GameCentral talks to the man who convinced Nintendo to let Mario wield a gun and about what Italians really think of gaming’s biggest star.
If Davide Soliani, creative director of Ubisoft Milan, is embarrassed about being best known for crying at E3, after getting an on-stage shoutout about his collaboration with Nintendo, he doesn’t let on. After all, his lifelong dream has come true, as he’s not only been able to make a career working on tactical strategy games but he has also ended up working directly with Mario and Zelda creator Shigeru Miyamoto.
The fact that he’s been able to combine the two is the most unlikely part of his story though, with 2017’s Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle proving to be a major critical and commercial success and enough to ensure a sequel named Sparks Of Hope. We’ve already played the game during previews, and it’s due to launch in just a week’s time, but we were recently afforded the chance to talk to Soliani about the sequel and his career.
Nintendo rarely works with any Western developer, least of all one to which they hand over the keys to the whole Mushroom Kingdom. On top of that the Mario + Rabbids games are not only turn-based strategy games but they involve Mario and co. using guns, which may be the most unlikely thing they’ve ever been made to do in a video game.
What’s interesting about Sparks Of Hope though is that it’s not a straightforward sequel and a surprising amount has changed, from the non-linear exploration elements to the fact that characters no longer move on a grid. In both cases you get to control the characters more like a traditional action game, which is an interesting evolution for the genre as a whole.
Nintendo is seemingly so enamoured with Ubisoft Milan’s work that they’ve also allowed them to use traditional Mario enemies such as Goombas and Bob-ombs this time round, whereas previously they were all Rabbid variants. Being a crossover with Rabbids is probably not a selling point for most people, at least in the UK, but it’s a small price to pay for a game that impresses as both a Mario spin-off and a strategy game in its own right.
It also doesn’t hurt that it’s one of the best looking games on the Switch, even taking into account first party titles by Nintendo themselves, so we discussed all this and more with Soliani, including what Italians really think of Mario…
Formats: Nintendo Switch
Developer: Ubisoft Milan and Ubisoft Paris, plus Ubisoft Pune, Ubisoft Chengdu, and Ubisoft Montpellier
Release Date: 20th October 2022
Age Rating: 7
DS: Oh, we are both David!
GC: That’s always awkward if the other person prefers Dave, which… I do not.
GC: I was just playing the game and I was very encouraged by the fact that I lost, at the first boss, as that proves it’s not too easy even from the start.
DS: The first boss in the temple?
GC: Well, I dunno if it was the first boss exactly, but the giant tiger guy.
DS: Yes, yes. Kind of. We call it the mid-boss, but for sure. The first game was quite challenging already.
GC: It was quite hard towards the end, yeah.
DS: And this time we try to maintain a good balance in term of challenge, because it needs to be interesting. But on top of that, we have a very cool way for the player to adjust the level of difficulty to fit it around themselves.
GC: I liked that line from the robot, about changing his mind about the difficulty as he goes. I was a big fan of the first game but I do wonder… obviously everyone loves Mario but how many people also consider XCOM to be one of their favourite games ever? I do, and I’m guessing you do, but I can’t imagine how you talked Nintendo into all this.
DS: First of all, we are all tactical players.
GC: When you say that, what in particular were you playing when you were younger, and more recently?
DS: Well, I was playing XCOM, made by Julian Gollop.
GC: I’m trying to judge how old you are. Do you go back as far as Laser Squad?
DS: [laughs] I’m… you can take a guess, but on the 1st of December I would be 50.
GC: Wow, you’re wearing well!
GC: So you do know Laser Squad then.
DS: Of course. Julian Gollop was the creator, along with his brother, of the first XCOM. So I was playing XCOM. I was loving, absolutely loving, it – and I was not a developer yet – but for a brief period of time Julian Gallop was working at Ubisoft.
GC: Oh, he was! He did that rather good DS game. [Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars]
DS: Yes! He was in Sofia I think.
GC: Yes, it was Bulgaria. I remember talking to him about it.
DS: When we started working on Kingdom Battle I really wanted Julian to jump in. I sent him a message, but he had already left to work on his own project. But that could have been very, very fun.
GC: So with Kingdom Battle, what was your priority? Did you start with the idea to do a tactics game or was it the desire to do a Nintendo collaboration that came first?
