Last week, Ubisoft gathered a few dozen members of the gaming media to spend a few hours playing a nearly finished build of Mario+Rabbids Sparks of Hope. It goes without saying that I had tremendous fun at the event, and I’ll have a detailed preview of my time with the strategy RPG posted soon.
First, though, I was lucky enough to do something even cooler that morning in San Francisco; I got to spend some time with Davide Soliani of Ubisoft Milan. Davide was the creative director of creative director of Mario+Rabbids Kingdom Battle and Donkey Kong Adventure, and now Mario+Rabbids Sparks of Hope.
Perhaps more importantly, Davide is a passionate gamer with an obvious joy for his projects. In the short time we had together, we were able to talk about his development approach, what about working with Nintendo makes him happy (and his range of emotions when first pitching to Shigeru Miyamoto), what we can look forward to in Sparks of Hope, and plenty more. Like the game itself, Davide had a couple surprises for me.
PN: How soon after the completion of Mario+Rabbids Kingdom Battle did you start coming up with the ideas and the changes that you were going to put into Sparks of Hope.
Davide: In between when we focused on the DLC of Kingdom Battle that was Donkey Kong Adventure…yes, it was DLC but it was feeling almost like a 1.5 game because we worked quite a lot of the combat system to create a specific skillset of moves for Donkey Kong’s long hops. So, the ability that Donkey Kong used in combat such as carrying, grabbing and throwing was, in a way, our first sparks of creativity to come up with things that we would put on Sparks of Hope. So, I will say that we released Kingdom Battle in 2017. We released Donkey Kong Adventure one year later. And a few months after the release of DK we decided to embark on our adventure for Sparks of Hope. So, it took us a bit of time.
PN: When you saw that Donkey Kong was starting to carry over, were you also looking at how other characters could work their way into this? What could Luigi’s skills be? What could Princess Peach’s skills be?
Davide: As players (because, first of all, we are players), we would love to include all of the possible Mario characters in the game. Of course, we have to make a decision. But definitely, what we wanted to do compared to the previous game was make sure that weapons and skillsets such as the techniques were really defining which kind of character the player could control. So, basically, we divided the nine heroes into three main archetype categories—the fighter, the mage (the best at doing that to a single enemy), the supporter (the best at helping teammates and controlling the enemies, making sure they are disabling their features or their ability to move)—to control the situation on the battleground. And then, in each of those character archetypes there are the roles of each single hero… At the end, the major challenge for us was creating each one single hero in a way that could create synergy with the other. And on top of that, the sparks that are the buddies of the heroes but are also a modular element that you can level up. And because of that they become stronger, and you can keep two of them to each singular hero, leveraging the synergy even more compared to the first game. Even me, I’m still discovering ways to combine those things together.
PN: In the demo, I’ve been able to play with the sparks a little bit. I like that if you’re using a character who may not have a certain specialty, you can supplement that with sparks as you can in other RPGs with certains weapons and armor. In your mind, were sparks serving as weapon and armor upgrades for the character?
Davide: What we wanted to do was create creatures that could be seen as buddies. So, like friends; like having your favorite cats or favorite dogs with you. But at the same time we wanted to have a meaning for those creatures in combat and in exploration. In exploration, they are lending you powers that help you find secret areas or solve a puzzle. In combat, they are helping you express your play style because you can love one specific character, but the sparks add that modular element that can help you either leverage the characteristics of each singular hero or, at the same time, help the weakness of the hero. So, all in all, for us, the sparks were a way to express player play style at the maximum level. On top of that they serve as a tool to create humor in certain situations.
PN: When you’re designing the levels, do you have certain characters and abilities in mind? Like, you’re thinking, “If the player is using this particular character or this set of sparks, he’ll be able to get through it pretty easily. But if not, then it becomes a little more difficult.”
Davide: That’s a very nice question. It’s a challenge for us…do we force the player to use specific characters or do we want the player to enjoy the character they prefer throughout the whole game? So, what we try to do is find the sweet spot for each battle…could offer something new or a different strategy, and some of the heroes are better at dealing with those enemies than other heroes. At the same time, some sparks are better to be used against those kind of enemies. For example a fire spark is not as good against an enemy that is firing fire. All of those elements were important for us, but we always try to say, “OK, even if you are a player that doesn’t want to change heroes or sparks because you love those sparks or you love those heroes, you should always be able to finish the battle.” But…it could be way easier if you use that change. So, it’s a mix of the two things. There are battles that are suggesting you use specific heroes and sparks, but at the same time, if you really want to keep your team as it is, you can.
PN: Are there any particular levels that you thought were really good as you were putting Sparks of Hope together?
Davide: In each planet, we are trying to offer a different kind of experience. Overall, I cannot choose one of them because I think each one is bringing something new.
PN: Your history of the development of Mario+Rabbids and the connections you made with Miyamoto-san to get some games in front of him are well known. How does it feel to be able to work with the Mario characters when developing this game? Is there a sense of joy behind it because you loved these characters in the past, or is it more a business approach while you’re developing?
