Drawing For A Living
2008 will be a busy year for Rare: in a three month period the company will release three new games (Banjo, Piñata 2 and Piñata DS) as well as their brand new interface for the Xbox dashboard featuring their home-made 360 Avatars. And with all their teams working several extra hours to meet the launching schedules, we were lucky enough to get some time from one of their rising artists, and ask him about his work in all the upcoming titles.
We are talking about Ryan Stevenson, the man who has a clear soft spot for paper-wise designs. He was the one who came with the brilliant idea of using paper-made piñatas in an animal breeding title that Rare was developing when he entered the company; he was also responsible for creating an amazing and unique crayon painted world for Rare's crazy mascot, Mr Pants; and despite the new Banjo look not being his idea, he has been quite implicated in the Nuts & Bolts artistic side, amazing us all with many pieces of concept art for the Banjo universe.
MundoRare: Tell us, when did you get started at Rare and what were the first games you worked on upon entering the company. Before the new Banjo, you made first contact with our fave bear and bird duo on Grunty's Revenge, right? Moreover, what can you tell us about your experience while working on the graphically unique It's Mr Pants?
Ryan Stevenson: I started at Rare back in 2001, and as they say time flies while you’re having fun so it sometimes seems like only last week. I was a real Game Boy nut when I first started and ended up working on several Game Boy games including Banjo on the GBA. At the time I happened to be sitting next to the programmer of a little puzzle game which became It's Mr Pants, I cheekily made some subjections and soon ended up drawing all the graphics, which seemed a bit crazy at first but was an amazing experience. It also led into my work on Viva Piñata.
MR: How has your involvement in every new project evolved since then?
Stevenson: Every new project since then... mmmmmmhhhh... lots of jobs really, but I’ve ended up specializing in my main love, concept art; you just can’t beat drawing for a living.
MR: After working on those handheld titles, you moved to the Viva Piñata team. What changed from the Piñata project from when you started to the final result available now?
Stevenson: Wow, what changed? Just about everything! We were a tiny team making a tiny cute animal gardening game, and then it just exploded into this massive 360 game... I could go on all day. In fact I sometimes do.
MR: Originally, Viva Piñata wasn't even a piñata based game. What changed your perspective on having them included? Furthermore, were there any concepts or ideas that came before the piñatas that you or the team may have found unsuitable in the end, and why?
Stevenson: I was given the task of creating an original look for the animals in the game when we first started, and after searching around for a while I hit on the idea for the piñatas. The best thing was that the designer really ran with the idea and started to feed it into the gameplay as well. Once we had the piñata idea, the Mexican feel fed into the whole look of the game which made it a joy to create as I’m a big fan of Mexican styles.
MR: What was the influence of doing a bona fide sequel so soon after the original? We hadn't gotten a sequel to a Rare game this fast since Banjo-Tooie, two years after Kazooie. News floated around that after Viva Piñata, there would be downloadable content. Did scrapping that idea lead straight to Trouble in Paradise or was VP2 ever proposed to be in development alongside the DLC at one point?
Stevenson: After Viva Piñata 1 we all looked at the game and considered simple DLC of more animals and a few new features, but we had so many new great ideas like the Vision Camera, new side garden areas and all the new online stuff that just couldn’t have been done in DLC. In the end we wanted to give the fans the best Piñata experience and I think we have.
MR: Has your role on VP: TiP changed that much since the first game? Have you had any extra work to do with concepts of the new snow and desert environments we've seen in screenshots and movies?
Stevenson: My work on VP: TiP hasn’t changed too much. I’m still working with the team to keep the strong visual style of the game, but really the whole team know it so well now, it’s a real melting pot. I’ve also been working on the new Banjo game at the same time; it was fun working on Piñata one day and Banjo the next as it really mixed things up and it’s rare to be working on two projects at the same time. As for the snow and desert piñatas, they were my biggest job for the new game but my absolute favourite new piñata has to be the Hootyfruity, the animation for it makes me smile every time.
MR: We've heard so little about the cards and what they do. Could you fully explain how it works and what we can get by using them? Furthermore, is the camera a mandatory feature in the sequel? Will we miss out on a lot of the game in both content and what it has to offer if fans choose not to opt for the Xbox Vision Camera?
Stevenson: You don’t have to have a Vision Camera to play VP2 and you still get all the same content. The Vision Camera just adds a new dimension to Piñata and how you can interact with the game. Vision cards are really versatile, by showing one of the cards to the Vision Camera you can affect the weather, the time, garden items, piñatas, you can do just about anything.
