Jem Alexander speaks to Ubisoft Milan’s Dario Migliavacca and Davide Soliani about the role of passion in development and working with Nintendo on Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle
Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle went from ridiculous rumour to laughable leak to one of critics’ favourite strategy games of the year faster than you could say “It’s-a me!”. This bizarre amalgamation of disparate worlds should, according to everyone who heard the rumours and saw the leaks, have been dead on arrival. And yet, here we are.
Boiling together two intellectual properties to create an honest-to-goodness love serum isn’t an easy task, nor is it an opportunity that comes along every day. IP licensing is a notoriously strict area of the law and companies are understandably very protective of their universes. Like jealous, greedy gods.
So when Nintendo approached Ubisoft to build a playground in which the Mario and Raving Rabbids characters could all frolic together, it was an opportunity that came with astounding pressure.
“It started with a very simple mandate,” says Ubisoft Milan managing director Dario Migliavacca. “We had to propose a concept with Mario and Rabbids, that’s all. That’s only possible because of the great relationship between Ubisoft and Nintendo over the years. It was a huge challenge put in front of us. Personally, I was sure that only a few people could have been able to achieve that and I strongly believed in Davide [Soliani] and his team because…”
“Because I’m a nerd,” Soliani cuts in. “Exactly,” continues Migliavacca. “Because of his huge Nintendo knowledge and passion. I trusted in him, even if I knew it was a dream – sometimes we refer to it as an impossible dream – but it worked. The initial mandate was really simple.” He repeats himself. “Simple,” he says, making bunny ears with his fingers. Or should that be rabbid ears?
“No-one knew the genre or the story,” Soliani adds. “They just had this fantasy offer to unite these two different universes.”
TAKING THE LEAD
It’s a great honour for a Ubisoft studio to be given the reins on a new project. Some, like Ubisoft Singapore and its new project Skull And Bones, build an IP out of years of working on tech (water and boats for Assassin’s Creed in this case) before it happens. There was no precedent on which to build a game design in the case of Mario + Rabbids; such a mandate had never been given before.
“For us it was different because there was a big question mark, which was Nintendo,” says Migliavacca.
“It started with a very small team, prototyping and inventing everything.”
Playing with other people’s IPs is always daunting, but never moreso than when it’s a household name.
“It’s a big opportunity,” says Soliani. “But this big opportunity was Mario, which is probably the most well known character in the video game industry. And being someone who grew up with Nintendo games and Miyamoto games... For me the guy is a legend. It was not easy because I had to present the game to him and other people inside Nintendo and, even if I felt strongly about my Nintendo knowledge, and even if I was using common sense to propose something, it wasn’t easy. It was very stressful, because we were trying to show something to them that was the same quality and level of polish, but with a twist. Some craziness on it.”
When your childhood hero is asking you to reinvent the very games that led you to a career in the industry, it’s bound to be unnerving.
“This is something that Miyamoto told me that he was expecting. ‘Show me your colour,’ he told me. ‘Show me how far you can go. I want to see something different.’ Knowing that he was expecting something that would surprise him, it’s not so easy to live with. It’s a goal that can overshadow you easily. I would say that I was in front of this IP with a lot of respect, but also with the strong will to show my perspective.”
If I learned one thing working with Nintendo it’s never to restrain yourself.
Davide Soliani, Ubisoft Milan
Presented with this task, it’s easy to play it safe. To not try to rock the boat too hard, in fear of tipping the whole thing over and losing access this world to which you’ve been gifted. Something Soliani railed against, determined to both surprise and delight Miyamoto and co.
“If I learned one thing working with Nintendo it’s never to restrain yourself,” he says. “It’s always better to dare. Worst case scenario, they say no. But at the same time they want to be surprised. Otherwise they will make the game themselves. So they really want you to try. Of course if you go to them and propose something completely out of the box and vulgar, this would be stupidity. But if you propose something surprising, even if it’s very odd, they will take it into consideration. As long as there’s a good reason or logic behind it.
“So now I never restrain myself. The phantom, the third boss in the game, I had been waiting twenty years to make this boss battle.
“The whole idea started with the phantom trying to piss off Mario, and I said ‘They will never say okay to something like that’, but in the end they did. So it’s always better to try.”
Again and again, Soliani comes back to how his passion for Nintendo’s franchises is what allowed him to succeed at this daunting task. But at Ubisoft Milan Soliani is also surrounded by other games fans. Those who got into the industry because of their love of gaming.
“We’re not very formal as people in games development,” he explains. “For example, in our brainstorming sessions we don’t care if you’re a designer, or an animator or a programmer. We want people participating. What we do normally is have a mixture of people. Yes, in the end I will guide and direct everything, but I don’t care if a designer is telling me ‘What about this?’ and his idea is better than mine, I will say ‘Yes, let’s go for that’.
“We are completely open. The animators were autonomously proposing creative situations, such as Luigi dabbing, which spread all over the internet. I think that we are encouraging this mood where people were not afraid to propose something. It’s a very hard working environment and I’m asking a lot of people. I’m not saying, ‘Take your time’. No no no. I want them to really work. That’s why we are trying to find people with a lot of passion. A holy flame burning in their chest. I want them to ask more of me. We are encouraging that.”
With years-long development cycles, however, it can be easy for that flame to falter. Is this something that can be prevented? And if so, how?
“I don’t know,” Soliani admits. “I have goals in my life that I would like to fulfill. Even if they sound totally crazy, I always work to make them possible – and this is one of those dreams. Mario + Rabbids is definitely something that, even talking about it four years ago, I would have laughed about one day being real.
“But the first thing that a designer or someone working in this industry should learn is about receiving criticism. That’s the hardest thing to learn as a designer. Not going to an academy, not reading a book, not knowing how to use the tools, but accepting criticism. If you finally achieve learning that, the rest is so much easier.”