Atomega is the latest game from the small development team behind Grow Home and Grow Up, this time taking the form of an intriguing, fast-paced PC first person shooter set at “the very end of time where reality is rapidly dissolving.” The game drags the increasingly complex competitive shooter genre back to its pick-up-and-play roots, while adding a few unique twists of its own.
To find out more, I sat down with two of the game’s developers – Rich Alexander and Matt Lacey – at the end of Atomega’s reveal press day. How did it feel to finally unveil the game they’d been working on for the past 18 months?
“It was cathartic to get it out there” smiles Rich, the game’s producer.
“Yeah, it feels like finally coming out of the cave, you know?” adds gameplay programmer Matt.
But where exactly did Atomega come from and where is it going? And how do you go about building an “indie” scale game inside Reflections, Ubisoft’s large Newcastle-based development studio that has fingers in some of the industry’s biggest IP pies?
“So, I joined the team for this project,” explains Rich. “Before that, I was on The Division, and before that The Crew. So it was a big change of pace to go from big triple-A games to working on a smaller title.”
“Yeah, I worked on Just Dance,” says Matt, “then I worked on vehicle stuff [Reflections’ historical focus]. Then, when I joined this team, I really felt like I’d made it. As a programmer, you’re responsible for the code – but in a smaller team you need to help out in all areas.”
With the team seeking to make tight and focused experiences, they feel their low headcount is essential. “We wanted to keep things small: so we would have people like Matt and myself who’d been there since day one, and then we’d bring people in and out of the project. For example, we had one artist, Laura [Millar], who did all the art in the game. Then for animation, we’d bring in an animator [Kayum Roy from The Division animation team] to do the job, then he would exit the team. This happened in other areas like VFX [technical artist Amy Stevens], and Lewis [Chisolm, UX Designer] for the UI. It was nice because people would get passionate about the game and they’d want to come in, want to help, want to contribute. We tried to keep the team around ten, with people coming in and out at different times.”
Finding the theme
As mentioned in a previous post, the starting point for the team’s first game – Grow Home – was a procedural animation prototype called Walkster. In order to arrive at a prototype stepping-off point for what would become Atomega, the early members of the team went through a kind of “theme-jam”.
“We experimented with different themes and ideas,” explains Rich, “like, ‘One is Many’, ‘Play to Lose’, ‘Parallel Universes’, and we thought – what can we prototype and make in a short time? Atomega came from the idea ‘Big and Small’”
In just a week, the team’s level designer Justin Lim [who also worked on Grow Home], prototyped a shooting game where players went from small to big. “It instantly captured our imagination; the idea of going from being bullied to being the bully; that DNA is still in the game today. You can play the prototype, play the final game, and clearly see the link.”
The team hadn’t set out to make a first person shooter, they weren’t set on any particular genre – but Justin’s prototype was very persuasive. “There was a very clear path to where the fun was and what we should hold onto. Myself, Matt and Justin were the first three on the project, but even at that stage, Matt started prototyping and coming up with ideas. We prototyped in split screen, and we got everyone on the couch to play.”
“Then it was just about building up the team, bringing Laura on to do the art and so on. The game really had this great feeling of building, progressing, moving forward. It’s been really interesting to have this experience.”
Iteration, iteration, iteration
An important payoff for working on a game at this scale is that mechanics and balances can be iterated quickly.
“We played every single day,” says Rich, “no matter what – at least once. We were all sitting together so it was easy for us to play. Then we’d get together and talk about what went well, what was fun, what wasn’t fun, what didn’t work. We didn’t really plan that – we all just wanted to talk about what had just happened in the game. What we thought were the injustices – ‘that’s too powerful, that’s too weak,’ and so on.”
As the team’s confidence in their creation grew, playtesters were brought in and the game was sent around Ubisoft’s worldwide studios for everyone to try it out and give feedback.
“It’s not dissimilar to the way we work on triple-A titles; even on The Division we’d do these huge playtests with all the studios. For those tests, the number of people was grand because it was a grand big project. But here with the game being small, us all being able to play it – being able to get that feedback and try things quickly was really key to the development.”
Playing the game
This internal Ubisoft test was the first time I experienced Atomega, spending a few lunchtimes in its striking, angular world. Each game round holds up to eight players, and everyone starts as a small golden orb (or “Atom”) – shot out of a corridor and into a map filled with blocks, tunnels, trees and purple cubes of varying size. There’s an initial hush as everyone zips around absorbing these purple “mass cubes” – adding to their mass until they embiggen to the next stage of their six-step Exoform evolution.
As in life, growing up comes with trade-offs. Each time you increase in size, you leave behind the ability to slip through the smaller gaps and tunnels which litter the map, and are eventually forced to abandon any hope of playing in a stealthy manner. In exchange, your increasing bigness gives you a better vantage point, more powerful shots and more strength.
