Saturday, October 25, 2008

Magic Square Comics - An experiment in storytelling

Remember magic squares? Those rows and columns of numbers which used to add up to the same total whichever way you counted?

I'm just fooling around trying to do the same thing with comics. Presented below is a comics grid, if you will. Each row and column is intended to work by itself as a narrative, like a mini-story. So each panel actually plays a different role in unrelated storylines.

This is a rough effort at best, but I'm interested in how far this experiment can be taken. I'd love to hear your opinions, and idea submissions.

Click the pic for a larger version.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Komicazee - A suicidal attempt at comics creation by R.S.Prasanna

Here are a couple of experimental comic strips by young filmmaker (and my colleague) R.S.Prasanna. I think it's a very interesting new style - and Prasanna promises much as a comics creator.

[click on the thumbnails for a larger image]

N-gage is back!

by Anand Ramachandran - an old N-gage fan. This is an extended version of the article that appeared in my weekly 'Game Invader' column for the New Indian Express.

And it looks promising this time around.

Many of you may remember N-Gage as Nokia's failed attempt at a handheld gaming device / phone hybrid from a few years ago. A tale of design mistakes, bad marketing, terrible PR and lost potential.

This time around, Nokia has relaunched the N-Gage brand as a service tied to their popular Nseries devices, which looks to be a much better idea overall. I just got myself an N81 to test drive N-Gage, and here are my first impressions.

The N81 is ideally suited for gaming, but N-Gage works on other nSeries phones as well.

N-Gage is now the basic gaming application that runs on your Nseries handset. Using the application, you can download and purchase games, play them by yourself and against others through N-Gage arena, maintain high scores and buddy lists and more. It's like a pocket-sized Xbox Live, and everyone knows how much I love Xbox Live!

The range of games seems fairly exciting even at this stage, and is sure to get better as more developers warm up to the platform. Remember that the original Ngage started off with a rather tepid line-up, but ended up with bona-fide classics such as Pathway to Glory, Rifts : Promise of Power and Colin McRae Rally.

Every game has a free downloadable demo, so it's a great 'Try before you buy' system. And, provided you have a decent internet connection, works very well. I recommend Wi-Fi, but GPRS will do in a pinch.

Downloading and installing the games is a snap. I downloaded the demo of Star Wars : The Force Unleashed, and then purchased and activated the game over the internet using my Wi-Fi connection. It took about five minutes in all. Nice. I could get used to this.

I've so far tried Star Wars : The Force Unleashed, Bounce Boing Voyage, Dirk Digger and System Rush. The games are definitely a step up from the average mobile fare – both in terms of gameplay and production values. Each of the above titles boasts gorgeous graphics, way above what you'll see on the average mobile phone title.

Dirk Dagger and The Fallen Idol brings old skool adventure gaming to the N-Gage, with a delicious twist in the way it uses the camera. I couldn't be happier!

System Rush Evolution is absolutely jaw-dropping. Sometimes I swear it looks as good as a PSP or DS title !

Each of these titles also had some unique feature or hook that makes them worth trying – Force Unleashed features the innovative and engaging Cellweaver combat system, Dirk Dagger has a great art style and uses the phone's camera in a really cool way, and System Rush is simply jaw-dropping for a mobile game, looking as good as some PSP or DS titles. Look out for detailed N-gage gaming reviews in the coming weeks on Bossfight.

N-Gage arena and the community features also hold great promise. The mobile is a perfect platform for connected, multiplayer gaming, and the Ngage application does provide some features such as buddy lists and leaderboards. However, I'm hoping that Nokia beefs up this aspect with more features to spice up the multiplayer experience.

N-gage is a great, user-friendly App that works smoothly and is fun to use. Here's hoping Nokia adds more community oriented features.

But even as it is, the community and multiplayer features are a great reason to game on the N-gage platform. The community rates and reviews games as well – so you can see what fellow gamers thought about a title before you download it. An Xbox Live-like gamerscore system has the potential to make the N-gage experience an addictive and enjoyable metagame of one-upmanship, and we all know how enjoyable that is. However, for this to really work, a critical mass of users is essential, and these are early days yet. Much will depend on how much traction Nokia can generate by means of marketing, pricing and all that jazz.

With the mobile phone well positioned to become the dominant gaming platform in India, and Nokia being one of its pre-eminent drivers, N-Gage is an opportunity to take quality gaming to the mainstream Indian user. It's early days yet, but I for one will be watching this with interest. As one of the few people who had a wholly positive experience with the previous N-gage QD, I truly want the platform to succeed. A viable, multiplayer enabled mobile gaming experience may just be what's needed to make gaming a mainstream hobby in this country.