DS: At the beginning we just wanted to do a game with Nintendo. We always had a close relationship with them but there was always the desire to do… a step more, something more. So the idea of merging Mario and the Rabbids come together, but of course it’s too wide to say it like that.
So there were teams in Paris, or another part of Ubisoft, doing their own proposal while we were searching for our own proposal in Milan. And we were like five designers working in a room, as big as this one [we’re in a very small meeting room – GC] for one month coming up with 13 different pitches.
GC: Oh, and so presumably all completely different genres?
DS: Completely different. Like even rhythm games. But then, because we are big tactical fans, we started to scratch all of them and the remaining one was Kingdom Battle, which was a combat adventure. And our first, let’s say challenge, was to convince Ubisoft, because, back in the day, they didn’t know what we were about to propose.
So instead of going through the classical route of showing off PowerPoint documentation and design documentation, that can be very, very boring we made a poster like this one [points to a standee for Sparks Of Hope] a bit bigger, as if the game was finished. And then we presented to Ubisoft and they said ‘It’s awesome! Let’s do it.’ [laughs] So we contacted Nintendo and we went and I presented the game to Miyamoto-san.
GC: You never get Nintendo to talk about this but so many of their more modern games are unique twists on established genres, like Pikmin is a real-time strategy, Smash Bros. is a fighting game, Luigi’s Mansion is a survival horror…
GC: So I wonder whether this appealed to them because they’d never done an XCOM style tactical strategy game? Did they ever say anything like that?
DS: They said, when we proposed the first game, with the grid system and people were moved as a cursor… we were showing the heroes doing the dash against the enemies or doing the team jump amongst themself to reach for the areas outside their area of movement. And when they saw that… maybe it was Miyamoto-san who said that it’s kind of auto-magic because it was rather simple to select the things to do and it was quite magical to see the characters doing the activity afterwards.
And I think it was the combination of having three heroes and the synergy together, along with the exploration and the combat that made it different from all the other tactical games, because they already have a very strong tactical game. It’s Fire Emblem; it’s a great system, it’s hero based. So it’s quite strong and it’s quite successful, there are a lot of players following it… me too! [laughs]
GC: And it’s getting more popular all the time, which is unusual.
DS: Yeah, yeah. So I’m very happy and I’m going to play the new one. But there was no game that used this concept of three heroes, and for us the friendship was very important; even between the heroes in combat, because if you keep them together they can team jump on each other. If you move them away, they lose this ability. So it’s on the player to decide.
GC: That’s one of my favourite things, the rhythm that creates. But I still can’t believe that Miyamoto in particular didn’t veto the idea about using guns. He must’ve said something along the lines of ‘Mario doesn’t use guns!’
DS: Yes! They told me.
DS: I was one year into the development and they told me Mario doesn’t use guns and I said, ‘Oh, what about now?’ [laughs]
But it was just a statement, Mario is not using guns. And we are now open to try, probably because at some point they also said that, ‘We are happy because you are doing a game that we will never have done on our own.’ Which makes sense, because we went in a way that has crazy humour and, yes, we put guns in the hand of Mario. But the way we developed the guns, it’s really, really toy oriented.
So I remember the first time we had the whole game scope, it was, like, 14 metres of [game design documents] rolled up and I opened it up in the office in Kyoto. So they were seeing the whole game in terms of scope. So when they saw the guns, some of them were already saying: ‘Good! As a toy they’re enough to be in the game.’ Some others were looking too much like the real thing, so we worked together to fine balance these aspects. And, of course, Miyamoto-san was the one saying yes or no.
GC: I can only imagine that you get on with him very well, as I’m very surprised he didn’t try to make them goo guns or fire nets or something. Because I mean… Peach’s shotgun umbrella. That’s a very satisfying weapon to use, with a great sound effect – it almost feels like something out of Gears Of War!
GC: Do you feel you have a personal relationship with Miyamoto? Is he a friend?
DS: I would love to call Miyamoto-san a friend. But no, it’s not the case. I think that we have a beautiful relationship, because since 2013 to today we never stopped working with Nintendo because we did Kingdom Battle, we did Donkey Kong Adventure – which was another journey. Then we started to work on Sparks Of Hope, where already I was requesting tons of new stuff and the most challenging was direct control of the player.
But in those years, we gained a lot of trust. So, I would say that we never stop working together. We are the developer, they are helping us and supporting us. But I think that it’s good also because there are different cultures. Our game is done by Milan, Paris, Pune, Chengdu, and Montpellier… and they are in Japan. So the combination of the things that we are putting together is very strong.
