It’s always rather unexpected when a large publisher comes out with a smaller, almost indie styled game, yet Ubisoft have something of a track record of allowing their studios to experiment. From the UbiArt era on the PS3, which spawned the delightful Child of Light as an example, through to Grow Home and Grow Up from Ubisoft Reflections, they’ve allowed small pockets of their developers to experiment and create passion projects.
Last week’s announcement of Atomega is surprising, not just from its existence, but from the departure it represents for the same team behind Grow Home, shifting to the online first person shooter genre, and how soon after announcement it was to be released. In fact, it’s out today for PC!
After playing the game – our impressions are here – we sat down with Team Director Pete Young and Producer Rich Alexander to discuss the gestation and evolution of this game and the team behind it.
TSA: Let’s talk about the little team within Ubisoft Reflections that has made Grow Home, Grow Up and now Atomega. Where has the impetus come from to have these smaller projects alongside the huge Ubisoft-wide game development?
Pete: I guess it’s all about creative freedom and expression. What we’ve tried to do since Grow Home is to get a small team together, start the game from the bottom up and let it evolve and the personality of the team take it in the directions that it needs to go. For me, it’s all about trying to do things a little bit differently, trying to create experiences like Grow Home and like Atomega which are a bit unusual and perhaps surprising.
TSA: Yeah, this is very much an unexpected game, I think. It is a big departure from Grow Home and Grow Up, so where did that shift come from and the decision not to carry on with that series?
Pete: For me, it’s something we’ve wanted to do right from the start. Obviously Grow Home was the first one, but after that, the impetus was trying to do something different. With Grow Up we took a look at creating this procedural planet and trying to play with taking that freedom of movement to a bigger scale, but while we were doing that we were also looking at what we could do that was completely different again. That’s where the initial prototype that spawned Atomega came from.
The way we started it was with some raw prototyping. We’d take a week, pick a topic – a Ludum Dare topic like ‘big and small’, which is what Atomega came from, or ‘play to lose’, or ‘parallel universe’…
TSA: Play to lose sounds really interesting…
Pete: It does, yeah. There’s some interesting stuff that came out of that!
Basically, we’d take that week, take a bunch of people from around the studio, brainstorm a load of ideas, and then a talented level designer, Guy Justin, would prototype them over the space of a week. We’d put all of that to one side and after four or five weeks we’d take a look back at all of the stuff that had been created. This was the one that stood out right form the start.
TSA: One of the great things about it is the sense of scale that you get as you go through the evolutions. Was that hard to get right? I remember Psyonix talking about how they got stuck with Rocket League and frittered away a year worrying if the cars looked small in a small stadium or big in a big stadium.
Rich: I think I read that as well!
TSA: It’s one of my favourite bizarre stories from game development.
Rich: The scale was really at the heart of what we did, so that was at the forefront of our minds. It was how the scale worked with the level design, because you’ve got to create and environment that all of these characters can interlink and work with each other. It has to respect the expectations of what you want out of a first person shooter, so we experimented and prototyped a lot with the scale.
It was really important that we had those kind of iconic moments. What we wanted was like in Godzilla where there’s just that eye as he’s walking past the building. We had to make sure we capture these, and so it was just how we tied it in with level design and the balancing.
It’s definitely been a challenge to do that and have it be represented in each of the forms as well, and making the forms be different enough to be readable so you know you can engage them or run away. We tried a lot of different things and yeah, we’re happy with where we ended up.
Pete: I like how you mentioned the challenge thing, because you were asking about what we’re trying to do and where these games came from. It was exactly that when we were sitting around with these prototypes, and we were looking at it and thinking this is cool, but how on earth do you build a level that lets you go from tiny to huge and plays well at every size? And how do you balance that?
It was us thinking that’s crazy that made us go, “OK, let’s do that. Let’s see what happens.”
TSA: Sticking with that scale, how did you go about creating the different paths and routes through the map? Someone said it was a little like Tony Hawk’s in the way that you’re finding these ideal routes to take and fall back on.
Name 2: What we’ve always done with the development is play the game with the team every day. We all sit next to each other, so we’d play, then we’d get round after and talk about what was good, what was bad and focus on different topics.
With the level, in total honesty, I still find holes and crevices that you can get through, and I’ll turn around and be like, “Has that always been there?” [laughs] It’s that depth and complexity that’s there. We want players to think, “OK, next round I’m going to try this route and that’s going to be my fastest route to be in the biggest and best position possible.” In different sizes, you can find and discover different options that you can have. We’d iterate on that level design in different areas and sections to find that right balance.
Learning that is good, especially when you get it right, or when you copy someone else and follow their route.
TSA: There’s some really interesting power ups as well, and they all feel, well, powerful. That’s kind of what you want, really! [laughs]
Pete: It’s kind of in the name, yeah!
TSA: You’ve got some good variety in there, from doing more damage or healing, to the free teleport, but have you thrown out powers that were too powerful?
Rich: I think that, like everything else, we tried to prototype it, and because we’re quite small and agile we could have a conversation, go and try a very basic implementation of it that day and then review it. Things have been tuned, so some power ups have been merged together, others have been separated if they’re too powerful. It’s that balance of making the power ups feel like they’re what you need at the time, so you’re not frustrated with that. You need to know you’ve got this one power up, so it’s going to work in this situation, so with the High Impact, maybe if you hang around the bridge area you can shoot someone off and take their boxes.
Pete: We kind of want little play changers, so you can have two big guys slogging it out, but if someone’s got an ace up their sleeve they can win.
Rich: You can get Ultra, which is movement, double growth, pulls boxes towards you, and so if you get that, you can jump to the smallest to the biggest so quickly.
TSA: There is going to be, I feel, a kind of stigma for some people who look at the game and see it’s one map, one mode. How do you get beyond that when putting it out to people?
Rich: That’s a good question, and we’ve approached it by focusing on the fun and the purity of it. Obviously when the game comes out, we’re going to be listening to the community and what people want, and we’ll definitely be on hand to fix bugs and balancing – hopefully those power ups aren’t too powerful! – and whatever we do going forward will be in the same spirit that we’ve developed the game in.
We’re excited by it and as I said, we do play it every day. I hope that players find that it’s almost like a sports game, where it’s different every time because there’s so many different characters and power ups and different things in play. There’ll be those moments when people team up to take down the big guys, and it’s those memorable moments that will create that variation and that “just one more go” feel.
TSA: Finally, I want to ask about the possibility of the game coming to consoles? It’s currently only coming out on PC, but do you have further plans? Sorry, but I have to ask!
Pete: Right now we’re just focussing on getting it out on PC and seeing how players react. All out games are developed on PC, because it’s fast and it’s easy to get things into the hands of players as quick as possible.
Thanks to Pete and Rich for taking the time to chat with us. You can grab our thoughts on Atomega over here, with the game out now for PC on Steam. Cross your fingers for a console release down the line, because it really is a good bit of fun!