A Rare Opportunity: On Piņatas, Microsoft and More

By Brandon Sheffield

Once a pillar of Nintendo's empire, Rare changed hands in 2002, joining Microsoft Game Studios' stable of developers. Its ethos has not changed, however. Perfect Dark Zero, Kameo: Elements of Power and Viva Piñata -- all originally under development for Nintendo -- have continued in the footsteps of the company's previous works, and found success on Microsoft's console.

Earlier this year, Gamasutra got an opportunity to speak to software engineer James Thomas and designer Justin Cook, both key figures in the Viva Piñata franchise, about being overshadowed by Gears of War, and the company's history and future. Having extracted parts of the interview for separate news stories, we now present the entire interview with Thomas and Cook, originally conducted at this year's Comic-Con in San Diego.

How long have both of you been with the company?

Justin Cook: I think this is my eighth year. I started off in test, and I've been designing for about half that time, about four years.

James Thomas: I've been there five years, pretty much [as of] this month. Started on Grabbed by the Ghoulies and then got moved to Viva Piñata.

How are things now that Rare's founders, the Stamper Brothers, have left?

JT: Good. I don't think from our level too much has changed, because our team has finished Piñata, and I think we went through the usual "What should we do next?" right afterwards, and I think the decision was taken above us, almost. I can't say we've noticed a difference too much.

JC: I think there's actually a nice, fresh -- because obviously [studio director] Mark [Betteridge]'s a little bit younger than the Stampers and his ideas are a bit better, and I think he wants to move us along and make us competitive in our field, so I actually think it's quite bright. Not that it was bad before -- it's just that it's different. It's like a new groove. So yeah, it's good.

Do you know what they're up to?

JC: No. We talk about it quite often, because Tim [Stamper]'s wife still works for Rare, so she comes to the place regularly, and they've still got premises in Twycross itself, and we sometimes see them going in and out. We were whispering amongst ourselves about what they might be doing... but nobody knows!

So Viva Piñata itself didn't, sales-wise, take the world by storm as much as everyone had hoped. Why do you think that was? How do you feel about that?

JC: I suppose we knew from the start that we were going out to the limit there, because we were going to do something different to the usual game for the 360, obviously. I don't know if it worked out badly for us -- we've got close to half a million sales now, so that isn't a terrible debut for a game.

Is that worldwide?

JC: Yeah, that's worldwide. I think it's about that number. And we seem to keep creeping along -- it doesn't just stop. We keep selling a few copies, a few copies... it might work out okay.

JT: I think from our point of view, it was interesting to see how the marketing budget was split last Christmas, because obviously everyone knew that Microsoft were publishing Gears of War and Viva Piñata. Yet, so much of the money went towards Gears of War, which is going to sell millions anyway. It was a bit of like, "What about the other franchise?" I think we got left in the wake somewhat. Hopefully with the PC version this Christmas, it might get something of a second wind.


Rare's extremely vibrant Viva Piñata

It struck me as a bit of putting the cart before the horse, because there wasn't quite the casual market there yet.

JT: I think it was always stated that we were going to be the trailblazers. A lot of the preproduction on Viva Piñata was basically going, "We are going to take this round to third party publishers and show that Microsoft and Rare are committed to trying to expand the market themselves. Come join the party." Obviously, that flood of titles hasn't hit just yet. I suppose someone's going to go first, and we were them.

JC: We always knew it was going to be tough, but you have to start somewhere, and we always thought that we had got a kick-ass way to start that off. We thought we could set a standard. We weren't just a tie-in game, or one of those usual kids' games that nobody really likes but it sells really well because it's got the license. We thought we'd do a really good quality game and hopefully spin it out from there. So start on a good foot and expand from there.

It was also kind of a multimedia launch, right? The show was coming on at the same time.

JC: Yeah, that was brand new to Microsoft and Rare, but obviously not for 4Kids. It was new to us on our side. That's a whole kind of learning process in the making.

Why have there been so many odd games from Rare recently, like Grabbed by the Ghoulies and Mr. Pants?

JT: I think we were discussing this earlier, weren't we? It was always a case of, we could do by-the-numbers games if we wanted to, but I think the design elements within Rare are such that the designers aren't put together to make them. They want to try something different. They want to try and stretch the boundaries a little -- to try and go off on a tangent. I think anyone can do a generic FPS if they wanted to, but I think a lot of the games we produce have some sort of hook into them that sets them aside from the rest of the market.

JC: And, y'know, one of those might be the big thing! You've got to keep trying those different things, and then you might catch something that's really great.

