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Q&A: Krome's Davis On The Pinata Franchise, Australia Dev Scene

Australia's favorable exchange rate and strong development heritage has made it an attractive proposition for publishers, and Krome Studios (Viva Piñata: Party Animals) lead designer Cameron Davis talks to Gamasutra about working with Rare and Micr
On the other side of the world from the US, Australia's favorable exchange rate and strong development heritage has made it an attractive proposition for publishers. As a result, Krome Studios have worked on a diverse range of IP including Spyro the Dragon (for Sierra) and the recently released Viva Piñata: Party Animals for Microsoft. Krome Studios lead designer Cameron Davis talks to Gamasutra about working with Rare and Microsoft's IP, and the positive aspects of choosing to develop in Australia. Can you talk about what you're working on now? Cameron Davis: That's still under wraps. We're helping with this cool project that's going to be announced, I think, at E3. It's a really exciting time, actually. There are four games coming from Krome this year; two of them have been announced, the other two are still coming. We've got Hellboy coming out in a couple of months, and we've got the Wii, PSP and PS2 versions of Force Unleashed, which I know a lot of people are excited about, especially the Wii version. Did you guys find that your stock rose after the Piñata project? CD: I think it surprised a lot of people, that we could do that. I think we surprised ourselves, because traditionally, Krome has been not that strong in minigames. When we first approached the idea of doing minigames, a lot of people internally went, "Mmm... Dunno..." Because we had minigames in Ty, and a whole group of other games, and they weren't as polished as the rest of the game. But, "Here's something with 40-odd minigames, let's do it! And we can do it in a year!" It was very ambitious. I think Piñata put us on the map, and especially Spyro. I think a lot of people were very surprised at the direction that we took Spyro. And it did pretty well; we sold over 2 million of the first game, which surprised a lot of people. Did you guys ship a sequel to that? CD: Yeah. Yeah, we just did the sequel, The Eternal Night, which... It's been received pretty well. It's selling really well. Something that interested me with Piñata is that we talked to some of the guys from Rare and they said that you guys used assets from the TV show rather than the first game. CD: Yeah. We had to. A lot of the reviews actually said that, like, Rare did the graphics, and Rare did the engine. NO. They helped a lot. They sent us all their assets and everything, and they were a huge help, and they gave us some advice, and it was so nice to work with them, but... The characters in the [original] Piñata game don't have knees. They never run; they can't stand up, or emote like they can in the TV show. And we wanted to make it more like the TV show, with them singing, and running, so we had to rebuild all the models. We had to rebuild everything. We didn't actually use the models from the cartoon, but they were based a lot on what they did. We built everything from scratch ourselves. Did you get any cooperation from the cartoon? CD: Yeah! They gave us all their models, that we used as reference, but we didn't actually use them. We used a lot of their location sets as reference. Again, we had to rebuild them all so they'd run on a 360, because they did really high detail stuff. And all the voice work. They were awesome. We gave them a whole heap of lines, and they did their own thing with it, which is so really nice of them. And they did the intro cartoon. When did you start that project? CD: Officially, development began October '06, but we first started talking to them at E3 '06. So when you started development, the first game hadn't shipped yet? CD: That's right. In fact, when we first started, we got approached by Microsoft, to have a think about it. And all they would tell us was the word Piñata. They said, "Piñata. Party game." And this was even before the Rare game had been announced, so we had no idea. We had to come up with something, and eventually we saw what Rare were doing, and thankfully we were really excited by that. It's curious, because the property evolved from the original game, the cartoon has kind of a different feel, and then you guys had to kind of incorporate all that. How did that work out for you? CD: That was a really weird juggling act, because we wanted to stay true to the Piñata feel. We wanted it to look just as good as the Rare game, because that is such a high benchmark, and Rare did such a fantastic job on that. And then you have to consider the cartoon world. So, basically, visually we had to make it look like the Rare game, but as far as aesthetics go, and as far as the ambiance goes, it had to be more like the cartoon. It had to be wacky, and people talk to each other. What we decided to do was, because there's only one environment in the Rare game, we went, "OK, if you look up, you can see those mountains with the snow, and you can see that pirate ship in the distance? OK, let's make a level based on that. Let's make a level based on those mountains." So we had to invent those things as if Rare had done them. Did you work with Rare directly? CD: We never dealt directly with Rare. We've got a couple of emails back and forth, second hand, going, "We think you guys should do this with these races," or, "This minigame should be like this." And we took that on board, but ultimately it was our game; Microsoft trusted us with that, and went, "Your guys are doing the next Piñata game -- direct where this is going." And the cartoon followed our lead. Which was really exciting, because after a while, the cartoon people were like, "Well can we have your assets? Can we have what you guys are doing in these minigames? Because we want to base the cartoon on your game." I'm like, "Cool!" They ended up doing two episodes of the cartoon based on our game. They used our race, because there are foot races in between the events, and they used that for one cartoon; and they used two or thee of the minigame events as plots for the cartoon. I was like "Yes!" Have you felt any concern with the fact that Viva Piñata didn't perform as well as they had hoped? Were you worried about that by the time you got toward shipping a game? CD: Our biggest challenge was getting it out on time. We had such an aggressive schedule. We got it out on time, and we were very happy with the product. I'm very proud of the game. I think it turned out exactly how I wanted it to be. The guys at Microsoft were really helpful, helping us get it done on time. They were happy with it. I don't know what happened in the marketplace. How big is your studio now? CD: We have over -- between 320 and 340 people, over in three studios. We've got Brisbane, Adelaide, and Melbourne -- who are the old Melbourne house, and then Adelaide's the old Ratbag studio. Did you guys acquire them both from Atari? CD: No. Melbourne house was Atari, and then Midway was Ratbag. It worked out well for us, and they're really part of the family. They really are. It's a very similar environment, a very similar corporate structure. Those were both known for racing games. Are they still concentrating on that? CD: I think it would be very foolish not to use the experience that they have. Are you guys the biggest studio in Australia? CD: In Australia, yeah. We're also one of the biggest independents in the world now. Not the biggest, I think something like Foundation 9 are a lot bigger. It’s interesting, because when I think about Krome five years ago, I think of stuff like GBA games. CD: Well yeah, I joined five years ago, and there was only like 70-odd people. And we just watched it grow year, on year, on year. So this year is going to be huge for us, and events like GDC and E3 make it even more huge next year. Then we've got stuff coming for '09 that's going to surprise a lot of people. What do you think of the development scene in Australia? CD: Thankfully, there are a lot of independent studios, and we've got, like, we've got THQ down the road; we've got Creative Assembly, who's part of Sega; we've got Pandemic, who is now part of EA. Pandemic started with Australian people that went to LA, started up an office, and then wanted to set up something back home. So there's a Brisbane studio just up the road. And that's just in Brisbane. You've got stuff like Tantalus, and Torus, and the guys doing the Sim City game, they're down there. And 2K Canberra, who helped do BioShock. That's quite a collection of developers. What's the incentive? CD: Well, a couple years ago, it was financial. Like, the the dollar just turned out so great, you have a lot of good talent down in Australia. One of the key things that we try to promote is that if a publisher has notes about our game, they can look at a new build in the morning, send us notes their afternoon, and by the time they get back to the office in their morning, we've sent them a new build, because of the time difference. And that helps speed things along really, really well. But ultimately, we just try to do the best quality we can; all the studios in Australia do, and I think that shows. I think it's regardless of region; that's become less of a barrier now.

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