A year after release and retail shelves are thick with Xbox 360 titles. But if there's a gap in the product line-up, it's for titles aimed at a younger audience. Sure, there are plenty of games making use of popular licenses - but barely any targeting the kids market with original IP.
Developed by Twycross-based studio Rare, Viva PiÃ±ata is Microsoft's first big push to entice younger gamers to Xbox 360. With a development period that has included collaboration with 4Kids Entertainment on a spin-off TV show, neither developer nor publisher has any qualms about making a game for children. And why should they? It's a market clearly under-exploited on Microsoft's next-gen system.
GamesIndustry.biz visited Rare and talked with lead designer Gregg Mayles and production director Simon Farmer to discuss why Microsoft needs to open up to a younger audience, the lessons learned from working with another creative medium, and extending the life of a product through downloadable content.
GamesIndustry.biz: Viva PiÃ±ata has been out in the US for a couple of weeks now. How's the feedback so far? Are you pleased to finally see it out on the shelves?
Gregg Mayles: Feedback has been really, really positive actually. We've looked on a few forums and some people are saying they waited until the shop was about to shut before sneaking in to buy it. All these hardcore Halo players buying what it perceived to be a kids game.
I think that's just the start of it. The more people we can get to give a chance and see it's a good game irrespective of who people think it's aimed at, the better.
Simon Farmer: I think people recognise at the end of the day, despite the fact that people can be put off by the outer shell, that when they actually sit down and play it, it's a really addictive game.
You never know when you kick the game out the doors what response you're going to get. You want the best and when you hear positive comments it really reassures you.
Do you think there's going to be difficulty convincing a more mature audience to pick up Viva PiÃ±ata?
Simon Farmer: From looking at the visuals, yes. But it will be a gradual thing that will spread through word of mouth. It's happened before with some of our previous games like GoldenEye. At the time most movie licenses were seen as being an average or substandard game. But when people started talking about it, it just sold and sold and became this sales curve that continued.
When people are talking about Viva PiÃ±ata and admitting it's a good game - males admitting it's a good game - yes, I think it will travel through word of mouth.
There's barely any original IP aimed at a younger consumer on the Xbox 360. Do you feel that you're leading the pack, and the success of Viva PiÃ±ata may influence how Microsoft treats the market in the future?
Simon Farmer: I don't think Microsoft will look at PiÃ±ata and if it doesn't hit the sales predictions think, 'That's it, that's the end of it,' because it's got to expand its user base. There's only so far you can go with the Halo and Gears of War audience.
If it wants to expand, it's got to continue to invest in that market, and it recognises that. Viva PiÃ±ata is a huge gamble and a huge investment for Microsoft so it's got to put its money where its mouth is.
Is there pressure? Certainly, but there's always pressure. It's an emerging market for Microsoft, whereas where we were before with Nintendo, the younger audience was its core market. And that's one of the main reasons why Microsoft bought us in the first place.
Do you think the younger market on Xbox 360 is under-exploited?
Simon Farmer: Yes. When you get a successful title like a Grand Theft Auto, you see other people jump on the bandwagon, and that's the way some publishers tend to operate. Because we're first-party it's easier for us to take risks and it's good that Microsoft is allowing us to take those risks.
Do you think that market is under-exploited because the games industry has fought so long to tell a mainstream audience that games aren't just for kids? Has the industry done itself a disservice by banging that drum?
Simon Farmer: I think it's partly due to the people writing about videogames. I used to do PR in the early Nineties and the journalists from that era have become immune, numb, and jaded.
But there are very few games developers working on original IP for a younger audience, although there's plenty of quick movie tie-ins and cartoon licenses...
Simon Farmer: Well, I can only talk about it from our perspective. Rare has always targeted a broader audience and that's the same with Viva PiÃ±ata The initial impact is that it's aimed at a younger audience, but we're still trying to hit a massive audience. It's something we have and will always pursue - we'll always target the broadest audience.
You've worked on Viva PiÃ±ata with 4Kids Entertainment, which has developed the TV show alongside your game. How has that relationship been and how did you find it working with another visual medium?
Gregg Mayles: It's really nice to work with creative people who are equally as creative as we are. You occasionally get fireworks but if you don't have friction you wouldn't end up with such a great product. I was surprised how easily we both clicked, and some of the ideas 4Kids put forward we incorporated into the game.
It worked so well that it's got to a point where our contact with them is a lot less now. They've got a very good grasp of what actually makes a good game and they could almost go ahead and write the scripts without us. It's less and less work each time.
Did you find that the two companies understood each industry? Have you learned more about how the TV sector works and vice-versa?