JT: I think there's a great big scandal in Formula 1 this week, the managing director of one of the teams basically said, "If you're going to steal ideas, you're never going to come first. You always have to try and lead, not constantly play catch-up." Hopefully we're leading rather than catching up.

Yeah. It's very, very wacky.

JT: That's a kind way of putting it!

I was wondering how you managed to get -- it's called It's Mr. Pants, right?

JC: Yeah. That was the game I first did design work on. I was still in testing, but I did about two-thirds of the courses for that game.

How did you manage to put that on a Nintendo console?

JC: Well... (laughs) It started off as Coconut Crackers. Tim Stamper and Gregg Mayles came up with the idea originally.

JT: Based around Donkey Kong.

JC: Yeah, Donkey Kong's Coconut Crackers. In fact, it had several titles until it eventually became Mr. Pants. I think it was actually Tim Stamper's idea to call it It's Mr. Pants, and just rebrand the whole thing.

I think we went to THQ in the end to get it published, and there were some slight changes that had to be made. There was this hole that fills up with a snake, and we wanted to call it a "trouser snake," and I think they asked us to call it something else! Apart from that, yeah, it was just a solid puzzle game, and we knew that it wasn't a big "wow" game, but the playability was there, so it went through production and it didn't really hurt slappin' a crazy title on it! It was a plus for a lot of people, rather than a minus.


At this point, Rare had been purchased by Microsoft. How it was allowed to come out on a Nintendo console? You'd begun work on it prior to the purchase, right?

JC: Yeah.

And it was a Donkey Kong game, you say?

JC: Yeah, originally. They looked different ways of presenting it, basically, so there was an idea that we showed at E3 of an isometric, Donkey Kong theme to it, but it didn't really play as well as it did from a straight top-down view, so it got changed.

We have an in-house Game Boy team at Rare, and Microsoft never wanted us to change that. Not long after they bought us, they signed to release Monster Truck Madness and stuff on the Game Boy Advance. They're not in the handheld market, so they never saw them as a rival, I think.

JT: I think since Microsoft owns us as well, the Game Boy team carried on doing the Donkey Kong Country ports. I think Nintendo are quite happy with the arrangement as well.

JC: There's no conflicts with the rest of Microsoft's output. I think, as far as they're concerned, if it makes money, they're ahead.

How is the design different for the DS version of Viva Piñata? Obviously it's got to be quite different.

JC: It's all stylus-controlled. It fits really, really well. We've modified the menu systems so that it uses the stylus really neatly, and it actually fits really well, digging the garden and planting seeds with the stylus. It works, I think. We really like it!

JT: Yeah, and you get a lot more accuracy. Recently, I've been playing Theme Park and SimCity, and I think Viva Piñata fits in the same mold, for Rare. It's a god-type game, so it fits in well with the flexibility and the accessibility of the stylus that the touch screen offers.

JC: We've done a really great job. We've gotten most of the essential parts are in there -- obviously it's a big, unwieldy game -- on the DS, and I think it stands up really well.

I think it's going to be interesting to see when the DS version outsells the 360 version by like 12 million times, just to see how everyone's going to feel about that.

JT: We'll be there sobbing ourselves to sleep, going, "At least we'll know that we've set up a solid franchise!"

JC: We always wanted that. We always wanted them to do the best game that they could, and they've done a really amazing job. I secretly wished to be on that team for a while, but they obviously didn't need us at all. They've just gone ahead and done a great version.

JT: They've only had about five or six months with it as well, but they've actually used a lot of our assets, and obviously the main game design is in there. Thumbs up to them. They've turned it around really quickly.

It seems like it would be difficult to reuse some of the assets, considering...

JT: They've shrunk them down and scaled them back, but they had us as a starting point.

If Rare is still working on some Nintendo ports that are actually Nintendo properties, does that mean you can still revisit those series, like Donkey Kong Country, or Killer Instinct?

JT: Nintendo like us to do the ports of the games that we did for them for their format.

We've done the Donkey Kong Country remakes because [Rare] was the home of it. Nintendo have asked us to do those. I think there's still a really good relationship between Rare and Nintendo. Yeah, we get on really well.

That kind of thing doesn't happen very often.

JC: No, I think it's unique to the fact that Microsoft aren't planning on releasing a handheld, so there's no conflict of interest there. I think the management is still friends with people at Nintendo -- like Ken Lobb went over [to Microsoft] as well, so there's still connections between the two businesses.

