I would love to have been a fly on the wall during the pitch meeting for 2017’s Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle.
I can only assume it went like this: "Our game combines the globally beloved Mario series with the significantly smaller (and somewhat irritating) Rabbids. It’ll be a turn-based squad strategy game like XCOM, oh and Mario has a gun."
The idea is as absurd now as it was in 2017. And it’s not really a surprise that fans were so furious when the game’s concept first leaked out.
Fan opinion quickly changed, of course. First, when it transpired that the game’s creative director, Davide Soliani, was one of their own – a Nintendo fanboy who imports orchestral Zelda albums from Japan and once stood in the rain for hours to meet his hero (and now colleague) Shigeru Miyamoto.
And then with the game itself, which turned out to be as brilliant as it was bonkers.
Five years, a downloadable expansion and ten million players later, and the worlds of Mario and Rabbids are colliding once again in Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope. Only now, Soliani and his team are no-longer the underdogs.
"I am always doubtful," Soliani admits to GamesIndustry.biz. "Is what I'm doing what people really want? On the previous game I was so nervous and so sure that people would end up hating the game, that I was sending messages to some of my teammates saying: 'Oh god, this will be the last game I ever do'. So even back then I was feeling a lot of pressure, even for a game that didn't have any expectations. After four years of development where we put all of our love into it... you feel the pressure.
"But if on Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle the pressure was 100%, in Sparks of Hope the pressure is 300%. There is always this period before the release, where we're all going: 'oh my god, let's hope it will be nicely appreciated.' You never know.
"All it takes is for one small detail to be out of place. Or one person to say something wrong. Even on Kingdom Battle, we had been through a leak a couple of months before the official reveal at E3. And I remember going on forums and people were sending me the worst messages, which I'm not going to repeat. But then they changed their mind because they saw the game was made by people with passion. So we were lucky. It's a tide you can't control. You just hope for the best."
"If on Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle the pressure was 100%, in Sparks of Hope the pressure is 300%"
Soliani’s nerves are perhaps understandable when you consider the sheer number of changes the team have made with this sequel. The developer has tried to transform how Mario + Rabbids plays, it’s even jettisoned some of the original game’s most popular features, such as the grid system. Considering how unique the first game was, you might expect Ubisoft Milan to simply take what it did before and build on it. Instead, it’s gone in and altered the foundations.
"Players need a real reason to play our game," Soliani explains. "It doesn't have to be 'oh it's been successful, so let’s build on what we did.' We always want to create a new experience.
"I believe that is part of the reason we are in-line with Nintendo, because they always try to find a new reason to have players come back to their game, with new mechanics and experiences. It's quite crazy, yes, you're right. Usually when you want to change something [for a sequel], you pick one item, like changing the exploration part.
"But from Kingdom Battle to Sparks of Hope, we changed too many things. We changed exploration, we changed the combat system, we added a big mechanics in the sparks, we added RPGs elements... we changed so many things that it was quite the effort for everyone. Through various stages of the project, I have been very worried. Even the producer has been worried."
One of the changes in Sparks of Hope is that players can now directly control the characters themselves. In the first title, they played as Beep-O, a small robot assistant that Mario and the Rabbids had to follow. It may not seem like the most significant alteration, but it was a big deal for Ubisoft and Nintendo. "We've been working with Nintendo for eight years," Soliani says. "We have never stopped working with them since. They’re always commenting [on our builds]. Nothing has changed in those eight years and I hope it won’t change."
"With Sparks of Hope, I said to Nintendo: 'I'd love to directly control the characters'. That is something that only Nintendo does in their own games. [With Kingdom Battle] we wanted to be sure that, in the glimpse of an eye, the player could recognise a Mario platform game from our tactical game. In Mario + Rabbids it was a queue of heroes, with Beep-O in front of them. Many people were asking online: 'why is Beep-O in front of them? Why is it a queue'. The reason is that we're not a platform game and we wanted to make sure players understood that. So the big challenge [with Sparks of Hope] was to change that, create a completely new experience with [direct] controls."
"From Kingdom Battle to Sparks of Hope, we changed too many things"
Considering the increased ambition, the Mario + Rabbids team has grown substantially over the past five years. Like the original, Sparks of Hope is led by Ubisoft Milan (now operating out of new offices), but has had additional support from Ubisoft’s Paris, Montpellier, Pune and Chengdu studios. Overall, the team on this game is nearly four times bigger than the one that created its predecessor.
