According to Justin Cook, Viva Pinata's designer, they were just mucking about. "It's not a personal attack," he says, stifling a laugh. "It's just something funny that was happening at the time and, well, we thought..."
They thought they should include a load-screen that said, 'Use the d-pad for real-time tool-change and wallop Seedos' weak spot for massive seedage!'
It's an impersonal attack that's sure to see Genji's widely mocked 'giant enemy crab' - accidental star of Sony's E3 2006 press conference - rolling over in its grave (after all, that's how you attack its weak spot in the first place). "We certainly bear no ill will toward anybody," says Cook, who's given up stifling and settled into a grin. "We just thought it was funny."
Cook's quite relaxed. So's everyone, in fact. Lee Schuneman and Steve Brand guide us around Rare's Twycross studio, happily stopping to tell us about the giant banner in the lobby, which Nintendo bought them, rather than endlessly droning on about the game. The staff in the "barn" - Viva Pinata's home studio - admit to spending much of their time at the moment reading forums to see what the reaction's like, and seem happy to stand around chatting with me about the PS3 and Wii launches. Production staffer Chris Sutherland (lead programmer on Donkey Kong Country, doncha know) has enough time to show me the "style guide" that Rare's TV show partner 4Kids has produced to help people get the pinata to look right in magazines and promotional items. Musician Grant Kirkhope keeps us entertained for ages, walking us through the difference between the synthesised music he produced and the Prague philharmonic efforts that went into the game (he also has an excellent habit of talking about something and then asking the others if he's allowed to). Even higher-ups Simon Farmer and Gregg Mayles, who decline to be photographed when we talk to them ("we're not popstars"), sink happily into the sofa and address us with the confidence of men who've been surveying a critical landscape cluttered with mountainous superlatives.
They're relaxed because Viva Pinata is finished (it's out in the US, and due out on 1st December in Europe). They're relaxed because it's been scoring very well (I gave it 8/10, as have quite a few other people). They're relaxed because people seem to be getting what it is ("a subtle blend of resource management and Origin of Species" and "a welcome return to form", if you ask me, and not just the 'kids game' some have billed it as). And they're relaxed because, even though our tour of their home is being chaperoned by Microsoft, they're not feeling the weight of the record-breaking $375 million the Xbox giant paid for them in 2002. Like the gamer who plays Viva Pinata, Rare's operating under reasonable constraints - but they don't mind them, they're nothing sinister, and they don't spoil the fun. It's still their garden.
Viva Pinata first came about in 2002 and not, as you might perhaps expect, because Microsoft got on the blower one day and said, 'make a game for kids'. "We wanted to do something fresh," says Cook. "The original idea I had actually came from Tim Stamper - he wrote a little design document, I was just being moved up from testing, I was passed the design document and then kind of set off with a little team to see if we could make the idea work." That team of three people was given a year to make Stamper's "Your Garden" idea into something worthy of full production. "We were working on a PocketPC at the time, because that was the only platform that had regular Internet access and we wanted the trading aspect of the game - that was kind of important."
The broader theme was that you had a garden to customise and share, but you weren't in control of the animals that made their home there - something that remains the case in the final game. "All the way along we wanted the animals to be spontaneous and wild," says Cook, "so they come in and do what they want to do in your garden - that atmosphere almost makes stories when you're playing the game. Things go through your head - 'he's doing that on purpose! He's just taken a dislike to me, and he's doing this and that and the other.'" In the final game, you can rename animals, customise them (with dustbin lid hats if you like) and 'direct' them to go to certain places, but it's up to them whether they follow orders. They still cause mischief.
And contrary to popular myth, the game didn't start off with pinatas in it at all. "We just had animals to start with, but we wanted a unique look and we wanted something brand new we hadn't seen before. Our concept artist, Ryan Stevenson, came up with the pinata idea because it was a unifying theme," says Cook. "But once we'd got those pinatas, that then fed into the gameplay, and changed the game." In the final version, for example, 'sour' pinatas spill evil red sweets onto the lawn, in the manner that real pinata do when kids whack them at parties, and friendly pinata fall ill if they eat one of the sour sweets, necessitating an expensive visit from the doctor, and forcing you to deal with the threat of intruders before everything goes to, er, rot.
The pinata style also gave the game a very fetching aesthetic, but at a cost. Even when Microsoft came along with its first Xbox platform, it was tough work getting that ruffly paper skin - evolved from the fur effect Rare's spent many years perfecting, and very processor intensive - to work throughout the garden. "Before we swapped to Xbox we ported the game over to PC, but we had some difficulties because we loved the graphics and we didn't want to compromise them," says Cook. "We were going to do it on the Xbox originally, but you could choose one pinata and have that effect on it and then the others would just be smooth. When we reached the 360 they could all have it and we all went 'eeeeeeeeeee!'" (A good noise, for the record.)
