Star Wars Outlaws interview: How Ubisoft is bringing the series’ first open-world to life

Brad Norton
Star Wars Outlaws gameplay

Star Wars Outlaws is no run-of-the-mill open-world experience playing it safe with one of the biggest IPs in the galaxy today. Rather, Ubisoft’s ambitious open-world title reads like a love letter to the franchise from lifelong fans. We spoke with Narrative Director Navid Khavari and Game Director Mathias Karlson to take a peak behind the curtain.

After playing a full hour of Outlaws over Summer Game Fest, I was able to speak with two of the leading men at the helm at Ubisoft. One thing above all else quickly became clear: They deeply care about Star Wars.

For Khavari, a lifelong fan having once adorned his office desk with Yoda figures, long before a conversation with Lucasfilm ever seemed possible, this project is an absolute dream come true. For Karlson, an open-world savant, the opportunity to transfer his talents to one of the most beloved franchises of all time is not one he’s taking lightly, and you could just sense the passion every time he began speaking about Outlaws.

Both exude confidence in what the dev team has accomplished while never forgetting to remain humble, they know the stakes and acknowledge the pressure, but are all too eager to cross the finish line knowing they’ve cooked up a feast for Star Wars fans.

All roads lead to Kay Vess

Outlaws began with its protagonist. Before there was a narrative mapped out, planets locked in, or even a place on the greater Star Wars timeline set in stone, there was Kay Vess.

“At its heart, Star Wars is a story about characters, Khavari began. “To do service to this universe and to the fans, we had to start with the character. Making sure this fits into the theme of a scoundrel. Everything organically flowed from that.”

Star Wars Outlaws gameplay
Kay Vess came first, then the rest of Outlaws was built up around our main character.

From unique gameplay systems and combat abilities to how we as players interact with the sprawling open lands, everything has been built from the ground up specifically to “stay true to Kay.”

The very structure of Outlaws was, in turn, settled upon after Kay Vess was established as the game’s protagonist. In order to flesh out an underworld tale, having players watch a character rise from a nobody to a legendary scoundrel, “it needed to be an open world experience,” Karlson said.

“For us, it just felt so natural that this fantasy of this type of character, navigating the underworld, being under the watchful eye of the Empire, we really get to feel the freedom and that your actions have consequences.” Any other approach wouldn’t have cut it, the devs explained. An open-world structure was the ideal fit for Kay Vess and that’s a sentiment that repeated a great deal throughout our conversation. What feels most authentic to the protagonist’s personality, goals, and overall place in the galaxy? Every design choice along the way seems to have been factored into the equation to serve Kay Vess, and through our brief hands-on experience, it certainly seems all the better for it.

Lucasfilm embraces Outlaws with open arms

As the first open-world Star Wars game ever, and just the second Star Wars game published by Ubisoft (who could forget 2006’s Lethal Alliance?), the devs have no doubt been under immense pressure. But from the very beginning, Lucasfilm has been there every step of the way, supporting the team however possible, not just allowing them to add some fresh ingredients to the mix, but actively encouraging them to do so.

New characters, a whole new species, a new faction, the first visualization of a planet, Ubisoft hasn’t just taken an inch, they’ve been running for miles at this point and the owners of the IP appear to have been extremely supportive.

“One of the most exciting things when we went to Lucasfilms and talked about wanting to do a scoundrel story, they were so receptive to us bringing new things to the table,” Khavari said.

“They were collaborators every step of the way. When we started talking about characters, creating a new syndicate, when we wanted to develop the first realized version of Akiva, they were so receptive. Not only were we lucky enough to draw from [the galaxy’s existing lore], we were able to contribute.”

Star Wars Outlaws gameplay
Be it new locations, characters, or gadgets, Lucasfilm was more than happy letting Ubisoft get creative.

From the very first pitch, as a handful of Ubisoft’s higher-ups visited Lucasfilm to sell them on the idea, including Khavari and Karlson, Lucasfilm has been in their corner. It was established as a mutually beneficial relationship, as devs addressed upfront, “We’re fans, not scholars. We need you and you need us so that we together can bring this thing to life,” Karlson recounted.

“They’ve been our guides making sure not just that we fit into the canon, but also helping us build new things without ever taking us out of the driver’s seat. It’s our creative engine, but with them as shepherds.”

In constant communication with the Lucasfilm team, Khavari described their working relationship as being “extremely organic.” There’s no hostility to any pitches, no matter how bold or innovative they might seem for the IP.

“It became… Ok, can we do this character? Do we want to do this character? It was always in the spirit of ‘how does this relate to Kay’s journey?’”

Speaking to one specific example on the gameplay side, Karlson explained how Lucasfilm helped Ubisoft achieve its vision for Kay’s arsenal.

“We wanted to give Kay a blaster that has modules that grow and evolve. We’ve never seen that before in Star Wars,” he said. “[Lucasfilm] has always been like ‘Yes, how do we make that happen?’ Never ‘no.’”

