Growing up in a house where daddy’s job is all about video games, my two daughters really couldn’t avoid the fun of digital play even if they wanted to. As a parent, that means a lot of time is spent searching the recesses of my mind trying to think of games that are not only age appropriate, but genuinely fun. On a lark, this meant stopping by my local games shop last week to pick up a copy of Viva Pinata: Trouble in Paradise for the Xbox 360.

I knew it was the sort of thing my girls would love – after all, who wouldn’t want to raise, breed, and catch a variety of living piñatas, stuffed full of candy fun? But the more we played together (yes parents, that’s something you’re supposed to do) the more I couldn’t help but think that Viva Pinata was designed for the entirely wrong platform.

What if Microsoft decided to bring Viva Pinata to Facebook?

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It’s not like free-to-play games are a foreign concept to Microsoft. Last year they released the sublime Age of Empires Online, but it garnered neither the critical nor (from what we can tell) commercial success it deserved. It failed on the critical level because, in my opinion, journalists approaching it were too insistent to compare it the previous games. The bulk of them also seemed to maintain a chip on their shoulder about free-to-play gaming. To many in the core games journalism community, freemium seems to be a formula that’s spelled disaster from day one.

Despite this, I’d still argue that Age of Empires Online is a deeper, more satisfying experience than most anything you’ll find on Facebook today. Admittedly this is a statement based on personal preference rather than hard facts, but after years of loving traditional Age of Empires releases, I was absolutely delighted to have a colorful casual equivalent to the classic series. Had Microsoft decided to take the same gameplay ideas and developed the title as a Facebook release instead of a 2 gig download, there’s no question in my mind that it would have succeeded in its quest for social gaming domination.

But instead Microsoft decided to make it a free PC download, choosing to play in a sandbox they’re more comfortable with. The problem? Their target audience brought both their pails and shovels to a completely different playground.

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It’s not hard to see why Microsoft would think they could pull this off as a downloadable release. After all, both EA and Bigpoint have seen tremendous success with free-to-play PC releases. But that said, both have also spent a lot of time and energy on building up a free-to-play community by offering a variety of titles to suit every taste. Even with as much push as Microsoft gave Age of Empires Online, it’s still just one release.

That’s not to say that Age of Empires Online hasn’t been successful – Microsoft has never released any numbers regarding the title, so how it’s performed is anybody’s guess. But how many people do you know actually playing the game? For me, it’s zero. Now how many people do you know playing The Sims Social? How about CastleVille? Exactly.

Still – some of their franchises make perfect candidates for F2P PC downloads. Just look at Microsoft Flight, the recently released freemium re-thinking of the Microsoft Flight Simulator series. That’s the sort of franchise that wouldn’t make sense as a social game, but at the same time, works brilliantly as a free download. There are plenty of gamers out there who have always been curious about the Microsoft Flight Simulator games, but felt too intimidated to take the financial plunge. This latest release is the perfect solution.

But some of their franchises, like Age of Empires, have all the right elements for a perfect Facebook release. Which brings us back to Viva Pinata

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In Viva Pinata you can do all of the following;

– decorate your own garden/animal habitat

– complete specific quests

– breed animals

– play mini-games

Look me in the eye and tell me that doesn’t sound like a Facebook game. Add in some basic social elements – like sending piñata animals to your neighbours, or watering their plants, and you’ve got an instant hit. Heck – Viva Pinata: Trouble in Paradise even let you scan cards to add new in-game content. If that doesn’t translate to premium purchases on Facebook, I don’t know what does.

Microsoft has proven that they’re not averse to trying new things in the world of gaming. Bringing Kinectimals to the iPhone and iPad is more proof of that than any of us should ever need. So who’s to say their next stop isn’t Facebook?

Then again, maybe this is just wishful thinking on my part. After all, who wouldn’t want a chewnicorn of their very own?