Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope is a significant evolution of its predecessor Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle, recently winning Best Sim/Strategy Game at the 2022 Game Awards. The combat strategy game made big changes, such as removing the tactical grid and adding real-time movement in combat; introducing new characters like Edge, Bowser, and Rabbid Rosalina; and completely revamping the weapon system. In Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope, each character has a unique weapon with its own power and personality, and Ubisoft News spoke with Associate Producer Quentin Correggi about the process and challenges of designing these weapons, and how the team works through those challenges to create something that is both effective and fun to use. After all, what better way to fight the Darkmess than with a missile-firing umbrella, spinning sword, or a cover-destroying Spark plushie?
Developing a New Weapon System
According to Correggi, the team knew they wanted to upgrade the weapons system almost immediately when they started to work on Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope, moving away from shared weapon types that any hero could use to ones that are completely unique to each character and have their own gameplay abilities. “With Mario, we knew we wanted him to be quite agile and a bit of an all-rounder on the battlefield,” says Correggi of the titular hero. “Very soon came the idea that he would have two different weapons and could shoot two enemies at the same time. And that’s the origin of the Dual Slinger.”
Some characters had archetype legacies, so deciding their weapons in Sparks of Hope was easy, like Luigi’s long-range Sharpshooter and Peach’s wide-reaching Boom-Brella. For other characters who weren’t in Kingdom Battle, like Edge and Bowser, the team wanted to design weapons that matched their personalities, leading to the development of the Flying Blade and Bowzooka.
Attack combos — combat actions that build off one another for maximum impact — are one of the pillars the team has in mind when they design weapons. According to Correggi, it’s important to have synergies between each character’s weapons and abilities, and it’s a highly iterative process that evolves with the weapon designs. “We were always asking ourselves, ‘How can we open scenarios?’” Correggi says. “Rabbid Rosalina’s Kaboomer is a perfect example, because she can open a huge line of sight by destroying cover, and then Luigi and his Sharpshooter can inflict major damage from far away using those newly opened lines of sight.” However, synergy between weapons isn’t the only thing to consider when imagining combos – it’s important to consider how a weapon can react to a character’s actions as well. For example, dashing into an enemy after turning on Mario’s Hero Sight – which will shoot the first enemy that moves in his line of fire – can help deal extra damage during a turn.
Gameplay wasn’t the only upgrade weapons got in Sparks of Hope; the team also created a new cosmetic system based on player feedback from Kingdom Battle. “In Kingdom Battle, each weapon has its own specific visual, but you couldn’t upgrade them; you would have to buy a new, more powerful one” says Correggi. “That resulted in frustration from players, because sometimes there was a visual they really loved, but after a couple of hours it became underpowered and they had to change it.” In Sparks of Hope, the team decided to separate a weapon’s look from its ability, allowing players to unlock different skins as they progressed through the game and swap them out as desired without affecting the weapon’s power. Now, if you want to upgrade Rabbid Luigi’s Discruptor’s look to the brightly colored Vintage skin, you don’t need to sacrifice any of its special abilities.
Keeping Gameplay Balanced
Once the weapons have been created, it’s time to test them in actual gameplay to ensure they are properly balanced and fun to play with. “Early on, it’s very important to involve real players,” says Correggi. It can be hard for game developers to know when a weapon is over- or underpowered – especially if they’re the person who designed the weapon and the level itself, since they know exactly how to use it and strategically approach enemies. Playtests allow the team to see what players enjoy and what they don’t – sometimes to surprising results. The best example of this, according to Correggi, is Rabbid Mario’s mechanical brawling gauntlets, the Dukes.
“At first, the Dukes were completely underpowered; nobody in playtests wanted to use them,” he says. “Rabbid Mario is supposed to be a short-range character, but at the time he didn’t have a lot of HP, so it was very, very risky to get close to enemies. The Dukes were also damaging cover, so every time you used the weapon, you most likely broke the cover that was protecting you.”
Once an issue has been identified, the team has to figure out how to fix it. They analyze different key performance indicators from playtests, like win ratio, amount of damage, and, of course, player feedback. Balancing a weapon isn’t just about nerfing or buffing its damage output; it’s a much more connected process, one that takes a lot of trial and error. In the case of Rabbid Mario and his Dukes, the team didn’t adjust the damage the weapon dealt. Instead, they raised Rabbid Mario’s HP and made cover more resistant to damage from his Dukes, and in the next playtest, they found players were using the Hero much more.
Everything Is Connected
It’s important to think about weapon redesign in the context of Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope’s updated gameplay, namely the removal of the tactical grid and implementation of real-time movement. Kingdom Battle’s flanking rules meant that an enemy had to be directly in a player’s line of sight in order to attack, making it crucial to carefully plan a path along the grid. “Removing the grid had an effect on flanking rules and visibility,” says Correggi. “As soon as we did that, players could move everywhere, and it was sometimes hard for players to understand whether they were flanking enemies or not, so we got rid of the old flanking rules. Now, if you see an enemy, you can shoot them.” This had a major impact on each weapon’s ability to interact with the cover system, and allowed the team to think about combat horizontally and vertically, which is why Mario can shoot from midair and Rabbid Peach can use her Triple Troll to bypass barriers with her projectiles.
Skill trees are another factor when designing weapons and thinking about balanced gameplay, especially since they give players some control over what new skills their characters acquire. According to Correggi, crafting a good skill tree is all about knowing where the weapon starts, what its most powerful form is, and how the team can break the progression down into meaningful steps.
“With Mario, for example, you can unlock the ability for him to shoot from the air, completely opening new lines of sight,” says Correggi. “We also have Rabbid Rosalina’s KaboomerI, where you can increase the number of projectiles you shoot.” For Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope, the key to crafting the skill tree wasn’t just about adding a couple points of damage to each weapon, it was about changing how the weapons could be used, so players could change their gameplay style throughout their journey. Going back to Rabbid Mario and his Dukes, his tendency to damage cover is why players can unlock the ability for him to move after attacking.
Finally, after the weapons have been designed, balanced, and thoroughly tested, there’s the matter of communicating their rules and best uses to players. “Luigi and his Sharpshooter are a great example. We didn’t just want a weapon with long range; we wanted it to have a really specific behavior,” says Correggi. “So we added an ability that, the further out you are, the more damage you do. But communicating that to players was actually a challenge.” After all, if a player doesn’t know about that feature, they’re not likely to use it. When looking at user experience, there was a dedicated team that went through every aspect of the game with the user interface in mind. The team relied heavily graphic elements to show weapon ranges, lines of sight, and projectile trajectories, and worked with engineers to ensure the solutions didn’t draw too much computation power. Then, they went to playtests and took in player feedback about what was easy to understand and what was frustratingly confusing.
“It’s always an iterative process, and there’s no such thing as a perfect balance,” says Correggi. “But as long as we see in playtests that all Heroes and their weapons are used relatively as much as others, that means we’re in a good spot.”