I mentioned Killer Instinct -- a lot of people are hoping that you guys are going to do that again. I thought it would be very difficult since you're Microsoft-owned, but if you do have that relationship, then on the handheld page...

JT: The thing is, when we were working with Nintendo, there were some properties that were ours -- and are ours, furthermore. Banjo is a great example. Banjo is all ours, although potentially Nintendo could release the old games for the Virtual Console on the Wii. Any future ventures would be from Rare on whatever format we're working on. It's a pretty even split. Obviously they didn't give us Donkey Kong. I don't know why. (laughs)


Since Krome is doing the new Viva Piñata, what are you guys doing right now?

JT: We could tell you, but then we'd have to kill you!

Something new?

JC: We're on the same team, pretty much. Team's moving on with another project, but we're not ready to reveal what at the moment. But everything is going along swimmingly.

JT: You could probably make a good guess.

The technology for Viva Piñata was actually really, really nice. Some people didn't quite realize it, because it was going for such a unique style. It wasn't like, "That looks like a real guy over there!" but the wind going through the little...

JT: Yeah, I think a lot of people missed the actual papery effect. They just looked from afar and thought "fur," and left it at that, but they didn't actually realize how the paper strands [were] falling down.

JC: We had a really talented guy -- Mike Holmes -- who basically wanted to flex his muscles as much as possible when we got the 360. I think it's part of the philosophy as well: although this was a game for kids -- and for everybody -- we should put everything we've got into it. I think a lot of people did miss it, because of the subject matter.

In some ways, it was one of the really early graphical showcases of the 360, because at the time it came out, there weren't a whole lot of games that were really built just for it. A lot of them were, "Crap! Our Xbox game is not going to get supported now."

JT: Well, it went from Palm PC to the GameCube to the Xbox and the 360. I think we decided to make the leap to the 360 because we could do such things as the paper effects. Whereas if we'd have left it on the Xbox we'd have to do a texture, now we can have the actual fur.

It was in the works for that long?

JT: It started in 2002.

JC: Yeah, four years.

JT: It was basically a three-man team for a couple of years, before we ramped up.

JC: And then when Ghoulies finished, there were people hanging about. We sort of grabbed most of the Ghoulies team so we could finish Viva Piñata. We were looking. There were a lot of tons of enthusiastic people knocking about!


Rare's early Xbox effort, Grabbed by the Ghoulies

What kind of technology are you using on the games? Is it in-house stuff?

JT: It's all in-house stuff, yes. Most of it's in-team stuff, but we've also got STG, the Shared Technology Group, and they wrote an engine that everyone uses. I think PD and Kameo used it, and we've borrowed instances of it as well.

You mean within Microsoft?

JT: Yes. Forza used a lot of the STG stuff as well. We've pinched stuff from each other. With so many teams, it's better to steal stuff rather than constantly rewriting it.

It's still hard to think of Rare as a Microsoft team, instead of just thinking of it as Rare.

JC: We're trying! We're out on the road in the middle of nowhere, so to a certain degree, I expect we'll always be kind of separate. However, we've been talking with Lionhead recently [as a fellow Microsoft studio], for example.

And since you've been making these off-the-wall games, it's going to be hard to be one of the crowd.

JT: Yeah, I can't see Unreal Engine powering Piñata. I don't think that's the way to go. "Overkill" may be the word.


What was the inspiration for Viva Piñata, back in the days when it was conceptualized? Was the television show envisioned from the start too?

JT: No, no, not at all. That was something that Microsoft brought to the table, when they'd seen the game and greenlit it and decided that we were going to run with it. They contacted 4Kids -- because of their work on Pokémon -- and we showed the game to 4Kids and they loved it, and that's where the TV show came from. We were really lucky, I think.

It almost struck me as a Pokémon-style arrangement, in that you could move into other media with it.

JT: Yes, and I think that's quite a problem for Microsoft, because they haven't gotten any properties of that nature at all, and we've given them a vehicle. You've seen Party Animals -- they had no property for a party game before that, they'd have had to port that in, so we actually...

JC: I can't see what Master Chief and Cortana would do in a Mario Party-style game!

JT: I think we've created something that's useful for them on a lot of levels.

It's almost like the revival of the He-Man model. I don't know if you know what the He-Man shows were like, but basically you release an episode of the cartoon -- and in that case it was cheaply and crappily done, and that's not the case here... But back then that's what you did. You did that, and you'd introduce a new character, like, "Here's this guy! By the way, you can buy this in stores!"

