Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope launched in October for the Switch, adding a second chapter to Nintendo and Ubisoft’s surprising partnership- one that, appropriately enough, turned out to be very different from what many may have been expecting. With a revamped combat system, expanded exploration, a vast array of delightful heroes to control in battle, and an intergalactic adventure story, Sparks of Hope has improved upon its already-excellent predecessor in more ways than one, and the reception it’s received has reflected that.
In the wake of its launch, we reached out to its developers at Ubisoft to learn more about Sparks of Hope’s development, what it’s been like to work with Nintendo over the course of several years on the Mario + Rabbids games, and what the immediate future holds in terms of Sparks of Hope’s three DLCs- one of which will bring beloved Ubisoft mascot Rayman into the mix. Below, you can read our interview with Mario + Rabbids series lead producer and producer on Sparks of Hope, Xavier Manzanares.
"We felt it was our mandate as a team to surprise players."
The circumstances surrounding Sparks of Hope’s launch have obviously been different from those of Kingdom Battle. The first game was a new and untested idea, but the second is a sequel to a highly acclaimed and successful game. What sort of an impact did that have on development?
It’s sort of the context on Kingdom Battle that was really different from Sparks of Hope. We wanted to surprise, in 2017, everybody from Mario and the Rabbids being together to the genre of the game that was not expected. A tactical type of game, like XCOM, that we loved, that we wanted to prove some stuff with Mario and the Rabbids. Throughout the whole production sequence of Kingdom Battle, it was all about keeping it secret, working on this, and just being a bit stressed over how players would react when we would announce the game.
For Sparks of Hope, it was really different indeed. First, by definition, something similar would be the fact that it’s still a Mario + Rabbids game. But we still wanted to surprise, so that’s why we changed so many elements from Kingdom Battle. The combat system, the exploration, the RPG elements that we added, even the new heroes we added, the storyline. Because we felt it was really important, it was our mandate as a team to surprise.
But on the other side, it was really different because we wanted to prove ourselves again, to tell players, hey, you trusted us with the first game, you liked it. For those who played Donkey Kong Adventure, you saw as well how much effort we put in. But for Sparks of Hope, we wanted to prove that it was not just a lucky shot with Kingdom Battle. You trust us. We listened to you. We had a lot of positive feedback and creative feedback as well from players and the community. So let’s prove to you that we listened, but we are also there to show something different and fresh. So, overall, indeed it was really different, but at the same time, we kept the focus on the fact that we wanted to surprise everybody.
Given how well received and successful Kingdom Battle turned out to be, most people would have expected that Sparks of Hope would be a much safer and more iterative sequel than it turned out to be- though, obviously, it worked out well in the end. What was behind the decision to make so many significant changes to how the game plays?
It was really important for us to make a lot changes, again, because like I said, it was all about surprising everybody again, because that’s the way we define the Mario + Rabbids IP. It’s a surprising IP for their characters, but also the way they propose their gameplay and what they do in the games and for us, it was really, really important to keep that up. But also, it was really key for Ubisoft and Nintendo right off the bat to say that if you do something, it needs to be very different. Because with Kingdom Battle, we received a lot of positive feedback, we were happy with the feedback on what we did with the tactical genre. So, if we do something, it needs to be different, or else why would this game exist?
So that’s why we decided to take a new angle. We have so much to say on the tactical genre, on the turn-based aspect. We have so many ideas, even during the production of Kingdom Battle, that we kept on the side, that we said, okay, if we come back it needs to be with a bang. We felt that players trusted us, so with that, we decided to take one by one everything that we had before, and then decide what we would do. With the combat system, we felt that maybe it could be interesting to give more control and see how players would react compared to other games when it comes down to the three Cs- character, control, and camera, and the skills that go with it.
But of course, doing this is a huge change. It’s a huge bet, it’s a huge challenge. It was risky to go that direction, but for us, it was the way we were defined as a team and it was really important to keep that up. And then of course, we did that for exploration, the RPG mechanics, the storyline, the heroes, the archetypes, the changes we did to the way they’re playing and being played. So, yeah, we’re very proud that we took that decision to go that direction of being fresh, different. And we feel that players will respect the passion and the efforts and the expertise we put in for the changes that we’ve proposed.