The previous iteration of the N-Gage was a sad case of a genuinely good gaming platform failing due to some unfortunate marketing and PR. There's good reason to believe that Nokia will give the platform a better chance of success this time. With the right support, smart pricing and well thought out community features, N-Gage could become a serious player in the fight for the Indian gamer's money.

If you have an Nseries handset, there's no excuse for you not to start downloading and playing N-Gage titles. If you're a serious gamer looking for a mobile gaming solution, N-gage just might slake your thirst.

Note : I will be covering N-Gage extensively on this blog in the coming weeks. So stay tuned. And get yourself an NSeries, wontcha? It's going to be fun. My nGage ID is bigfatphoenix - so bring it on!

Stop playing with yourself !

This article first appeared in 'Game Invader', my weekly column for the New Indian Express

It's always been more fun playing videogames with or against human opposition than against computer controlled foes.

In fact, the very first computer and videogames, such as Space- War and Pong were multiplayer only — you needed two people to play the games. It can hence be argued that electronic gaming was born as a social activity.

Who says Quake 3 started the multiplayer-only trend in videogames?

However, as computing power grew cheaper, and more powerful technology was available to run videogames, game developers worked on creating more compelling content, more sophisticated gameplay, and the like. Of course, the adventure genre propelled PC gaming to great heights, and this was a predominantly single-player genre. Hence, the entire industry began focussing on creating great single-player experiences.

However, practically every game on early consoles such as the ATARI 2600 had some multiplayer option. Some featured a tacked on multiplayer aspect, where players would simply take turns to beat each other’s high score (this sounds dull, but entertained hordes of gamers back in the day).

Deathmatch. Waaaaaay before DOOM. 'Outlaw' on the ATARI 2600

However, some games such as Outlaw and Combat were true-blue deathmatch experiences, which you must try even today to see how much fun they were. Of course, sports games were also always better when played against a friend.

Of course, the FPS (Doom) and RTS (C and C, Warcraft) genres then revived multiplayer gaming with such great success that for the hardcore set today, multiplayer is the only thing that matters.

In fact, for several years in the Nineties (in the wake of the amazing success enjoyed by Quake, Unreal Tournament, and Warcraft 3), many companies considered releasing multiplayer only titles, forgoing a single player campaign altogether.

Thankfully this never happened, and the single player experience, helped by stellar titles such as Grand Theft Auto, Bioshock, and several Role-Playing classics, continues to thrive.

But there is no doubt that multiplayer gaming will eventually be the dominant play mode — across genres and platforms. Just look at the evidence — MMORPGs such as World of Warcraft, City of Heroes and Warhammer Online are far more successful (and profitable), than most single-player oriented games.

Even on the console, hitherto a single-player stronghold, online services such as Xbox live and PlayStation Network are drawing more players online. Even when they play single player, people compete against their friends to rack up higher scores and better “Achievements”. It’s simply more fun having other people around.

In fact, some of my best memories of gaming involve a whole bunch of guys hunched around a single computer, cooperatively playing Myst, a purely singleplayer game. By converting it into a social experience, we enjoyed it so much more. This is even truer in the casual space — where games such as Scrabulous got complete strangers playing against each other on Facebook. The number of people playing classics such as Chess, Reversi and Scrabble against human opponents over the Internet is staggering — and these aren’t hardcore gamers. They’re just people who’ve discovered that a human foe is far more satisfying to beat than some artificial intelligence programme.

If you’re one of those single player loyalists (such as one recent convert I know), try some multiplayer gaming for a change.

Whether it’s Halo or Team Fortress online, or just some online Chess or Scrabble, you’ll instantly see what I mean.

Argument Starter: Worms 2 is the best multiplayer game ever.

Now it's your turn.

Give the Dwarf a Flamethrower!

This article first appeared in 'Game Invader', my weekly column for the New Indian Express

The most interesting games are those that do unexpected things.

When I play a game with elves, dwarves and orcs, I expect to see halberds, longswords and horsemen. Not flamethrowers, flintlock pistols and tanks. Surprises like these immediately make me sit up and take notice. That’s why games like Arcanum, Final Fantasy and Warhammer are so engaging — they take place in universes that are rich with unusual concepts and delightful surprises.

Arcanum featured a wholly unique and fascinating gameworld that is still remembered fondly by those who played it. It cries out for a sequel, really. Are you listening, Bethesda?

These games take the disparate worlds of high fantasy and science fiction and combine them interestingly to create whole new experiences. I dig fantasy. I dig sci-fi. So I totally dig games that give me the best of both. Frying a horde of orcs using space marines equipped with jetpacks and flamethrowers? Attacking a dragon with tanks and rocket launchers? Yes, please. Make mine a double.