JT: That isn't quite the model, but from my point of view, when they suggested a cartoon series, it seemed like a brilliant idea. We wanted to bring new people to the Xbox. Basically, when you put something on TV, even if it's a small audience, TV-wise, it's a massive audience compared to computer games. You might bring some of these people back. To me, that was the interesting thing -- to expand our fanbase, really.

JC: I suppose in a way, the TV series does feed upon the promotional aspect of the animals in the game. A while ago, there was an episode on TV that introduced a yeti character, Magellan. You can't get that in Viva Piñata, but everyone was clamoring and clamoring for it, thinking it was an unlockable code or something. If we're lucky enough to do a sequel, you can pretty much guarantee that animals that you've seen in the TV series could be introduced. It's almost like an incentive thing, so you can see it there, and now you can try and get it in the garden.

It seems like if you were to follow that model exactly, you could have downloadable content, if you had built it in.

JT: They probably could have done that, I think. I also think that if you build a family-friendly title, you have to think value. I'm a parent myself, so I hate these things I can see that clearly put the clamps on the kids. That's going to feed back to the parents, and I never really wanted us to do that. I only wanted this to be a better value kind of prospect.

Yeah, because you've got to have all the Pokémon cards and all the Yu-Gi-Oh! cards, and make sure that you've got all of them.

JT: I'd have to wash down because I'd feel a bit dirty if I started going down that road!

Dirty with money!

JT: Yeah, perhaps we should do that! (laughs)

With Krome doing Party Animals, how much hands-on do you have with it?

JC: They send versions to us, and we have versions in test. I've looked at it quite a bit, since I'm kind of looking after all things Viva Piñata. I was working under Gregg Mayles before, but he's moved on to do something else, so I'm kind of overseeing all those kinds of things. I've got to play it a bit, but it isn't our project.

They send it to us as a courtesy and we're allowed to provide feedback, but it's not actually under our control. I have to say we're as interested as everybody else to see how that works out. It seemed to go down quite well at E3. People liked the look of it, and the idea of just being able to jump in and out anytime. That's really appealing.

JT: It's got a good reaction round the office as well. Although the designers have got to see it quite recently, the actual programmers haven't seen it until about a couple of weeks ago. And then we've got a build up, and pretty much we wanked off the rest of the day working. It was good fun! I think the one thing we're worried about is letting our franchises in someone else's hands, but I think they've done a good job.

And do they get to use many of your assets and things like that?

JC: Interestingly, they've gone to 4Kids themselves, and it's almost gone full circle. We give our assets to 4Kids for them to make their TV models, and now they've supplied their TV models to Krome to make their game.

JT: It's mostly because the models at 4Kids have got more joints, and more possibilities for more animations. The piñatas in our garden were very, I suppose, stylized in the way they walked, but when you're using the TV series ones, you can have more facial expressions, and, I suppose the piñatas don't have hands, but more hand movements to hold things, and so on.

JC: And there was a closer link between the cartoon and that game. They're releasing the second series of the cartoon series, and I think you'll find some tie-in things between the two. It's a closer link between the cartoon and the game, which we didn't quite have the first time.

Did the idea for making this game come from you guys?

JC: No, that was Microsoft. It was all on that side.

Makes sense. Let's see, what else do I need to ask you about..?

JC: Stop 'N' Swop! No, no, I'm joking. (laughs)

What was that?

JT: The infamous Stop 'N' Swop.

I don't know what that is.

JT: Well, that's all right then.

JC: That's OK. That's good!

No, now I want to know! What are you talking about?

JC: Well, there's nothing to tell, that's the funny thing. We're often asked about when we worked on the N64 -- that was some sort of planned system where you could wrench a cart out and pop a new one in, and it would retain information between the two.

Why would I have asked about that?

JC: Because that's the sort of thing we get asked!


One thing, though -- Perfect Dark Zero was a bit of an odd game as well. It wasn't quite up to the standards of the previous ones.

JC: I didn't say that. I didn't say anything like that. You said that!

Yeah, that's true. I said that. Do you have any idea why that might have been the case?

JC: Unofficially, on a personal level, I think what you saw was the game that needed to be out absolutely for that launch deadline. I think that's what you saw. But I've never worked on that team, and I don't know what the official company line is on that part. Personally when I'm asked, that's how I feel about it. I mean, it's done very well. They've sold...

JT: They've done over one and a half million sales.

JC: So it's done great business for us. And obviously that team's doing something else now. That and Kameo, they were both -- that deadline was absolute, and I don't know how well you know Rare, but we don't tend to do deadlines. (laughs)

Yeah, I'm aware of that! How long did Conker's Bad Fur Day take?

