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Interview with the Piñata Team

It seems that it happened last year, but actually Mundo Rare met Steve Brand, Neill Harrison and Elissa Miller from Rare only a couple of weeks ago in Madrid. They were there to present Viva Piñata for the first time in Europe, and our enviable duty was to interrogate them. Steve Brand is the game's Producer, whose job can vary from scheduling the team's duties to edit all the video sequences. That's when he is not flying to New York to arrange meetings with the representatives of Fox TV. Harrison was responsible for several technical aspects of the artwork, as well as the background's and the environment's of the main area. And Miller was an Animator, so thanks to her our piñata community will be fresh and unique; she took the concept models and bring them to life by injecting a personality into the characters.


Black Francis, Joey Santiago and Kim Deal from The Pixies

.: INTERVIEW Part I: Steve Brand and Viva Piñata

Mundo Rare: Viva Piñata Director Gregg Mayless said that the team "had no preconceived rules of how things should be done". So where did the main first idea come from?

Steve Brand: It was about four years ago when Tim Stamper, Director at Rare, just had an idea for a garden game. Initially it was going to be Pocket PC, so it's been code-named Pocket throughout development. It was basically going to be for a handheld. But as it progressed into a bigger idea, we went onto Xbox and from there we went onto 360, because we realised that we couldn't do, graphically, what we wanted to do on Xbox.

MR: Are there any ideas or features from the early stages of development that didn't pass the cut, or that it may have evolved into different things?

Steve: There's a stack of features that get put to one side and there's lots of stuff that we would have liked to put in the game as well, but you just run out of time in the end. So yes, there are certainly things that aren't in the game that would have been in the game four years ago, so it's definitely evolved as we've gone.

MR: Why did you decide to use piñatas as the characters in the game?

Steve: Initially, we had to decide on a style for the animals so we didn't just want them to be normal animals. So our Concept Artist came up with the idea of piñatas, which in England is not a massive thing at the minute. Not everybody knows what a piñata is in England so, for us, it was very fresh and it also allowed us to have new ideas in the design – for the sweets inside - that play a part in the game. The life sweets are the piñata so it opened a few avenues for us.

MR: Does the customization of the piñatas have anything to do with the objectives in the game or is it just a funny addition?

Steve: Basically, that is a way of personalising for yourself, but it also makes your piñata more valuable if you trade it or sell it back to the shop if it's got accessories on it. But, in terms of the whole goal of the game, no, it's just something for you to experiment with. However, some of the piñatas actually need to have certain accessories.

MR: We know that you can trade online with you piñata collection, but how relevant can these online features be in terms of global gameplay?


Three consoles to run one game, take that Halo
Steve: Well, we wanted the game to be available to the biggest market. Obviously, we wanted everybody to play it, so the Xbox Live features are a bonus, really. It's a single-player game, essentially and first, it's a single-player experience. But the Xbox Live features are just a bonus in case you are connected, because we're hoping that people who aren't connected to Live can still enjoy the game.

MR: What can you tell us about the TV series?

Steve: That's part of the bigger picture – we see Viva Piñata as more than just a game. It's a whole IP foray, it's a new thing from Microsoft and they basically signed an agreement with 4Kids TV in New York, the guys behind Pokémon, and they looked at Viva Piñata and said "yes, we want to do a cartoon of Viva Piñata". So, we sent them the game assets, we sent them the game models and they've created the CG cartoon from the game.

According to Microsoft Ibérica in Spain, Microsoft Europe is already trying to reach an agreement with several networks in every country to expand Viva Piñata TV series beyond the US territory. However, they don't expect to see a release before the coming Christmas season.

MR: Is the free will of the piñatas something the player will be able to control somehow?

Steve: It's part of the game, you have to learn how to control them. You can build fences and keep them inside those if you want, but they do have their own minds. As we've been developing the game more and more we see things and we're like, "now how did that happen? We haven't programmed that!" – but they start doing stuff off their own accord so that's very much part of the game.

MR: Nearly one half of the achievements of Viva Piñata are secret achievements. What should we expect about them?

