Starlink: Battle for Atlas Interview -- Producer Talks Star Fox Crossover, Mission Structure, and More

Starlink: Battle for Atlas Producer Matt Rose explains how the Star Fox collaboration with Nintendo happened, how the project came to be, and more.

September 7, 2018

Starlink: Battle for Atlas made a stir earlier this year at E3 when it was revealed that Fox McCloud would be one of the game’s playable characters. What was perhaps more impressive to us though was just how good it felt to play after we went hands-on with it. Still, there’s a lot we didn’t know about Starlink following E3 and we were eager to learn more about how the game would work on a moment-to-moment basis in the full game.

At a recent Ubisoft event, we talked to Matt Rose, a producer on Starlink, to learn a bit more about just those details. In addition, we chatted about how the Star Fox collaboration with Nintendo came to be and dug into more about the systems and missions that you can expect to find in the game’s open universe.

Logan: When did you first begin working on Starlink: Battle for Atlas? 

Matt Rose: It actually started with the conclusion of Splinter Cell: Blacklist back in 2013. When it shipped, we had people starting to split up and go onto other projects. Since then, Ubisoft Toronto has worked on Assassin’s Creed: Unity, Far Cry Primal, and all sorts of giant Ubisoft games. I had the opportunity though to come up with something brand new.

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It’s a bit false to say that we started on Starlink back in 2013 because we had no idea what we were making. We spent awhile prototyping and exploring different things. At the end of that year, it all kind of coalesced around this breakthrough for Starlink.

L: So you showed a presentation here to us today that gave me the indication that this project all sort of began around the toys for Starlink. Was that something you ever strayed away from in the years following given the nature of how Toys-to-Life games have somewhat died down?

MR: We were never really inspired by a particular trend. For us, it was really looking back to inspirations from our childhood as well as just experimenting with different prototypes and finding things that had that magic feeling. That instant reaction from people.

We had this early prototype that seemed really, really promising. Everyone we showed it to their eyes lit up and everything was fundamental core. Once we had that, we started building the universe around it and then the game sort of formed around that central concept of adapt to overcome.

L: One thing I wasn’t really aware of until today is that you don’t need the toys whatsoever to play Starlink. You can experience the full game without them. What will the big differences be for those who will purchase the toys and those who won’t?

MR: We think the toys are a bit of a magical experience and are really cool but we want as many people as possible to enjoy the game. Everyone has different things that they like or are comfortable with. Maybe someone wants to play on Switch in handheld mode most of the time — then it makes more sense for them to have the digital version. It’s up to each person how they want to play the game.

The main difference you’re going to see is that the toys obviously give you that very immediate, accessible way of building. Everyone immediately and intuitively understands how to build a spaceship by just putting the parts together and making whatever you want. Digitally, we have a digital interface to customize your ship but you might just have to pause a little more to take a step back and go into the interface to configure. With the toys in particular, once you get really good with them then you can just turn on hot-swap and right in the middle of a fight without pausing or losing a beat, you can reconfigure and keep going. That’s the main difference but otherwise, they’re completely symmetrical experiences.

L: Of course, I have to ask you about Star Fox and the way in which Fox and the gang made their way into Starlink. How early on did you know that you wanted to pitch Nintendo on this crossover idea?

MR: I think there was always some pipe dream but it all really came about at E3 2017. We announced Starlink at E3 2017 and we had a behind-closed-doors demo we were showing. A group of people from Nintendo of America came by and asked if they could see the demo. We had already announced that the game would be coming to Nintendo Switch but we hadn’t met a lot with Nintendo at that point.

They came by to see the demo and they were kind of poker-faced so we didn’t know if they liked it or not. At the end of the demo, they asked if they could bring by a couple more people to see it. We said yes and they came by with another group and this time with a row of translators as well. They introduced us to the director of Super Mario Odyssey, the director of Mario Kart, the creator of ARMS, the father of Metroid and all of these legends from Nintendo. So we were getting a bit nervous but the demo went super well and they asked if they could bring by yet another group of people.

This keeps going and I think they came by about five times. The last time had Reggie Fils-Amie and everyone coming by to play. That went super well and we kind of knew that something was up. Afterward, we continued talking to them and it ultimately culminated in an invitation to go meet Miyamoto-san in Kyoto, Japan.

I had the honor of traveling with a couple of people from the team to pitch a collaboration. We were surprised when we arrived because we were expecting a small meeting with Miyamoto-san but he had brought along the entire Japanese side of the Star Fox 1 development team. They were all in the room as well.

We did the pitch and it went well. Our creative director Laurent Malville went through a gauntlet of super, super precise, specific game design questions from Miyamoto-san. Really on-point, detailed stuff. He’s a very, very smart guy. I guess we succeeded and passed the test and the rest is history.

L: So that all happened just last year which means you guys have had an incredibly short amount of time to add all of the Star Fox content into the Switch version of Starlink since that time. How difficult has that been?

