After the success of the very first Community chat with a Rare employee, to talk about the infamous BK Nuts & Bolts, we soon got another proposal to celebrate a new questioning with the veteran producer Paul Machacek regarding Rare's second incursion on the DS: Viva Piñata Pocket Paradise.
It was a more intimate atmosphere (Piñata is still a young franchise, with less fansites covering their games), with a frenzied rhythm on questions, and may I say rather more difficult to conduct: after all, Pocket Paradise is in fact a sequel to a game that most of us -Rare followers- have already played, and obviously Rare didn't want to spoil all the new stuff before the game's release. So, basically, it was harder to get straight answers, but equally satisfactory and worth-reading in the end.
George Kelion: And so, without further ado, may I present Mr Paul Machacek. Paul has been with Rare for 20 years and has specialised in our handheld department. *however* he was not responsible for Spider-Man on the Game Boy. So you can put away your pitchforks.
Paul Machacek: Hi all. Pleased to meet everyone, and thank you all for coming and spending your time with us.
Francis @ Perfect Rare: Is this DS version the one most true to the PDA game as Viva Piñata was started?
Paul Machacek: VP, long before it was known as VP, went through a number of quite different iterations, platforms etc. Yes, this is a handheld version, but is close to VP1 more than anything. VP on DS is much more full than anything was going to be on a cell phone.
Jim @ Piñata Island: How close is Pocket Paradise to the original Viva Piñata game for the Xbox 360? Disregarding the new features and stylus input-method, does the underlying gameplay feel like something totally familiar or is it a fresh new experience?
Paul Machacek: No, it's very much based on VP1 and the main mechanic is the same. Lots of changes obviously, though.
Alberto @ MundoRare: Are there any significant changes in the behaviour, appearance, or any other aspect of any of the piñata species that we all already know?
Paul Machacek: There are some behavioral differences, and some changes to the ways that they come in/out of your garden. But nothing significant that you'd notice. Some of the very subtle things piñata have done before have been modified or reduced as we felt they would not be noticed by the player. There's also a maximum of 3 visiting piñata around your garden at any one time simply to keep things within the limits of the hardware.
Francis @ Perfect Rare: I've heard there are some clips of the Viva Piñata cartoon in this DS game. Does Rare own the rights of the cartoon or do you have to license those clips?
Paul Machacek: No, all clips are owned by Microsoft, so we have free access to them. MS co-own the cartoon series so we had no issues here. By the way, there's quite a few clips taken from the TV series in VPPP.
Jim @ Piñata Island: I've heard that Leafos has been removed from Pocket Paradise. Are there any other features from the original Xbox 360 game that have been canned?
Paul Machacek: Yes, we removed the helpers for a couple of reasons, but really so that we didn't have to make further limitations to the gameplay elsewhere. Taking helpers out reduced the number of models we had to render, the chances that lots of characters/piñata would all end up in the same place on screen and also reduced routing problems for the AI around a busy garden. You'll also notice that the characters we did keep route differently too now. The doctor flies a helicopter and Willy Builder tunnels in/out to avoid routing issues.
Alberto @ MundoRare: Have you designed Pocket Paradise in mind for people who have or havent played the original? What are your expectations and hopes as to which of those groups will buy the game?
Paul Machacek: We want everyone to buy it... it's been designed for novices and has a very easy entry with the episodes as training places. we keep the info simple, and give direct easy access to info at all times. We tried to make sure that anyone could pick it up & play it.
Francis @ Perfect Rare: How many people of the DS team are/were working on the DS version of Viva Piñata?
Paul Machacek: About 13-14 (can't remember exact number).
Jim @ Piñata Island: How does the Playground mode in Pocket Paradise compare to the Just for Fun mode in Trouble in Paradise for the Xbox 360?
Paul Machacek: They have the same ethos, you can just play in a fun area. Specifically on the DS we eliminated all barriers to entry so that it auto-terraforms and gives you plants and piñata immediately, and you can easily call up others that you have already gained in the main game. There are lots of new features in TiP and you can play with those in their mode.
Alberto @ MundoRare: Can you explain us with some detail how the Episodes mode will work? I wonder if it's some kind of 'challenging' mode.
Paul Machacek: The Episodes (of which there are 12) are all training modes that provide a guided challenge. However, although the first four are really very easy (to draw the player in and teach them basic control skills) the Episodes get progressively harder as you go further through. The first four must be played before the rest of the game opens up, but the other 8 (which appear periodically as you reach relevant stages in the main garden) are optional. Any episode that has been unlocked, whether you play it or not, can be returned to and played again to confirm the advice you were taught.