GC: What interests me about this sequel is that it is actually pushing the genre forward, the movement system works really well and would be, I imagine, much more accessible to new players. We’ve seen some similar ideas before but they never really caught on, so did this take a lot of time to get right?
DS: It took a lot of time! We are tactical lovers, that’s why we really want to expand the boundaries of the tactical genre so much. Years ago, I left Ubisoft to go to Kuju, which is in London, to work on Battalion Wars…
GC: Oh! Oh, okay. [The two Battalion Wars games are real-time spin-offs from the Advance Wars series – GC]
DS: …because it was a game for Nintendo. And then after that game I went back to Ubisoft. Tactical games have defined my career. Kingdom Battle was not the first example. The first time I met with Miyamoto-san in Milan, I was waiting for him nine hours in the rain. I had my Game Boy Advance SP with me, which was the limited edition of Final Fantasy Tactics… that Miyamoto signed for me. [laughs]
So, I’m a tactical lover. So the intention that I had with the team was, ‘Let’s try to invite as many people as possible into the tactical genre. It’s a beautiful genre, but many people are maybe scared of this genre, so let’s show how cool it could be! And so we made it colourful, we made it humorous, and we made it accessible but deep.
GC: The odd thing about the genre is that real-time strategy was supposed to make it obsolete. That was supposed to be the cool new evolution of the concept and yet that quickly fell away and more recently turn-based games have become quite fashionable. But it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why.
DS: I think it’s a combination of events. For example, with Kingdom Battle a lot of even indies started to see opportunities to say, ‘Hey, why not? We should explore that.’ And they proposed their own take on the genre. So this is making me happy because, for example, players who finished Kingdom Battle have told me they love Kingdom Battle and now I’m gonna try XCOM. Which for me was the best compliment ever.
We were able to open up this genre to new kinds of players who never had the chance before. But for me, the real-time movement was an intention, along with the team, to give a feeling of freedom in the controller system, in the battleground. We started off with the direct controller in the battleground, not in exploration, and this was one of the challenges with Nintendo. Because one of the reasons why we had the cursor in the first game was this is not a Mario platformer. This is a tactical game. So we needed to be sure that the player understood that.
GC: I did find myself looking for the jump button when exploring.
DS: Yes, exactly! That’s one of the reasons. So this time I was asking to remove the cursor and to directly control Mario, which was creating, again, the problem of the players must understand that this is not a Mario platformer, but Sparks of Hope – the continuation of Kingdom Battle. And we solved that with in exploration you have three characters, not just one, and Mario is just one of them.
So we find a way to communicate it, even if you take a screenshot of the game, players will know that this is not a [traditional] Mario game, it’s a Mario + Rabbids game. So this was one of the challenges, to find, along with Nintendo, ways to give direct control and add the elements of real-time in the combat to expand it even more.
GC: The other striking thing about the game is it’s easily one of the best looking games on the Switch.
DS: Thank you.
GC: Let’s not be coy, it is. And it looks better than many games published even by Nintendo themselves. Have they talked to you about this? Have they asked how you squeeze so much out of the Switch?
DS: I’m happy that you have said so because the team will be absolutely happy to know that you are saying so, especially if there will also be other people saying it. But it took a lot of effort. Even if it looks effortless now, it was not. We took time to work and rework planets to make sure that we were always using, wisely, the same type of budget in term of performance, weight of art, animation sounds, presence of interactive objects and NPCs; to make sure that we could always have a nice vista, a nice environment, but always within the limit of the performance of the Switch.
And the rest is a lot of the time that we spent in refactoring entirely – because we are crazy – the whole engine that we had in Kingdom Battle; it’s a completely different engine.
GC: A completely different engine?
DS: Yes, that’s the team. We saw that Kingdom Battle was super successful for the combat so let’s change it!
DS: Of course we wanted it, not just because we are crazy, but because we are ambitious, we wanted to have circular exploration, which means an open area camera. The first one, the top-down camera was used to create absolutely beautiful scenery but with no horizon. Today, with a camera that can move everywhere, you can see the horizon. But the old engine… it probably would’ve been hard to achieve what we have today if we didn’t work on that.
GC: If I was Nintendo, or if Nintendo was a slightly different company, I’d be looking into seeing if I could buy you as a studio.
