Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Notes from FICCI Frames 2009

I was at FICCI Frames last week, owing to their kindness in inviting me to be on the jury for the BAF (Best Animated Frames) awards, for the gaming categories. These awards have been constituted primarily to encourage Indian game developers and publishers in our fledgling industry by recognizing their efforts – especially on the mobile and casual games platforms. Oddly enough, there were also PC and Console game categories where the final nominees included international heavyweights such as Spore and Gears of War 2 – which were entered by the Indian marketing / distribution arms of EA and Microsoft respectively.

However, the interesting parts were the entries on offer in the casual and mobile gaming categories. Mobile was surprisingly decent, with the winning entry being a bizarrely faithful port of Bioshock, of all games, by Indiagames. Of course, it's an isometric scrolling action-adventure, not an FPS, but the story and sequence of events are exactly faithful to the award-winning original.

Casual games were a different story, with none of the entries being of a standard that was deserving of recognition with an award. Again, strangely, there was much debate on this among members of the jury. Those of us from the industry scored the games completely differently from those who were young gamers – leading to much amusement and introspection on the disconnect between the guys who make the games and those who play them. We eventually respected the views of the gamers, and handed out the award to the game that they felt was best.

But to dwell upon this difference for a moment more – there were certain features in a game that the designers and developers in the jury, myself included, felt were elegant and well-implemented, that the gamer crowd didn't care for and thought were bad. And certain bugs and instances of bad programming or graphics that we were bothered by , they didn't even notice. Much food for thought.

Amidst all this jury duty, I also found time to attend some of the sessions on the gaming industry. The most interesting thing, for me, to emerge here was that, for the first time in a conference like this, Microsoft and Sony were willing to share some unofficial sales figures. Microsoft shared an unofficial figure of 'less than 100000' XBOX units (of course, that could even be five thousand). Sony claimed aound 400000 PS2s, 120000 PSPs and 35000 PS3 units sold. While these figures don't sound very high in light of worldwide figures, it's still a start. And it's up to us to get them up – so each of you go out and convince all your friends to buy game consoles!

Overall, the gaming industry honchos sounded a lot less gung-ho and more measured and pragmatic in their talks this year. While they're still cautiously optimistic about the growth of gaming in India, they're not quite shouting from the rooftops about how gaming shall conquer all. Perhaps it's all for the better, though. In fact, the dominant thought seemed to be that the only challenge for the gaming industry is that things are taking longer than earlier expected (my opinion being that the expectations were too high to begin with). Nobody doubts that gaming is here to stay, the only problem is that it isn't going to hit critical mass anytime soon.

I also got the chance to play some Guitar Hero with a member of the development team from Red Octane, Chennai. Needless to say, I got my sorry butt whipped!

Love in the time of videogames.

This article first appeared on Valentine's Day in my weekly Game Invader Column for the New Indian Express. They changed the title to 'On Crush this time, not crash'! WTF? They obviously didn't get the reference.

A gaming column for Valentine's day?

I was tempted to free associate from 'Valentine's day' to 'heart' to 'blood' and then write a nostalgic piece about the 'ten bloodiest videogames of all time'.

But no. That would not be appropriate.

So let's talk about love. Let's talk about romance in the world of video gaming.

Gaming's greatest hero is also probably its greatest romantic. For almost three decades, Mario has had but one reason to exist – rescue that careless Princess Peach from Kong, or Bowser, or whoever else felt that inevitable urge to kidnap her and whisk her off to some castle. He'd leap chasms, fight off all manner of creatures, swim through drains, cross deserts and lands of fire and ice, and even fly through space to save Peach and bring her back to Mushroom Kingdom. What a man, eh, ladies? If only he'd shave off that silly Anil-Kapoor like moustache and swap those overalls for something nicer.

Mario has been single-mindedly rescuing his serial-kidnapee lady love for over twenty-five years now. Dump her, dude. She's one careless dame.

Shigeru Miyamoto also created another serial princess-rescuer in the main protagonist of the Zelda series – Link (who bears an eerie resemblance to Peter Pan). Though Link, too, has been rescuing Princess Zelda for almost as long as Mario, he's less single-minded about it – taking time off to explore random caves looking for treasure, and running all sorts of errands for his fellow villagers. Unlike Mario, who is permanently running full-tilt towards his goal, Link goes about the business of princess-rescuing in a more leisurely manner. But hey, at least he's clean-shaven.

Bioware games have always had a romance track – your character could fall in love with one or more of your fellow NPCs, and, depending on certain choices you could make, the romance would unfold in different ways. Baldur's Gate 2, Kotor, Jade Empire and Mass Effect all had romance sub-plots.

But surely none of these matched the chutzpah of Fallout 2 – where your character, regardless of Gender, could end up married to a particular character (Davin or Miria). It was a hilariuos, shocking, unforgettable moment, where if you attempted to flirt with one of these characters, you'd end up in the sack, and the character's father would bust in and do a Muthalik – forcing you to get married! And you'd then be saddled with a gay (or straight) spouse who would faithfully follow you around for the rest of the game. Unless they were killed by a Radscorpion or a Deathclaw. Or you sold them to slavers. Delicious.

