The Basics: The announcement of the new Viva Pinata franchise for the Xbox 360 was not so much a gaming news event, rather the unveiling of an almost incomprehensible super-mega-hyper-global brand that mixes television, merchandising, and games among several corporations. Amidst all the hoopla about the new character universe, TV shows, and licensed products, it's fairly unclear exactly what the game will entail, how it might be played, and who the target audience is.
We do know a few things about the game, however. It will be developed by Rare and will be exclusive to the Xbox 360 (naturally). The main characters will be living piñatas. Yes, living piñatas - the same things that children beat senselessly until they burst open, spilling their insides (which, most of the time, happen to be made of delicious candy). These living punching bags will roam the virtual countryside and be, among other things, rather colorful. Gamers are to be allowed to create and customize piñatas in “their own evolving world” to watch them grow, change, fight, and, er, dance.
The world itself will host up to 60 different species of these burstable pets, with the main challenge being the creation and maintenance of a “living garden ecosystem that grows in real time” to attract the piñatas and make them want to stick around. The goal seems to be the construction of a piñata utopia, starting off small and growing your way to a Garden of Eden of sorts, while at the same time protecting them “dangers” threatening to break them open (although what those dangers are remains to be seen). For good measure, there's also an element of trading items and interacting with others on Xbox Live.
Microsoft touts Viva Pinata as a social and spontaneous game for all ages, which leads us to believe it's something on a Harvest Moon meets Animal Crossing with a dash of an MMORPG-style community. However, the fact that there's also a cartoon TV show tie-in makes us think the real demographic being targeted is of the decidedly younger set. Xbox Live is many things, but it is most certainly not a kid-safe zone, as anyone who's spent more than an hour in the wilds of the Live universe certainly knows. How this will all come together will be interesting, and hopefully in a positive way.
As mentioned, the Viva Pinata world is not just about the game. There's a new TV cartoon on Saturday mornings this fall, as well as the obligatory line of merchandise, likely featuring toys, trading cards, lunch boxes, and/or breakfast cereals. We won't pretend to care about all the other things – but if it's marketed well, your kids just might.
What do we think? There's no doubt that the first batch of screen shots look terribly cute and colorful. There's also no question that the processing power of the 360, development skills at Rare, and internet resources of Xbox Live have the ability to come together to provide compelling gameplay experiences. Many thousands of gamers get untold amounts of pleasure in the kinds of titles that Viva Pinata appears to be borrowing from, although the collect-trade-garden-harvest paradigm may not work on the adult-oriented platform. Who knows? We'll begin to find out this fall, when the television show debuts. E3 is just around the corner, so check back next week for more details.