Monday, May 4, 2009

Wanted : Better Indian Casual Games

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

The recent spate of 'election' themed games on many Indian casual gaming web sites has led to some amusing coverage in the press.

Many paragraphs have been devoted to explaining how 'gaming companies' have 'developed' games based on the elections in order to 'educate' players or give them a 'feel' of politics. Some people from these companies have even given us the usual sound bytes about how they wanted to provide 'this experience' or educate players about 'that aspect of gaming'.

Which is all very well – except for one thing.

The games mostly, er . . suck.

Creating a poor 2-D platform jumping game where L.K.Advani or Manmohan Singh must run, jump over obstacles, avoid 'political opponents' and collect 'votes', is no different from Mario running and jumping over obstacles, avoiding 'koopa troopas' and collecting coins. And the latter is much more fun.

A game like this, despite the ridiculous claims by the marketing or PR people who make it, does not educate players about the election in any reasonable way. It is nothing more than a cheap attempt to cash in on a current topic – which is fine with me, really. That's what casual game developers need to do. Only, please stop claiming that it's some major design innovation with lofty goals of education and the like.

It's not just an election thing – I recently read about a 'stock market' game where players would have to 'catch' stockbrokers or investors or whoever, who would leap out of a building window, presumably to commit suicide. Yeah, just like Kaboom. Or Fire. Or a hundred other games from the classic arcade game era.

This, according to the company whose web site it is on, is supposed to educate people on various aspects of the recession. What the WTF?

Indian casual game publishers – hear this. We appreciate your efforts and investments into expanding gaming markets in India. We love the way you have introduced casual gaming to the average Indian office goer or college student or housewife. Full power to you.

But we'd appreciate it even more if you also spent some resources to develop truly original and interesting designs which would help us get the quintessentially Indian, topical 'experiences' you claim you want to deliver. How about a true-blue Rajnikanth style fight game? Or an election game where you need to lie and cheat your way to victory? Or an Autorickshaw racing game that actually captures the unique physics of a rickshaw, and is not merely a vanilla racer with Autorickshaw models replacing the usual cars? There I knocked off three ideas that wouldn't be too hard for your developers to make. And it took me all of five minutes. Surely your people can do better?

A little more thought into concept development and design can lead to an exponential increase in the quality of games on the Indian casual scene. And no. I'm sorry, just swapping characters and assets from an existing design with 'Indian' people and objects doesn't make the game Indian, or even topical. Was Yoddha an 'Indian' game just because it had ostensibly Pakistani terrorists and . . er . . Pepsi bottles? Nope. It was just another bad shooter, period.

So show us some love, publishers. Put on your thinking caps, and give us some games that will make us laugh, scare us silly, or get us thinking. Hire the youngsters who are playing your games – they'll surely be glad to help out.

And for heaven's sake, stop your idiot marketing / corporate communications people from making stupid, ill-informed and downright LOLworthy statements to the press.

Worried about your child playing videogames ? Read on.

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

I have a six year old son who loves videogames. I love videogames. So this works out great for the family toy-shopping budget. But this article isn't about how to cut your monthly expenses by having offspring who share your taste in digital entertainment. Nope. That will have to wait.

I still meet a lot of parents who are concerned, and sometimes even shocked, that I let my son play the kind of games he does. This is to share my experience with them and those among you like them, who are confused about letting their children play the games they seem to love so much.

First things first – I don't let my son play violent, twisted, or morally ambiguous titles. No GTA. No Mortal Kombat. No Resident Evil. Cartoonish violence is fine with me though. I'd prefer my son to play Street Fighter IV rather than watch supid TV serials where ordinary people (just like the friends and family he relates to) lie, cheat and even kill each other due to money, ego and sex. Now, that's some truly sick shite, and yet I don't hear too many parents expressing concern about kids watching these works of art.

But the really interesting part? Left to himself, my son naturally gravitates towards games where you create things, as opposed to destroy them. In the past few months, the majority of his game time has been spent building things in the Spore creature, building and vehicle creators, building his own levels in Boom Blox and Little Big Planet, and making music in Wii Music. Yes, he'll sometimes prefer a session of SF IV or Super Mario Galaxy, but it's surprising how much he prefers to build and create, using the tools provided by games.

That's my son, building some creepy eight-legged spider-vehicle in SPORE.

Take Wii Music, for instance. When he began playing it, his attempts at making music were an absolute mess – he'd just randomly wave the Wiimote about, creating noises that would make Cacofonix sound like Jose Carreras. But now, he's showing a clearly improved understanding of musical concepts like tempo and pitch. He gets most of the pitch-matching and pattern recognition exercises correct. His jam sessions sound a lot nicer. And he just conducted an orchestra playing Beethoven's 'Ode to Joy' for an 88% score, and thunderous applause from the virtual audience.