Arcanum was a particular favourite for me. Yeah, the combat sucked, and the graphics were a bit tacky, but the writing and story were top-notch and the roleplaying system was truly interesting and unique. The setting was remarkable — a steampunk world where the conflict between magic and technology served as a backdrop for some very interesting combinations — pistols, mechanical traps and gadgets squared off against fireballs, meteor storms and charm spells. Orcs and gnomes wearing bowler hats and tuxedoes took the train to work at restaurants and jewellery shops. Arcanum had wizards, chemists, furnaces, machinery, guns, dragons, ogres and much, much more. An unforgettable game for those who looked past the flaws and played through to the end.

Interesting gameworlds created by putting together diverse, unexpected elements occur surprisingly often in videogames. American McGee’s Alice (Alice in Wonderland meets Gothic punk), Bad Mojo (you played a cockroach running around in an apartment), Katamari Damacy (er . . I’ll forget about even trying to describe this) are only a few examples where doing something unexpected to the setting greatly enhanced the game experience.

Dungeon Keeper was another title that did things differently. Instead of being the heroic adventurer, you were the evil dungeon keeper, who had to breed monsters, lay traps and come up with other dastardly ways to destroy the very same heroic characters you have played as in countless other games. It is a refreshing spin that breathed life into an otherwise unremarkable game. More recently, the game Evil Genius gave the same treatment to a more modern setting of James Bond-like secret agents, impossibly convoluted technologies and plans of world domination. By putting you in the role of the evil villain, these games provided the interesting twist of participating in familiar looking events from an unfamiliar perspective.

The superlative Super Paper Mario pulls of the brilliant feat of taking the beloved gameplay of Super Mario Bros, and, quite literally, adds a new dimension. By flipping between 2-D and 3-D perspectives, the game creates an ecosystem of puzzles, solutions and situations that are at once familiar yet refreshingly different to fans of the Mario series. The pleasure of finding hitherto unexplored ways to overcome the challenges of Goombas, Koopa Troopas and Piranha Plants is great fun indeed. PSP titles like Crush and Ecochrome also use similar ideas to deliver great puzzle based gameplay.

So if you’re bored of shooting nondescript aliens with standard issue plasma weapons, tired of slaying orcs and goblins with your +2 sword or sick of driving over innocent civilians in sprawling virtual cities, try something different. Like tossing a hand-grenade at an orcish shaman.

Gaming Injuries

This article first appeared in 'Game Invader', my weekly column for the New Indian Express

Spore is the first game that has actually managed to aggravate my shoulder injury purely from the anticipation of playing it! I had got my hands on a copy at long last, taken off the shrink wrap, and was all ready to play, when all of a sudden this shooting pain stabs through my right shoulder.

One visit to the doctor later, my hopes lay in tatters — no computer use for a week, the man says.

Damn. Spore would have to wait.

With no reading (strains the neck) and no gaming (bad for the shoulder), one week of boredom lay before me. Television is no help, because most TV programmes are so annoying, stupid and boring that I’d rather injure my shoulder playing games. I can’t even read the Spore manual to pass the time. Doomed! One solution was to watch a whole lot of Monty Python videos on my trusty PSP. I’d have to sit or lie down with the requisite support for neck and back, and hold PSP at a delicate angle, but hey, it worked for me. Much of my boredom was relieved as Messrs Cleese, Palin, Jones and the rest did more for my good spirits than all the medication in the world! This period was also useful in looking at another great role the PSP plays — that of a music player.

The works of worthies such as J S Bach, R Plant, and J Page did wonders for easing my pain. The PSP really is a great media playing device, and has been my constant companion even when I’m not able to play its games.

My DS was a great friend through the pain as well. The only game I could play without increasing the pain was Advance Wars on the DS. The stylus-based controls and the turn-based gameplay makes it an ideal rest-based game! Where would us gamers be without our handhelds to help us get through our darkest hours? However, with my PC and consoles ruled out, most of my gaming will have to be put off until my doctor gives the order. I’m just glad that Fallout 3 isn’t coming out his week. The torture of waiting to play it would have been too much to take! The break also gave me some time to do something I don’t normally have much time for — thinking. All sorts of game-related thoughts, lying in bed with a hot water bottle under my back.

Some nostalgic — reminiscing about old favourites. Some futuristic — coming up with design wishlists and games I’d like to play someday.

Of course, some of the time was spent wondering what Fable 2 will be like. It was refreshing and fun to just lie back and let thoughts wander off on their own, without having any objective to shape them.

I’m going to do more of this.

