Two Toronto-made videogames are reaching for the spotlight at E3

LOS ANGELES—This is going to be an important week for two Toronto-made games, but for very different reasons. One is a big gamble for the largest studio in the city, the other a long-awaited title from one of the most highly regarded indie studios in Canada.

Here is how they plan to best use their time to catch the attention of gamers during E3, North America’s largest gaming show.

STARLINK: BATTLE FOR ATLAS BY UBISOFT

The “toys-to-life” genre of videogames is not as high-flying as it was a few years ago, when the space was dominated by Skylanders, followed up by Disney Infinity and Lego Dimensions. Those latter two toy-based games aren’t being made any more, which shows how difficult it is to find success with a product that bridges the physical and the virtual worlds.

But Ubisoft Toronto bets there’s still some life there. With Starlink: Battle for Atlas, the developer believes it has something different on its hands that sets it apart from past attempts. The space-bound action game includes toy spaceships and weaponry that fit over top of the hand-held controller; how you choose to build and arm your ship affects the gameplay onscreen.

There is a business opportunity here, explains Ubisoft producer Matt Rose. This game is aimed at a slightly older audience than those earlier games. “Right now, there are games made for kids, but once they graduate from them, there is nothing in the middle, so kids are often playing M (Mature) rated games, and we think this is something that could fit in between there,” he says.

Starlink is technically aimed at gamers 8 to 12 years old, but the intricate spaceship toys could appeal to older gamers too.

“We think we have created something really new here. Something that doesn’t talk down to younger players at all,” says Laurent Malville, Starlink’s creative director. “The starships look fantastic, and the goal was for a younger player to see the ships and imagine going into space, but also someone older would be super happy to have something like this on their desk.”

It hasn’t been an easy process for Ubisoft, which has plenty of experience building videogames, but none at toy-building, so it’s been a learning experience for the team of more than 100 creators working on the project.

When first imagining the toys, Malville says, the designers used all sorts of colours on the mock-ups, but when it came to actually building prototypes, they had to reduce the number of colours to keep costs of mass production down.

“We don’t want to sell this for 300 bucks,” says Malville. “It has to be accessible for the most players.”

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The biggest surprise and ovation Monday came during the Starlink presentation Ubisoft press conference when it was revealed that a Nintendo fan-favourite character — Starfox, first seen in a 1993 game of the same name — will be a playable character in the game. Along with an in-person appearance by Nintendo legend Shigeru Miyamoto, who was given the toy version of Starfox’s ship, it was a brilliant marketing move for a game featuring new and thus far, unknown characters.

The key thing about Starlink is how seamlessly the toys work with the game. Players use a mount that fits on the controller, and place the pilots and ships on them. The ships have a variety of weapons, like a flamethrower, which can be swapped on the fly; when you swap out a weapon it’s instantly represented onscreen. Even a pilot or an entire ship can be switched.

Starlink: Battle of Atlas is a vehicle combat game, where players can fly in space or close to ground on a planet. I tested out the game at the company’s E3 demo last weekend, and it definitely has some challenge to it, and does not feel like it’s only for younger players.

“We wanted a game that carries along that innovation (from the toys), and brings some of that to the gameplay,” says Malville.

Starlink is due for release on Oct. 18.

BELOW BY CAPYBARA GAMES

Five E3s ago, Capybara Games announced Below, a dark and moody game where players descend deeper into a mysterious world, exploring dungeons and facing enemies.

Being part of the event’s Xbox presentation was a big moment for the studio, and one that Nathan Vella remembers vividly.

“I was pretty nervous. We weren’t sure we were going to be in it,” recalls the company’s president and co-founder. “They were like, we think it’s going to make it in, but it might get cut, and then we saw (Xbox head) Phil Spencer wearing a Capy shirt, and we were like, ‘We didn’t get cut!’ ”

That was 2013. The game’s prolonged development led to Capy announcing in 2016 that they wouldn’t talk about it until it was almost ready to come out. This year, at last, the game was highlighted in a sizzle reel at Sunday’s Xbox conference, and gamers can play a Below demo at this week’s Xbox showcase. The team can’t wait to let people get their hands on it, although it could easily be drowned out in the busy setting of E3.

“The most valuable part of E3, aside from the business, is getting your games out there and putting them into people’s hands,” says Vella. “Below is not a game that works as a 15-minute demo. You can’t just run through that. It sucks to play it like that. The game is meant to be, especially at the beginning, this process of learning and exploration and figuring things out.”

I took a quick run through the demo. Your main character slowly sails onto a mysterious island and then heads into a cave, and you begin your descent exploring the world. Very little is explained, and part of the point is to experiment and determine how the world works. There are light survival elements, as players have to eat and keep warm, or their health diminishes. There is also crafting — players can create what they need to survive.

Below feels like it has some elements of Capy’s previous iOS hit Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP with some elements of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild thrown in, but it also has something altogether its own.

Vella says that one of the benefits of the long development cycle is that it allowed the company to take advantage of new technologies, and now the game will be enhanced for 4K televisions on the Xbox One X.

But the biggest question that fans want to know: Is it done yet?

“No. But nothing is ever done. Is it done enough to ship? It’s getting there,” says Vella. “It will be coming out this year, for sure.”

TORONTO STAR

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