themselves in the game, dream about what they can do, talk with their friends about the different challenges they can overcome through mastery.”
Rose calls that audience a massively underserved market that has very little to play. He also believes that the sorts of titles that “gamer kids” want to play is appealing to a much wider audience as well.
The initial concept for the game was built around the idea of having a model, toy starship that could be brought into the game, following in the footsteps of titles like “Skylanders,” Lego Dimensions,” and “Disney Infinity,” all three of which saw moderate to massive success before the demand dried up and they were killed off by their publishers.
Rose acknowledged that making a new toys-to-life game is a risk, but said the reward outweighs that. Also, it’s worth noting that the game doesn’t actually require players to purchase or use the physical toys to play it. Everything will be sold digitally as well.
The toys themselves use a clever design. A player starts with a character figure, each of which has its own special abilities and can be leveled up. The character is locked onto a small stand connected to the controller. The body of the spaceship is then placed on top of the character, so you can see the pilot inside. Each body also has special abilities and unlockables. Then, wings and weapons can be attached to the body. Everything is mix and match, so players have the ability to create something fairly unique to them.
Rose said they decided to stick with the inclusion of the toy for all launch sets of the game because it is a key part of serving that young audience.
“It still has that connection to childhood,” he said. “And it was really that connection to childhood that we wanted to protect, that sense of magic and wonder and childlike joy.
“The toys speak directly to that.”
The process of building your ship on the fly is sort of magical, the creation shows up in the game nearly instantly and the models themselves are minutely detailed.
The starter packs will sell for about $75 and come with a starship body, two pilots and two weapons. Extra pilots will sell for about $8 each, packs of two weapons will be about $10, and a starship pack, which comes with a ship, two wings, a pilot, a weapon, will sell for about $25.
The digital versions of all of this haven’t yet been priced.
Players who have the physical toys will need to check in with them in the game once a week to keep using them but otherwise won’t need them for play if they don’t want to use them.
Rose said that those who are into the toys can also purchase display stands which will be released soon after the game hits.
At release, the game will have nine pilots, seven ships, and 16 weapons, but Ubisoft is likely to expand that over time. The Nintendo Switch version of the game also has the exclusive Arwing and Fox McCloud from Nintendo’s “Starfox” games.
“We wanted a really focused product line at launch,” Rose said. “And for kids and parents, that’s a kind of achievable collection.”
Rose said the company is “really, really committed to supporting the brand and game with free content as well. There will be new content coming out on a regular basis that we’re actively working on now.”
After some time with the game, I was surprised to find it is much more difficult and offers much more complexity than one might expect going into a game initially designed for tween gamers.
The demo, played on a Nintendo Switch, started with deciding which ship to build atop the two Joycons docked to one another. I selected Fox McCloud and the Arwing initially and then spent some time flying around in space before diving down onto a planet and completing some missions. The game’s design, along with the character and ship I selected, combined to deliver an experience that felt a bit like a classic “Starfox” game. Players can choose to fly around the planet or drop to its surface and control the ship a bit like a hovering tank.
Missions are doled out through short interactions and can be quickly swapped out with one another or ignored entirely.
Most involve looking for the signs of enemies, solving basic puzzles and getting into lots of battles both on the ground and in the air.
When I decided to take off in hunt for the asteroid base of an enemy, I simply flew straight up into the air and eventually slipped from the atmosphere into space. Space travel from planet to my destination took longer than I expected, and while it did include the occasional diversion of avoiding traps, it felt more like a diversion meant to disguise loading times.
Once at the asteroid base, I quickly discovered just how hard the game can be. When a ship is destroyed, players have the option to start over at a respawn point or to swap a new ship. By the time I had nearly destroyed all of my ships, producer Rose stepped in to help out with the mini-boss battle. The game supports drop-in, drop-out cooperative play using split-screen. There is no online multiplayer though.
The game is split between a narrative storyline and a living open world element.
“The living world is a big part of the game,” Rose said. “We have developed neat tech in a very different way than many, many open world games don’t have. It’s a completely living ecosystem, so every (artificial intelligence) on every planet is always running their lives.”
The game’s underlying story adds a lot of importance to this living universe approach to the game. “Starlink’s” star system Atlas is, lead narrative designer Joshua Mohan said, a real star system.
“We even consulted with an astrophysicist,” he said. “We learned things about Atlas, like that it is a triple star system, and those are the kinds of details we integrated into the game as we were building it.”
From there the team used their imagination to build out the system’s planets from scratch and then came up with the sort of societies that would live on those planets. They also worked to build out unique ecologies for each planet with unique animals and planets.
In the game’s narrative, Atlas is home to a sort of space goldrush, with people from all over the universe arrive to hunt for a substance called electrum that powers all of the technology in the game.
The electrum rush is broken up by the arrival of the Forgotten Legion and its leader, Grax, who is obsessed with an extinct race called the Wardens. The Wardens are an ancient race that essentially brought life to the planets and created advanced technology to keep things running.
“Finding a planet with life on it is incredibly rare,” Mohan said. “Finding life on this many planets is almost impossible. In our fiction, this wasn’t an accident. The wardens shaped these planets. They left behind structures, spires, and left robots set to guard and manage operations.”
As Grax upends things on the planets, his legion fights to take over the galaxy and they won’t stop even if the player does.
“If you put the controller down, the Forgotten Legion will infect and take over the entire solar system as long as the game is running,” Rose said.
Because the game has this living world, even after beating the narrative campaign, players will have a reason to keep playing,.
“The living world will still continue after you complete the main game,” Rose said. “It’s an endless living world. The planets are huge and there are tons of secrets and activities.”
That includes a secret X-factor location that is hidden on each planet guarded by major enemies. Taking them over will grant the player major loot.
The game also has those four pilots, each with unique skills and fully voice-acted original dialog.
“Playing the same content through with a different pilot will give you a different lens to view the game through,” Rose said.
Rose also reiterated Ubisoft’s plans to continue to support the game and its brand post-launch. That means a variety of things — including potentially exploring other mediums like television — but most importantly it means paying close attention to how the game is played and what people want from it moving forward and reacting to it.
Because the game doesn’t require physical toys to play it or expand it, Ubisoft can be much more careful about inventory management of the physical toys, and issue that may have lead to the sudden death of the toys-to-life genre.
“One of the interesting challenges with anything to do with manufacturing is inventory management,” Rose said. “That was one of the areas that for not just toys to life, but all toys, is the big challenge. Because we support both modes of play, it allows us to get more data.”
So, for instance, Ubisoft can be more reactive to player demand and wait for an increase in demand before increasing the manufacturing of the toys.
“If there is a certain character that we underestimate the demand of,” Rose said, “because that character is still available digitally, it gives us more wiggle room.”