During Ubisoft’s E3 press conference this year, there were two big ‘wow’ moments. The first footage for the highly anticipated Beyond Good & Evil 2 garnered a ‘wow’ from nearly everybody. The other game to garner this kind of reaction was the announcement of Starlink: Battle For Atlus, however, it received a very different sort of ‘wow’, this was more a gasp of ‘really?!?’. The toys-to-life genre was pretty much dead, so why would Ubisoft splash their cash on such a crazy new IP?
A few years ago, the toys-to-life genre was huge. Games like Disney Infinity, Skylanders, and LEGO Dimensions were raking in huge bundles of cash with their yearly updates and money-making figurines. In the last couple of years though, their popularity has dwindled. Disney Infinity has been discontinued, there isn’t a new Skylanders entry this year, and the future of LEGO Dimensions is uncertain (to say the least). The demand for these games has diminished dramatically. One school of thought for this is that the gamers who were into these games, particularly the Skylanders series, have grown out of the franchises.
The consensus seems to be that the average age range of the Skylanders gamer was 7-10 year-olds. Add the 4-5 years that have passed onto that age and you end up with teenagers who don’t want to be playing “childish” games but maybe have responsible parents who won’t let them play Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto. This new game could be great for those gamers who want to move on from titles such as Skylanders, Disney Infinity, and LEGO Dimensions.
One of the issues I have had with previous toys-to-life games is that they only seem to be there for the purpose of facilitating the sales of the branded toys. I understand that it’s the toy sales that really bump up the profits for these titles however if the base game isn’t good enough then it doesn’t encourage gamers to play as much. Yes, they’ll keep playing to check out new content, but it’s because they want to see new characters rather than wanting to experience more of the gameplay. Starlink could be the game that breaks that cycle. With no brand recognition to entice gamers, it has to succeed on concept and execution alone. This means that the developers have to go all-out to create something that is fun to play and to keep players coming back.
Not having an existing license to rely on also gives the team behind the game a blank canvas to create anything they want and to do whatever they like with the characters in the game. Disney Infinity and LEGO Dimensions featured characters that had limitations as to the things they could do and what could happen to them. Starlink doesn’t have this issue, as it’s a universe created just for the game. I’m not suggesting that Travellers Tales would have made Dorothy (from the Wizard of Oz) go on a killing spree or suddenly develop a drug addiction (though that would have explained a lot) in LEGO Dimensions. There must have been some occasions though where they had to restrain their creativity because of what they could and couldn’t do with an IP.
One problem with the toys-to-life genre that the team behind Starlink seemed to have solved is the ‘portal’ or more importantly having to drop the controller and place a piece on the portal to get a specific character into the game. These portals nearly always had ridiculously short cables meaning that unless you bought an unwieldy USB extension lead, you had to get off the sofa, go to the portal, and then retake your seat to resume playing. Starlink appears to have the portal (or whatever the peripheral ends up being called) attached to the controller. This makes things a lot easier and means you can play the game wherever you want as well as removing the need for any ungainly cables.
While I am not 100% sold on Starlink: Battle for Atlus yet, it certainly has piqued my interest. It looks like the kind of game that I would enjoy if it weren’t a toys-to-life title. It seems as though it could connect with gamers who have ‘grown out’ of the Skylanders, Disney, and the LEGO franchise. One of the things that I like about the game is that it’s an original idea from the developers. Ubisoft Toronto wasn’t creating a space-based game only for the upper management at Ubisoft to force them to add the toys-to-life element. It is an organic development through the creativity of the minds behind the game and that is the best way for a game to come about. I hope that as we learn more about the game and see more of it, people will be open to the game and at least give it a chance.