MR: We're also a bit concerned about how will those cards be offered. Would they be sold at retail, or will they be included as a pack-in with the game?
Stevenson: How about for free! Yep, that’s right, absolutely free, and how about if you could make them yourself? You’ve got that too, by taking a picture using the in-game camera you can choose to turn it into a card and trade it online. We’re giving this to the fans to play with and have fun.
The team has had so much fun with the vision cards we’ve created our own team set, so you’ll have to see if you can find them all. To get your collection started here’s mine, I’m a bit of a murder mystery fan so I’ve created a Hootyfruity to solve your unexplained event in your garden.
MR: Besides that, are there any new features or gameplay elements that will ultimately add up to a better Viva Piñata experience?
Stevenson: TONS! There are so many new features and little tweaks, it all adds up to such a huge game that we still haven’t talked about all the new features yet like the new online stuff. We have listened to the fans of the first game and wanted to make them happy, and I think we will.
MR: Let's move to Banjo and his brand new look. Gregg Mayles and George Kelion have already explained that "is meant to be self-referential." Why did you decide to take that approach and, from your point of view, what is the relation of the graphical style with the plot and game mechanics?
Stevenson: Banjo’s final look actual came from Steve Mayles and Ed Bryan, the original creators of the N64 characters. At first they made some super fancy versions of the old characters, and as cool as they were, wanted to added a little something more while still being true to the original N64 game. So they came up with the rather cool idea of making a super high-res N64 style character. It also fit the mechanical blocks motif which we have in the game, so it all just seemed to fit.
MR: We have managed to catch a glimpse to some of your concept art for Banjo, Kazooie and even Grunty thanks to some nice pieces of artwork kindly offered by you and Rare to some fansites. In them we see Banjo and Kazooie not only in their new look, but also shorter and fatter. Were these designs in any way indicative of what could've been in terms of the previous Banjo-Threeie concepts? Are there any designs that you considered using for the duo in terms of the concepts that we never got to see? Also, what can you tell us about Grunty’s previous incarnations?
Stevenson: Ahhh, the Banjo sheet, that did include a lot of different ideas for Banjo that we played around with but certainly not all of them. We had cute ones, mean ones, kid versions, but in the end we went with one that was true to the original with a bit of a spin.
Grunty is a great character and I was really thrilled to design her new incarnation, which has now been added to the long list of different versions. So far we’ve seen: The original Grunty, Ghost Grunty, Mech Grunty, Skelly Grunty, Only a Skull Grunty, and now the new one ...that’s a lot of Grunty.
MR: Don't you think that removing all of Kazooie's moves, making her be only a wand carrier, has devalued her role in the new game?
Stevenson: To me Kazooie has always been more about her sharp tongue rather than her moves, and she has certainly retained that, she’s always around to let Banjo know who’s the boss. You’ll also use the wrench an awful lot. I know I do.
MR: Jiggies, notes, blocks... In your opinion how have the collecting mechanics evolved in Nuts & Bolts? Have you tried to avoid DK64's biggest criticism regarding an overabundance of collectables?
Stevenson: Of course you’re going to be collecting things in Banjo as normal, but this time you’re going to be using everything you collect in the game rather than it just being another number. The notes are a currency which you can use to buy things, the Jiggies unlock areas of the game and as for the blocks, you’ll be searching high and low for them to create your crazy contraptions.
MR: Viva Piñata was a game that also gave users the freedom to build their own stuff using some specific items. But most gamers found a bit disturbing that the limit of allowed elements that you could place in your gardens was too low, so your paradises become 'full' too easily. Has this problem been solved or at least minimized in Trouble in Paradise's gardens? Besides, how have you sorted out this kind of limitation in Nuts & Bolts?
Stevenson: As with everything there always a limit, too much ice cream will make you sick. We have looked at the limits in VP and you will get more in your garden this time. As for Banjo, the teams worked hard to make sure you can build any vehicle you can dream up.
MR: Finally, regarding Viva Piñata Pocket Paradise, have you had any sort of involvement in the development of that title? In your opinion, what do you think about taking a franchise that you worked on and making it more accessible in the form of re-releasing it on the DS?
The Pocket Paradise team used all of our assets from the original game and all of the concepts I produced, they even included some of the new piñatas from VP: TiP and the game looks really nice on the DS. They also added some new features like clips from the cartoon which are really cool to see in the game. I think it’s turned out really well and I’m looking forward to having a portable version.
We are quite grateful to Ryan Stevenson, George Kelion, and the entire Viva Piñata team for their support in the making of this interview.