Saturday, April 11, 2009

What's so 'Indian' about Hanuman's gameplay?

By Anand Ramachandran. This article first appeared on my weekly Game Invader column for The New Indian Express.

At the recent launch of Sony's Hanuman game for the PS2, there was much brouhaha about Hanuman being a non-violent game which featured “Indian Gameplay”. Whatever that means.

While I've written in these pages earlier about how Hanuman : Boy Warrior is a significant and important effort (and kudos to Sony, Aurona and Milestone for it), this kind of ill-informed and ridiculous marketing speak won't do the game any favours.

First, it was amusing to listen to Hanuman: Boy Warrior being touted as a game that promoted values such as non-violence – when it is merely a cookie-cutter beat-em-up where Lord Hanuman essentially bludgeons a variety of assorted demons using a mace. How is this non-violent? Purely because it's a god doing the bashing? What if it were Kratos? Or Thor?

Secondly, the game uses a storytelling device that contrives to tell you that you aren't really 'killing' your enemies, you're merely 'liberating their souls'. And some stuff about how 'nobody is really evil', and 'everyone has good inside them'. Which is all very well, and commendable. But pray tell, how any of this constitutes 'Indian Gameplay', as was proudly claimed by Sony bigwigs at the launch event?

In fact, I take exception to both parts of the expression 'Indian Gameplay'. The concepts of good and evil, and 'liberation of the soul' as explained in the game are hardly exclusive to Indian philosophies or worldviews. Any number of cultures all over the world have explored, adopted and preached the very same thoughts for centuries. Hence this aspect of the game is no more Indian than it is Chinese or Mexican or African.

And also, explain to me how this constitutes gameplay? In terms of gameplay, you beat the baddies up, then they fall, and leave a glowing orb of energy (the soul, in this case) floating in mid-air. Which is exactly like God of War. Or Fable. Or Ninja Gaiden. So, instead of calling it 'mana' or 'experience', you're calling it a 'freed soul'. Er . . sorry to disappoint, Sony, but the last time I checked, that isn't new gameplay. It's just terminology, and not terribly original terminology either, used to describe or add meaning to the actions that constitute gameplay. You could call it a storytelling device, perhaps. But for a company like Sony Computer Entertainment, which makes games, for crying out loud, to describe this as “Indian Gameplay” borders on the ridiculous. No, scratch that. It IS ridiculous.

I said the same thing when FxLabs launched the ill-fated Agni, and I'll say it again for Hanuman : Boy Warrior. It's a great effort, a very important and pioneering move by Sony and their partners, and worthy of much recognition and applause. But by making silly, ignorant statements, they do an injustice to their own product. Just imagine how amusing the international gaming community will find this – it's embarrassing that India's first console game will sadly be mocked, largely due to foolish claims made in the name of marketing or promotion. Everybody loves an honest, brave effort (which is what Hanuman is), but nobody who is anybody has the patience for claims such as Hanuman offers 'truly Indian gameplay', or that Agni was 'on par with the best PC games available'.

So listen up, corporate suits. You've have done the hard part by developing a game against steep odds. Don't eff it up by making lazy, ill-informed claims that only act as fodder for ridicule. At the very least, it will make the likes of me shut up.

Swinging both ways : Swordfighting in games.

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

With the arrival of Mad World on the Wii a few weeks ago, gamers are abuzz with excitement : have we finally got the game with the ultimate sword / weapon based melee fighting mechanics?

Mad World + Chainsaw = full all-singing all-dancing joy!

Mad World is the first truly ultra-violent hardcore game to make it big on the Wii platform, and, naturally, has gamers in a tizzy over its use of the Wiimote for bloody, splatterlicious swashbuckling moves using a variety of bladed weapons.

Ever since Nintendo demonstrated the Wiimote and its motion sensor technology many years ago, people all over the world immediately began expecting great sword-based games at long last. Here was the system that would finally make the dreams of several wannabe Errol Flynns, Zorros and Luke Skywalkers come true. They could finally unleash all those twirling, whirling, skilful feints, thrusts and slashes and despatch all manner of evil foes. Much fun was expected.

But what followed was, mostly, disappointing. Zelda's swordplay was a ho-hum part of an otherwise exciting game. No More Heroes featured great sword moves, but was a generally dull game outside of combat. And the great, promised, lightsaber game never came.

No More Heroes was perhaps the first game to get Wiimote swordfighting right.

The history of sword-control in gaming is in fact varied and interesting. Sword fighting has always been an enjoyable and beloved part of videogames. The earliest ones I remember – such as Barbarian, and Jordan Mechner's original Prince of Persia – offered fantastic fencing fun. But for many years (and even to this day), swordfighting remained a series of button-presses.