Steve: There are various goals in the game. Obviously, the top goal will be to get everything in the game. I mean, there's a lot of hidden stuff that we're not going to tell you about today as well, so to be 100% will take you a long time but there are certain challenges you can do.

MR: Can you tell us about anything in particular?

Steve: Just show you this [Steve points out to the screen where a beta version of Viva Piñata is being played, there it can be seen a huge mountain with a system of cannons at the top]. This place is Piñata Central, this is where all piñatas go to be fired out to parties so if you look at the top, you'll see the cannons shooting the piñatas out.

So, basically, they live in the garden and they fatten up on sweets and then they go to Piñata Central and get shot out to parties – it's their destiny. So, every now and then, Piñata Central will say "we need help, we need 5 toes" or something, and then you can go in and do that if you want and you'll send them off and they'll deliver them back when they come back from the party and they'll be much more valuable so they'll be worth a lot more.

MR: Finally, how many people worked on Viva Piñata?

Steve: Probably about 50, around 50. But around the last moth the team became smaller because, obviously, the artists were finished – like Neil and Elissa, whose work is already done, so some artists are moving off onto different projects.

MR: Like Banjo 3?

Steve: Er... there are different projects.


Neill's help was vital while guiding us through the demo, especially when we discovered such a variety of options

.: INTERVIEW Part II: The Wild Bunch at Rare

Mundo Rare: There is an inside joke in our website that compares Rare with the renowned Pixar Studios. From what we have seen of your headquarters, it seems to be a very creative atmosphere in there. How much of this is true?

Steve Brand: It's a flattering comparison for us, as artists. But it's not the same thing. They ride around on bikes, you know. But we have a pitch and stuff like that so we can play football if we want.

Neill Harrison: Or basketball.

Elissa Miller: There's a very relaxed atmosphere and I think that to be creative you need that sort of atmosphere and have people around you and not to be serious all the time – you know, because being creative isn't about that.

Steve: We are in the middle of the countryside so we've got a lot of land around and lots of animals, which is where the idea for the game came from – but not piñatas, 'cause that would be weird.

Elissa: I saw one the other day. For sure!

MR: It has been said that yours is the only studio somehow independent from Microsoft Game Studios in terms of location and line of work.

Steve: We're not directly linked to Microsoft like a lot of other studios. Obviously Bungie are a lot closer to Microsoft in the States. But now that Microsoft have bought Lionhead, it's a very similar situation they have for us – we try to keep our identity, make sure we're 'rare' and to keep that Rare identity.

MR: There was another statement by Greg Mayless referring to Viva Piñata as a game without the usual cynical touch of Rare's sense of humour. What can you comment on that?

Steve: Maybe so, it's difficult to say because the characters don't speak - the piñatas don't speak in the game, they do in the cartoon series. Their humour probably comes out more in the cartoon series and the things they say in there. Because we're aiming the game beyond the normal players as well, we obviously have to be careful of the content because we want the game to be E-rated so that everyone can play it. It's new ground because we've certainly – obviously, Microsoft were saying "must be E, must be E" and we'd write something and it'd be like "no!". It's not Conker.

Elissa: We're trying to get a more subtle humour through the animation rather than anything else, so when they do that romance sequences, they do funny things.


Banjo cameos can be found here and there in the game; but that's something you'd probably figure after Ghoulies

MR: Don't you think that the game might be being sold as a game just for kids, and this kind of statements could create a wrong picture of it?

Steve: Really, that's really down to how Microsoft deal with that. Obviously, that's why their marketing department's on there – they're keen to make sure they get the message across that it's not just a kid's game – it's a game for everyone.

Elissa: The gameplay has the broad kind of appeal, rather than the humour so it's through playing the game you reach the broad sort of spectrum rather than the humour. That's ironic humour, I guess.

Steve: I mean, it's like you could say that Mario is a kid's game but how many adults play Mario?

MR: In Kameo, the number of playable creatures was reduced through several versions. Did something of this happen with Piñata's species?

Steve: Yes, there were more species planned but, obviously, due to time constraints some were removed. But there are over 60 still in the game and each one has his own set of animations, his own mini-games, his own romance stats and when you times that, that's a lot of work, so we did have to cut them down slightly. We wanted to release a game on 360 so we had to cut the species (laughs).