GC: I mean, you obviously get on well with them and clearly have something to offer them in terms of technology and development skills. But just to prove I’m not being entirely uncritical. I do have two concerns, the first being the fact that battles occur on a different screen – a randomly generated area – away from the open world itself. That’s not how it worked in the first game and it does seem to take away from the cohesion a bit.
DS: The problem is when you create the planets that you want to explore, you either create them in a believable way, in order for you to set the presence of the NPCs, the various discoveries, the quests, and the real-time activities or you create them for the battles. In Kingdom Battle, the whole level design was serving the battles and the rest of it outside the exploration was more linear, more basic.
Just imagine the planets today, if you had to include the battlegrounds within it. The planet would become absolutely gigantic and then re-exploring the battleground would become meaningless. So separating those two, we say that we have no boundaries. Whatever we want to create in the battle – big, small, on multiple levels, whatever – we can, because it’s the Darkmess dimension, so we can twist the reality.
So we use these tricks to leverage as much as possible the fantasy of the level designer and the designer to make sure that the planet could maintain their characteristics and be different planet by planet and battles could maintain, on the same parallel level, their own characteristics. That was the decision that we took.
GC: I get that. My other concern, and it was one of my few issues with the original, is that there’s relatively little obvious need to change characters. Is there anything within the game that encourages you to change them up?
DS: So, there are special battles that are called hero battles in which you are invited to use two specific heroes, for example Rabbid Mario and Peach. And while we are doing that, we are doing that to motivate the player to rotate their roster of heroes and at the same time show the ability of those characters and how cool the synergy can be. But then later in the game, I think you arrived almost at the midway of the first planet?
GC: Yes, I think so.
DS: There will be a battle in which some of the heroes are better suited than others to win the battle. We don’t want to force players to use, at all cost, other heroes, but we are incentivising, we are trying to suggest and invite the player to do so. And, of course, you can lose health points. So it’s another trick to invite people to use a fresher one.
GC: Oh yeah, ’cause they don’t recharge automatically. On a more conceptual level though, some complained that Kingdom Battle was too shallow, because it didn’t have overwatch as a standard mechanic or any equivalent of the base strategy meta. Did you ever consider adding those things to the sequel?
DS: In the first game we had this kind of discussion. We found it very interesting and intriguing. Back in the day we were not able to find our own take on that. Copy something… it’s not cool. But it’s something that’s super interesting and I still consider it… interesting.
GC: I’m never clear how popular the Rabbids are, because they’re not a big deal in the UK but I think they are on the Continent?
DS: I think in France it is very big.
GC: I do remember walking past a French comic shop, which had nothing to do with games specifically, and they had Rabbids all over the place.
DS: Yes, yes. There is a TV show that is very popular. In fact, we are a bit like the black sheep of the Rabbids because we have things on our own which belong only to the Mario + Rabbids universe. But there are other people that are doing the Rabbids comics, the Rabbids TV show, but we are completely separated.
GC: I have to admit I’m not a fan but I did like them more in this because you gave them voices and actual dialogue, I thought that worked very well. But in terms of [original character] Edge – I hope her surname is Lorde by the way.
GC: Did you have any trouble with Nintendo in creating new characters? Because I know there was that interview with the Paper Mario director who said he was no longer allowed to invent new characters based on existing enemies like Goombas and Shy Guys – they all had to remain generic.
DS: Ah…. [ponders for a moment] actually it depends on the team. It depends on us. Nintendo always told me: ask whatever you want, worst case scenario we are gonna say no.
DS: So I asked tons of stuff and I received tons of ‘no’, but I also received some yes. So, no honestly on the characters…
GC: I don’t know if you saw the interview I mean?
DS: Actually, I understand but it was not a problem for us because we wanted to use Goomba and we have them, and we wanted to use Bob-omb, and we have them. We wanted to modify the Goomba a bit and they said yes.
GC: Wow, Nintendo does like you.
DS: So, basically, you cannot destroy them. The only way to destroy them is to throw them outside the battleground. They are immortal. [laughs] They are an implacable time limit, because they keep coming towards you. And then we have other Nintendo characters that will be shown later on in the game but, really, the intention was: ‘Let’s merge the two words even more’. Some enemies from the Rabbids, but also some enemies from Nintendo. ‘Case in Kingdom Battle they were only Rabbids, so we wanted to change that.
