Interview: Taking Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle from prototype to teary E3 reveal


21/06/2017

Officially revealed on the Ubisoft stage at E3 2017, Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle isn’t just a totally original turn-based strategy game for Nintendo Switch, it’s a personal achievement for Davide Soliani and his team, who spent three years creating a game that went against all expectation to surprise gamers the world over. Here, Soliani tells us how this tactical team-up came to be…

Nintendo UK: The first, and probably the most obvious, question is: How did this happen?

Davide Soliani: Everything happened because of the strong relationship between Ubisoft and Nintendo. In the last 20 years, the two companies did many things together that worked out really well, such as Just Dance, ZombiU, Red Steel etc… There was, in the air, the desire to produce something together, that has never been done before. And at some point, when I found out that I had the possibility to work with Nintendo on a game that could feature Mario and the Rabidds, we immediately knew it was the opportunity of a lifetime.

We really wanted to find something new for both Mario and the Rabbids. And as huge tactical fans, we said, "Why not propose something fresh, something new’" in the world of the turn-based combat game. At the same time, we wanted to stay true to the Mario universe; the exploration, the adventure… So we said we should try to find a way to combine the combat phases with the exploration phases and this is the moment where we thought, “Okay, maybe we have something solid and we can propose it to Nintendo.”

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NUK: What was it about combining Mario with the world of Rabbids that you thought could work so well?

DS: The answer is the contrast. Mario is a well known hero. Rabbids are well known chaotic creatures. So we said, “If we combine the humour of that contrast and the gameplay mechanics that we can invent because of this contrast, we can bring something new." I love the idea of the Rabbids, throughout the game, learning how to become heroes from Mario, and Mario learning how to crack a joke.

NUK: There must have been many pitch meetings between Ubisoft and Nintendo. How did they go?

DS: After we felt as a team that we had something solid, Ubisoft contacted Nintendo and said, “We want to propose the idea.” We were not expecting to meet Nintendo super soon, but the meeting was about three weeks later and we said, “Oh my God, it’s super early!”

We felt that we had to do something special for this pitch. We wanted to avoid any Powerpoint presentation or any design document that would have been boring and ineffective. So we said, “We should work like crazy and go there with a playable prototype.”

When I arrived in front of Miyamoto-san, who is the creator of the games I prefer the most, who inspired my whole career as a games designer, I felt split in two between the urgency to ask for an autograph and at the same time the responsibility to present the idea in the most professional way.

But he loved it! He said, “I’m impressed!” I was not expecting such a reaction. Then he asked me, “Where did you get the Mario and Luigi from, because they look identical to the Nintendo versions?” The truth is that we were so crazy, we wanted this game to happen so much, that even with only three weeks we recreated Mario and Luigi from scratch in order to bring the essence of those two characters to our prototype. I think that this was the moment where we convinced Nintendo of our passion and commitment.

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NUK: When Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle was finally revealed on stage at E3 2017, you gained instant internet stardom because of your emotional reaction during the reveal. Can you talk us through what that announcement meant to you at the time?

DS: It’s not easy to answer you, but you can imagine the pressure on me, because I’m just part of a team. I’m the creative director, so I feel the pressure. On our shoulders was the responsibility of three years of development. Ubisoft took quite a big risk, because we decided to embark on this game without knowing what the new Nintendo console would be or if the idea would be accepted.

As a Nintendo player, growing up with Miyamoto games, he was almost a father, telling me bedtime stories every night. Seeing Miyamoto-san on stage, I was not ready for him to call out my name. I felt like everything was finally realised and I said ‘don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry’, but then I broke apart.

Also, because a few rumours started on the internet, prior to our announcement, a few people made their own assumptions about the game, but now they can play it and they have changed their minds! They’re having fun and that is the biggest reward ever.

So the conference for me was a wave of emotion that I couldn’t control, but I didn’t know that it was spreading all over the internet until I discovered it the night after. Because I was in the Nintendo booth ready to do a rehearsal for Nintendo Treehouse Live and a guy stopped me saying, “You are super famous in China, you have more than 2 million views on our website” and showed me the picture of me crying. I said, “Oh noooo!”

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NUK: It’s been a great reaction to watch. It really seems that gamers around the world can see what this means to you and are happy for you.

DS: I believe so, and I think it’s something I will never forget. I will probably create a still from that conference and frame it in my house. Because it doesn’t happen every day to have a legend on stage presenting a game you did using his characters. It’s more than honorary, it’s an occasion of a lifetime as they say.

Still today I cannot process it entirely. It’s happening but it’s so fast. I was not ready. People queued for three hours at E3 and then said they liked it even after three hours of queuing!

NUK: By creating a turn-based strategy game with Mario and Rabbids, you’ve done something completely unexpected when the obvious thing would have been to create a platform game. How did that come about?

DS: The first time I met Miyamoto he told me, “I’m impressed, but please don’t make a platform game out of this.” There is Mario jumping in our game, but it is translated in our game so it’s a Team Jump, it’s different, and he loved that. That was one of the first rules, to find new ideas.

If you’re curious about what inspired us, it was multiple games to be honest. Many tactical games, but even action games and racing games. You won’t believe me, but one of our references as a team was Mario Kart. We said, “How cool could combat be if it was like Mario Kart but without the kart, on foot?” That’s why, in our game, you have weapons that do not just deal damage but can also use a super effect that applies a special behaviour to the enemies, such as burning.

So you can burn the bottom of enemies that start to run on the battleground and there is propagation, so if an enemy on fire touches another unit or even a hero they will start to run with their bottom on fire too! This is something that we call, internally, the “domino effect.” So the intention was to create a tactical game with strategic decisions but also to make it new… Very dynamic, very action-oriented.

NUK: On the surface, Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle looks like it could be a great first strategy game to introduce newcomers to the genre, but at the same time the “domino effect” introduces a number of advanced tactical elements for seasoned gamers. How did you strike that balance?

DS: In our presentation we were saying, “This game should be like an onion”. The first layer is accessibility and then you peel off part of the onion and you discover there is something new to learn. But the key to learning the layer of tactical strategy is that it should go through the layer of accessibility.

Playing as Rabidd Peach for example, you might notice that she’s running on the battleground, dashing and then jumping. Later on in the game, you have access to the skill that will let you upgrade the character, so you will be able to do a Triple Dash on three different enemies and still get a Team Jump from one of your teammates, landing behind the cover, shooting. At that point, maybe your weapon will have a bounce super effect. So the enemy bounces in the air and at that point there is Mario nearby with a power called Hero Sight to shoot when it’s not even his turn of movement if an enemy is nearby. So at that point it triggers that technique, so Mario shoots, hits that enemy and maybe on his weapon there is a burn effect. So the enemy lands on the battle ground and starts to run and spread the fire. That is the domino effect we wanted…

Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle will be available exclusively for Nintendo Switch on August 29th, 2017. The standard edition and collector's edition are both available to pre-order at the Ubisoft Store.