MR: Do you plan to add more species via Xbox Live in the future?

Steve: Yeah, we need to see how it goes but if it is successful then, yeah, we'll look into that.

MR: And what if you try to cross a hippo piñata with a parrot piñata. Do you get a hippoparrot piñata?

(everyone laugh)

Steve: Well, there is experimentation in the game.

MR: Like a secret achievement or something, you know.

Steve, Neill, Elissa: Secret.


Steve not just explaining us how to play Viva Piñata, but also showing those nice HDTVs from Microsoft

MR: Your team, the original Banjo Team, is the only one at Rare that has kept a regular developing schedule since the N64 years, becoming what looks like the most productive internal team at Rare at the moment. Are the rest of the teams going to speed up their average development times from now on?

Steve: That's something that Microsoft are very keen across all their development houses to do. The whole XNA movement was to make development quicker and basically cut down development overheads. We're trying to develop a tool-sharing culture so that we don't have to write everything again for the next game because that's what takes the time, if you have to write the engine again and animations or whatever. There's a team at Rare that are solely there to develop new technology so all the teams can use it.

MR: Do you have any say in the merchandise development for Viva Piñata?

Steve: We have creative input, they show us the ideas but we make games, that's what we do. We've left that to them, they're the masters at that, 4Kids, but they show us.

MR: Do you have any powers over the contents of the TV series?

Steve: We have some, yeah. Over the scripts, every single script has come to us and Greg Mayless has personally gone through it and made sure it links to the game. So if they're factually wrong, we tell 4Kids and they adjust it. We also make sure they've got hints and tips so that people who are watching the cartoon, they can pick up a tip or find "I can feed this piñata this".

MR: Viva Piñata is not the first Rare game with its own TV series. Before it there was Donkey Kong Country. But the DK series didn't have much to do with the actual game...

Steve: This series is very, very similar to Viva Piñata, the game.

MR: So what came first, the game or the cartoon?

Steve: The cartoon idea came later, when Microsoft signed the deal with 4Kids. They basically said to 4Kids "we've got these different IPs" so 4Kids looked at Viva Piñata and said "that's perfect for us – we can make a cartoon of Viva Piñata". So we supplied them with all the game models. They took them and added extra detail so everything you see in the cartoon is literally from the game – we shipped everything to them and that's when they made the decision to do CG as opposed to 2D, so it's worked out really well. It's worked out well for them, we've done most of the work as well – all of the models were there and ready.


"Now I could introduce that secret button code to freak out everyone"

MR: Viva Piñata has been told to be the first Rare game under development for the Xbox 360 since its very beginning. However, you talked before about it being planned for a handheld PC. Which is exactly Piñata's process timeline?

Steve: When we started developing Viva Piñata we were still with Nintendo and it was really just an experiment – we hadn't said we were going to release a Pocket PC game, it just seemed to be the best platform to just experiment with the idea. So, a small team, very easy-to-use technology just to see if the idea works.

MR: We were wondering about those connections with Nintendo. Since Rare still has a development team for the Nintendo DS, does that mean that you can also develop games for the PSP?

Steve: We were established with Nintendo DS and Game Boy. We just carried that on and obviously, Microsoft have an agreement with Nintendo, but I don't know the ins and outs of that. Anyway, it's very doubtful that we would develop something for PSP.

MR: As a final question, do you have any plans regarding Xbox Live Arcade? Any project on mind or in the works already?

Steve: We're interested in looking at all aspects of the 360 so it's something that we've looked at, that's for sure. Microsoft are keen that we focus on 360.

MR: Taking into account the huge list of games in Rare's background, we believe that many of them could be adapted for Xbox Live so you could make tons of money with that.

(everyone laugh)

Steve: Maybe. But that's not our decision.


We were pretty surprised too when we heard the recordings and found out that Neill Harrison's only word was "basketball". But we assure you that he was there. You can check the pictures. And not only that, he was the one who showed us how to play Viva Piñata in their development unit. Anyway, now you all know that he apparently likes to play basketball. Who else could have told you that, uh?

Iker Pérez, Alberto Riol, Helen Hall