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Rare's Viva Pinata: Giving The World Buzzlegums And Fudgehogs

In this fascinating illustration-filled article, developer Rare explains the visual and design genesis of the Viva Pinata game franchise, from the original design document through concept sketches, mobile, PDA, and Xbox iterations to the finished Xbox 360 game.

December 13, 2007

12 Min Read

Author: by Rare staff

[In this fascinating illustration-filled article, developer Rare explains the visual and design genesis of the Viva Pinata game franchise, from the original design document through concept sketches, mobile, PDA, and Xbox iterations to the finished Xbox 360 game.]

Part One: Origins

On December 1, 2006, a brightly-colored garden simulator for Xbox 360 finally hit the shelves in Rare's homeland, the United Kingdom. This game was, of course, called Viva Piñata. Since its launch, a dedicated and committed group of fans have worked tirelessly to find every secret, discover every Wildcard and perfect their digital green-fingered skills.

To mark a year of VP in the UK (and slightly more elsewhere) Rare presents some rarely-seen artwork spanning the game's entire lifetime. And so we dive straight into Part 1: entitled "Origins", this slide shows the real beginnings of Viva Piñata.

On the right-hand side is the original design document written by Rare founder Tim Stamper many, many years ago. Although short, it still puts forward the core gameplay seen in today's Viva Piñata: gardening, animals and the ability to trade. During this early period, Xbox Live had not really taken off to the extent that you see today and so the chosen platforms were mobile phones and PDAs. The screenshot hearkens back to this time.

If you look closely at the image, you can see that there were already trees, flowers and ponds available to the discerning gardener. As for animals, a pony and a warren of rabbits play by the water's edge. The more eagle-eyed may also be able to spot a character or two borrowed from Banjo. When concepting a new product it can be prudent to borrow assets wherever possible to get things up and running quickly.

This second image provides a closer look at the animals in that screenshot. On the right of the image are Ryan's concept sketches. His first batch of animals was based around simple cartoon characters with a pastel color spin and, as you can see, don't resemble the piñatas that you know and smash today at all.

In the main image you can find a cute little bunny being shadowed by a larger pink horse (or pony, hard to tell). These both made it to the final cut but with drastic changes - the rabbit alone changed color, style, posture and size. But this was still too conventional, and easy to lose in the mass of games that featured animals at the time. In his bid to find a truly unique style, Ryan went back to the drawing board and Part Two will demonstrate what he came up with.

Part Two: Evolution

Not fully happy with his pastel creations, concept artist Ryan took a step back and began drawing inspiration from many places. He looked at ancient cave paintings with their simplified shapes, Aboriginal patterns and the art found in Aztec culture.

He then progressed to looking at the Mexican Day of the Dead festival with all the associated costumes and bright colors. At this point memories of childhood were sparked, and visions of piñatas gave him an idea.

So the Piñatas were born, with their own look: something different, something new. These Piñatas were made up of strong and simple shapes decorated with bright, distinctive patterns. If someone were to create a new species of Piñata today, these rules would still have to be followed so that every one maintains the same look and feel.

Flanking the group you see above are the Ponocky and the Rashberry, both pretty much unchanged from early drawings. The central two, however, are both Sours, but you wouldn't recognize them as such by today's standards. Rather than having red and black coats, Sours were initially differentiated from their milder cousins by their darker patterns, pointy teeth and angry red eyes.

We started with over 160 creatures, and Ryan lovingly crafted and colored each one numerous times to come up with the final image they deserved. Again, you can see that the Chippo and Elephanilla (top row) have hardly changed, whereas the Fizzlybear has had a new paint job. The Mallowolf (lower left) has even changed shape since the last slide, showing how much we wanted to perfect these bundles of joy even at this stage.

Some of the initial batch have, of course, hit the cutting room floor due to various reasons, but you can still see them peeking out from this style sheet. The rattlesnake can be seen in both sketch and final form, accompanied by the cane toad and hamster. Most creepy, however, is the original Whirlm. Hidden at the bottom of the sheet, it actually has no eyes.

Part Three: Outsiders

What you see here is the initial idea for non-resident Piñatas. Currently, any Piñata who doesn't count your garden as their home can be seen in monochrome form, but still distinguishable by shape and size.

In the original plan, non-resident Piñatas would retain their colors and markings while being indistinguishable by shape, only morphing into full form in the garden. All Piñata subsections, e.g. birds, quadrupeds, small things, slimy things etc. would have their own non-resident shape. On this slide you can see it next to their final form. The Mallowolf and Macaraccoon were almost just jellybeans on stilts; the Parrybo and Crowla retain some distinctive bird features. The cut duo of rattlesnake and cane toad both look like baby salamanders, while the Whilrm and Taffly appear to have grown ears. Pleasingly, the Whirlm has gained an eye. Although he still looks sinister.

One of the main reasons this feature never made it to the final game was because it would require yet another model for every Piñata. Given the overheads we had already, trying to free up the space would have been very stressful.