Davide: Business is something that is very far from me. [Laughs.] Miyamoto-san is my idol. When he arrived in Milan for the very first time in 2000, 2001, for the presentation of Wind Waker, I had a fever of 39, and I was waiting for eight hours under the rain for him to arrive at the hotel so I could say hello and give him some gift. So, I’m that kind of guy. When I met him for the first time to present the pitch for Kingdom Battle, I was completely scared. I wanted to run everywhere to escape the situation. For me, tons of emotion. Scared. Joy. Happiness. Respect. But business is something that’s the last of my thoughts. Of course, it’s present because we…need to do a quality game, but business is not really a driver for me.
PN: Does Nintendo have any oversight on the development of it, or are they like, “You’ve got these characters, go ahead and develop the best game you can?”
Davide: We never stopped working together with Nintendo since 2013, basically, when we started. So far we have 8 solid years of—let’s say “partnership.” We never stopped working with them because we did Kingdom Battle, then just after, Donkey Kong Adventure. Then, of course, Sparks of Hope, which is about to be out on October 20. And we are working on the DLC. So, not much changed. We are the developer. We are sending them things to play. They act as counselor and they are sending us feedback, so there is a mutual relationship. What changed, really, over the course of those eight years—that has been a huge pleasure for me—is the level of trust that we’ve gained from Nintendo, which is very empowering. It’s making all of us very happy.
PN: I’m more of a tactical RPG fan than I am a Mario fan. I like that this game very much focuses on battles and tactics and party optimization, a little moreso than I expected. What games have you looked at to inspire the gameplay portion of Sparks of Hope?
Davide: I think I need to speak about the first game to give you a wider picture. We were looking at games such as Worms. The 2D Worms. I think it was fantastic in terms of tactical approach. We were looking at…Mario Kart because we wanted to create that kind of Mario mood. And there was also a drop of XCOM. To be honest, in Sparks of Hope we were mostly looking at Kingdom Battle to make it better. Our big competitor was Kingdom Battle because its combat system was loved. Changing and evolving it was a risky business that we didn’t take easily. So, Sparks of Hope feels built on the foundation of Kingdom Battle but is offering a completely different experience, like exploration, which is the glue that keeps everything together. If I have to think about another game that inspired us in Sparks of Hope, I will say in a way—in a very far away way—Breath of the Wild. Moving from Kingdom Battle to the freedom of movement that we have in the combat system of Sparks of Hope…you are acting directly in battles to do very specific stuff. So, it’s a little bit like driving. Everything you are doing in combat now, it’s not about selecting and browsing, it’s about moving and pressing the button of the action that you want.
PN: How about evolving the characters? What kind of thought went into which ones made the cut?
Davide: If there is something that is guiding our decision it’s the ability to create synergy between years. At the same time, we wanted to introduce new characters and use new ones from the Nintendo universe as well. For example, Bowser is in because we really wanted someone who could demolish the battleground at some point if you use his skill points nicely. At the same time, Rabbids Peach is a character who was completely loved in the first game, so we wanted to come up with new characters who could be on par with the level of charisma that Rabbids Peach had done. It was not easy, but then I think we found our perfect recipe with Rabbids Rosalina which is a completely different character but is a show stealer. And then Edge, which is a character even more different from all the others, and it’s a very different Rabbid compared to all the Rabbids that existed until now, inspired by old Japanese RPG games. So, I think we are evolving the Rabbids…offering a wider kind of emotion.
PN: What can we expect from DLC?
Davide: The reason is for a new character, and this character is Rayman. So, there will be a whole new adventure tailored around some of the Rabbids heroes that we presented already, such as Rabbids Peach and Rabbids Mario that will do fun and incredible stuff along with Rayman. The first time I arrived in Ubisoft in ’99, my first game was Rayman for the GameBoy Color. So, working again on Rayman in ’22, ’23 is like a dream come true.
PN: The Rabbids, of course, came from Rayman, so being able to pull him into what’s more of a Rabbids game brings things full circle for you.
PN: Are you already anticipating where to push ahead now that Sparks of Hope is nearing release?
Davide: George Martin, the super-famous writer, says that there are two types of writers—the architect that knows everything at the very beginning, and the gardener who picks and chooses as they go. I’m a gardener. So, I have a passion; I have goals. I can see pretty far, but I love to change direction depending on how things go. For example, we are developing game prototypes, and we find out that the mechanics are so incredibly fun and nice to do, and these mechanics could change the course of our decision.
PN: What would you really like to see players get out of Sparks of Hope?
Davide: If there is something I would love the player to get out of this game, I would love them to feel the evolution—if they are a returning gamer—the evolution that we have been through from Kingdom Battle to Donkey Kong Adventure to Sparks of Hope. And if they are enjoying this evolution, I would love for them to ride with us in the future.
Mario+Rabbids Sparks of Hope will be available for Nintendo Switch on October 20th in Standard and Gold Editions. Our preview will be posted soon, but you can learn more about the game in the most recent issue of Pure Nintendo Magazine.