And, on a slightly serious note, all you hardcore gamers out there would do well to pay attention to your playing habits, posture, and general health. Make sure your chair, table and equipment follow basic ergonomic standards. (In fact, some people have opined that working and playing long hours on a laptop is what really caused my problem. I’m considering switching to a desktop).Take breaks during long play sessions. And get some exercise — sports, gym, yoga, or anything else that strengthens your back and shoulders.

If you neglect these, give me a call. I know a good doctor.

Game Invader - DRM rant

I’m not a pirate. So stop treating me like one, EA. I just purchased a copy of the much-anticipated Spore. I was all excited to play it.

And then the DRM kicks in.

[Note : some of the DRM issues for Spore that I mention in the article have been removed or modified. But my complaint is more about such draconian DRM practices in general, not as much Spore in particular]

Game Invader - Superhero Games

You’d normally think that superheroes and video games make a perfect fit.Bashing up bad guys, executing amazing powers, rescuing people and saving the world are what we do fairly regularly in gaming anyway, right? So it should be even more fun doing the same things while simultaneously playing the role of your favourite super-hero, right? Actually, that’s right. (Bet you thought I was going to say ‘Wrong!’) But it is rather surprising at first glance when we see that for every such game that gets it right, there are a dozen that get it so horribly wrong.

Marvel vs Capcom, Freedom Force, and even Superhero League of Hoboken! All in the full article here.

Game Invader - Bad Guys to Die For

Somehow, it’s always the bad guys who are cooler. Darth Vader. The Joker. Mogambo. Gabbar Singh. It’s the criminals, the lawbreakers, the misguided bad eggs that are more glamorous than the often goody-two shoes heroes who fight them.

It’s been no different in gaming. Some of the most memorable and successful characters in gaming franchises have been dark, sinister (and sometimes hilarious) villains who we, as players, always wanted to destroy.

More on my favourite gaming villains.

What begins with a D and is the most addictive thing on earth?

This article first appeared in 'Game Invader', my weekly column for the New Indian Express

With Diablo 3 round the corner, click-fingers all over the world must be feeling a familiar twitch.

Diablo was one of the most important games ever made — along with Fallout and Baldur’s Gate, it revived and energised fantasy role-playing, catapulting it into one of the most popular and profitable of genres. It also established Blizzard as a studio with a reputation for making polished, fun and great looking games that would cut across gamer demographics and appeal to just about anyone. It started off the chain reaction that would give us Starcraft, Warcraft 3, and World of Warcraft — establishing some of gaming’s most successful games and franchises of all time.

But this isn’t about any of that. There’s one thing about Diablo, you see, that anyone who’s played it agrees upon. You couldn’t stop.

You would click-click-click-rightclick-click your way through hordes of monsters through the wee hours of the morning. You’d set up clever town portals that would teleport you to safety when things got hairy. You would test new weapons, and look for great treasures. But stop playing? Wait — just 10 minutes more.

Diablo (and its sequel), are without question the most addictive games I’ve ever played. Sure, Baldur’s Gate 2, Bioshock and scores of other titles are equally compelling. But there’s a difference. With those games, I know why I want to play — I’m playing to advance the story, to enjoy the gameplay some more, to lengthen the experience. With Diablo, there’s no rationale — other than how much fun it is, moment to moment. I’ve played Diablo for hours after it stopped being fun — my eyes and fingers would hurt, my brain would shut off, but my finger would keep clicking away, killing hundreds upon hundreds of evil, dastardly beasts.

Perhaps the only other game that I’ve found as addictive is the Civilization series, but the addiction comes from the challenge, and the promise of victory. With Diablo, it goes beyond that — it’s the hopeless, empty feeling that only an addict will recognise.

Such perfection in game design! Gameplay that’s so simple and fun that even the most inexperienced of gamers could quickly jump in. The game’s entire controls consisted of simply clicking, or right clicking the mouse. That’s it. If you could click, you could play Diablo, and have tons of fun kicking the collective butts of the forces of darkness. What could be a better formula for success?

Unimaginably cunning pacing, too. Each shiny new bauble — better armour, powerful weapons, cooler spells — was always round the corner, only a few more minutes of gameplay away. So you always thought you’d play for maybe five more minutes, before realising that hours had passed. True to Blizzard tradition, the Diablo games also featured the best visual design and music to be found in gaming, and eye-popping cinematics providing the cherry on top. The visceral quality of Blizzard titles have always been cutting-edge, and never quite matched by anyone else.

Now Diablo 3 is almost here. The gameplay videos on YouTube and other sites have the fans drooling in anticipation. The release date hasn’t been announced yet, but the game is expected sometime next year.

Better quit my job, and keep myself free through 2009, just in case! Do I sound like a Blizzard fanboy? Damn. And I haven’t even mentioned Starcraft 2 up to this point!