Game Design Essays

Collected short essays covering various dimensions of board and video game design. 


Developed by Rare and published in 2006 by Microsoft Game Studios, Viva Piñata is a life simulation game in which the fantasy offers players the opportunity to garden and develop a plot of land in order to attract wildlife modeled after piñatas. The game, favorably rated by such sites as[1], is lauded for its art and ingenuity. However this game, if analyzed using the rubric created in Greg Costikyan’s work “I Have No Words & I Must Design: Toward a Critical Vocabulary for Games”, fails as a successful and enjoyable game. In this text, I analyze Viva Piñata through a Costikyan lens in order to pinpoint which elements it is lacking from his perspective.

Costikyan offers a reflection on a game similar to Viva Piñata, the game SimCity designed by Will Wright. Much like SimCity, Viva Piñata is a life simulator game, although its approach to simulation is somewhat abstracted and smaller-scale. In the game, you are a farmer who has to tend to a garden and draw piñatas to your lot. In this, Viva Piñata and SimCity differ at a crucial juncture. While SimCity “supports a wide choice in goals”[2], Viva Piñata offers and supports only one overarching goal: to make a better garden. With this reality, Viva Piñata fails a portion of Costikyan’s rubric as it is limited in its flexibility and ability for players to make the game their own. The customization of the game is limited by the structure of the game. The player cannot explore past their garden, and the choices are limited. However, because there is a player goal, the game can still essentially be considered a game.

While more successful in certain categories, the game has a little bit of each element Costikyan proposes as foundational elements in a successful game. To begin, while it seems counter-intuitive to associate adorable, brightly colored animals with a sense of struggle, there is such an element in the game.  Costikyan reflects on the notion of “struggle” by closely associating it with “competition”.[3] Games often create struggle by offering a “you vs. them” gameplay mechanic. More nuanced variations, however, can be found in games such as Don’t Starve Together. In this game, struggle is taken to a more visceral, primal, yet cooperative realm as you must band together with your friends in order to survive in a hostile environment. Costikyan barely addresses this nuanced approach to the concept of struggle that computer games offer. Computer games have been able to offer a new approach to the enemy or competitive force in a game. While before the enemy was always physical (by either being yourself or your play partner), computer games offer an abstract enemy: the machine. In Viva Piñata, the enemy as the machine is found as the game turns nightmarish, and evil piñatas spread chaos in your haven.

Viva Piñata also offers structure, a component Costikyan argues is essential to the success and enjoyment of a game. In his text, he argues that with computer games, the communication of rules is stretched and tested as designers are offered different means of communicating with the player. In Viva Piñata, the game designer chose to communicate the rules to the player via animation. When one plants a seed, the game communicates with the player whether they are successful or not by providing an animation of the growth of a plant. Viva Piñata follows his definition of structure within computer games as it offers “animations that indicate to the player that a certain event has occurred,” feedback that helps shape the player’s knowledge about what they can and cannot do.[4] Because of the limited scale of actions in the game, Viva Piñata is able to successfully execute this category of a game as the designer was able to focus and make the rules as straight forward as possible. The game is not diluted, it cannot be.

Where Viva Piñata truly begins to fail is within Marc Leblanc’s taxonomy, as described in Costikyan’s work. There is little sensation in Viva Piñata beyond visual interest. The game quickly becomes mechanical, and does not test the boundaries of how a player physically interacts with a game. It makes up for its lack of sensation in its fantasy, as the characters are well designed and magical. The narrative is also lackluster, as the storyline is dependent on the player finding meaning in their toil. Also, the challenge of the game is weak. Though one could argue that, as a children’s game, it was never meant to be very difficult from the beginning. Once the game mechanics have been practiced, the game becomes a more aesthetic one than challenging. Finally, there is no sense of fellowship as the characters do not react much to your presence, nor offer any value at a sentimental level.

From a Costikyan’s perspective, one would label Viva Piñata as a failure. However, I would argue that, because the game is meant for a younger audience, the rubric for success should be modified. Does it entertain? I have certainly played it for a few hours. Does it teach a child a lesson? Perhaps not a practical one, but it does teach a child to care for others and to reflect on how their actions affect the environment around them. With these considerations, the question then becomes about which elements in a game have priority in its considered success. I posit that Costikyan’s perspective is one from which myself and other designers should build upon, for it is foundational, not encompassing.


[1] Metacritic. N.p., 09 Nov. 2006. Web. 9 Feb. 2017.

[2]Costikyan, Greg. “I have No Words & I Must Design: Toward a Critical Vocabulary for Games.” 12. Print.

[3] Costikyan, Greg. “I have No Words & I Must Design: Toward a Critical Vocabulary for Games.” 7. Print.

[4] Costikyan, Greg. “I have No Words & I Must Design: Toward a Critical Vocabulary for Games.” 11. Print. 

Camille Baumann-Jaeger