Interview: The Making of Astro Bot, the PS5's Next Great Exclusive 2
Nicolas Doucet and very tired but very happy Stephen Tailby. — Image: Push Square

Team Asobi is a relatively small team among Sony's first-party ranks, and it's making a relatively small game. However, with Astro Bot, it looks like the studio is set to make not only its biggest game to date, but also possibly its best, as the minuscule robo-hero stars in a full-fat platformer the likes of which rarely grace PlayStation. It's a very different offering among Sony's usual range of exclusives, but it has potential to be among PS5's best when it arrives in September.

It turns out that building a fun, colourful platformer like this one requires a pretty unique approach to game development. Nicolas Doucet, studio head and creative director of Team Asobi, explains the team's process, saying they "spend a lot of time prototyping gameplay mechanics in a very kind of isolated form" before finding ways to "stitch them together in a way that makes sense". One example of a prototype like this that made it into Astro Bot is the sponge feature you may recall from the debut trailer.

"The sponge was actually a demo that was isolated," Doucet says. "It was just a sponge and we wanted to see with the adaptive triggers whether we could [capture] that feeling that a sponge is full of water and then you squeeze it out and it becomes lighter. So that demo was done and everybody enjoyed it, and so that fed into Astro Bot as a new power-up." It sounds like this process of endlessly prototyping ideas and implementing the best ones makes for a game that's jam-packed with inventive moments — that's certainly our experience when we played the hands-on demo.

Interview: The Making of Astro Bot, the PS5's Next Great Exclusive 3

Another part of what makes Astro Bot unique is its celebration of a wide range of other PlayStation characters and franchises. This made for lots of neat Easter eggs in PS5 freebie Astro's Playroom, but Team Asobi is doubling down on this aspect in its upcoming title, with lots more cameos and even some notable robot-ified heroes playing a larger role in the adventure. But does this emphasis on legacy characters take away from the appeal of Astro himself?

"It's exactly the conversation we had. Astro needs to develop its own identity and its own world. And even though it's associated with the hardware, it shouldn't become a limitation or just like a constraint," Doucet says. "So at first, we thought, okay, we've got to make sure that we have enough levels and power-ups for [Astro Bot] to be its own game. But then, as a player, you ask yourself: 'why not do more [PlayStation cameos]?'" Doucet argues that, because Astro's Playroom was so packed with references to PlayStation, players might be expecting more of that in the follow-up, so it could be disappointing if the team didn't lean into it.

"We're really doubling down on the characters," he says, adding there are "over 150" to find throughout Astro Bot. "We're really going deep into that history," he teases.

Doucet goes on to discuss the process of getting the rest of PS Studios in on the character cameos. He says the whole process is "Super positive", with teams like Santa Monica, for example, really welcoming it. "They are really, really caring towards us in a way that is remarkable. I think it's also because we get a chance to put a funny spin on these otherwise quite serious series, and they welcome that very much." He continues, saying all the teams have been "super supportive", sending lots of messages since the game's initial trailer arrived. "It's a nice family."

But what of Astro himself? The character's origin can be found in The Playroom, which was PS4's pack-in software that starred lots of fairly featureless robots. These little guys came back for The Playroom VR when PSVR launched, and then Team Asobi took this robot design and made it into a new hero for Astro Bot Rescue Mission. Asking if it was always the intent to evolve the character this way, Doucet tells us "Not really".

The simple robot design came from a necessity to make something quickly and with a small team. "So when we had to make them into characters, one of the directions was like, we need to make shortcuts. No mouth, no stretchy faces," he says, adding that no dialogue and having the eyes be "the most expressive thing" facilitated this need as well. "And from this limitation, actually, the good thing is that you end up with a silhouette that is really, really simple. Even a kid can draw Astro." However, Doucet admits that "At the time, we had no idea that this guy would end up in a platformer".

Speaking of kids, Team Asobi is conscious of the fact Astro Bot should appeal to a broad audience, including much younger players. "We're trying to be really accessible to a very, very young audience. It might be the first game that some people play, right?" However, the other side of the coin is ensuring the game provides enough fun and challenge for older generations too. In addition to all the toy-like elements of levels, like knocking over paint cans and other distractions, Astro Bot features challenge stages that'll appease those looking for tougher platforming.

Interview: The Making of Astro Bot, the PS5's Next Great Exclusive 4

These challenges loop back around to those character cameos as well. "That's where you find the deep cuts, because the people playing the challenges are gonna be the ones with the most skills, and likely the longer history of PlayStation knowledge," Doucet says. "So they're the ones that will appreciate characters like Vib Ribbon and all these kind of things."

As our interview wraps up, Doucet explains how gratifying it is to be building a game for audiences other than himself. "I'm a hardcore gamer. I play Elden Ring and I'm looking forward to the DLC, and stuff like that. But for work, we get to be a bit more generous and not think about ourselves, but about a different audience. I find that a really motivating part of the job."

Indeed, after speaking to various other journalists and people attending Summer Game Fest, Astro Bot really does seem to be hitting all the right notes for basically everybody. After sampling some early levels and seeing just how full of fun this game is, we're very excited to see what the full experience has in store for fans both young and old.

Astro Bot comes exclusively to PS5 on 6th September, 2024. A big thanks to Nicolas Doucet for taking the time to speak with us. Are you looking forward to this adorable, all-ages platformer? Let us know in the comments section below.