Following a presentation of rampaging sword-fest ‘For Honor’ during this year’s Ubisoft E3 conference in downtown LA, there was a sudden change of pace.
Plinky, upbeat music filled the Orpheum Theatre, replacing the grunting and clunking of the previous game, and an image of a low-polygon robot drifting through space appeared on the giant screen. Producer Pete Young walked on to the stage eyeing the couple of thousand press and fans sitting before him, knowing perhaps a hundred times that were watching online. “At Ubisoft, we get to tell all kinds of stories,” said Young in his soft northern lilt, “like how we can go from a massive AAA game like For Honor to, well,” he glanced behind him at the giant screen, “to a wobbly red robot in a small experimental game.”
That wobbly red robot was BUD (Botanical Utility Droid), the star of last year’s Grow Home and this year’s sequel Grow Up – which has just launched on available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
I wondered if the idea of announcing a follow-up on stage at E3 had ever crossed the team’s mind back in 2014 when they were quietly working away on Grow Home. “Ha ha, no – that was amazing!” says Jack Couvela, Art Director on the game. “It was a very proud moment for Reflections. We’ve played a huge part in the success of games such as The Division and used our vehicle expertise on forthcoming titles Watch Dogs 2 and Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands. But having the chance to announce a game at E3 that we led on was a special experience.”
Developed by an eight-person team within Reflections, Grow Home was an unusual game for Ubisoft both in terms of development and launch. It was born out of a concept for quickly prototyping game ideas. “One of our programmers thought that if he could create a character that didn’t rely on pre-defined animation, it could be versatile enough to try out all kinds of different games,” explains Couvela. “So with a set of joints, springs and a sense of balance, he created a simple boxy character called ‘Walkster’ – because he could walk. Then he gave Walkster the ability to pick things up and move them around. Because of his open approach, Walkster could grab literally anything, including the ground and the walls around him.”
Since Walkster could use each hand independently, this ability to grab walls meant he could climb fist-over-first – something the team found was actually a lot of fun.
“We started dreaming up game ideas that we could build around this character, focused on this climbing ability.”
The team went through a number of prototype ideas, which were released to Ubisoft staff around the world for feedback and telemetry (data recorded about the way people played the game). Early versions presented Walkster’s abilities in a relaxed way, with rocky hills and small mountains to scale at the players own pace. A later prototype, called “Sea Climb”, put the player in a race up a series of ever higher floating islands, while the water level rose beneath Walkster at an alarming rate.
The eventual design came somewhere between the two – with the relaxed pace of the early prototype combined with the acrophobia-baiting climb of the later. Walkster became the robotic BUD and the team decided to base the game world around a ‘Star Plant’.
“As we only had a tiny team to work with,” explains Couvela, “we decided to take advantage of the character’s ability to walk and climb anywhere, and give the player the power to build their own level by growing the Star Plant in any way they chose.”
Players could expand the Star Plant, steering shoots off from its main stem in order to reach new floating islands and grow the plant upwards. The goal was to extend the plant far enough that a giant flower would bloom, allowing BUD to harvest its seeds and take them to MOM, a computer on a spaceship floating some 2,000m above the ground.
With less than a month between the game’s announcement and launch, Grow Home and the positive response it received took everyone by surprise – including the team. “We were very happy!” says Couvela. “Having had experience working on AAA titles, this required a different approach. Most of us had never worked on anything like this game before so we had no idea how people would react, other than the experience we’d gained from internal Ubisoft test releases.
“We were a small, eight-person team, working within constraints we set for ourselves. We didn’t know what scope of game we could deliver, or how polished and slick it needed to be. But we did know that we wanted to show the world what Reflections was capable of away from our work on AAA titles and we wanted to give players a memorable experience. It was important to us that we came out of nowhere, surprising the world with a game players would never have expected.”
Following the PC Steam release last February and the game’s arrival on PlayStation 4 in September, the word-of-mouth following of Grow Home and BUD fans has been extremely rewarding for the team. “I’ve personally really enjoyed the chance to talk directly to hundreds of fans on Twitter,” says Couvela. “I’ve met so many amazing people of all ages from all over the world who have fallen in love with BUD. The sheer amount of fan art, 3D printed action figures and Let’s Play videos has been overwhelming. Being able to reach out to those fans is very gratifying and inspiring.”
Response to the charmingly wobbly red robot was positive enough that, with Grow Home out the door, the team immediately set about creating a brand new adventure for BUD – determined to bring something new to the table.
That brand new adventure is Grow Up, which has just been released on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
Caught in a meteor storm, MOM careers into a moon and pieces of her ship are scattered across a nearby alien planet. It’s down to BUD to gather up the pieces and get them back to the moon where he and MOM can be reunited.
“By using procedural tools to help build a far bigger world, we were able to focus on faster, more acrobatic gameplay. We created a toy box full of new plants that BUD can use to get around this bigger maps,” says Couvela. And those tools combined with the loving craftsmanship of the world’s creation, courtesy of Level Designer Liam Charlton, has led to a beautifully constructed planetary playground for gamers to be enchanted by.
Not only does BUD have a huge open-world planet to explore, he also has a bunch of new gadgets. These include the Floradex 3000, which gives him the ability to scan any of the world’s 24 unique plant species and sow copies of them wherever he needs. In a similar way to the first game’s player controlled Star Plant – there are four brand new Star Plants in Grow Up, which are all very different from each other – cloning plants will allow players to shape the world and create their own platforming angles.
There’s also a new mechanical, upgradeable glider, which shifts the core focus of the game away from climbing and into the air. With a whole planet to explore, it was essential to expand BUD’s aerial abilities beyond the time-limited tricks offered in the first game.
BUD also has a new satellite friend called POD who acts as his eyes and ears in space. She helps him discover new objectives within the world – allowing BUD to plan his next move from her higher vantage point.
SMALL TEAM SPIRIT
With Grow Up out now, it’s evident the team are still just as passionate and excited as they were in the early days of Grow Home. Surprisingly, keeping that small team spirit within a big international company such as Ubisoft hasn’t proved too difficult. “I think that spirit stems from the constraints we intentionally set ourselves,” explains Couvela. “We did have challenges to face but they led to some compelling creative solutions. For example the low polygon, un-textured art style was originally inspired as much by production constraints as it was by aesthetics, but it really helped to set the tone for the style of gameplay and the scope of the game.
“We’re incredibly proud of our crazy little robot and we’re so pleased that BUD has a place at Reflections alongside the other great games we’ve been a part of, both past and present, and also in the future.”
So what’s next for the Grow Up guys? “We’ve built our little team around creating surprising gameplay experiences and BUD’s adventures were always just our first step. What we’re looking for next is to bring even more variety to what we do. We are already exploring some ideas that are radically different from Grow Home and Grow Up. It won’t be long before we drop a few more surprises.”