However, Soliani says the biggest team change is less about size and location, but how they feel about what they’re making.
"The team changed drastically for various reasons," Soliani begins. "The original team, after seeing the reception that the first game got at E3, with people queuing for six-hours to play it and all the awards we got... they thought 'ok, people love the game we are doing'. They felt proud. This was really the first change. It was an understanding that they were doing something that was appreciated. So the team wanted to go further and do even more.
"Before, many people were too shy to say that we're doing a good game. But once players finally recognised it is a good, honest game, they finally allowed themselves to say that.
"The second change has been that if we want to continue with this adventure and be more ambitious with it, then we need more people. The Sparks of Hope team is almost four times bigger than the one we had with Kingdom Battle. Which means there is a lot of restructuring you need to do, and a lot of management that you have to pull off. Also because we are now divided across many, many different studios, we need to communicate and share a lot more.
"And when you increase a team three or four times, the on-boarding takes a lot of time. Just to get everyone on the same page, sharing the culture, sharing the love and the passion for what we are doing. But I think we have been all lucky, because I love working with all of them. And it's really enriching because of all the different cultures."
Collaborating with multiple internal studios was a big step for the team, but Soliani says it did help the developer navigate the complications that arose during the COVID-19 lockdowns.
"A big chunk of the development was done through the lockdowns," Soliani tells us. "At the beginning of Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle, I was working in our office in Milan, discussing with the six people that were working on the project. It was super easy. Then it became 15, then 20... but it was still easy, because it is a small open space.
"But then we started to grow. And with Sparks of Hope, because we were working with different studios across the world, we had to put in regular meetings. Because of this necessity to speak with different people in different studios in different timezones, we were already encountering and working through some of the challenges [of remote working]. The lockdowns were, in some way, an accelerator, because it was forcing every one of us -- not just some of us -- to work remotely. So this has been a challenge, but not so much more complicated than what we were already doing.
"The Sparks of Hope team is almost four times bigger than the one we had with Kingdom Battle"
"Managing different studios requires a lot of communication. Because communication is kindness. It is better to spend more time communicating in a good way, because otherwise you will regret it afterwards. And this has required a lot of attention and effort."
The first time I had hoped to interview Soliani was at E3 2017. Ubisoft held a press briefing ahead of its traditional conference and the creative director did a brief presentation on Mario + Rabbids. This was before the game was officially revealed and the backlash was very much in full force.
Usually, the press gets a chance to speak to the developers afterwards and I immediately requested a chat with Soliani. But he’d gone. He seemed nervous during his talk, and I’ve since learnt that he was 'preparing for the worst' when it came to his game’s reveal.
I did eventually get my interview a few weeks later, with a little help from a mutual friend: the game’s composer Grant Kirkhope. The resulting joint chat remains one of my very favourite interviews (and anyone who follows both on social media, can imagine what it was like).
Underneath the teasing, Kirkhope and Soliani have clearly become very close friends over the course of these projects. Yet with Sparks of Hope, it's not just Kirkhope on soundtrack duty, with the addition of Gareth Coker (famous for the Ori games, Minecraft, Halo Infinite, and more) and Yoko Shimomura (whose career has taken in Mario RPG games, Final Fantasy, Kingdom Hearts, Street Fighter and countless others) to the team.
"I am a big music fan,” Soliani explains "I was playing bass guitar in my youth, and there was a point where I had to decide whether I want to work in the music industry as a bass player, or do I want to go into the video game industry? At that time, I was convinced to go into music because there was no software houses in Italy. And then Ubisoft arrived.
"So I love music and I love everything that Grant did [on Kingdom Battle]. I don't know what I will do in the future, but I know that Grant will always be a part of what I am doing. I love to work with Grant, even if I am always joking with him on social media. Even outside of social media, we're always complaining about each other in a jolly way.
"But because [Sparks of Hope] is a journey into space, I felt the need to mix things with different composers. I think that the game has so many different emotions, that having different textures coming from Gareth and Shimomura-san, plus what Grant did, is going to offer wide and colourful scenarios."
He concludes: "And I want to say something about Grant. I believe that Grant, even if he's really stubborn [laughs], he evolved incredibly in terms of musical composition from Kingdom Battle to Sparks of Hope. I think in Sparks of Hope, he wrote masterpieces. Although don't write this, otherwise he will know I love his music.
"I was hearing the orchestral recordings that we did, and I was crying... if these composers don't get awards for this, I will change my job."