Let's turn our attention to those in the garden who attempt to help you. The three Helpers in the centre were more casualties of the chopping block: despite making it a good way through the development cycle, in the end their services were no longer required and P45s were handed out.

Their job was to deal with species-specific queries. The chap to the upper left knew all there was to know about lizards; the girl with Flutterscotch wings could tell you about insects; and the one all dressed up with nowhere to go in the centre was your resource for birds. They represent what the Journal used to be. You'd talk to any of them just as you'd talk to Seedos or Leafos, but this was nowhere near as convenient as direct access to the book so for usability reasons they were let go.

The other two Helpers survived, but in very different ways. The Stork Helper on the right is how Storkos once looked, wearing an actual stork hat rather than her now-preferred egg headwear. The Postman is what you get when... well, perhaps it's best to not to know. We have a suspicion something became detached when this was cooked up. He/she was supposed to float through your garden, attaching balloons to packages you wished to send. Needless to say it didn't really work, but it is one of the real gems of the discarded ideas.

Part Four: Offspring

They may just appear to be smaller versions of their grown-up selves, but these Piñatas are some of the cutest things ever conceived. How could anyone not want the Baby Hen in their garden?

Rather than being shrunken adults, these little darlings were going to be custom-made Piñatas with tiny bodies, large heads and even larger eyes, decked out in pastel shades of their adult colors. The slide also reveals a few of our early attempts at naming -- note the baby "Padger" and "Vulpin". We had some slightly catchier ideas during the later stages.

Central, as if babysitting, is Toco, the long-lost pet of Dedos/Leafos. This bird would sit on her shoulder and intermittently fly outside the garden to retrieve seeds. There have been many ideas of how best to deliver seeds to the players: before Toco, any visiting bird would fly into the garden with a seed in its beak and you'd have to tap it to release the seed. This, however, relied on your garden being friendly to birds and so a more consistent source in the form of Toco came along. Unfortunately, Toco him/herself was eventually put to one side too with the advent of Seedos. Or so Leafos claims, but you know what she's like with the truth.

Now let's step back from the garden for a moment. Not everything created is done for in-game purposes. Despite art being one of the first things locked down during the run-up to release, there's still an awful lot of work to be done right up to and beyond the shipping date thanks to all the promotional and commercial material associated with the product.

What you see here is not just the most horrendously organized slide in the deck but a sample of these items. Moving from left to right, at the top is a Paulie Pretztail costume design, first used at the Santa Monica Piñata party, and below that an early design for the Viva Piñata faceplate.

Pushing onwards we find another Santa Monica Piñata in the huge form of a 10-meter tall Horstachio, and cowering in its shadow is an early toy Cocoadile prototype. Beneath this pair are three alternate Viva Piñata disc designs, each taking inspiration from a specific Piñata.

Finally, on the right is the original concept for the Limited Edition case, a prototype Fizzlybear Piñata and one of many coloring sheets handed out to children at the launch party.

Part Five: Moving On

Now back to a time when consoles were slightly chunkier, and this shot of Viva Piñata when its home was the original Xbox. At this point we didn't have the brute force to push today's spangly graphics.

Everything was that little bit flatter and bolder -- the papery effect that truly distinguishes the Piñatas wasn't made possible until we started messing around with the extra power of Xbox 360. Between the Piñatas are a handful of Helpers who have been through some changes since Xbox 1. Even though some of them didn't make the cut, you can still see the stylistic changes that were made during the generational jump.

Among them is Dastardos during his "low polygon count" phase. He's stayed much the same with one exception: when this picture was taken, he was transported around the garden by the large orange balloon attached to his back. Next to him is Dedos, or to give her full title, Verde Dedos. You can see how her much larger mask used to cover her entire face.

Some have wondered why "Dedos" became "Leafos". When creating a global franchise many things have to be taken into consideration, not least of which is language. "Verde Dedos" is "Green Fingers" in Spanish, and while the Spanish isn't a problem, using a common phrase as a main character can be.

Eventually, Dedos took inspiration from the leaves on her mask and changed her name to Leafos by deed poll. Summary: legal reasons. While it was unfortunate that a good name was lost, the "-os" was picked up and used to name the entire family of Helpers within the garden. Given "Storkos", "Seedos" and "Dastardos", you may have guessed that already.

And the blue-headed chap on the chest of drawers is a small boy in a monkey costume, who (along with his mute monkey servant who would carry him and his wares around) used to be the only shop in the game before Lottie et al moved in.

We end with a home-made Rashberry by Ryan, embodying the dedication behind Viva Piñata. Not willing to settle for "yeah, it looks like a Piñata", Ryan took his concept art and turned it into a real-life version. The little porker wanders around Manor Park to this very day, avoiding the Cannoñata and small children with sticks.

The team had a lot of fun making this game and, since its launch, has taken just as much pleasure in seeing every one of you discovering VP for yourselves. Every design document, texture, model and line of code has been worthwhile for that very reason. Hopefully you've enjoyed these snapshots of VP's history: our thanks to you all, and Happy Birthday Viva Piñata!

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