Starlink: Battle for Atlas takes place in a large sci-fi universe, which spans seven explorable planets that you can seamlessly travel between. Each world has its own wildlife and ecosystem, and there are different factions battling among themselves, vying for control. The game is being helmed by some of the key artists and designers who have worked on Ubisoft’s biggest open-world games, like Splinter Cell, Far Cry, and Assassin’s Creed.
Starlink is massive and complex, and it’s also designed for kids. Unlike most games meant for younger audiences, Starlink isn’t a watered-down version of a more traditional video game. “We tried not to dumb things down for kids,” says art director Daniel Ebanks. “I think kids appreciate the same things we do, even if they can’t articulate it.”
Development on Starlink started about five years ago at Ubisoft’s Toronto studio, when Matthew Rose, now a producer on the game, was given a blank slate to come up with a new concept. His mind immediately gravitated toward two things: space and toys. He imagined a game where you could buy spaceship figures and then use them to control the action on-screen.
There was just one problem: no one at the studio had any experience making toys. “We underestimated the challenge of really making this dream into a reality,” says Rose. But after pitching the concept to Ubisoft’s headquarters in Paris, Starlink got the green light, and eventually, the Toronto team started to bring on industrial designers and install a 3D printer in the office for rapid prototyping.
The final version of Starlink that will launch later this year on the PS4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch features tiny spaceship toys with echoes of Chris Foss. They slot into a mount that connects to your controller so while you play the game, it’s like there’s a flying craft in your hands. The ships are also modular. You can swap out parts like weapons, wings, and even the pilots on the fly, and those changes you make to the toy instantly show up in the game. Onstage at its E3 press conference today, Ubisoft showed off a Switch-exclusive version of Fox McCloud’s Arwing fighter from Star Fox, revealing that the titular fox is in fact a playable character in the Switch version.
The original versions of the concept were slightly more complex. Initially, the team tried to build a dedicated flight stick controller with a spaceship on top, but they found that players who are more accustomed to a traditional gamepad struggled with it. Later iterations featured a multitude of connectors, but this could make the experience unwieldy. It was possible to connect a huge number of weapons, turning a ship into an overpowered, game-breaking killing machine. Eventually, the team settled on the controller-mounted version, with four inputs representing the four triggers and bumpers on a standard controller.
But as the toys became simplified and more streamlined, the game itself became bigger and more ambitious. The original idea for Starlink was akin to most kid-focused games. It was a fairly linear 3D action game, where players were directed to complete a very specific set of goals before moving on to the next. But after some playtesting, the developers realized this was too restrictive for modern players.
The most popular games among kids today are wide-open experiences like Fortnite or Minecraft, where players are able to make their own fun. Add to that Ubisoft’s experience with making open-world games, and you have a recipe for something more ambitious than a typical child-friendly experience. “We don’t want to restrict ourselves or talk down to younger players, because they already play very advanced games,” explains creative director Laurent Malville.
I played through a small demo of the game, and it felt remarkably like No Man’s Sky, but with a great deal more structure. The amount of space you can explore is notably smaller, but it’s hand-crafted, with actual points of interest. I never came across somewhere that felt empty or uninteresting. As I flew around a colorful alien world, I was free to take on a range of missions; one involved taking down a massive, spider-like alien that ran all over the surface, trying to get away from me. There are things like dynamic weather and events, so you could stumble on a battle between two factions, and have to decide whether to intervene. Or you could spend a few hours cataloging local wildlife.
It’s a familiar structure for fans of AAA games, but it’s one that’s rare in the kids space — and even rarer is a game built with this level of care and polish. The action in Starlink feels great, with intuitive controls and boss battles that can feel both exhausting and exhilarating. The toys add another tactile element. Unlike, say, Skylanders, where you scan a character into a game and that’s it, in Starlink, you’re constantly interacting with your spaceship figure. Different puzzles can require a different combination of weapons and abilities, and it’s a lot more fun to physically attach new guns as opposed to selecting them from a menu.
The team at Ubisoft says that you’ll be able to complete the main game using the Starlink starter pack — new ships, weapons, and characters will be available to purchase separately. “There’s very little gating,” says Rose. “You never feel like you’re hitting a wall, and now it’s time to buy something.” Instead, he says that the team approaches add-ons sort of like a collectible card game like Hearthstone. They add to your abilities but not necessary for success. “We think of this as a really simplistic deck building experience,” he explains.
Starlink is no doubt an ambitious undertaking, but it’s also coming out at a difficult time. The toys-to-life genre, once a powerful market force, is virtually non-existent today. Disney Infinity has been canceled, Lego Dimensions petered out, and even the industry-leading Skylanders franchise is now dormant. Unlike those games, Starlink doesn’t have the benefit of being attached to a big brand.
But while it’s superficially similar to past toys-to-life games, Ubisoft believes that by offering a more traditional open-world game that’s tailored to kids, it’s offering something brand-new in this space. “We don’t give enough credit to younger players,” says Malville. “They are very smart.”