Alberto Riol


ImageEver since Rare’s 2001 Xmas greeting, which featured all major console systems of that generation including a mobile phone, the company has never officially intended to develop games for mobile devices. We sure got some adaptations of their GBA releases some years ago; but they were not made by them, and they didn’t feel as truly Rare titles at all.

In spite of it, we now know that Viva Piñata, which is one of the new big franchises of the company, began as a PDA/mobile phone game, and it was just called “My Garden” before any piñata look was considered. That name was, in fact, trademarked by Rare on September 2002, followed by the alternate title “Amazing Garden” just a month later. By that time, nobody thought that it could be a mobile phone game, and rumours around the Net stated that it probably was the name for the reworked version of Donkey Kong: Coconut Crackers.

But, judging by the advanced graphic state of this official screen, kindly offered to us by Rare, it seems that the game was more than a mere prototype; it looks outstanding to our eyes even 5 years later. “When development first started we were using a new mobile phone PDA combination device, as it gave us the trading using the phone part and the large screen for the game visuals from the PDA side of things”, Ryan Stevenson, Viva Piñata’s concept artist, told MundoRare. Still, in-game animals didn’t have a trace of piñata look, though.

Then the game evolved, and as Gregg Mayles, lead designer at Rare, stated in an interview with 1Up in 2006, soon “it could run on any device that could communicate with another, where the player attracted animals into an environment and then traded them with their friends.” It was 2002 yet, and they already “had an isometric 3D garden running on a Pocket PC”, as Mayles assured.

Barbie Horse Adventures' inspiration point? (click for hi-res version)

A new artistic style was needed to bring an unique look, and Stevenson came with the idea of using piñatas: “I looked at a variety of different things, including aboriginal art -I really liked the patterns, cave paintings, African sculpture animals, and the Mexican day of the dead festival”, he told the audience in a conference about the art of Viva Piñata in October 2007 at Nottingham’s GameCity event. According to GameSpot’s summary of the conference, piñatas were finally chosen “when he looked at the original drawings based on these influences and they reminded him of something: a piñata he'd seen in a Mexican restaurant in New York.” It's obvious that the decision had a strong influence in the overall gameplay mechanics, as Steve Brand, Viva Piñata producer, told MundoRare when the game was about to be released: "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."

But there’s nobody better than Mayles himself to explain which was the following step in the development process of the game: “We soon moved it to an Xbox development kit to allow us the freedom of a fully 3D world and actually had a prototype running within Ghoulies, using the Flying Imps as temporary 'piñatas'. From there we briefly ran the game on a PC, until we realized that to fulfill the concept's potential and implement all the ideas we had created we needed even more power -so the game was transferred to the Xbox 360. Even now we are pushing the technical capabilities of even the Xbox 360 extremely hard”, he told 1Up.

In fact, the team, which -according to Mayles- “started as an offshoot of the Ghoulies team with just three people to prototype the gameplay, and then grew to around a dozen after another year or so”, had the game working in the first Xbox for some time. The following picture shows “some of the models and a early version the piñata look on the old xbox”, in Stevenson’s words.

Quite cute, but still not enough... (click for hi-res version)

Apparently, in this advanced state of development, the team became quite obsessed with the game: “We had a list of 140 animals and one of the designers had a board up with all the names and how they linked like a mad underground map... We even concepted what the game disc was going to look like. That's how obsessed we became!” Stevenson assured in his conference.

Of course, when moved to Xbox 360, Rare had to give some priority to Kameo and Perfect Dark Zero, since both were going to be two of the most important titles of the new system. But just after they were released, the Piñata team got some important additions, which appropriately brought their experience to face the final stage of development, when the game had around 45 full time people working hard to meet with the crucial holidays deadline.

In fact, during all that time, the team knew how to make good use of previously in-house developed tools from other Rare titles. Mayles, using an analogy with bride's traditional good luck chimes, explained to 1Up where the main resources came from:

  • "Something OLD (about half of the game engine and most of the development tools that put the game together are from Ghoulies).”
  • "Something NEW (the graphics engine has been written specifically for Viva Pinata).”
  • "Something BORROWED (the animation system can trace its roots back to Conker's Bad Fur Day on the Nintendo 64).”
  • "Something BLUE (the weather system 'blew' in from another team and there's also the colorful language that's been heard over the last week or two!)."

After all that work behind the scenes, the game was unveiled for surprise in March 2007, and just half a year later was released without a single delay. Moreover, Viva Piñata still remains as one of the best kept secret titles in Rare’s history, if we bear in mind it had such a long development process.

Acknowledges: MundoRare would like to express his gratitude to Ryan Stevenson, Lee Musgrave and George Kelion for offering us not only their time but also some nice exclusive VP stuff.

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