"One thing that was clear on Kingdom Battle and is also very clear on Sparks of Hope is, Nintendo always told us, this is your game, this is your vision. If we’re working together, it’s because you are bringing something that we would not do, or do differently at least, and that’s why it’s so interesting to work with you guys."
What has the process of working with Nintendo been like for these two games? How involved have they been in the creative process?
Working with Nintendo is an incredible experience. It’s been eight years now. It’s a relationship that is based on trust. We work with Nintendo hand in hand. They see everything. It was the case for Kingdom Battle, it’s still the case for Sparks of Hope. It’s an incredible adventure and had a lot of experience. And of course, they validate everything that is linked to Nintendo IPs and characters, et cetera. But they also discuss with us about design and scope. But one thing that was clear on Kingdom Battle and is also very clear on Sparks of Hope is, Nintendo always told us, this is your game, this is your vision. If we’re working together, it’s because you are bringing something that we would not do, or do differently at least, and that’s why it’s so interesting to work with you guys.
So right off the bat, it was really, really clear. It means that we were responsible for the creativity, the storyline, the gameplay, the design, the vision, the scope, everything. And it was really, really great to work with Nintendo about that because it means we could bring to the table a lot of different elements, surprising elements sometimes, and then them respecting that and telling us, maybe watch out on this and that. But if it’s your vision, that’s fine, but then you need to respect, of course, our own IPs. And that’s where we worked a lot with Nintendo, finding the right balance between our vision and creativity and what they also wanted for their own brand. It was an incredible ride. Like I said, it’s been eight years. It sounds huge, but actually it’s also very small in terms of timing and stuff. We’re very happy about that relationship and it was key for the content and vision of the project as well.
Like its predecessor, Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope, does an excellent job of making a crossover between Super Mario and Rabbids feel like the most natural thing in the world. Can you talk us through what the process has been like and how you find the right ways to ensure that both properties are properly and authentically represented?
That’s a very interesting question, because it’s a lot of work indeed. Rabbids have nothing to do with Mario in terms of universe, in terms of the world. They share a few things of course, the way they are tackling humour, the way they are just wholesome as IPs and characters, that’s for sure. But even in terms of animation, for example, there’s no link between the two and the way we worked in the past on those two. So it’s true that a lot of work went into finding the balance between the two sets of heroes.
And actually, during the Kingdom Battle development, we started to work a lot and play a lot on the relationship between Mario and Rabbid Mario, and what would be this interaction. Would Rabbid Mario be just a Rabbid with a costume and then just interacting with Mario in that way? Would Mario just not care about the Rabbids and just look at them as being just funny, and that’s it? So we did a lot of animation prototypes, gameplay prototypes, narrative prototypes on what would be the personality of the Rabbids heroes versus what Mario is, that so many people know. And would the personality of those Rabbids be so different from normal Rabbids that we saw in the past? And the conclusion was, yes, we need to build new personalities for those Rabbids so that they fit in an adventure. Because of course, if it’s a party game, you don’t really care. They can be just the way they are. But if it’s an adventure game, like a tactical adventure game, well, you are going to spend a lot of time and hours playing with those characters and heroes. They need to be more subtle, they need to have something that you care for. If they’re just heroes with a costume, maybe you’re going to lose interest as a player.
We spent a lot of time working on those personalities, the way they are. On Sparks of Hope, we evolved even more, they have voices now. Again, because this could be interesting so that you can relate even more to those heroes. And for Mario – although he never changed because he’s such a beloved character, so we wanted to keep that – he’s still in a new universe and new creatures and even has a different type of gameplay. Mario usually adapts very well to those gameplay crossovers, and we wanted to keep that.
Then it became just an iterative element. For eight years now, we’ve been working iterations of interactions between those heroes. And we feel that with Sparks of Hope, we were in a very good level where we really love the interaction between the different sets of heroes. Even with Bowser now, that is the new hero of the game, one of the new heroes, what would be his interaction with the Rabbid heroes? It was just a lot of iterations that was based on humour and fun for us in dev. We feel that we managed to do it and we’re very proud of that.
"Wven though it was a good idea maybe to bring back Rayman with the Rabbids and everything that we know from their past, we didn’t want to just bring him and that’s it. We wanted to think first about what would be the impact of Rayman in this gameplay, in this genre, in our game, first."
