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Making Ubisoft's open world model work for Star Wars Outlaws

What has Ubisoft done to make the world of Star Wars fit in its open-world design philosophy?

George Yang, Contributor

June 12, 2024

5 Min Read
Star Wars Outlaws heroine Vess runs and guns while fighting Stormtroopers.
Image via Ubisoft.

At a Glance

  • Star Wars Outlaws borrows from many Ubisoft open-world design conventions, but still aims to stand out.

For years, Ubisoft has been known for its open-world game formula, complete with large sprawling maps, a litany of side quest markers, and landmarks for players to discover. This formula can be seen across most of Ubisoft’s biggest franchises, including Assassin’s Creed, Watch Dogs, and Far Cry. In a quest for seemingly endless content, Star Wars Outlaws looks to be following in those footsteps. However, it can be a challenge to fill such big worlds with more intimate, tightly knit stories. 

To tell a great story, game developers do need a good sense of visual direction. And there’s always unique challenges in working with a licensed property as tightly controlled as Star Wars.

At Ubisoft Forward, Game Developer sat down to play one hour of Star Wars Outlaws, as well as had the opportunity to chat with associate world designer Cloe Hammond and associate drt director Marthe Jonkers discuss the inspirations behind the main characters’ designs and trying to aim for the Star Wars aesthetic while still making Outlaws look unique.

Star Wars Outlaws' heroine is a 'survivalist'

Star Wars Outlaws follows rookie scoundrel Kay Vess and her pet companion Nix. Kay has a bit of Han Solo inspiration in her design, but the developers wanted to be clear that she’s still a rookie thief. Her survivalist mindset and scrappy nature lets her make tools out of anything, including her hairpin, which acts as a makeshift lockpick. These small details are what make Vess a much more relatable and grounded character. Her companion is a cute animal named Nix, and he’s part of a brand new species introduced in Outlaws called a Merqaal.

His design was inspired by creatures that could survive in jungle-like environments. For example, his scales could protect him from harsh weather. Nix closely resembles an axolotl with his whiskers too, and the development team wanted to give him something that he could emote with. In the game, Vess can call on Nix to distract, attack, and even steal from enemies.

The player character's ship battles TIE Fighters in Star Wars Outlaws.

Many open-world video games typically have distraction methods, with characters throwing stones or having robots to short circuit nearby electronics to lure away enemies. In Outlaws, Nix himself is used, as sometimes he’ll lie stretched out on the ground while enemies walk over to him confused as to what he’s even doing. This adds a layer of personality to Nix, and it’s unsurprising that Nix embodies the “cute” alien creature trend ever since the baby Yoda-looking Grogu companion exploded in popularity in the hit Star Wars spin-off TV show, the Mandalorian.

The constant interaction between Vess and Nix really lends the idea that they’re family and constantly looking out for each other.

“There were many inspirations that were very grounded to make sure that Nix steel feels like a believable creature that can really survive in a world of Star Wars,” said Jonkers. “But at the same time, it'd be a very nice companion to Vess.”

Vess also has access to her own ship, the Trailblazer. Like Nix, the Trailblazer was also inspired by a real-world animals, in this case, the humble turtle. Its design was influenced by 60s and 70s monorail and hints of retrofuturism—or imagining what the future might have looked like in the era when George Lucas was first cooking up Star Wars. Back then, people were imaging a future in the 2000s with flying cars and robot servants, which isn’t too off the mark of what Star Wars has.

On planets, Vess can ride on her motocross called the Speeder, which Jonkers added was also inspired by the retro futuristic style. “There's a familiarity in every Star Wars design,” she said. “But there's also a small percentage of exotic and alien to it.” While retrofuturism had its roots in the late 1800s, it continued into the 60s with the Space Age and into the 70s when Star Wars became a cultural phenomenon.

Crafting a new world

While the demo didn’t include any open-world portions of gameplay,Hammond explained that the team wanted to craft open-world content through three unique ways. The first was to make sure that cities are dense where players can overhear conversations and rumors, something that a scoundrel like Vess would be interested in. Vess can gain intel and track down characters to learn new skills, giving a gameplay incentive for players to engage with open-world activities.

The second way is through the use of vehicles and traveling. With the Trailblazer, players are able to discover new space stations and orbital regions. What makes this aspect stand out is that players can actually fly closer towards planets before the option to embark appears, which is a much more engaging gameplay feature than just only being able to select a planet and choosing to land on it like in games such as Starfield and Mass Effect.

The third aspect was to convey the spectacular environments and wide vistas on worlds that Vess comes across throughout her journey. The demo placed Vess in different biomes, including tropical and snow-filled ones, which gave glimpses into the variety of settings players can expect.

Star Wars Outlaws player character Vess and her animal companion explore a factory.

On the surface, Star Wars Outlaws seems like a Star Wars skin on the typical Ubisoft open-world formula with a checklist of activities to complete. However, the relationship between Vess and Nix is what will keep players invested throughout the entire journey. It’s also clear that developer Massive Entertainment poured a lot of heart and soul into creating this world.

“They're going to start really small as a rookie thief duo and navigate the underworld,” Hammond said in allusion to Vess and her alien sidekick. “I think we’re providing diversity. Whether it's in locations, quests, or different characters, all of it is very tailor made to this authentic storytelling that we’re trying to do.”

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