Designing Planets, Ships, and Fox: Interview With Starlink: Battle For Atlas' Art Director
Ubisoft Toronto is launching their brand new IP this fall. In an unprecedented move, Ubisoft developed a new franchise revolving around the toys-to-life movement.
Starlink: Battle For Atlas takes place in the Atlas star system. As players embark on their journey, they will discover strange planets and ecosystems. Along the way, you will meet friends and foes of all different species.
Ubisoft Toronto has been working tirelessly to create unique areas to uncover. Planets are bright and beautiful and hold their personality. Characters come from all corners of the universe, and their design helps to set each apart from one another. Not to mention Fox McCloud and his team are available for Nintendo Switch players.
All these elements have created a sight to be seen. So I sat down with Starlink: Battle For Atlas' art director, Daniel Ebanks to talk about the creative process him and his team went through.
Steve: Can give us a rundown of your role within Ubisoft and Starlink in particular?
Daniel: I am an art director at Ubisoft Toronto, and I am the art director for Starlink: Battle For Atlas
Steve: Were there any particular points of inspiration the team took when crafting the characters and ships?
Daniel: Absolutely. We’re building a new IP from scratch. When we started building the ships, building the characters, we really had to think about the logic behind everything. There is a hierarchy of inspiration.
For instance, we have different factions in the game. Characters and the ships come from different factions. So Shahid is an outlaw. For her, the inspiration for her ship was like a hotrod, ratrods, you know and gear-heads. Of course, mix in outlaws and that whole sort of bandito vibe.
The ships for the Starlink Initiative is a mix of high-performance vehicles and military vehicles. You can clearly see it with Chase’s ship, the red one that looks like an F1. It looks like an F1 mixed with a fighter.
That was our design process in a lot of the cases. We would try to identify the feeling we wanted the player to get from the factions and find points, in reality, to use as touchstones.
Steve: How difficult was it to narrow down the ship designs? Were there many that ended up on the cutting room floor?
Daniel: The ones that I miss the most I’m not going to mention because I am holding out hope that we’ll see them down the line. *Laughs*
When it came down to chopping down that list, it was mostly coming down to how many chips do we have in that particular group. How many outlaw ships? How many expedition ships? Sometimes it would be “We have three really awesome expedition ships, but we have to pick one.”
Steve: Are there any character or enemy models that particularly stand out to you now that you see the full picture?
Daniel: I like –– obviously there is a lot that I like, but I do really like the visual design of the main enemy; Grax. I think he has a very iconic look to him.
We have a very talented artist that worked on the design for him; a guy by the name Al. He did a really great job building and designing our characters. Grax is one of them –– especially as far as villains go.
For our playable characters, I really like Eli. He’s like the space cowboy. When we were designing him, I was like “We really have to have a cowboy.”
Steve: Like the Clint Eastwood of space.
Daniel: Exactly, and he’s a cactus! I really like his look, and the voice actor just nailed it. We were very happy about that.
Steve: Talk us through creating the different planets and worlds. What focus went into creating each of them and making them all feel unique?
Daniel: When we kicked off the whole process, we actually talked to an astrophysicist. We spent a whole day talking to her asking her every little detail about the Pleiades, and how actual exoplanets are formed. Specifically about the Pleiades, and Atlas, and how there are actually three stars around them that are very dim. Also, there’s a Vampire Star, we got some really cool information.
When it came down to it, we asked “Well, are there any planets?” and she said “Maybe..” *laughs* You know, it’s 400 light years from earth. She says “There could be..”
So we did our research to understand what we know about exoplanets. Once we did our research and found what they might be like, we asked ourselves “What do we want our worlds to be like?”
We started with more than seven planets, same process and whittled things down. We always started from a high-level theme. We knew we wanted to be distinct.
It was important for me that each planet was an inspiration in of itself for people to explore and play the game. It’s a totally open game, so it’s not a skybox. If you see a planet in the distance you can fly to it. I wanted people to be excited when they are on a planet, to see another one and fly to it.
It was important that they were distinct, and there was a balance between the terrestrial, earth-like-feeling planets. You’ve played the demo, there is a desert planet, it feels like a desert. And then there are very alien-planets.
If everything is alien, it does not feel alien, you know? It’s that balance between the terrestrial and the alien. When you get to those alien planets you start asking “Is that a creature? Is that a plant? Is this the ground?” It feels special.
So we had those high-level themes. When working with the concept artists, they were like “Okay, this is the musical planet!” All the lifeforms and vegetation were inspired by musical instruments. Then we took those and turned them into the flora that you will see.
Each planet had a theme like that and we drilled down to make it believable. It was super important that it felt super real. We did our research in trying to develop one of the geological functions that made this specific planet. We tried to give clues so it all made sense.
Steve: I'd be remiss if I didn't get around to talking about Star Fox. How did the collaboration between Ubisoft and Nintendo come to be?
Daniel: It’s an interesting story. E3 2017 we announced the game. It was super exciting. We had a behind closed doors showing at the Ubi booth.
So we’re doing the demos and there’s a Nintendo rep. Next thing we know, there are two Nintendo reps, and then three. Then they’re starting to get more and more senior. Then it’s like “Oh, Reggie from Nintendo of America is here.” Then it’s the creator of Metroid! After a bit, the demo was filled with senior level Nintendo people. They saw and liked what they saw.
To be honest, we were all fans of Star Fox. I grew up playing Star Fox and being amazed by the 3D. Things just kind of rolled from there. They saw the potential in the game, we had a good relationship with Nintendo.
Nintendo reached out to use and we put a pitch together. Some members of the team flew to Japan to Nintendo HQ. They pitched the game to Miyamoto and his ensemble at Nintendo. The rest is kind of history.
So Fox is a visitor in the Starlink world. But he is integrated fully into the cinematics and became a big part of the story. You can play the full game with Fox and the whole story can be told through Fox [On Nintendo Switch].
Steve: Now that we’re only a few weeks from release, what aspects of the game are you most excited to see players experience?
Daniel: People think they know what the game is about or what it is until they play it. That’s the biggest thing we have seen. We’ve heard it so many times from people who played the game. They’ll say “I thought it was this, but it really is so much more.” or “The toy interaction feels great, and I wrote it off as something else.”
That’s really what I’m most excited for. Play it and see!
Starlink: Battle For Atlas releases on October 16th on Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4.