JT: That was about four and a half, five years, I think it was?

That went through a lot of incarnations.

JC: The first time round, yeah, and then the remake, what was that?

JT: It was two or three years.

Seriously?

JT: I think it started off as something different, though, and we started developing again.

JC: I think Microsoft registered an amount of interest for an Xbox remake, and then when the team came to do it, obviously they didn't want to just remake it, so they put all the multiplayer stuff in, which was a learning experience, because nobody had done that at Rare before. And that whole online and getting the machines to talk to each other and all that -- well, James is an expert -- but I think it was a bit of a shock to the system, wasn't it? (laughs)

A little surprise for everyone. Can we expect your next game to come out in 2013 or so?

JT: Hopefully our next game will be out...

JC: We'll be able to talk about something next year, we hope.

JT: Hopefully you'll see something from us before next Christmas.

I guess you guys are the team that's going to have to deal with deadlines?

JT: Yeah, we're getting better. We're getting better. I think since we've joined Microsoft the entire working structure has changed. Obviously there's been some growing pains in that respect. Being absorbed by such a large company, with its working practices, is going to take time to settle. I think it's got better.

Especially when you've existed in one way for so long.

JC: Yeah, but we've got a pretty young team. Most of the guys have only done one game, and we've only really worked together, so it's less of a burden for us to change over. I think we've coped with it really well. It's very, truly positive for the future.

There's a company culture sort of thing that has to be dealt with.

JC: Yeah. It's like now -- we never spoke to the press for ages about anything.

JT: Could've been court martialed for this in the past.

JC: But it's something that we have to do now. It's part of our job. So we're trying to grow and get better and modernize.

JT: Well no, I think we've had a community manager start in the last few months, and hopefully these things like this are going to get more frequent. We're going to get more contact not just with the press, but with the community as a whole. Mr. Pants has done a good job with the website, and I think it's expanding in the near future.

I think that's probably good enough, unless there's anything you want to mention.

JT: No?

JC: No. (laughs)

JT: I think we should plug the DS version of Piñata again.

Okay, let's do it! The DS is pretty much the only console I play, by the way. Pretty much. I hope you do a good job, because I want to play it.

JC: It's going to be brilliant!

JT: We were actually trying to get a copy to come out to play on the plane on the way over, but unfortunately they wouldn't allow us to do that. It does seem it's as addictive as the first game. I've got a collectaholic problem with my gaming.

That's the problem I have as well. I wish sometimes that people wouldn't do that to me. In Nintendo games for instance -- Super Mario Sunshine is like, "Here is your goal, but look at all those coins over there! Don't you want those coins? Don't you want to do extremely hard and somewhat mind-numbing things to get those?" I'm like, "Okay, I have to get those. I can't ignore those."

JC: I had to stop playing the Yoshi game for the DS -- Yoshi's Island 2. I had to stop playing that because you have to get so many flowers, so many red coins, so many normal coins...

It's too much! It's like, why rely on that to extend gameplay? It's kind of a crutch.

JT: We suffered from this during the N64 era. I'm sure people can point to certain platformers that we did and say, "I think they're trying to pad this out with collectathons." I think the entire industry had a backlash against that for a while, so I don't think we're the only ones.

It's different when you're collecting something that changes things. When you're collecting something that's new and it's different, or if it's a character that has different abilities or can do different things -- that's one thing that's not so bad, because then you're like, "Oh, I'm really getting something."

JT: It adds something to the game, yeah.

You're getting somewhere. But still, the whole obsessive-compulsive gaming thing is really just running wild. I bought Pokémon for the first time for the DS recently, and it's rough. I have to turn off part of my brain, because I know if I do all these weird things I can get the most amazing whatever anywhere, but I have to be like, "No, it's okay to just have these ones I have."

JT: I'm beginning to find that out from the plane ride over. I had to turn it off, because I was backtracking and backtracking just to find Pokémon X because I needed it.

It's rough. So don't do that to me, if you can possibly help it.

JT: Noted!

JC: Hopefully you'll see some new things from us. Already I think you're going to start seeing some -- you're not going to know what Rare does. It's going to be exciting to find out what we're doing next. I'm hoping that's what you're going to get in the future from us.

Excellent. Well, you've surprised me a lot of times. I don't think anyone expects to really know in advance what you're going to be doing.

JC: No, and it's certainly in the spirit of that's going to carry on I think as well, as far as I'm aware.

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