With Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle now just weeks away, attention will start to shift to how this cross-over will perform on Nintendo Switch. Early instincts from leaks weren't positive for all, but it made a notable impact at E3 to win over a number of fans. We recently enjoyed some extended time with a new build, too, and walked away rather impressed with what it has to offer.
At the same event as that play session we also got to speak to Xavier Manzanares, producer on the game and the gentleman that provided a gameplay demonstration on stage at Ubisoft's E3 press conference. He's fulfilled various roles at Ubisoft Paris for nearly a decade, and is also notably the 'Rabbids Brand' producer at the company.
What was immediately clear from talking to Manzanares is that the development team, based in Milan led by Davide Soliani and also in Paris, is passionate about the core gameplay that drives this title - turn-based strategy. Early design meetings produced a literal board with paper pieces for Rabbids, Mario and company, as the team figured out what it was trying to achieve. That genuine enjoyment and passion for strategy gaming (in board and electronic forms) shines through in the surprising depth of the game.
That was something we touched upon in the interview, along with how Nintendo influenced and encouraged the project's development.
One thing that may surprise a lot of people with Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is the depth, especially later on the game. In the demo we've jumped around from early in the game to two-thirds through, so can you talk about how progression will be handled? Will it be accessible for newcomers while also challenging for strategy game veterans?
The way we do progression and difficulty is to start with the basics that everyone will play, removing a lot of layers of complexity like UI, stats etc that are normally present on the screen later on, so initially the emphasis is a lot on the actions like the dash. So you learn that even if you only move you can do actions. That's the very beginning of the game.
So the first world after that start is all about ramping up, showing different types of objectives, showing that various things exist in the game; you can still play it your way, but you don’t at that stage have loads of heroes and techniques – it’s a good way to learn.
In the beginning of world two the first challenge is bigger. So for a beginner to the genre we say “you need to ramp up difficulty, so you also have to level up your game / performance quite fast”. We didn’t want to be stalled at the same level for too long, so players need to ramp up how they approach situations. For more advanced players the goal is to have a challenge, along with other things on the side, but to also discover this new angle on the things they know very well.
We’re big turn-based fans but wanted to avoid making a game just for us. We wanted to spread the love, and show that we wanted to see more players enjoying these kinds of games. So this is our take. It was important to mix the accessibility – which Nintendo required – along with depth – which Nintendo also wanted – to be in line with what the game could be for the audience. It was one of the biggest challenges.
Was it a big design challenge to balance moves like the dash with more conventional mechanics?
It sounds simple, especially now we’re so used to it. It was actually in our first prototype back in 2014, when we went to Japan. It was the most concrete feature we had at that time to show the difference between ‘typical’ turn-based elements and how we could break some rules. It was a basic rule but an important one for us, and as I say it was in that first Unity prototype.
We felt it was just the beginning and thought on how we could expand on it. So then we had the Team Jump, Triple Team Jump, Triple Dash, and continued to expand.
We did that with everything really. So with weapons we first had the ‘push’ effect, and then we thought “hey we can do bounce” and so on, and we started to grow things up around the basic features.
In the early days did the moves come from the Rabbids side? Or was Mario and that universe very much in mind when thinking up these concepts and how it would work?
Elements like the ‘Super’ in weapons were created with ‘craziness’ in mind, so that was more Rabbids. What if you could get burned, and then your ass is on fire, and you touch someone else and they’re on fire – it’s a combo effect. This crazy aspect was our way to take Rabbids elements into design and say this is a subtle way to do it, work in jokes and so on.
But then the question mark we had when we went to Japan was whether it’d be ok for Nintendo to have Mario on fire, or Mario inked, bounced away and so on. We knew some of this happens in Mario Kart for example, so we knew that Nintendo – with Splatoon as well – does some of this, but we didn’t know what they’d want in this case. Actually they were really interested with the first effect we showed at that time, and then they said “continue, surprise us, go really far”. They said they’d tell us if we went too far, but wanted us to continue. They very much said that if we work together in the design aspect they expected us to surprise them with things they wouldn’t think of or do in their own games. That was part of the reason they were interested.
They truly said “this is your game, your vision, go go go.” It's a cool vision-based approach.
Was Nintendo open and happy for you to ‘go crazy’, or were they more reserved in some areas than you would have been for a purely Ubisoft project?
I remember at the first meeting you could see it in Miyamoto-san’s eyes, or in his designer’s eyes, the importance of having something that is different. Their idea of the Rabbids concept was that “those guys surprise, that’s in the DNA”. From the very start it was a true cross-over project, Nintendo wanted to see the two truly together and not just one more than the other.
So at one time early in development maybe a Rabbid could do something with more craziness like a super attack, and only they could do that while the Mario characters could only do something else, in terms of super attacks, animations and so on. First of all I was putting the two in silos and it didn’t work that well, and also on Nintendo’s side that wasn’t what they wanted to see. If it was ‘too Mario’ it would be something Nintendo would do itself, if it was ‘too Rabbids’ they would not have said to us to combine them with Mario.
It’s true that with artistic direction, animation, design, everything, it was a case of how do we balance each set of rules and elements for these characters, and how that makes sense for the players. We knew that if it felt like a recipe that is weird no-one will play the game, if each element was in silos that wouldn’t be uniting but more like two universes colliding. That’s not what we wanted, as it’s not Mario Vs Rabbids, it’s Mario + Rabbids.
So from the very beginning finding the right balance was mandatory, something Nintendo, Davide and myself said from the beginning would be important.
With release so close, what do you think will surprise players the most with this game?
One thing is the system itself, how you can play this type of game in your living room and then continue playing on the go; the Switch philosophy really fits this type of game. You can play longer sessions, or maybe just do a fight or two and stop if you’re on the move.
It’s also a "what the f***" element between two brands and sets of characters, and it works. It fits, and reminiscent of what people know about Mario in terms of art, animation, accessibility etc as if it were from Nintendo. But then there’s the twist with the Rabbids, this is something different and players might want to see how far it’ll go. It’s an ongoing “what’s’ next” experience as you play, an interest in what can be surprising.
We'd like to thanks Xavier Manzanares for his time. This interview took place at a press event in Paris, for which Ubisoft paid our travel and expenses.