Role-playing games seem to be a perfect fit for some sort of romantic element to the gameplay, even if it is usually only some sort of minigame where you need to some 'love meter' up to a certain level by doing silly tasks to please your prospective lover. Hey – waitaminnit – just like in real life! Messrs. Molyneux and Wright may be on to something after all!

There are also several delightful (or icky, depending on your POV) tales of people meeting online in games such as Everquest or World of Warcraft, and then getting hitched in real life. Conversely, there are also tragic (or uplifting, depending on your POV) tales of people getting divorced over disagreements arising because of these games as well. I could mention Second Life, but since it Second Life isn't a game, I'll pass.

But I believe that gaming would have well and truly arrived when a couple would look forward to spending Valentine's Day playing Chainsaw Melee on Gears of War 2 for six hours straight. Now that's romantic.

Monday, February 9, 2009

A tragic tale of two consoles

This article first appeared on my weekly Game Invader column for the New Indian Express.

I've just had the awesome experience of having to major consoles go on the fritz within the span of one month. I wonder if it's some sort of all-India record?

First, my XBOX 360 went RROD. This, after I had mocked my brother a few weeks earlier when it happened to him. Two in one family in a short period – also an all-India record? Perhaps.

But think about, it, with a rumoured 30% failure rate, even higher than that of an off-form Yuvraj Singh, it was bound to happen. Anyone who's played Fallout 3 and used V.A.T.S will know that a 30% chance headshot is well worth a try.

Damn. Gears of War 2 would have to wait.

Response from Microsoft, however, was exemplary. One call to their call-centre, and a shiny new unit was at my doorstep about seven days later, with a grumpy courier who didn't even bother to check my old unit for damage before replacing it and trotting off. I was left wondering if I could just have easily slipped my old PsOne, or even my toaster for that matter, into the box and packed him off. Lucky for him, and for Microsoft, that I'm a nice guy. Really.

Following a few weeks of much huffery and puffery over PS3 hardware superiority, guess what happens. My shiny black box refuses to eject discs. Some quick research on the Internet, and I managed to get the Disc ( Little Big Planet, for the trivia-fiends) out, by performing the delicate and complex maneouvre of keeping the eject button pressed for a full ten seconds.

My joy at hoodwinking the PS3 was, however, short-lived. The beastly machine staged a stirring comeback by stubbornly refusing to recognize discs altogether. This time, no smart solution from the Internet gurus. PS3 – 1. Frustrated gamer – 0.

Damn. Little Big Planet would have to wait.

For me, it was a little more complicated with the PS3 simply because mine is an old 60GB model. Some inside information (Yeah, baby. It's good to be in the gaming industry!) revealed that , sure enough, SONY would provide me with a replacement, but it would be a new 40 GB unit, since they no longer make the 60GB ones. And, before you think I'm whining about a mere 20 gigs – the 60GB version is fully compatible with PS2 games, and the 40GB is not. I'll explain my problem in four words – Shadow of the Colossus.

Hence, I had to locate a guy in some mall who would repair the thing, and I'm still waiting to get it back. Blast. So much for the PS3's superiority, at least in my book.

And the problem with me is, even though I own every console available (okay, okay – no Gamecube, no Lynx, no Neo-Geo pocket colour and suchlike), I will only want to play on the one that's on the fritz. Fallout 3 sat neglected on the PS3 while I waited sadly for the XBOX to be replaced so I could continue Gears of War 2. Now, Fable 2 lies in the box, while all my thoughts are of Sackboy (okay, okay. SackPERSON) and Solid Snake. Call me an idiot. Louder please. Thank you.

And anyway, the point to all this? Remember folks – no matter what the battle, Nintendo always wins.

Why do games need to be like movies?

This article first appeared on my weekly 'Game Invader' column for the New Indian Express.

Yeah, I know, the 'narrative versus gameplay' chestnut is a really old argument.

But I found myself thinking about it again, thanks to a typically ignorant review by that pompous snob, Roger Ebert, which reviews Frank Miller's 'The Spirit' with practically no mention of Will Eisner's source material, except for a sarcastic and condescending quip that comes almost as an afterthought.

Ebert called 'The Spirit' a crappy movie, and rightly so. But in choosing to completely ignore the aspects of Miller's self-indulgent stylistic treatment of the material that almost insults Eisner's vision, he demonstrates an alarming ignorance of and disregard for the comics that the film is based on. You're reviewing a comic book movie, and you completely ignore comparisons with the comic book? WTF?

Sadly, if an established and evolved medium like comics, which is actually older than the cinema, can be perceived as irrelevant by Ebert and his ilk, what chance do videogames stand? The venerable Rashid Irani recently reviewed an Uwe Boll Movie, for crying out loud, in the same vein, also managing to slip in something to the tune off “ apparently this game is based on a videogame, and it, like any videogame, is all fluff and no substance.” Hello?