The biggest your Exoform can go is “Omega” – at which point you become an enormous roaring giant, rearing over the world and picking off your miniscule enemies below. But even this comes with trade-offs – Omega-sized players are visible from pretty much anywhere in the map, so all the other players suddenly know exactly where you are.
This might sound rather complicated, but – stripped of modern shooters trappings – Atomega is a real “pick up and play” experience. You won’t be changing weapons, you won’t find classes or load outs, the game has one map and one game mode.
“We were very conscious of what we wanted this game to be: we said, ok, let’s make this as good as it can be for what it is. When we launch the game – which we can’t wait to do – we’re looking forward to the feedback of the community. We want to hear what the players want. We’re going to be reacting to any bug fixes – fingers crossed there’ll be none – straight away. Addressing any balancing issues. But whatever we do, we’re going to continue with the same spirit of development.”
While the game ties tightly back to the “Big and Small” theme, there are obviously other influences at work. “We’ve all been influenced by first person shooters that we’ve played – growing up and the modern day ones,” explains Rich. “But it’s always been about following the prototype – following that game. We always wanted to do something that’s different. So often it was like, ok, what can we do that’s easy and accessible to pick up and play, but feels different and offers an unusual take. So it was mainly about progressing ideas and features rather than looking at other games and thinking ‘ok, can we take that?’ – but we’ve all been influenced all our lives, right?”
“Yeah,” Matt adds, “you can’t do power ups without thinking of Mario Kart – we wanted to give players a similar kind of fun, balanced and satisfying way to change the flow of the match.”
Creating game mechanics and a map that works for players at any one of the six Exoform sizes was not an easy task.
“We knew it was a challenge with the level design,” explains Rich. “You have to cater for growing from a tiny orb to a colossal giant that’s a hundred times the size. And at each different stage, you need to feel comfortable playing, you need to feel like you’ve got a sense of direction and also access to cover and things you’d expect from a first person shooter.”
“You have to be able to break the line of sight,” says Matt. “That was a tricky thing, we couldn’t have big open spaces because the big guys would just destroy the smaller guys. So you have to have lots of big buildings to duck behind – but you also need lines so people can shoot.”
“We definitely still find tunnels and holes that exist around the map for the smaller characters even today, it’s so dense and complex – when you’re really small the map almost seems infinite in size, and when you’re big, you really feel like you’re looking down on this toy town almost. Harnessing that experience and making sure the players feel that has been a challenge, but we’re pretty proud of it.”
One way of making sure players feel it is in the sound design. Hearing the crackling roar of an Omega echo around the map when you’re skipping around as one of the smaller Exoforms can be terrifying.
“Phil [Hornby], our sound designer, had a real vision in terms of sound. When you’re small and you’re in a room, you want to feel small – and if there’s a giant stomping around outside, you really want to feel like Godzilla’s at your front door. It’s been great with the sound – it’s such a big part of selling that scale.”
Small within big
In some ways, Atomega’s theme could be seen as a metaphor for where it sits within Ubisoft’s oeuvre. Building a game of this size inside a company known for producing triple-A giants like Assassin’s Creed, Watch Dogs, Ghost Recon and Rainbow Six could be an odd fit – but Rich says they received nothing but support and encouragement.
“Really, we’re super-blessed,” exclaims Rich, “and I’m not just saying that – we’ve had a lot of creative control and freedom of expression to bring what we want. There’s a lot of the team in the game – I can point to things that feel more like Matt or more like me – personalities really come through on these smaller projects. We’ve had nothing but encouragement within Ubisoft, even our relationship with head-office has been a complete collaboration. Building the game, making it better, making it stronger – it’s been a really great process, and we’ve really had the backing of everyone to do it and to show the diversity within Ubisoft.”
“You can’t really imagine many other companies letting us make this game, can you?” adds Matt.
How to win
To round things off, I asked Rich and Matt for their hottest tips for Atomega success. “I would say our best tip is to remember that teleport is such a key part of the game. When you get into a battle with someone bigger than you, they’ve got a super power up and you think ‘I’m not going to win this fight.’ So instead of losing all your mass and going back down to zero, teleport away.” You can teleport at any time in the game by jabbing “Q”, and – in exchange for losing some mass and dropping one level of evolution – will find yourself zapped out of danger to a random location. “You need to learn those moments when you should teleport away, and when you think you can stay and win the fight. It’s interesting as you have these stand offs – these games of chicken – where you’re thinking, is he going to teleport, am I going to teleport? Sometimes you both teleport at the same time and someone can swoop in and take the mass cubes [the mass lost when you teleport drops as cubes for others to collect] as neither of you are there to pick them up.”
“Always have a power-up in your back pocket,” suggest Matt. “Power-ups are super important, and they can sway a fight really easily. Make sure you always have one, cos it turns out the other guy always has. It’s so annoying in our play tests when you fight a guy and then he pops up a shield when you’re about to take him – argh!”
Atomega is available now on PC via Steam. For more on the game and all of Ubisoft’s upcoming titles, keep it Ubisoft Blog.