Microsoft, Rare and 4Kids have unveiled what they hope will be a global success story. We asked Al Kahn what makes this one so different.
At a glittering party in Manhatten's Garment District last week Microsoft, the UK based games developer, Rare, and 4Kids Entertainment unveiled a new Xbox 360 game and TV property called Viva Piñata. With it comes high hopes that the concept will turn into a huge global success on the scale of Pokemon or Yu Gi Oh.
The idea comes from the Mexican tradition of Piñata, models filled with sweets that are smashed to pieces by children to reveal their contents at festival times such as Easter and Christmas. Brightly coloured and with a distinctly Latin feel, Piñatas are common at children's parties in the USA and are catching on in Europe.
In the Viva Piñata game, players start with a set of basic tools and a garden, to which they must attract some of the sixty Piñata characters that live on Piñata Island, where they are stocking up to 'maximum candiosity' before being sent to a party, smashed to pieces and returned home to be patched up and re-filled. They have naturally different feelings about their fate. Each character has a catchy name based on a confectionery item (Hudson Horstachio; Mousemallow and Elephanilla, for example) although the garden they live in and the tools you need to build your own environment there are based entirely on nature. The humour and endearing-but-flawed personalities are from the Toy Story school of humour and the colour palette is loud; vibrant and shiny. There is Latin music and an unmistakable party feel.
So why does this give off the whiff of a potential global phenomenon? Microsoft and Rare have developed it for the Xbox 360 platform - not at the moment the choice of console for children. The target audience is 6-12 but the parties hope to attract adults with the multi-level humour, and to engage younger children with the TV before they move on to the game (much as Pokemon did so successfully). It's designed as a family concern.
More fundamentally, perhaps, is the ability to turn a generic concept into a brand. As Al Kahn told us, 'It's great to take a generic term and create a brand around it. It's not like Pokemon, which needed explaining.'
Websites that follow gaming have responded with mixed reviews, some confused about the Xbox 360 placing for a kids' game and some delighted that at last here's something for children to play on their parents' 360 - exactly what Microsoft was hoping for.
4Kids will preview the TV series, which takes the charaters further than the game does, at MIPTV. The international rollout plans will be announced soon.
Al says there might be some product available immediately, but it's more likely that the first merchandise will appear in the US in 2007. 'There's a desire for something that's different, and the look of this is unlike anything we've seen before. Sometimes with a new thing there's so much attention that no-one dares leave it alone. Everyone who has seen Viva Piñata has had the same reaction.' Will Al be investing in a pinata manufacturer for the hero product? 'No We'll be getting so many royalties, we won't need to!' he says.