Rashid Irani in the Hindustan Times recently delighted me with a typically uptight, earnest and sincere review of . . er . . . In the Name of the King, Herr Boll's Dungeon Siege based effort. Of course, he just had to take an ill-advised swipe at videgames, having me in splits for about four days.

No substance? Really, Mr.Irani? On what parameters are you evaluating? I'd wager that Tetris or Super Mario Galaxy or Braid or World of Goo have way more 'substance' than much of the tripe that Bollywood (or Hollywood, for that matter) turn out year after year.

The problem is that most of these people compare games to movies or books using parameters that they're comfortable with. They set up the rules, and then claim victory on their terms. Movies are better than games because they have stronger narratives, better stories, more emotional connect.

Er . . that's like saying that Halo is better than Taare Zameen Par because it has a better checkpointing system. Or that Slumdog Millionaire isn't as good as Tetris because it doesn't have any gameplay or level design at all. Ridiculous? Of course. It can't be apples to apples.

Because games need not necessarily be about narrative at all. Sure, there are many games which intend to tell stories, and many that do it extremely well. Grim Fandango, Indigo Prophecy, Knights of The Old Republic, Bioshock and their ilk told stories that would sit shoulder-to-shoulder with the best narratives in any medium, and were better games for it.

But to suggest that every game needs a story, and to cite lack of story as a weakness of gaming as a medium, is absurd. They're called games for a reason – because you're meant to play them. If it wasn't about playing, they'd be interactive movies, and we all know what happened to that dumb idea.

Would Tetris or Bejewelled be better games if they were presented in the context of some silly story about saving the universe? Did the wafer-thin stories of Serious Sam or Doom make them any less fun? Do you really need a narrative context when causing a spectacular pile-up in Burnout? No, no and no. They're fun to play, and being games, that's really the bottom line. If you don't understand gameplay, you aren't equipped to criticize the form. Period.

Legendary designer and creator of Mario, Shigeru Miyamoto once said, “At Nintendo, we don't believe that games should be like movies at all. We try and make games that people can enjoy in the proper way, as games.” There's a reason that Nintendo sells more games than any other company. Because they get it.

Gaming : One Turn at a time.

This article first appeared on my 'Game Invader' column for the New Indian Express.

I love titles like Fallout 3, Call of Duty 4 and Dawn of War to the death, but my success rate in getting non-gamers to play them is abysmal. They'll watch and appreciate, but ask them to have a go, and most of them act as if they've been asked to perform some pointedly unpleasant task, and refuse hastily. Even those who do try are mostly defeated by the high learning curve, and give up after a few minutes of honest effort. These are smart people. They play chess and poker. They'd make fantastic gamers, if only the controls wouldn't get in the way.

Sure, they'll happily play a Wii or DS game or World of Goo or Peggle – but that's not what I'm talking about. How do you get a non-gamer to play a title in one of the traditional 'Hardcore' genres.

One turn at a time.

Yep, the answer is turn-based games, such as the Civilization series or Heroes of Might and Magic, which nobody would mistake for casual games, but offer a level of accessibility to a newbie thanks to their inherent turn based nature.

Civilization IV is a deep and richly complex game - but gives you all the time in the world to figure it out. Which is why it is so successful at attracting new audiences year after year.

These games give you all the time in the world to figure out their complexities and layers of gameplay. This is a huge advantage from a learning curve perspective – as it allows new players to focus on figuring out the gameplay without worrying about futzing around with the controls. Which neatly solves the one big problem that plagues modern FPS, RTS and RPG titles – complicated control schemes that frustrate first-time gamers.

In a turn based title, you can sit and think about your next move for as long as you wish, and the game will wait for you. In an RTS, remain idle for a minute, and your enemy will have likely destroyed your base, killed off your army, and brushed his teeth with your defeated ass.

This means that a newbie playing Civilization or HOMM is focussed on discovering the many delights of the intricate, strategic gameplay and meeting its challenges. Even if they find it initially difficult, they won't be put off from trying again – because, importantly, they believe that they can get better and beat the game.

Because it's interesting to solve puzzles and figure out solutions to challenges in a game. It's fun to choose technologies, negotiate with rival world-leaders, choose combat strategies, plan cities, and order manticores to attack battle-dragons.

But it's a drag, for non-gamers especially, to figure out that you have to hold Shift+Control+F1 and then left click in order to get your tanks to hold a defensive position. Or hold the left shoulder button, click on the left thumbstick, and then pull the right trigger to fire a sniper rifle. These are complicated maneouvres best left to skilled gamers, and are certain turn-offs for people trying to learn a game.

Which is why I find that games like Civilization or SimCity have a far greater success rate in introducing hardcore gaming to a new audience. It's because turn based titles don't pressurize you to learn them at a forced pace – you can concentrate on improving skills that matter, skills that you're comfortable with. Such as planning, strategizing, problem solving and the like. Without the time pressure, learning the controls becomes simply a means to playing the game, as opposed to being a challenge in itself.