Today my buddy Rhys called me out for criticizing Viva Piñata a couple weeks ago, then playing it for significantly more time than I initially intended. (I’d have kept my indulgence a secret, but the Live achievements system sold me out.) So I’ll admit it: I’ve played Viva more than any other 360 game I own. So sue me.
Many other people have written detailed descriptions of why they like this game, so I’ll pass. Instead, I’d like to focus on what I think the Viva Piñata franchise could become, and what that means for gaming in general. In short: I’d like to see Viva Piñata 2 (assuming it’s ever made) focus more on self-expression and social networking.
Right now, the gardens I’ve created are entirely constrained by utility. They don’t look the way I want them to — they look the way they must if I’m to climb the devilish ladder devised by the designers at Rare. (As much as I enjoy the landscaping features of the game, I don’t want to spend time decorating, only to undo my work when progress demands an oak tree instead of the apple trees I already planted.) I’d like to think that there’s a better balance between self-expression and gameplay progression, though I suppose RAM is ultimately the limiting factor (i.e. how many different garden features can be displayed simultaneously on screen.)
Of course, it wouldn’t be my blog if I didn’t mention user-generated content. If another customer created a decorative waterfall and shared it with the community, I’d download that sucker in a heartbeat. I’d even pay out some of the chocolate coins I’ve worked so hard to collect. And that could be the start of a promise-laden virtual economy…
Right now, the main way I interact with others is to send them my piñatas. To heck with that — I want to visit my friends’ gardens personally. Ideally, the gameplay would change when I’m a “visitor” vs. “owner” (though shared ownership of gardens would be an especially nice feature.) And if two players happen to be “in” the same garden at the same time, it would be wonderful if gameplay shifted (subtly or otherwise) to reflect their mutual presence. But that’s more of a nice-to-have in my giant and complex list of “musts.” ;-)
This commentary is focused on Viva Piñata, but the core philosophy behind it applies to many game franchises. As people spend more and more time in virtual spaces, their hunger for meaningful self-expression and companionship within those spaces is only going to increase. After all — humans beings are social creatures; we’re simply not hard-wired to sit alone in front of a TV or monitor for weeks at a time (my adolescent behavior notwithstanding.) We crave acknowledgement, acceptance, and companionship as much as we crave various forms of stimulation, and video games need to deliver on that.