Tuesday, August 2, 2005

Must . . . Play . . . Nethack

by Anand Ramachandran

Let’s get the gist out of the way – Nethack is one mean mother of a game. It grabbed me – conqueror of Morrowind, Lord of Baldur’s Gate, Jedi Master of KOTOR – and turned me into a frustrated, weeping, sniveling level 3 wimp. What could be better?

I have attacked this game about thrice a day over the past two weeks. I have, among other things :

  • picked a lock with a credit card

  • accidentally killed my own dog

  • eaten carrion

  • had sex with a succubus who seemed not to enjoy it very much

  • bought tinned food

  • had my ass saved when my God answered a prayer

  • broken a camera

  • had the most enjoyable hallucination trip since . . well . . . a while

  • stripped naked to squeeze through a narrow gap

God! And I haven’t even scratched the surface of this wretchedly deep hack and slashfest RPG. Curses.

Oh – sorry. I’m talking about Nethack, of course. For those of you who haven’t heard of it, Nethack is a modern day variant of the RPG classic Rogue, in which you explore a devious dungeon filled with, naturally, traps, monsters and treasure.

However, Nethack, like Rogue, does not resort to frighteningly realistic graphics or sudden loud noises to frighten the gamer ( as far too many slasher movie type games tend to do these days. Good on you, Valve.) In fact, these games are characterized by their use of ASCII characters to create their worlds – your character is an ‘@’ symbol, and orc is an ‘o’, a bat is a ‘B’, and so on. So nVidia and ATI – you know where you can put your processing power. All commands are input by simple keystrokes or combinations of them. It sounds simple, but it’s an ingenious, devilishly complex system that is unmatched in richness. Look at some of the screenshots below to see what I mean.

ASCII based graphics. No clipping problems. Hooray.

Falcon's Eye provides a graphical interface for Nethack. Great for newbies.

All the classic RPG elements are included. Races and Character classes (including esoteric ones like Samurai, Archaeologist, Valkyrie and Tourist) – check. Shops – check. Magical traps – check. Cool equipment and artefacts – check. Scary monsters – check. Cute, fuzzy pet – check.

What sets Nethack apart, for me, though, is its sheer unpredictability. I’ve played about fifty times, and each game has been tellingly, dramatically different. I’m not talking mild, cosmetic, Diablo difference here – I’m talking seriously different experiences. Don’t believe me? Try it.

This, people, is imaginative, joyful game design. A game that can scare the pants off you one minute, and make you double up with laughter the very next. This is the spontaneous magic that often eludes big-name releases. This is what the open source movement is capable of – high quality content that can only be achieved by love of the craft, king-sized budgets be damned.

Of course, did I mention that Nethack is free? Yep – you pay Nada for one of the best gaming experiences on the planet. Long live open source. Eat this, EA.

A warning – Nethack is a difficult game. Most beginners keep dying, as I quickly found out. But with patience, and a bucketful of good advice available on the Net, you’ll soon start descending into the deeper levels, and discovering the endless delights therein. Stay with it. Trust me.

For beginners, I strongly recommend Falcon’s eye, a version of the game that uses some elementary, but serviceable graphics, and a friendlier point and click interface. Makes it easier to get into Nethack.

And get into it you should. Forget the ethics and morals of the open source movement. Forget everything. This is a game every RPG fan has just got to play. At least to put all other hack ‘n slash RPGs in perspective.

You can download Nethack and its variants, including Falcon’s Eye, from www.nethack.org

India and the Online Gaming Juggernaut

by Vinay Nilakantan

Will subscription driven Online MMO games succeed in India?

It’s a known and established fact that subscription driven MMO online games around the world are fairly large money spinners. Right from Everquest to Star Wars Galaxies to World of Warcraft have all been able to establish very strong revenue models which have allowed continuous development and expansion of the industry.

In India, gaming is big. How big is it? That’s important to know. The highest selling game within India has been ‘Brian Lara’s Cricket’.

No. of copies sold: Over 25,000

While those are not great numbers by a long shot, they are sufficient for a certain amount of ‘earned value’ within an organization. Of course, those are the official numbers.

The reason I say this is we are now at a stage where the Indian gaming industry and the various companies that are involved in it are making moves on whether the ever successful MMO subscription module can be adopted in India. I urge them all to read this.

Let’s look at a couple of factors:

India and computers: It’s important that we define statistics of the potential target audience.

PC Base

11 Mn

PC Penetration


Internet Subscribers

4.93 Mn (QE June' 04)

Internet Penetration


Broadband Users

0.23 Mn (QE June' 04)

Broadband Penetration

0.02% (Dec' 04)

Source: http://www.convergenceindia.org/ci2k6-conver-india.html

A commonly forgotten factor that most corporate organizations within the gaming space in India fail to pay attention to is the actual configurations of the computer within these statistics. There are computers still running on Win 95, operating with 32MB Ram and depend on the software to render its graphics. Organizations should look a little beyond the above statistics as what they’re doing is allowing a great gaming experience for a potential gamer to be ruined by ignorance and lack of knowledge due to the almost insignificant notification on game software packaging and branding. What does the potential gamer do? Blame the game for the bad experience and never buy a game again. Pay particular attention to this, if you’re concerned about the longevity of this industry in India.

Now – let’s look at the most popular genres of online gaming around the world :


Why the focus on RPGs? It quite simply is the only reason that subscription based PC gaming exists (let’s not go near the web based subscriptions). The genre is oriented towards ensuring a greater game experience as you put in more time into the game.

RPGs as such are a genre which has not been able to take off in India. Whether the reason has been of maturity or whether the reason has been of bad branding, when was the last time you saw a high selling RPG in India? Sure, you have your Diablos and your Neverwinter Nights. The sales from those are so incredibly low compared to sports and action titles, it’s not even funny. “But we sell a lot of Quake and a lot of Unreal games!” Nice try buddy. How does an organization bring in consistent subscription revenue through something like that? Monthly payments: No way. Not going to happen. The average fee is between 7 to 15 dollars per month worldwide. Even with region sensitive pricing – India as such has not been exposed to or nurtured with a model like this. A monthly payment for a game? The same game? Try explaining that to your parents. The only people who would do this are working executives who have been playing games for years and have the maturity to understand why online games have that kind of pricing model. Those kind of people are *extremely* few in number. In fact. I may personally know who they all are. That’s a joke, by the way.

Conclusion: I can keep writing about this but this is what I think we need to do.

Wait a few years. Don’t jump the gun or onto the bandwagon. There is a logical growth that will happen. Sell more regular games. Sell good games. Let broadband penetration increase. Let it become true broadband with 128kbps or more to ensure a smooth and enjoyable experience for the user. Let PC prices drop further. Allow graphics cards to enter households through smart and cost effective pc bundling. Promote effective branding. Dispel myths.

If you build it, they will come…