Activision and Toys for Bob pioneered the market with Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure in 2011. By 2014, the toy-game hybrid had generated more than $2 billion in revenues from the sales of video games and more than 175 million action figures.
But almost as fast, the market fell apart. Disney and Warner Bros. dove in, and they then exited. In 2017, Activision put Skylanders on hiatus. About the same time, a small team at Ubisoft started toying with their own way of fusing toys with a video game. Their project got more popular at Ubisoft Toronto, and even Nintendo decided to support it by permitting Ubisoft to use Nintendo’s Starfox character in the game.
As others exited the market, Ubisoft Toronto built Starlink: Battle for Atlas, which has seven worlds and a bunch of toys. You pick your pilot, attach the toys, starship, and weapons to the controller, and then you’re ready for take-off. You have the freedom to do anything, attach any character, and play on any of the seven crafted planets in the game.
I played the game on the Xbox One, fighting battles on the planet Haven and attaching different toys to my controller, while producer Matthew Rose gave me guidance on what to do. Then I sat down with Rose for a one-on-one conversation about the origins of Starlink and how Ubisoft seized the opportunity to fill the void in the toy-game hybrid market. He believes the freedom that Ubisoft is giving players is going to be key to the game’s success.
We’ll see how the game and the toys do when they debut on October 16 on the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and the Nintendo Switch.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: What’s the early inspiration for Starlink?
Matt Rose: A few years ago, after we shipped Splinter Cell: Blacklist, the first project that Ubisoft Toronto shipped, people started to split up and go on to different projects. Since then Toronto’s worked on Far Cry and Watch Dogs and things. I had the opportunity to take a small team, about eight people, and come up with something new. We had no idea where we were going, so we did all sorts of experimentation and prototyping across all sorts of crazy technologies and platforms.
One of the prototypes that was exciting was this modular starship. It was just a hacky prototype at the beginning – a Wiimote, some consumer electronics, some copper wiring, some building blocks. But there was something magical about it, that instantaneous connection that felt great, and that let players experiment and try to adapt to overcome challenges. That was the inception point. Everything else built from there.
GamesBeat: Skylanders and others were in the market at the time, but do you feel like you were exploring a space that wasn’t served?
Rose: Yeah, absolutely. A lot of it was looking at our own kids and learning from playing with them. I have two children, five and seven, and they’re both into video games. The more we started talking to parents and talking to kids, we had a big revelation. Kids of today are unique in that it’s really the first generation growing up with gamer parents. They get into video games at such a young age. They get very familiar and very skilled. Very quickly, they’re ready for the next challenge, and there’s not a lot out there to provide an appropriate next challenge for them.
Far too often they jump straight from a kids’ game to something that’s absolutely not intended for a young audience, something that parents aren’t comfortable with them playing. They just can’t find something else that’s appropriate. That’s where we got excited. The reactions we got, not only from kids but from parents and retailers and partners, were really encouraging.
GamesBeat: You’re blending a lot of different things here. Where are you grabbing things from?
Rose: A lot of the core inspirations were from our childhoods. Things that happened in the ‘80s and early ‘90s that were inspiring, and that we’ve moved away from in many ways. There was this era of unbridled creativity in toys, coming up with crazy new breakthroughs and innovations and building these universes out to support that. You’d have the Saturday morning cartoons and toys and everything coming together to present a cohesive world to lose yourself in.
That was a big touch point. And then space games have also come and gone in waves, but when I was a kid, that was one of my favorite genres. There were so many wonderful space epics that I lost myself in. Combining those two inspirations formed Starlink.
GamesBeat: What did you think when Star Fox came in?
Rose: Like I say, there were all these games from our childhoods that inspired us, and absolutely, Star Fox was one of the central games. I think it was the first 3D game I played on console. We always had dreams like, “Wouldn’t it be amazing if …?” But then after we revealed the game at E3 in 2017, we had a small group from Nintendo of America. They came by and asked to see the demo. We were planning the game for Switch, so of course we said yes. They were fairly poker-faced, but we could see these little smiles.
At the end of the demo they said, “Do you mind if we bring a handful of other people by?” Of course that was fine, so they came by and we were introduced to the director of Mario Odyssey, the director of Mario Kart, all of these legends from Nintendo. That was amazing, a very humbling experience. And then that demo ended and they said, “Well, can we come by with another group?” And another group, and so on. It’s getting bigger and bigger. Reggie Fils-Aime came by and his crew. At that point we knew something was up.
After E3 we started the conversations with Nintendo. They were very encouraging, very exciting. That all culminated in an invitation to go to the Nintendo office in Kyoto, so I had the privilege of traveling there with a couple of people from our team to propose a collaboration. Not only to Mr. Miyamoto, but the entire Star Fox development team. That was a crazy experience, a wonderful experience. It went well. They enjoyed the game and their experience with it.