GC: I’m curious whether this could turn into a Mario Kart style situation and you could add non-Mario characters to the game? Especially after the Rayman DLC announcement.
DS: Basically, we have the luxury to pick from any Mario universe element, but not the luxury to pick specific Mario elements if it makes it too specific. For example, because of the story we say that we wanted to have the sparks that emerge between Lumas, that are from Mario Galaxy, and Rabbids because it was needed for the story. But that’s it. We are in the Mario + Rabbids universe, even if we have these Mario Galaxy elements.
The moment that I say, ‘Dear Nintendo, I would like to use these specific bosses from Galaxy’, that would make it make it too specific. In this case it’ll be me as the creative director inventing a new Galaxy story, which is belonging to Nintendo. So the Mario + Rabbids universe is very unique and it’s our wide canvas to create crazy things.
GC: So we could never see Samus or someone doing a cameo?
DS: That will be very strange because in that case that would be multiple IPs, not only Mario and the Rabbids…
GC: It’s all the rage nowadays!
GC: If I could just finish on a slightly different note, it’s great to speak to an Italian developer because now I can ask… what do Italians really think of Mario?
GC: Do Italians in general find Mario funny? Are they proud that he’s sort of Italian?
DS: I think in Italy he’s the most know video game character, overall.
GC: I love that Simpsons episode [actually it was Futurama – GC] where they go to the UN and Mario is the Italian representative.
GC: You know the bit I mean?
DS: [laughs] Yes! But right now Nintendo is not defining Mario as belonging to any part of the real world anymore. They changed that. But yes, in the past, he was known as an Italian character and he was also saying words such as ‘ravioli’ and in Mario 64 if you just let him go to sleep…
GC: …he would start saying ‘Oh spaghetti-o!
DS: They are not doing it anymore, but, of course, for people of my age, it’s still…
GC: You’ve got their ear now, get them to change him back!
GC: But the other thing is… 80% of the developers I talk to are either American or Swedish and it’s hardly ever anyone else, unless it happens to be a Japanese game. Why is that? Why do some European countries have lots of developers but other even very big countries have almost none? The only big Italian studio I can think of are Milestone and then a few indies.
DS: To me it’s governments not being able to see the long-term benefits and that’s it because apart from that I see, for example, a lot of new indie studios in Italy.
GC: I have met a couple.
DS: And some of them that are doing incredible stuff with very few people. So if I name one, you may have seen Baldo, it’s made by two guys only and has an incredible level of visual animation. I wish them the best of luck. But there is also Milestone, which is quite big with the MotoGP games.
GC: Is it a situation where they need someone like your studio as a sign of encouragement or is it simply taxes and other business issues that are the problem?
DS: I think it’s an encouragement because through the years our managing director has been able to push on politics to change stuff. So now, as in other countries, you can get tax breaks for making video games, as exists for cinema. So it’s just some [laughs] old Italian guys working in the government that just doesn’t see it yet. But the new guys, the new Italian developers are super smart. So I wish them the best of luck.
GC: Just from a selfish perspective, the more diversity you have in the workplace the greater the chance of new and interesting games.
DS: If you look at our team, we have students from five different countries around the world.
GC: I know, it’s like the Tower of Babel out there, in terms of accents! And you’re only a small studio.
DS: [laughs] But even in Milan we have people from the United States working in the studios with us. They decided to change and move from America to Italy just for doing this.
GC: So just to wrap up do you have ideas for what you’re going to do moving forward? Is it going to be all tactical games or all Nintendo titles? Do you know what you want to do next?
DS: I have 14 notebooks, like the one that you have on your lap, full of written ideas back in my house. For different games, for continuations of this one… and who knows? It really depends. They say there are two types of writers in the world, the architecture who knows everything since the very beginning and then they just execute it or the gardener that discovers things step by step. So even if I wrote down a lot of notebook ideas, I still discover what I want to do or develop, or how to develop, step by step.
GC: That’s great. Well, I look forward to this and whatever comes next. Thank you very much.
DS: It’s a pleasure. Thank you. You have a beautiful voice, and you make me miss the time I spent in England working on Battalion Wars!
GC: [laughs] I remember those games, I love Advance Wars.
DS: Have you met Julian Gollop?
GC: I met him at E3 a few years ago. He’s a very talented guy, very influential.
DS: The guy is fantastic.
GC: It’s been a pleasure to meet you. Thank you.
DS: Thank you, thank you.
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