And unlike fans of gunplay, who were mostly satisfied with the mouse-keyboard and two-thumbstick combinations that are that genre's norm, the sword fighting fans always clamoured for more. It simply didn't feel right, this abstract button-pressing thing. It didn't help that the bullets brigade also had light-guns when they felt like 'hold-it-in-your-hands' experience.

That's not to say there weren't valiant attempts.

The curious 'Die By The Sword' on the PC platform attempted an early control scheme where the mouse gave the player complete control of the characters sword-arm. It worked decently well in theory, and to be fair, even in practice. However, it ended up disappointing most players because you could repeatedly 'punk' on one or two effective moves and complete the game. The game didn't reward, and on the contrary seemed to punish, players who tried to innovate or experiment with interesting swordplay.

Die by The Sword was an interesting, but only partially successful attempt at a true PC based sword fighting experience.

But perhaps the biggest disappointment of all was the ill-fated Star Wars : Obi Wan, which promised to deliver true lightsaber control, but ended up being a broken, bad game that was roundly condemned by gamers worldwide. They were expecting to wield lightsabers, and were given a sad, 'by the numbers' platform beat-em-up. And, until the advent of the Wii, it was assumed that there never would, indeed never could, be a good simulation of sword fighting in the gaming medium.

After which, it was back to good ole button pressing. The Prince of Persia games. Oblivion. Star Wars : The Force Unleashed. And a host of other solid combat systems that are fun but don't deliver what true fans of swordfighting have been clamouring for for so many years.

Will 'Mad World' open the floodgates for more sword-based experimentation from game developers? Or will it be an aberration, an oddity, after which it will return to business as usual? Much will depend on how well the game does commercially (it's already been received well by critics), and I'm keeping my fingers crossed and my sword-arm ready.

Will Hanuman be gaming's saviour in India?

By Anand Ramachandran. This post is a mashup of two separate pieces I did for The New Indian Express and Business Today.

He's possibly the greatest Hero in all of fiction and Mythology. He would have ended the Ramayana war before it began, if only the Lord had let him. He even managed to turn a crappy animated film into a super smash hit that, in turn, sold a lorryload of crappy merchandise and made tons of money for the producers.

Now, Sony is hoping that he can do the same for the Playstation brand in India. They couldn't have picked a better guy . . er . . god.

Yep, everyone will agree that Hanuman is the pWnzor. The cat's whiskers. The kvlt_sh1t3. The Son of Vayu has, with good reason, captured public imagination through the ages, appealing to generation after generation with his heroism, chivalry, strength of character, and sheer awesomeness.

Which is why Sony Computer Entertainment Europe has gone with Hanuman:Boy Warrior as India's first ever indigenously produced console game. That's right, this is the first ever true-blue, made-in-India, made-for-India console game, and that alone marks it out for importance. It's a great sign that Sony is supporting and investing in Indian games made by Indian studios – surely the best way forward to tapping into the world's largest unexploited videogame market. I'm hoping that Hanuman : Boy Warrior marks the beginning of things to come.

Let's get the obvious out of the way. From the hour or so that I spent playing the game, here are my impressions. The game looks and plays like a PSOne platforming action-adventure. Although the core gameplay just about passes muster (in itself a commendable feat for developer Aurona Technologies), the game lacks polish at every level. The graphics are dated by about fifteen years. The controls (though surprisingly decent for most part) are wonky and unpredictable. The camera control is completely manual – and cripples gameplay sometimes. The level design, combat and animation all reflect the relative inexperience of the developer. There's also the definitely the possibility of budget and time constraints – the game was apparently developed in ten months.

But, in the end, none of this really matters very much in the context of this game. While it will never impress the hardcore, Hanuman : Boy Warrior is decent enough a game to offer a few hours of fun to its target audience – very young, newbie and casual gamers for whom this may even be a first-time console buy. This market is not as quality conscious as veteran videogame buyers, and may be more willing to forgive Hanuman: Boy Warrior's technical and gameplay deficiencies than someone who regularly plays God of War.

Hanuman : Boy Warrior has the potential to do for videogames in India what the Hanuman animated movie did for animated features – open up the market and raise investor interest. In that sense, this is an important game. If it does manage to become a mass-market seller, it could pave the way for more, and certainly better games to come through from India – a service that is invaluable to the fledgling Indian market.

According to Santosh Pillai, CEO of Aurona, the game was completed in nine months, which is a tremendous achievement by any standards. Of course, many of the issues mentioned earlier could be put down to budget and time-frame limitation, and Aurona has done a creditable job overall. But, sadly, the game runs the risk of being panned by critics and gamers from the hardcore segment.