For us it’s really a match made in heaven. Star Fox fits so naturally into the Starlink IP. We’ve put a lot of care into making it a fully integrated thing. It’s not just a guest character. They’re in the cinematics. You can play as Fox McCloud through the entire game with full voice acting from the original cast. There’s also exclusive missions and content, just on Switch, featuring Star Fox and other friendly faces from that universe.
GamesBeat: Toys-to-life was huge. It quickly got over a billion dollars a year. Then it all fell apart, dropped out of the hype cycle. One of the problems that seemed to be identified was the inventory problem. It was too many toys to keep in stock. I don’t know if you’ve figured out a way, coming in after that, to make this a longer-lasting project.
Rose: There’s a lot we can learn. I see a few things there. One, that space started out strong. Hardware-based games, peripherals and things, they’ve always existed, and it always comes in waves and cycles. I think there was a bit of stagnation in the space. There was some cool innovation early on to open it up, but you kept seeing the same pattern throughout. Those are all things we’ve learned from.
One of the big differences in our approach, and something that helps with inventory management, is we offer that freedom in how you want to play the game. You can play the game fully digitally. We can give different players different doors to get in. That allows us to be more flexible in how we’re managing that, and still invite a wide range of players from different ages and different interests to come in and enjoy the game.
GamesBeat: With the toy part, you have to guess what to make in advance, up to a point.
Rose: For sure. You want to make sure to have the right amount of toys. One of the big things we did there was to have a much more focused offering, to make sure we could really focus in on fewer offerings that are very integrated and very high quality. At launch there’s only four different ship packs available. That allows us, on the dev side, to make each one really special and unique. But then of course on the business side it makes inventory management much simpler.
We made it for dev and business reasons, but we were encouraged by the positive response from players and gamers. They’re also saying that this is what they’re looking for. Thinking back to my childhood again, you’d flip the action figure box over and feel like you had an achievable collection goal. “I can check these boxes. I can build this. I can see myself getting there.” When people felt it was just this overwhelming number of things they could never get, that started building some resentment toward the pace.
GamesBeat: It seems like you have a more interesting universe, with these seven worlds.
Rose: We’ve put a lot of work into crafting Atlas as a place that has a lot of history, a lot of layers to it, a lot of secrets. It’s a compelling narrative, that classic struggle, this David vs. Goliath struggle. You have a small team, the Starlink Initiative, where their superpower is their ability to adapt and combine their strengths to take on a much bigger, overwhelming threat from the Forgotten Legion.
GamesBeat: You didn’t go the full procedural route, right?
Rose: We use some procedural tech in our tools to empower our artists and designers to create vast worlds. But for us it was important to maintain that handcrafted content, where we can put those layers of history, those points of interest and things to discover, and really have that narrative where you can start peeling back the layers and learning about the Wardens and the Electrum Rush era. It starts to feel like a believable place. That was important for us.
GamesBeat: You get the feeling like the world is alive.
Rose: Exactly. The toy is a major breakthrough for us in that instantaneous connection. But the other big breakthrough I’m excited about is this living world, a completely simulated world, where every AI is always persistent, always living their life. It takes people a while to wrap their head around how different that is from a traditional game, where there are real consequences to failure and real impact in success.
If you go down and build up a stronghold on a world, build a strong alliance and level up the outposts and place turrets and defenses, that world will be secure and they’ll fight back. They can even take down bosses when you’re not there. They can fight for you. It’s that living alliance. I’m excited by that, and excited by the meaningful choices. It’s interesting, because it’s something kids adapt to very quickly. It’s how it should work in the real world. A lot of older players, a lot of core gamers, come in with their preconceptions of how it works in every other game and then they say, “Oh, this is different. This isn’t how I expected it would work.”
GamesBeat: All these things we saw at there, are they landing all at once, or are you staggering some of the releases of these items?
Rose: The toys, the collectibles? The items we’re showing today are all from the launch wave, the initial release. There’s four ship packs, four pilot packs, and four weapon packs at different price points. The ship packs are $24.99. Pilot packs are $7.99 and weapon packs are $9.99. But of course we have lots of plans to support this game into the future, both with additional toy releases and with free content, new free features and missions and content packs. We haven’t announced full details on that, but we want to continue building on this universe and the star system of Atlas.
GamesBeat: With the story itself, how much time are people able to spend with the story?
Rose: That living world, in many ways, gives you a very long play time. Of course that fight will continue. You can get engaged. The Legion will continue to push back while you build up your alliance. There are all these epic endgame goals, where you can fully upgrade the Equinox. We tend to see the main campaign as that 20-25 hour playthrough, depending on how much you get distracted by other things. But you can keep coming back to the living world.