Francis @ Perfect Rare: What was the biggest problem you've encountered while developing Viva Piñata for DS? Was it something you have become proud of now the 'problem' has been solved?
Paul Machacek: Lots of people will assume that putting lots of fully animated/rendered piñata's in the garden was the big challenge, actually, it was one of the easier things. The plants were time consuming and ate a lot of space on the game card and in the RAM. We simply couldn't get anywhere near the level of quality desired if we had used the models from VP1 in real-time so instead we identified all the different things each category of plant needed to do/show and pre-rendered every single frame of every plant/tree/weed etc. This was a painstaking process for our very talented animator, and again painstaking for the talented engineer that had me hassling him all the time about it. We needed the resolution to look good and yet needed to be able to squeeze it all into the hardware limitations.
Trust me, a lot of discussions were had over this. Terraforming was a 2nd issue where we really wanted you to draw straight into the floor and have a very fluid and random experience everytime. One thing that has been quoted from recent interviews is that the garden is 4 screens in size. This is actually wrong, it's 3*3 screens so a total of 9 screens overall. this is a really big area to store every modifiable pixel for and that caused big problems with the size of saved games and also the scroll speed. Then there was the overall issues of making sure that whatever combination of plants/piñata/objects/houses were in your garden the software never gave up. We wanted to make sure you could do anything and this is a big juggling act. We got there in the end and I'm very proud that the team tackled all the technical hurdles as well as they did to produce VPPP.
Jim @ Piñata Island: Getting back to Episodes, are they treated as goals within your main garden, or are they completely stand-alone?
Paul Machacek: Completing an episode does not give you anything extra in the game. Off the top of my head I can't remember if you get a certificate for doing them all or anything, but their prime purpose is to train and also link straight to the TV series in a way that wasn't easy to do in the main game. The Episodes actually changed focus throughout development and early on they were supposed to be a game mode on their own which you would play through. But time and other constraints prevented this. However, once all opened you could just give them to a younger child and they can play back through all 12 of them and have lots of fun with a TV character based experience that they can simply interact with.
Alberto @ MundoRare: Does the player need to (or is able to) use the DS microphone for anything in the game? For some reason, some people had complaints against it on Diddy Kong Racing DS, and maybe that dissuaded you to experiment with it.
Paul Machacek: We experimented a lot on DKRDS, as many others were doing in the early days of DS development. In VPPP we had a very clear focus to take what was an already fabulous game and only do what was right for it. It an idea didn't fit perfectly with our goal then we didn't go there. It's a very good, unified experience as a result and I love it. So, no, there's no mic usage here.
Francis @ Perfect Rare: Why have you, or the management, chosen THQ as publisher? Back in the GBA days all of your games were really hard to find. Arent you concerned Viva Piñata will be hard to find?
Paul Machacek: It was handled by Microsoft.
Jim @ Piñata Island: A little while ago there was some discussion about the possibility of Pocket Paradise integrating with the Piñata Vision feature of Trouble in Paradise. Can you tell us a little more of the story behind that?
Paul Machacek: At no point during development was such a feature ever considered. A brief discussion was had about what the VP: Trouble in Paradise team were doing with their game, and obviously they've got the Live Vision thing, but nothing was ever implemented into the DS.
Paul Machacek: VPPP was completed (except for localisation) in October 2007 and I'm not aware that VP: Trouble in Paradise's Live Vision camera technology was even being worked on then. I certainly wasn't aware of it until earlier this year.
Alberto @ MundoRare: How is the music in the DS game and who is behind it?
Paul Machacek: The music and sound effects in the game are a mix of things from VP1, the TV series and some new stuff for VPPP. However, you may have noticed that we're still a little media shy and I believe that the game is a whole team effort so I'd rather not highlight any one person. After all, no one ever asks who designed a really great graphic. One way or another, probably almost half the development staff at Rare have had a hand in the VP franchise at some point, so it's really a big team thing.
Francis @ Perfect Rare: You said you had experimented with the DS during development of DKRDS. What was the one thing you didnt want to use and what did you feel had to be in your next DS game?
Paul Machacek: DKR was our first DS game, and whilst very experienced on a lot of different platforms including previous handhelds, the DS offered new challenges with it's alternate hardware. We played a lot with all the hardware DKR. But on VP we only included items that seemed like a perfect fit for the title. We weren't saying "well, we have this mic so what shall we use it for", rather instead we said "this is a great feature for the game, can we do it with the hardware". I guess we didn't think of anything compelling to use the mic for.
Jim @ Piñata Island: Will the wild-card piñatas make a return? If so, are they obtained solely through a minuscule random chance?
Paul Machacek: If I tell you everything then I'll spoil your fun with the game when you get it.