The market for videogames in India is a strange beast. While the market, in theory, has existed since the mid eighties, with a number of 8-bit and 16-bit Nintendo / Sega clones appearing on store shelves – it has never really gathered momentum in the mainstream. A thriving grey market continues to exist, with Nintendo's Gameboy and the PS2 itself being the top sellers. As far as the official market goes, with Nintendo's recent entry into the fray through HCL, all three top console players are now present in India – but sales continue to pale in comparison to evolved markets. Recently, at an industry event, 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. Compare those figures with international figures, which run into the millions, and the untapped potential becomes obvious.

However, price points are still a major issue. To really hit the big time, the gaming industry needs middle-class India to buy videogames. The big three consoles cost upwards of twenty thousand rupees – a major investment for most Indian middle-class families. Games, too, are priced between Rs.2500/- and Rs.3500/-, an expensive proposition for what is essentially a plaything. Also, unlike in the west and Japan, where the average videogame customer is actually aged about 33, the Indian consumer still perceives videogames as a purchase for children, further increasing the price barrier.

This is why the PS2, at a price point of Rs.6990/-, and Hanuman : Boy Warrior gains much importance – it can remove the price and cultural barriers in one fell swoop. By positioning the purchase as an ideal premium gift for children, it can push consoles into middle-class homes, creating an installed base and bringing future repeat-buyers into the fold.

Hanuman : Boy Warrior is priced at Rs.499/-, which is an interesting price point that is slightly below the norm for PS2 titles, but not so low that it could be considered breaktrhough pricing. The game has the right ingredients to work in the Indian mass market – an irresistible Hero, the Mythology factor, and an affordable platform with the widest installed base in the country.With the right marketing push, and a little bit of good luck, this could become the game-changer that the industry is looking for.

Playing old favourites in new places.

A review of the N-Gage version of Monopoly Here and Now : World Edition, which first appeared on my weekly Game Invader column for The New Indian Express.

One of my personal favourite gaming moments over the past few months came not on the PC or a heavyweight console, but on my mobile phone.

During a long wait at a bank (due to some procedural screw ups they seem to be so good at coming up with), I randomly decided to fire up a MONOPOLY HERE AND NOW : WORLD EDITION game on my N81. The game is an N-Gage port of the perennial board-game favourite, and I expected that it would help me pass a few minutes while I checked it out.

Monopoly Here and Now : World Edition is clumsily named, but surprisingly addictive and boatloads of fun.

But before I knew it, I was completely hooked, wheeling and dealing with the AI opponent with so much fervour, I almost missed my turn to meet the manager when it eventually came. An hour and a half had passed, and I was none the wiser.

The N-Gage version of Monopoly is a lovingly created, faithful translation that is sure to please fans of the board game. Within minutes, you'll be planning your empire, deciding buying strategies, improving and mortgaging properties, praying that the dice will roll up a favoured number, drawing Chance cards, and of course, making a few trips to Jail. Once you get past the very mild learning curve, which mainly involves understanding the controls and menus, you'll be enjoying an honest-to-goodness game of Monopoly.

In time, you'll grow to hate your AI opponent as much as you normally hate real-life monopoly opponents! Pity there's no cheating.

The AI is surprisingly decent – especially when trading with. Your opponent will accept or reject your offers to trade properties, come up with offers and counter offers of its own, and generally behave on the same irritating, hate-inducing way that most real-worl Monopoly opponents do. There's something about the game which makes normal, perfectly likeable people turn into stubborn, unreasonable, ruthless unspeakables. Brilliant stuff – the kind of appeal that makes for great games.

Playing Monopoly on my phone was a surprisingly complete and authentic Monopoly-playing experience that included almost every single aspect of the board game's fun factor – with the possible exception of cheating, which is one of the things purists will miss!

Monopoly Here and Now isn't a graphical powerhouse, but does feature some serviceable animation and fairly snappy presentation overall.

You'll spend many enjoyable hours poring over your title deeds, making offers and counter offers, and hoping for the favourable luck that will help you string together properties, build on them, and decimate your opponents into bankruptcy.

If you have an N-Gage compatible device, this is a must-buy game. And I'm pretty sure thare may be other mobile versions of it as well, so all you Monopoly faithfuls, give it a shot. Much joy to be had.

Monopoly is a classic example of how to tap into the delectable combination of classic gaming experiences and mobile phone technology to recapture the magic of old favourite board and card games for new audiences, as well as those like myself who rediscover these games. A huge advantage is that these are all already proven, polished and successful game designs – as long as the port is well done, you have a definite winner. It's a shame then, that so many of the ports are so badly or lazily done.

The excellent UNO and the upcoming UNO Rush, Carcasonne and Settlers of Catan on XBOX Live are also testimony to the good sense of well-made ports of existing classic game designs. People love playing these games, so developers, can we have more of these please? They're relatively cheap to make, and are almost sure-fire hits.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to roll a double, so I won't have to use my 'get out of jail free' card.