Breathing life into the galaxy

While obviously a more polished chunk of the overall experience, what we were shown of Outlaws during Summer Game Fest carried the Star Wars atmosphere without question. There’s that special something in the air when you’re wandering the streets of a bustling city waiting to be explored. There’s that uneasy feeling as you survey the cantina and keep tabs on some of the more suspicious characters. There’s that sheer sense of joy as the camera zooms out, you get a lay of the land, and the screen wipes to the next sequence in trademark Star Wars fashion.

The diverse range of environments have been brought to life with remarkable detail, as even the smallest etchings on a wall or a flickering light down an alleyway help ground you in this galaxy far, far away. Yet as Karlson outlined, it’s not the easiest task adapting such a beloved series with this degree of detail.

Star Wars Outlaws gameplay
Don’t get it twisted, Outlaws is certainly a looker.

In the movies, you see a set that’s been painstakingly realized, but there’s little in the way of interactivity. It’s very much just that, a set. When it comes to a 3D space inside a current-gen video game, it’s a completely different beast.

“It’s a real place, it’s not a movie set. If you scratch the surface, there is substance, Karlson said.

No slice of the demo exemplified this greater than in my third and final mission. After fleeing the Empire and briefly taking shelter on the nearest planet, it quickly became clear just how much time I’m sure to be spending soaking it all up when the game hits store shelves. Wander down one direction and you can find an NPC eager to have a chat. Hear him out and it might lead you to a hidden stash, or maybe he’ll just take some of your credits and never give them back. Can anyone other than Nix be trusted?

Turn down another walkway and you can find yourself invited to a game of Sabbac to win some credits back and then some. Just be sure never to tell anyone the odds.

Continue your travels and you’ll bump into traders of all sorts, along with a huge cast of NPCs that can help Kay grow as a scoundrel. Some may be able to share their hacking skills, improving your efficiency with the many mini-games present. Others may help train your weapon proficiency to ensure you’re not out in combat with the aim of a Stormtrooper.

Of course, you could just beeline straight to the next mission, but doing so would be doing yourself a disservice. Love has been poured into this open world and it seems well worth your time to absorb as much as possible.

A relentless power struggle

Underpinning your every action in Star Wars Outlaws is a reputation system. On the surface, it may not sound like much, but look a little deeper and you’ll find this system has a direct impact on how your experience pans out.

Star Wars Outlaws gameplay
A through-line from start to finish is the balancing act, juggling reputation with multiple disparate factions in the underworld.

In one of the three missions we got to play, Kay was tasked with stealing a valuable artifact from one of the game’s many syndicates. In doing so, she’s able to raise her status with that particular faction. They’ll know they can rely on her for bigger jobs moving forward and put their trust in her to get it all done. However, that artifact you stole… Just so happens to belong to a different faction you’ve had dealings with. Once they get wind of what you’ve done, let’s just say they won’t be your biggest fan in that moment.

It’s a balancing act at all times as keeping in good favor with various factions is vital to your success. Fall down the totem pole one too many times and you’ll feel the consequences out in the open world. Areas under that syndicate’s control may no longer be accessible. Traders favored by said syndicate may hike the prices up twofold when you enter their store. Entire missions and storylines could even be temporarily unavailable if you upset the wrong power players throughout the galaxy.

“Kay is thrust out into the larger galaxy in a bit of an unexpected way,” Karlson said. “[She] has to find her footing, not side with any one group, retain her freedom, and work towards her goal. It’s an ebb and flow. It’s not friendship, not allegiance, it’s reputation. What can I do for you? What can you do for me?”

In some cases, you’re going to have to make some uncomfortable decisions. You can’t please everyone all of the time. However, for completionists out there worried this might put a stop to their 100% run, fear not. I made sure to get some clarity and it turns out, you can indeed see and do everything, maxing out a positive reputation with all syndicates at once, though it certainly isn’t easy.

“Good luck with that,” Khavari joked.

If you upset one particular group for whatever reason, there’s always a way to get back in their good graces. However, for some, it may be easier than others. “How can Kay get back into the good books of Jabba The Hutt?” Khavari added. “But if you’re skilled enough, you can pull off the right job [for them]. The fantasy lends itself to that, playing the syndicates off each other.”

As you gather from not just this interview but our hands-on preview as well, there’s a great deal to discuss when it comes to Star Wars Outlaws. An hour barely felt like enough time to even get a slight grasp on the game’s full scope. We haven’t even mentioned open-world exploration, space combat, customization, and plenty more in-between.

Outlaws is shaping up to be one hell of a ride, and I for one, can’t wait to see how Kay Vess cements herself as a legendary figure in the underbelly of Star Wars canon.

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About The Author

Brad Norton is the Australian Managing Editor at Dexerto. He graduated from Swinburne University with a Bachelor’s degree in journalism and has been working full-time in the field for the past six years at the likes of Gamurs Group and now Dexerto. He loves all things single-player gaming (with Uncharted a personal favorite) but has a history on the competitive side having previously run Oceanic esports org Mindfreak. You can contact Brad at brad.norton@dexerto.com

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