The idea was brilliant. The execution wasn't. Toys-to-life games like Skylanders, Lego Dimensions and Disney Infinity bridged the gap between video games and playthings. Using NFC technology and collectible figurines, they let kids transport physical toys into digital games. It was a neat idea, but it always a little clunky. Most of the figures were static and hard to play with as, well, "toys." The idea didn't last. Despite a few years of success, toys-to-life games all-but-vanished from the market.
Those drawbacks might have been forgivable if the games themselves were great -- but more often than not, they were only OK. Lego Dimensions, Disney Infinity and Skylanders are all relatively simple platformers designed for younger gamers. They're cute and novel, but they offer almost no challenge for experienced gamers.
is different. It's a toys-to-life game for Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One with spaceship models that can be played with easily -- and when they interface with the game's controller-mounted ship base, their modular components appear in the game instantly.
Best of all: That game isn't a simple entry-level platformer designed for young gamers, but a lush, large open world, a big story, countless side-quests, huge planets to explore, big boss fights and a complex inventory systems. Ubisoft's Matthew Rose says that's intentional -- Starlink is a game that respects the intelligence of younger gamers by leaning on the company's experience building games like Far Cry 5 and Watch Dogs 2.
"That was the fundamental idea," Rose said during a hands-on preview earlier this month. "Of leveraging Ubisoft's experience with open world games and the experience we had at Ubisoft Toronto and applying that experience to this new audience and merging that with the toy."
"Kids are pretty savvy," Rose says. "My daughter is 7 years old. She's beat [sic]. She's mastered everything out there. Maybe she's a-typical -- she has a game developer for a dad and she's grown up with a lot of games -- but I don't think so."
Focus groups, interviews with other parents and raising his own children has convinced Rose that most video games made for kids are underestimating their core audience. In fact, Rose thinks many kids have outgrown the demographic of games being made for them.
"Many kids are playing games that were not intended for them, and that their parents feel bad about them playing -- but when we talk to kids, they're not really playing those games because of transgression," Rose said.
The way he sees it, kids aren't seeking out M rated games because they want violence, sex, gore and adult language. They're playing games out of their age-range because they want something that won't bore them.
"It's that freedom and autonomy and depth and challenge," Rose explains. "If you're not learning, and you're not feeling that progression, it's tough to get into that zone of flow or fun."
A game that's too easy simply isn't very fun, he says: "You really need an appropriate level of challenge for that to work. I think that's one of the big areas that kids were looking for."
That's why Rose says his team made a point of using Ubisoft's experience making open-world games. Starlink's content is still appropriate for a younger demographic, but the structure that holds that kid-friendly content up expects a lot of the player. Kids who play Starlink will need to be able to handle complex equipment menus, juggle weapon stats and space ship loadouts, seamlessly transition between space flight, dogfights and tank-like combat on planet surfaces.
It's a lot to ask of a young player, but Rose says they can handle it.
"Every time we tested with kids, the gap between what we thought we should do with kids and what we thought we should do for adults kept narrowing until we started to look more at skill level and less at age," Rose said. "It was an interesting shift when we looked at and thinking -- OK, what does it mean to make a kids game for the kids of today? The conclusion we came to was kind of, you just want to make a really great, deep, compelling game."
That's a lot of talk, but during our hands-on preview with the Switch version, Starlink lived up to that hype. Despite Rose's insistence that Starlink was designed for 7- to 10-year-olds, it doesn't feel like a kids game. The complexity of the world forced me to switch between dog-fighting in space, flying in planet atmospheres and fighting enemies on the ground in a tank-like combat mode. The lush world of Haven, one of several planets in the game, was littered with enemies, side-missions, story missions, collectables and creatures to scan and identify. As I explored the game, a cast of fully voice acted characters bantered back and forth with, delivering exposition, mission clues and more.
Throw in overworld puzzles and a complex set of weapons that need to be swapped to create specific but unique elemental weapon combinations needed to target certain enemy weaknesses, and Starlink felt anything but simple. When I play games like Skylanders or Disney Infinity, I have a hard time forgetting that I'm playing a game that panders to younger, inexperienced players. When I tried StarLink, the thought didn't really cross my mind.
Starlink's unique, modular toys-to-life ships allow players to build a spacecraft from all the parts of any other spaceship in their arsenal. It's a fun, creative idea -- but what makes it feel magical is how instantaneous it is. You don't have to wait for a NFC base to pick up a wireless signal and slowly load a piece of physical DLC. The moment you snap a new weapon or wing onto your ship, it's there in the game.
"We wanted people to play, and to play with the toy. And that's why it's mounted right there at your fingertips -- because you're really changing it in the middle of the game. In the middle of combat you're constantly experimenting and changing and reconfiguring."
And that's where. Not only does the game respect the intelligence of players by offering a legitimately fun, challenging experience -- but its toy mechanic is instantaneous and much more engaging than configuring a ship loadout through a menu. You can dispose of the toy and use a menu, of course -- but Starlink makes the toy feel so essential to gameplay that doing so actually makes the experience worse. Getting rid of it won't streamline the experience. It'll detract from it.
Disney Infinity, Lego Dimensions and Skylanders were all video games that had toys. Starlink: Battle for Atlas is a video game that asks you to actually play with a toy. And at least in our limited hands-on experience with the game, that makes it something its forebears never were. Starlink is a toys-to-life experience that isn't just good "for a kids game." It's just a good game.