Microsoft's introduction also helped bring about another angle - the matching TV show, produced by 4Kids Entertainment in the US. 26 episodes have been made (each a two-parter), and production director Simon Farmer tells us later that a second series is in early pre-production. The show's particularly interesting because it highlights the relative lack of storyline and actual characters in the game - the idea was always to have you in charge, and when 4Kids came in they actually had to have a straw poll in the Rare office to nominate in-game pinatas to be developed into speaking roles. The relationship, says Cook, flourished quite naturally, but its complementary nature was almost an accident - the original reason for the absence of a player-character in Viva Pinata was not some sort of deliberate reaction to Rare's origins in character-driven platform yarns; it was because there wasn't enough room on the PocketPC or Xbox screen.
Gregg Mayles, lead designer at Rare, tells us that the relationship between the game and the TV show wasn't just complementary, but occasionally proved fruitful in an artistic sense. Pinata Central, for example - the factory that sends you in-game loan requests for pinata - was a result of the TV show giving something back. "That was never in our original concept," says Mayles. "[4Kids] came in and saw the potential... Having collaboration, it opened up all these things we maybe wouldn't have thought of, or would've taken us a while to get to."
Meanwhile on the TV front, 4Kids developed areas Rare had been leaving alone, like the bad guy Professor Pester and his minions. "He was originally in the game, but he had a kind of minor role, and ruffians would come in and break things, but that's all they did in the game because that's all we needed them to do," says Mayles. "But obviously 4Kids have taken that and turned him into this great incompetent bad guy - we're really pleased with what they've done."
With a 4Kids TV series and a visual style that's almost diametrically opposed to Gears of War - the game it came out opposite in the US - Viva Pinata has been pegged as a kids' title in some areas. But given Rare's history of saccharine visuals tied to addictive, often complex gameplay, haven't they sort of proved that games can be universally appealing? Is there really a massive difference between these demographics? "No, I don't think so at all," says Cook. "We tried to make a game that everyone could enjoy." Was there child-specific testing? "Microsoft were able to give us information about kids playing the game, so a lot of the tutorial stuff you see was kind of influenced by them play-testing with children. And, you know, the biggest complaint was, 'we don't know what to do' [laughs]. Which is why it's kind of text-heavy at the start."
But in general? "We just kind of trusted our own instinct on what was fun. I think quite a lot of the team get bored quite quickly anyway, so if it kept us entertained for long enough then we thought it was, you know, okay for a kid who's had too much sugar." It's the first part of that sentence that's perhaps key: it's about what they felt was entertaining. "We worked on the game for four years, with however many people on this team at any one time," says Cook (around 50, we heard - a third fresh-faced, and the rest migrating from projects like Kameo), "and they've got to be enjoying what they're doing, or you're never going to get the game you wanted at the end. People are surprised by the depth, but really we had to keep ourselves amused as much as anybody else, and making it for children was just a matter of making it simple for them to play rather than..." He pauses. "Everyone likes the simple controls, a game that's easy to play. I don't think they're exclusive [to kids] - it's just almost out of fashion at the moment."
Although in some respects it's not. Indeed, Viva Pinata actually has something in common with Gears in this regard - both games have won plaudits for their accessibility. Gregg Mayles argues that it has a lot of the same audience in common too, and perhaps the accessibility factor is a key to that. "You look on the forums and it's quite amusing," he notes. "There are people saying, 'I waited until the shop was just about shut and snuck in and bought it' and 'I took it out and played it when there was no one to see me'. All these kind of hardcore Halo players, buying what is perceived to be a kids' game."
Or perhaps the key thing, as Cook puts it, is that "you take as much from the game as you want to take". "That's why it works for the kids as well - my kids are only five, and they sit and play the game and they don't get very far but they're actually just having fun messing around with the six worms and two sparrows and a mouse. And they're perfectly happy giving them all names and then clicking them on each other and telling stories and stuff. But then if you know about games, you can start finding more and more stuff about it. We just tried to put as much there as you could to discover - that was the other thing as well, we wanted to get back to games where you didn't know everything about the game before you even put the disc in the drive."
Something that people who do know games have also praised is the superb balance - the recurrent hook of having something going on in one area that feeds into another, which feeds into another, and another, until three hours have disappeared and you've written off most of the evening. A lot of that's down to the strength of the tools produced for the development team, says Cook. "Virtually everything you can see in the game was designed to be tweaked and adjusted," he explains. "And it was very, very much designed so idiots who have no computer knowledge could change things as much as they needed to to make it play. So they set us up with a great set of tools, and then we rued the day that we'd asked for so many tools because we spent hours trawling through sheets of numbers and adding one and taking five off... but I think that was the secret to that."