Following on from the previous question, one of Sparks of Hope’s post-launch expansions is bringing Rayman into the mix as well, which has yet another iconic property crossing over into the story. How did the idea for that come about and what can you tell us about how he’s going to be implemented in terms of both story and gameplay?
In Kingdom Battle we did the Donkey Kong expansion. It was a lot of fun, a lot of work that we put as well on making sure that, we wanted to respect Donkey Kong’s universe and lore and the interaction with Rabbids. It was a lot of fun and I think players loved the experience as well.
For Sparks of Hope, when we start to think this year about the DLCs, like the extensions of the adventure that we could do in the future, we thought about having an adventure feeling, different type of gameplay, etc. We believe that the three DLCs that we announced is a mix, a good mix of all the good ideas that we had during the production of Sparks of Hope. When it comes down to Rayman- first of all, we are reading forums, communities, and players’ feedback and we knew that Rayman was one of the characters that would be making a lot of splash and people would be happy to hear back from.
But even though it was a good idea maybe to bring back Rayman with the Rabbids and everything that we know from their past, we didn’t want to just bring him and that’s it. We wanted to think first about what would be the impact of Rayman in this gameplay, in this genre, in our game, first. And if there are some good ideas and we believe it could be interesting, then okay, let’s do it. It was really important to first think about this impact rather than just announcing a new hero, and that’s it. So that was the strategy. And of course, when we announced in September the details and gave a bit more reveal of this new hero, we saw the reaction from the fans. I’d say we’re very happy that it resonated with so many. And now we’re actually working with it right now in terms of the scope, the frame of what Rayman will be able to do, his interaction, like I said, with the Rabbid heroes. We’re spending a lot of time there, and focus.
Kingdom Battle’s Donkey Kong expansion was a meaty one. Will Sparks of Hope’s expansions be similar to that in size and scope?
I would say that instead of having one big element that we had in mind for Donkey Kong Adventure – it was our big DLC, let’s say – we wanted to separate the experiences for the [Sparks of Hope] season pass. So for us, it was really key to talk about planets. If you’ve played Sparks of Hope, you know what a planet is in terms of content, and for us, this was a really nice context in reference, in terms of frame, what we could do for the future. Because a planet can be very interesting in terms of what we propose, very creative, very fresh. So for DLC 2 and DLC 3, that’s the way we went- if we had a planet in mind in terms of size and content, what we could do within this.
For DLC 2, it will be very different and creative with a nice touch in terms of story linked to the Spark Huntresses. And for Rayman, what it would be with him arriving like that, and what he would do, what would story be. So, take the planets that we did in Sparks of Hope as a reference in terms of what it will be for the two DLCs. And for the first DLC, it’ll be very different. Something we wanted to do for a while in terms of a mode, we’ll give more details in the future, but we spent a lot of time just having fun with the combat system and the way it is in terms of rhythm. So, again, DLC 1, 2, and 3, for us is just an amazing, fresh experience, almost extension to what we did with Sparks of Hope. A lot of fun, but also a lot of work as we’re doing it right now with the team.
"Instead of having one big element that we had in mind for Donkey Kong Adventure, we wanted to separate the experiences for the Sparks of Hope season pass."
Unlike Kingdom Battle, Sparks of Hope doesn’t have any multiplayer options. Is that something you are looking to add as part of the game’s post launch support?
We took the decision in production of Sparks of Hope to not have a multiplayer PvP like we have, for example, in Kingdom Battle. Not because Kingdom Battle’s mode was not good, or we didn’t like it. It was actually very interesting to see players playing and we had a lot of fun creating it. But the amount of work that we had to do for Sparks of Hope, in terms of the RPG aspect, the changes to the combat system, the rhythm with exploration, the storyline was really different. We wanted to make sure that we didn’t fall into scope creep issues. So we took the decision quite early on to say, okay, now the focus will be on the solo adventure experience and then extending that experience with the DLCs and with a new mode as well, like I said, for DLC 1.
But not for PvP. And the reason is, it’s not just doing a mode, it takes a lot of time to do a proper experience. And with Mario + Rabbids games, we never go for the quick decision, quick solution that would be criticized and maybe not appreciated by players because we didn’t put enough effort in. We never want to do this. If we don’t have the focus or the time to do it properly, for now, we decided not to do it. So no, we will not do a PvP experience for Sparks of Hope, as the focus really is on those three DLCs, now that we’ve finished Sparks of Hope.