When people talk about the decline of Rare, it's generally in relation to the studio's acquisition by Microsoft. Notably, the feeling that Microsoft forced Rare to exclusively focus on Kinect games when the studio's talents could be put to better use. In an interview with Eurogamer, former Rare designer and current Playtonic studio director Gavin Price set the story straight.
"Phil Spencer taking the mantle of Xbox is one of the best things that could have happened for Rare," said Price. "Because he's always said to people at Rare [as general manager of Microsoft Studios], 'Do what you want to do and we'll back you,' and he's always stayed true to his word in that regard. It was people in Rare's management at the time who said: 'Well, Kinect is a great opportunity for the studio - go all in on it.' So when executives at Microsoft see that the management team are passionate about doing that, they back them. Microsoft to their credit did that, and perhaps the story online isn't quite reflective of the truth."
The truth is Microsoft did task Rare with helping out on the launch of the Kinect with good, family-friendly content. Rare management was more than happy to pitch on the ambitious new technology.
"We'd just shipped Viva Pinata: Trouble In Paradise and Banjo: Nuts 'n' Bolts, and I remember some new projects were prototyped after those two releases, but everything kind of got pushed to one side," said Price. "We were told that the studio would focus on the Xbox Live Avatars business, Kinect Sports, and a kind of Kinect health and fitness game, I think it was."
The first Kinect Sports went on to become a success for Microsoft, Rare, and the Kinect. So, Rare and Microsoft did what most businesses do when faced with a great success: they doubled-down on the same idea. That meant more Kinect games from Rare. Kinect Sports: Season 2 hoovered up most of Rare's development team in order to deliver an even bigger experience.
"I think because we'd not made a massive hit for Microsoft like we had before they bought us, people at Rare and Microsoft saw this as a chance for Rare to do something big and own an audience, a key part of Microsoft's business. But the result was we couldn't work on the kinds of game we'd traditionally worked on, because there was such pressure to deliver a fantastic Kinect game, to inspire other developers," added Price.
"To remove all risk we knocked all of the teams on the head, and everyone kind of chipped in and joined the Kinect Sports team. I think that was the biggest team we've ever had on a title in Rare's history, and Kinect Sports: Season Two eclipsed that, even taking into account the fact that Big Park helped on two of the sports for Season Two."
The problem with betting on Kinect finally came to a head when the Xbox One launched. While Microsoft was big on the Kinect early on, eventually, the company removed the Kinect as a required pack-in. Once you remove a required peripheral, most support for that peripheral dries up. Rare was working on Kinect Sports Rivals and without a clear Kinect focus for the Xbox One, the title simply didn't live up to sales expectations.
Price acknowledges that Rare probably should've kept a small team working on its older IP.
"I think it would have been an easier sell for Rare fans to say, 'Don't worry, the studio's doing this and servicing its old IP as well,'" he explained. "The fact that Rare became completely aligned with Kinect took away the possibility of giving a lot of gamers something they would have immediately loved."
Price and other Rare staffer eventually left to the company to form Playtonic Games. The studio successfully Kickstarted Yooka-Laylee, a spiritual successor to Banjo-Kazooie, with a planned release window of October 2016. Even beyond that, Microsoft and Rare eventually released Rare Replay Collection, featuring a number of game from the company's long history. So there's still hope for more classic Rare action in the future.