And no help from me. I just observe, and never intervene with his learning process. These games are great virtual teaching tools, designed by hardcore pros who know exactly how to help someone improve at a skill while keeping it fun, challenging and yet not frustrating. (Just ask my wife – who managed a 20% increase in Guitar Hero accuracy over a single two hour play session).

Playing with Boom Blox or Spore's creators are similar to playing with Lego or Play-Doh – stimulating the child's imagination in very similar ways. Yes, playing with physical toys provides a tactile experience that cannot be replicated in a videogame, but on the other hand, videogames open up creative possibilities and features that are impossible with physical toys.

Also, my son is a normal child who enjoys reading, cartoons, music, mucking about with toys, playing in water, painting, climbing trees, hanging out with his friends, and playing cruel pranks on his mother. He's not obsessed with videogames, nor are they a mystery to him – they're just a part of his overall scheme of things.

My point? By integrating the right videogames into a child's play mix, there are benefits to be had that many of you may not have thought possible.

Dumb, mindless fun. Highly recommended.

by Anand Ramachandran. This article first appeared on my weekly 'Game Invader' column in The New Indian Express.

Playing Tigon Studios' recently released Wheelman on the PS3 managed to touch a long-forgotten chord in me – the one which makes me enjoy extremely stupid yet fun games. I'll play these for hours – with a stupid grin on my face, which confounds my wife and thrills my son.

Wheelman is never going to be counted as an all-time classic, but when it's fun, it's heaps of fun. First, you play as Vin Diesel. Unless there's a game based on Chuck Norris or Mr.T coming out anytime soon, that can't be beat for sheer awesomeness. Second, you drive a number of cars, bikes and trucks performing some wicked maneouvres on the streets of Barcelona. You'll take flying leaps from vehicle to vehicle, perform screeching handbrake turns, pull off some absolutely insane stunts and participate in truly Hollywood-style hi-speed chases. The wonderfully forgiving, floaty vehicle physics and the relatively low difficulty levels make Wheelman one of those games you'll play for hours, without even understanding why you didn't stop much earlier.

It's got a crap story, terrible acting, ho-hum graphics and annoyingly crippled on-foot shooter gameplay. But when you're driving an eighteen wheeler truck over a bridge, knocking enemy vehicles into the water, and simultaneously dodging launched grenades, you won't care.

Wheelman, at least for me personally, follows in a long tradition of games that shouldn't be so much fun, but undoubtedly are. They're not smart or clever. They don't have great interactive narratives, or layered, nuanced characters, or complex, deep gameplay mechanics. Most of them involve blowing things up, breaking things down, or slicing and dicing. But hey, they're fun to play.

Okay – I'll admit it. The whole article was a setup so I could talk about Serious Sam. Just when every game was trying to be Half-Life, by adding storylines and characters and sophistication, Serious Sam went the other route and delivered crazy, mad shooting gameplay where you just had to shoot hundreds of things that would run at you (if you could stop laughing at their ridiculousness). It was astounding, breathtaking fun – and had no right to be. Dumb shooters were supposed to be dead. People wanted more depth. More cerebral gameplay. More moody atmosphere. Right? Apparently not, and thank God for that.

Then, there's the Party Crash mode in the Burnout games that has to be one of the silliest, laugh-out-loud game modes in recent history. There's something to be said for a bunch of increasingly drunken people passing a controller around and seeing who can cause the most carnage at a traffic junction. Burnout is probably the leading racing franchise in gaming today (eat dust, NFS), but Party Crash is easily the most frivolous and addictive diversion it offers. I've never seen it fail to liven up a party.

I've also always enjoyed the Mortal Kombat titles, despite the obvious superiority of the Soul Calibur, Street Fighter or Tekken series in terms of deep, sophisticated fighting mechanics. There's something stupidly fun about MK. And of course, there's that announcer, too. I'm in fact drawing great amounts of enjoyment from the latest iteration, Mortal Kombat versus DC Universe – much delight watching Batman, Superman and The Joker getting medieval on Liu Kang, Raiden and the MK gang.

There's something about the basic, direct fun factor of games like these that taps directly into the essential appeal of gaming itself – the original classics like Space Invaders, Pole Position, Defender and Pac-Man were astoundingly simple yet undeniably addictive. Something there to think about.

Hoog Lee comics on the KKR web site

The company I work at, A Bellyful of Dreams Entertainment, is creating some comics for the Kolkata Knight Riders web site. The comics are all based on Hoog Lee, the KKR mascot which was created by my colleagues Shashi Sudigala and Raj Golay.

The comics are essentially aimed at a younger audience (approximately 8 t0 12), as the KKR franchise is looking to create a strong brand equity with this age group, presumably to leverage SRK's popularity among them. But for that, I guess the team needs to, like,win a few games :)

The two strips I'm posting below are written by me and drawn by Ashish Padlekar. Click on a thumbnail to see the full strip.

We're also doing some single-panel stuff written by Ravi Abburi and drawn by Raj Golay. Am including a sample below, but you can head over to the KKR site for more.

Will keep you guys posted on more developments.