Gregg Mayles: A little bit. The danger was, and we always said this straight from the start, that 4Kids should do its own TV show and we won't put too many constraints on them because they understand the TV market. We understand the games market and we didn't want a product that sat halfway between the two and be some kind of wishy-washy thing. I think if we took our eye off the ball and tried to understand too much what they were trying to do, it would have been detrimental to the game.
Simon Farmer: I think both sides have respected each other's territory and realised that each is a specialist in its own area, which has worked out really well.
Do you think games companies and TV, film and licensor's could improve products by working more closely together?
Simon Farmer: I think it can certainly help a product in the long run if there's a better understanding between the two. But that's a big leap to go from where we are now. It's hard enough to create a game in-house, let alone trying to do it in conjunction with a TV or film studio.
Gregg Mayles: It's very difficult when you've created something to get people to share the same vision. To get them to adhere to the same quality bar that you've set for yourselves is sometimes really difficult.
People will do work that they think is good enough but our expectations are high, so we expect everything to match that. When it doesn't it becomes a real issue. It takes a lot of time to make sure everything is to the level that we're happy with. To expand that over multiple products would take all our time and we'd never have time to do something new.
So it gets to the point where you have to hand Viva PiÃ±ata over and trust the TV company to deal with it?
Gregg Mayles: I think so, but you always have to maintain some degree of control otherwise you might end up with a product that you're not happy with. Our role is to try and educate in the process of what Viva PiÃ±ata is all about and hopefully teach them enough to be able to then go ahead and do something of the quality that we would want from ourselves.
That's been the case with 4Kids. The TV show they've done, if we had done that ourselves, we'd certainly be really happy with it.
Now and in the future, we'd want to get everything to the same quality bar. It's too easy to let your standards slip and with one bad product amongst a lot of related products - everyone remembers the bad one.
Is this something you'd like to carry on doing - collaborate with another industry or another form of media?
Simon Farmer: What we've done so far with 4Kids, we're very happy with, and if we could continue that with any other IP then we certainly would do.
Do you feel you learnt from the experience? Has Rare grown as a company because of this collaboration?
Simon Farmer: I don't know if we'd say Rare is a better company. It's not changed the way we develop a game but it's certainly changed the way we look at IP. The PiÃ±ata franchise changed with 4Kids interaction and made us think about the game slightly differently - focusing more on the story - these things that weren't necessarily at the forefront when we began working on the game.
Gregg Mayles: I don't think we'd ever chase a deal like this to start with because you compromise what the original concept was. What happened with 4Kids complimented what we were doing and it was the right thing at the right time.
In the future it might be some other method or collaboration with another medium or format. If you try to create a franchise, as some people have accused us of doing - this money-making scheme that Microsoft has come up with - nothing could be further from the truth.
It started off as a three man prototype project and we had no idea what it was going to be like. We stuck three people on it for a year, and if at the end of that year it turned into nothing at least we tried that route.
But it's been a snowball that has grown and grown. We've added to it and complimented it rather than saying from the start, 'We'll have a TV show and we'll have some fluffy toys.' If you think like that you compromise your original concept.
What's your take on downloadable content?
Simon Farmer: From our perspective it's all relatively new to us because we've always been cartridge based. The jury's still out as far as we're concerned, we don't know what the best possible model is for us.
In terms of PiÃ±ata there is specific stuff on the way. The game was always set up as that style of game, especially when it first began on mobile. There's stuff to transfer, you can share your PiÃ±ata with your friends. That was always part of the vision up to three or four years ago.
Gregg Mayles: That vision of sending PiÃ±ata to each other was around before Xbox Live even existed. That's why it began life on a handheld PDA devise because we wanted one machine that could communicate with another. The key part of the concept was that you get your animals and you can swap them. Then along comes Xbox Live which is exactly what we're looking for.
We've got plenty of ideas for what we can do with downloadable content because PiÃ±ata is such a unique game. But as Simon says, the jury is still out. It's almost pointless doing a huge amount of work at this point because if it's not going to be successful you may as well put that effort into making a new game.
What was the take up like on the downloadable content for Kameo: Elements of Power?
Simon Farmer: There was a reasonable take-up on the free content, but the rest of it was reasonably limited. And that was probably because the initial purchases of the 360 were the hardcore fans who perhaps wouldn't have been drawn to Kameo, so were less likely to download that premium content. For Rare that wasn't a good way of gauging the market, as far as I'm concerned.
I'm probably a good gauge internally because people look at me as being thrifty when it comes to spending money. There's no way we're going to be in that position where we feel like we're ripping the consumer off. We'll have to look at it, and how it pans out with the other games on 360.
Simon Farmer is production director and Gregg Mayles is lead designer on Viva PiÃ±ata for Rare. Interview by Matt Martin.