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Exclusive Viva Pinata Interview with Rare

Since its first projects with Nintendo, Rare Ltd. has enjoyed one of the most cult-like followings of any videogame developer. From Killer Instinct and Battletoads to Conker’s Bad Fur Day and the revered GoldenEye, Rare, in its fans’ minds, is unable to do any wrong.
So when Microsoft acquired the company to produce for Xbox, expectations were high for the fabled UK developer. Rather than a new Battletoads game, though, Rare’s first project for Xbox was Grabbed By The Ghoulies, followed by Kameo (which eventually moved to Xbox 360). Both were perceived as kids games, and neither met with the critical or commercial success one might have expected. Even the follow-up to Perfect Dark, Perfect Dark Zero, has a sort of Quentin Tarantino quality to it; people either love or hate it.
Viva Pinata screenshot
Yet Rare’s next project for Xbox 360, Viva Pinata, appears to be a more fleshed-out franchise, one that, for the first time with Microsoft, will have an associated TV show. Viva Pinata borrows a page from Pokemon. It borrows a page from Animal Crossing. And it borrows a page from every neighborhood fiesta in which a videogame developer has had one too many shots of Cuervo Gold.
We sat down with the lead designer of Viva Pinata, Gregg Mayles, to hear a bit more about Viva Pinata, the process of working simultaneously on a game and TV program, and what the future might hold for old-school Rare franchises such as Battletoads and Killer Instinct.
Viva Pinata screenshot
How long has Rare been cooking up the idea for Viva Pinata? It seems pretty fleshed-out.
Gregg Mayles: The idea and very basic prototype has been in place for at least four years, but there were a lot of platform changes and it took a long time for the team size to increase beyond single digits. Right now we have over 45 people!
Which came first, the TV idea or the game idea? How’d that creative/marketing process go?
The game came first by a long way. As it progressed, MGS [Microsoft Game Studios] decided that it’d be a great franchise to build on and took the idea to 4Kids, who agreed. And now we’re lucky enough to have a great TV show which allows for a lot of cross-promotion. We also get to work closely with 4Kids, which is even better.
Viva Pinata screenshot
As the TV and game started coming together, did the evolution of one affect the other, or did the concepts and characters evolve together? For example, did assets and character ideas for the TV show affect the game, or vice versa, or did they just sort of happen?
All the species were planned and modelled before the TV show got underway, and the stars of the show were picked from a list of the team’s favourite Pinatas. Since that point, there have been a lot of benefits from the two projects evolving side-by-side. Once the creative types at Rare and 4Kids started babbling to each other, all kinds of ideas emerging from the TV side started to find their way into the game, and vice versa.
How involved has Rare been in the TV side of things? It’s got to be a learning experience for the team.
We supplied them with a huge amount of information about the Pinata world and let them do what they do best. They have some great scriptwriters, and mainly what we do is just review their work and comment on consistency issues. Bardel in Canada are handling the animation, and their work rate is amazing. There are also a lot of parallels between the modelling being done by the Rare and Bardel teams, so the models you see in the show are pretty much the same as those in the game, although there are a few key differences such as the TV show characters needing to do fancy things like speak.
Viva Pinata screenshot
Rare’s caught a lot of grief since the Microsoft acquisition, be it for too little “meat” in the re-imagined Conker, the decidedly kid-friendliness of Ghoulies or the presentation of Perfect Dark Zero. What keeps you guys going? It’s got to be more than just thick skin.
Keeping our traditional low profile was increasingly difficult following the MGS acquisition, and people in the spotlight will always be heavily scrutinised. Some elements of the press enjoy nothing more than building people up just to knock them down again. If you let negative opinions affect you, the games will suffer (although listening only to positive opinions can be equally bad). At the end of the day, we’re just a bunch of people who love making games. As long as someone enjoys our work we’re happy, but obviously the more people that do, the better!
Going the way of a TV series is a significant departure for a videogame developer. With that in mind, has Rare taken any inspiration from Oddworld Inhabitants’ move out of the game-development industry and into different media? Have you talked with them at all? How do you feel about this “evolution”?
No, we haven’t spoken to them. It’s not really the same thing at all – we’re still 100 percent game developers. We may have gotten involved in the creation of a TV show by association, but our expertise has always been games. Games allow a freedom of choice and sense of adventure during the creative process that would be hard to match elsewhere.
Viva Pinata screenshot
As a follow-up to that, if the TV series takes off, do you envision Rare spending more time on Viva Pinata TV shows, and perhaps even new TV programs, than it will on traditional stand-alone game IPs?
[Again, we’re 100 percent game developers.] If the TV show takes off, our involvement is likely to remain much the same, although we would be keen for the show to explore more of the Pinata world (much as we’d do ourselves if we made another game). Creating an original IP from scratch is probably the most rewarding, and frustrating, thing you can do in this business. I think we’d stagnate if we kept doing the same thing for too long.
Some Rare fans might worry that the move to Viva Pinata, Kameo and Grabbed by the Ghoulies indicates Rare is going kids-only. What can you say to those fans to let them know Rare is still exploring its options (or is it?)? If you were a Vegas odds-maker, what are the chances of seeing Killer Instinct or Battletoads again in some fashion?
We always keep all our options open. Certain areas of the market are very crowded, and unless you’re bringing something different to the audience then why bother? The kids of today will be the hardcore gamers of tomorrow, and you often find that the most innovative titles are classed as kids’ games, purely because the young are more likely to try something new. If someone here comes up with a great idea for a new Battletoads or KI then we would certainly consider it, but you won’t see us rehashing them just for the sake of it.
Viva Pinata screenshot
What key elements exist in Viva Pinata that differentiate it from, say, Pokemon (as a TV tie-in game) or Animal Crossing (as a social creature game)?
I would imagine we have more AI and behaviours than Animal Crossing and the fact that the Pinatas live in real-time in your garden differentiates it from Pokemon, but generally we’re not modelling Viva Pinata on either of the two.
When Viva Pinata comes out, what are the two comments you would most hate to see in a review and/or from fans, and why would people be inspired to say them? What are you doing to make sure people don’t say those things?
“It’s for kids” and “It’s not Banjo”. Seriously, I think what we don’t want to hear is “it’s OK”. I’d prefer people to hate or love the game, then at least it stimulates passion. No-one remembers games that don’t do this. We have tried to remain true to the original concept and keep from being swayed by opinion in any way since the game was announced.
Viva Pinata screenshot
OK, then on the flip side, what are the two comments you’d most like to see, and what are you doing to inspire those comments?
“It’s a great game” and “thanks for trying something different”. “You’ve sold millions of copies” wouldn’t be hard on the ears either. Regarding inspiration to achieve this, at this point it’s too late to change game content. But we can supply nice replies to interviewers’ questions and encourage your readers to take a look!
Special thanks to Gregg for taking the time to answer our questions. With production in full swing, we appreciate you taking a brief break to chat.

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