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A Rare Opportunity: On Piņatas, Microsoft and More


October 12, 2007 Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next
 

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.


Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

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