When Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot and Super Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto stood in front of a full auditorium at E3 last month and hyped up the forthcoming Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle, I thought it looked like XCOM for kids. While two of the biggest names in our medium were stood back-to-back with comically oversized guns, touting the mastery of video games’ version of the Minions, I couldn’t help but think this was just going to be Baby’s First Strategy Game™. After playing it for a few hours at a recent preview event, I realised that the baby in question would probably be some form of Mensa child, because Kingdom Battle is quite deep when you really dive into it.
The earlier levels I played were easy enough to power through and didn’t pose much of a challenge. A lot of it was focussed on learning the basics, but those later stages I played on the day chewed me up and spat me back out. Children will naturally find the humour of the Rabbids funny, but will the average Fanta-filled ball of energy be confused by how elaborate some of the game’s systems are, when they’re only used to seeing the Italian plumber jumping on some vegetables with eyes? Likewise, the tax-paying audience may be on board with the unique traits and individual skill trees for every member of your party, but will Rayman’s former foes be a turn-off?
I recently sat down with Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle producer Xavier Manzanares, and asked him what demographic Ubisoft was targeting, here: kids, or grown-up kids?
‘The target is really large. To be very transparent, we don’t really differentiate between kids and adults. It’s more about whether you know this type of game or not, because sometimes kids are way better than adults,’ Manzanares told me, before explaining that what I played on the day was designed to show how advanced the game gets after the beginning stages.
‘We didn’t want to have something that was too macrostrategy and no depth, and we believe that even those who have never played turn-based games before will level up their characters as they play through the game, and understand how far and how important strategy is in choosing what character you like to play with, your style, the type of weapons — we have a skill tree that you can reset for no cost to really push the aspect of change if you have to adapt. This is really important to us. And for those that really love turn-based games — kids or adults — to have a twist of what they know and potentially instead of thinking 5/7 moves ahead, it’s more about reacting to what’s happening in every round,’ Manzares said. ‘So, that’s a big difference with other turn-based games: in our case, if you get burned, there’s recovers — you have to adapt your strategy live. That was our take to having something accessible and, at the same time, deep enough that you feel smart’
Manzanares made it clear that there are a lot of big turn-based strategy fans at the studio, and there was a plan to do something different with the Rabbids from around 2014. ‘We were really passionate about turn-based, but we didn’t want to just do a game for us, we wanted to do a game that would be super accessible. Mario did it with racing games and fighting games, so our take was “hey, the Rabbids can help with this, as well!”’
It’s definitely an interesting coupling, and not one many would’ve predicted before the leaks started appearing online in May, but Manzanares told me that this all began in 2014, with the studio designing board games before ever starting work on the prototype that was eventually presented to Nintendo. ‘They’d never seen this type of game before,’ Manzanares explained. ‘It was different to Advance Wars, Fire Emblem — it was even different to XCOM. So, it was a different take and approach [to the genre], and it was surprising. And for them, the Rabbids should be surprising. So, it fit what they wanted to see, and because we recreated Mario from scratch — we didn’t ask for anything from them before [creating] the prototype — they saw the passion we have for details, which is super important to Mr. Miyamoto and his team.’
‘The only mandate [from Nintendo] was “Hey, continue to surprise us. It’s your game, it’s your vision, it’s your design. It’s not our game, but we’ll follow you, we’ll challenge you, and hopefully the game you envisioned in 2014 will be the game that’s released in 2017.” And that’s the way we worked with them.’
Which lead me on to ask what it was like to serve two masters in Ubisoft and Nintendo, and how much involvement Nintendo had in the project across the board. Was it always a free and easy relationship from start to finish?
‘It evolved. At first it was gates and milestones like validating a prototype, a vision. In Summer, 2015, we started to have weekly calls to talk about everything — mostly about validating everything around Mario, but [Nintendo would] also challenge us on design and approach,’ Manzanares said. ‘They were surprised and impressed with all of the ideas popping up from our side. And we were super impressed with how they observed what we were doing and their capability to tell us “Hey, this may not be good for the players, because in two fights after, this element will be unbalanced.” So, this mutual respect was really strong, and we still have weekly calls today [and] up until the end of production.’
‘As a producer, it was a big challenge: multiple roadmaps at the same time, validation processes, flexibility in terms of pipelines that we put in place, having an engine that is going in the right direction [to get] the detail Mr. Miyamoto was asking for, or the team was going for. And to have that from Ubisoft, from Nintendo, having those crossovers, milestones, gates... It was a hell of an adventure,’ Manzanares said through a few rare chuckles. ‘But, at the same time, we knew when we went to Japan for the first time that if this was validated it would of course be a big challenge so we were in that mindset anyway.’
While I only had the chance to play a few hours of Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle, it’s looking like this ‘big challenge’ may very well pay off for all parties involved.