Customisation, though, has proved to be a double-edged sword in the aftermath of the game's release, with some sections of the Xbox community decrying the practice of releasing premium downloadable accessories that appear, at least, to be stored on the disc and not on Xbox Live itself. "I know what you're talking about, and I can't... to me it's not really an issue, because if you don't want it don't buy it," says Cook. And in fairness to him, you can at least preview these accessories by looking at the graphic that accompanies them on Marketplace. It's pretty obvious whether you'll want them or not. "The other thing was we knew we wanted to go after these new people, and you know 360 sells in two formats, so if you haven't got a hard drive where do you put all the stuff you downloaded? So that kind of solves that problem - some of it's already on the disc." We're not sure the Internet will like that one, but you do have to have some sympathy - after all, all of Pinata's Xbox Live options are available to Silver users, rather than forcing people to adopt the subscription-based Gold service.
What's more, you get the impression that Rare had a say in this - and you also get the impression that they had a say in how the game has been marketed in general. It comes back, again, to that sense that it's more their garden than Microsoft's. For example, Cook tells us, the game doesn't rely on the hard disk the way many others do. "We knew if we wanted to attract this new audience of people, they were going to go in and buy the cheapest machine they can and the game... Quite a few of the decisions we made were like that," he tells us. "If you want to sell a game to families you've got to make it good value to families, and I strongly believe we've done a good job of making a great-value game." They even had a hand in the box design - the curvy-topped special-edition one. It was designed so mums and dads would have no trouble finding the game if the little ones asked for it. "As far as we're concerned that's what we wanted," Cook says of the box. "It isn't like all the other boxes here [he points at imaginary shelving and counts them off]. Axe, goblin, wizard, ninja... Look! Gay animals!"
They fully intend to support those gay animals too, and by the sound of it not just with downloadable hats. "When we designed the game, we designed the game as a whole. What you'll see when you get the DLC is they're not bolt-on bits - they're part of the original game that we wouldn't have had time to make, or time to test. It's just at the end of it all, what you'll get is our complete game as we designed it originally," says Cook. "There'll be some features we've already started working on that you'll be able to have; and then there's some other stuff as well, some new stuff as well." New pinata is the obvious suggestion - something that's hinted at during our tour - but what about the option to allow people to visit their friends' gardens? Was that part of the original "whole" plan? "Very much so," says Cook, laughing nervously. Will we see it added to the game? He pauses. "You'll have to wait and see. But yes. We had plans that we wanted you to be able to share your garden more than you can at the moment."
Viva la Rare volition!
Right now though, Rare is relaxing, and watching how the game does in the US and, on 1st December, Europe. What though, when the holidays are over and the figures are in, will be next? Is Rare to form part of Microsoft's "Games for Windows" putsch, for example? "From Microsoft's view they just want to see how popular the 360 game is," producer Steve Brand offers, "and then obviously future plans will then be pursued I suppose." We joke about there being a secret PC team lurking in a guarded office somewhere. "We'll stick to doing what we do best and that will be console," he adds. "Unless we had a really, really great idea for something," says Cook, skewering his friend's deft handling of the subject. "I mean, that's the thing - if somebody had a great idea for a project on a PC and we took it to Microsoft I'm sure that would be okay." Brand leaps back in. "But this is... We're a first party for 360. They want us to drive that platform, so that's where they want most of our attention focused." Naturally.
How well the game does will also then tie into whether Rare develops more downloadable content (Simon Farmer later tells us that "the jury's still out" on DLC for Rare), and indeed if there's to be a sequel. "I think everyone that worked on the game would probably say yes because I think it's been quite an enjoyable process," says Brand, "but again it's all down to success in the meanwhile."
One person at the Pinata party who doesn't appear to be having much success though is the lowly beggar, who occasionally wanders onto your plot of land and asks for some money. I typically beat him with a spade. I tell Rare this, and ask what he's for. "Well look, if you don't know the secret of the beggar I'm not going to tell you now am I?" says Cook, convincing me I now need to start the game over and look after the poor bastard. I protest though. I like the beggar. "You didn't like him enough not to hit him, did you?" No, but then he wanted my money, and I didn't have a lot of money that day, and I couldn't just walk past him into the Tube station. Errrr. "I feel sorry for the beggars on your road to the tube," says Cook. I don't hit them with spades, I counter. "But it's okay to do it in the game?" So, I say, suddenly feeling the mighty power of the pullquote throbbing in my dictaphone, you're saying you designed the beggar to encourage people to hit beggars? Is that it? Is it? "I've never hit a beggar! You're not supposed to hit a beggar," says Cook, thoughtfully. Well, trying not to cry as my word-daggers slice into his ears, obviously. "I should probably stop talking now."
Indeed. And remember, kids: use the beggar to target Rare's weak spot for massive damage! It's the only language they speak.
Viva Pinata is due out exclusively on Xbox 360 from 1st December. The 4Kids TV show is currently airing in the US, and we're told that we may see it over here in "early 2007".