MR: It was a big focus and one of the great things about Ubisoft is that it’s a company that believes in making bold moves and taking risks so they were fully behind us. When this collaboration was greenlit and we all decided that this was something that we wanted to do, we were able to rally a lot of support to focus on this content and make sure it was absolutely top-notch. I think people are going to be blown away by how well integrated Fox McCloud is in the game. It’s not just a guest character, you can play as him throughout the entire campaign, fully voice-acted by the cast from Star Fox Zero. He’s not just throughout the main game, there’s also exclusive missions, cinematics, and you may see some other friendly faces from the Star Fox universe along the way.

L: I do agree with you, the way in which Fox and the crew have been integrated into the story is really well-done from what I’ve seen so far. Will the storylines between the Switch version and other platforms differ greatly because of this?  

MR: So the main campaign is similar but obviously, you’ll get a little more info and a different perspective from the inclusion of Star Fox. Then there’s kind of some additional exclusive Star Fox missions and that’s all that’s exclusive to the Switch version.

L: One of the things that stuck out to me in my demo is that most of the side objectives on each planet were a bit similar. That said, I didn’t travel around to too many different planets. I’m wondering, will tasks differ greatly depending on the planet you’re on?

MR: There’s a whole wide array of different activities that you can find. Not only main campaign things but also systemic activities to do throughout the world. Ultimately, all of that is kind of building up and culminating towards a big metagame of the Alliance vs the Legion where you’re really able to build your Alliance in a very dynamic, living way.

You can go meet outposts, do missions for them, convince them to join your Alliance and get benefits from each of them. For instance, the Observatory starts revealing your map and the refineries start mining for you and giving you resources. Ultimately, you kind of have this strategic game that you’re playing that’s a tug-of-war. That’s what you’re building towards in the first part of the game and then, later on, you’re engaged in that struggle.

L: Toys-to-Life games usually seem to have longer legs, as developers will continue releasing new toys and such long after release. While I’m sure you’re not talking about post-launch plans much today, is that kind of support something you want to continue with after Starlink release?

MR: Absolutely. We really want to actively support Starlink and make sure that we’ve got lots of new content both with additional toys in the future but also with free content just to keep adding to that world and keep giving people tons of value and new things to go check out. We haven’t announced full details on that yet—more to come—but I’m really excited about those additional experiences that are going to be coming.

L: Both times I’ve played the game now the one thing that has stood out to me is just how great movement feels in the ship. The controls are very tight. How long did it take you to nail that feeling with flight?

MR: We’ve got a fantastic gameplay team. Laurent Malville, our creative director, was the lead game designer on Splinter Cell: Blacklist and was responsible for a lot of the moment-to-moment gameplay. We’ve got a top-notch team working on this game. But yeah, it takes a lot of iteration and the collaboration with Nintendo helped us there. We had a lot of discussions and asked questions and they gave us pointers to help us continue to polish and make this as great as it can be.

L: It’s interesting to me that Nintendo has even continued to help you guys out in areas like that because I wouldn’t have originally expected them to do that. How active have they been in development since you worked out the Star Fox collaboration?

MR: It’s been a wonderful collaboration and we’re in touch with them all the time – a daily basis. It’s much less in the context of us sending them stuff and they review it and are our gatekeepers. It’s been much more of an active collaboration than even I expected. It’s really open back and forth. They’ll send us ideas or suggestions, we’ll send them things we’re thinking about and sometimes we’re directly working on it together.

As an example, the pose of Fox McCloud on the toy is something that Nintendo actually came up with. We had gone back and forth on different sketches and poses and they told us they had the perfect pose that matched his personality. They sent us back the sketch, and yeah. It’s been really, really great.

L: Is the team you’re in contact with at Nintendo their actual Star Fox team or is it a variety of different people?

MR: We work with people at Nintendo Japan as well as Nintendo America and different subsidiaries. There are lots of people throughout the company who have helped.

L: To wrap up, what’s the one thing about Starlink you’d stress to our readers that maybe you haven’t talked about as much already?

MR: One of the things I’m personally really excited about that we’re only just scratching the surface of is the living world and the potential of that living world. The notion that it’s very different from most games that you play and every single AI on every single planet is always living their lives or is always simulated. The effects of that are huge and if you go down and place a line of turrets surrounding a base that you’re trying to protect, that will continue to fight back even when you’re not there. There are real consequences to your choices and your decisions. If an outpost calls for help and you don’t go help it, it will get wiped out. That whole planet can get overrun. There’s a real meaning that we’re really excited about and I can’t wait for people to start getting into that and learning more about it.

Starlink: Battle for Atlas is slated to release next month on October 16 for PS4, Xbox One, and Switch. Currently, you can pre-order the Star Fox starter bundle of the game over on Amazon.

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Logan Moore

Logan Moore is the Managing Editor around these parts and enjoys the video game Super Mario Odyssey.

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