Sunday, July 5, 2009

Dust-free milk. Why settle for anything less?

Let it never be said that we give our son anything less than the very best. European standards and all that.

Honesty in advertising.

Yeah. So do we. Bras #FTW.

Over 10,000 test runs, and he can co-create milk, too!

Anybody else seen this product in stores? I was innocently strolling by a supermarket, with absolutely no intention of buying anything, when my eyes fall upon this poster :

At first I just thought it's another product that he endorses. No big deal. And then this detail draws my attention :

Co created? How, exactly? God, the imagery!

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Celebrating 25 years of Tetris

by Anand Ramachandran. This article first appeared in the Mumbai edition of Financial Express.

Twenty-five years is a long time by any standards, but it's an era when you're talking about video games. In an industry that routinely refers to three year old games as obsolete, it's nothing short of amazing that one game continues to be played extensively a quarter of a century after it was first released. That's right folks, Tetris turned twenty five on the 6th of June this year. And, just like its famous falling blocks, shows no signs of slowing down.

Today, Tetris is more than just a videogame, it's a meme. It's been played on every possible gaming device. It's been projected on to buildings. It's been performed live by human actors. A man was arrested and sent to prison for refusing to stop playing it on his mobile phone when on a flight. The L-shaped block (a tetromino, for the technically demanding among you) once won first place in an online poll for 'best video game character' – beating contenders like Mario, Solid Snake and Duke Nukem. Tetris, on all platforms, has sold 125 million copies to date. That's more than the entire population of Germany.

So what's all the fuss about? The durability of Tetris is testimony to Alexey Pajitnov's elegant, timeless design. Seven differently shaped blocks, called tetrominoes, drop down from the top of your screen, with gradually increasing speed. Rotate and shift them to form complete rows, and the rows disappear. If the screen fills up, you lose. This simple and addictive formula has kept Tetris on the top of the charts, year after year, even as videogames have reached a level of sophistication and complexity that Pajitnov wouldn't have even dreamed of in 1984.

To understand the significance of Tetris' staying power, just consider the status of many of its famous contemoparies. Classics like Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Dig-Dug and Defender are played today only by hardcore fanboys and retro-gaming hobbyists. Tetris, on the other hand, became the top selling iPhone application during the first quarter of its release. Tetris isn't retro. It's contemp – two and a half decades after it made its appearance. The Madonna of videogames.

Videogames have come a long way since 1984. They've moved from being the preserve of the PC-Geeks to being the cynosure of everyday homes, with consoles like the Wii, PS3 and XBOX gaining a huge mainstream following. They've leapt out from video arcades into your living room and into your pocket. The videogame industry is no longer an oddity – it's an international behemoth that is beginning to rival Hollywood in terms of revenue.

Today's games are also a far cry from the simple 'shoot everything that moves' or 'run away from the bad guys' gameplay that was dominant when Tetris was born. In last year's amazing 'Spore', you started off as a single unicellular life-form that would, based on choices the player makes, evolve into a land creature, become a tribe, conquer the entire planet, and then set out to explore space. The Grand Theft Auto series lets you explore every nook and cranny of a huge, living city, as you take control of its organized crime in an experience that is the closest thing to starring in your own action movie. Massively Multiplayer Online Games like World of Warcraft and its ilk open up a whole new world where gamers live out alternate lives as dwarven warriors or elven wizards in search of adventure and treasure, in a world populated by millions of other gamers all over the world.

Nintendo's Wii and Microsoft's upcoming Project Natal up the technology ante a notch further – using motion sensitive controls that change the way games are played. The Project Natal demonstration at this year's E3 blew visitors away when it showed how the gamer's physical gestures are motion captured and replicated exactly within the game in real time. Kick, and your character kicks. Duck, and your character ducks. It's all very futuristic and sci-fi, and terribly exciting to gamers worldwide. The Nintendo DS and iPhone, with their touch screen capabilities, are also opening up new ways to play games. Already, Nintendo DS games allow you to call out to characters in-game by shouting out their names, and to blow out candles by physically blowing into the built-in mic.

With emerging technologies like BrainGate (which allows computers to be controlled by thought commands) and AmbX (in addition to audio, AmbX offers feedback, heat, wind and lighting simulation to heighten the ambient gaming experience), the future of gaming looks like it's going to be a truly wild ride.

And, in all this evolutionary hype, it's reassuring that a simple, addictive game like Tetris continues to be among the most played games in the world. It reminds us that, deep down, beyond the graphics wizardry, artificial intelligence and incredible realism, videogames are really only about one simple thing – being fun to play.

The Amar Chitra Katha Hangover

by Anand Ramachandran. This article first appeared in the Mumbai edition of 'Financial Express'.

When the animation boom hit India in the mid-nineties, everybody said that Indian animation would become the next big thing. Now, almost fifteen years later, it still hasn't happened. World-class animation films and TV series from India remain the exception rather than the norm.

However, things may be finally changing.

For many years, India's animation industry was sustained primarily by outsourcing contracts. Business heads quickly found that it was far easier to build technical competence than creative competence, and India's cost advantage saw considerable volumes of work being diverted to studios here. Even today, the larger Indian studios such as DQ, and Famous focus largely on this market.

But there has also been a gradual increase in the number of studios that are investing in creating their own IP for television and motion pictures. And the quality bar is slowly but surely rising. The reasons for this are manifold.

India never had a tradition of animation filmmaking. We didn't have a generation that was raised on animation, who grew up wanting to create stories inspired by the cartoons they loved as children. As a result, the first generation of Indian animators were mostly force-fitted talent that didn't have the natural advantage of 'animation DNA'. The current crop has much better exposure levels, thanks to the explosion of mass media and the Internet, and it is this generation that will drive the Indian industry to create great IP.

Secondly, the film and television industries are beginning to believe that original, locally created content has much better monetization potential, especially in the long run. So they are, albeit cautiously, making investments into creating films and shows that they hope will break through and become part of Indian popular culture – the tipping point for any animated show in the world to become commercially successful.

The mushrooming of smaller animation studios, which simply do not have the infrastructure to consider an outsourcing model, has also been a catalyst for this change. Motivated by big dreams, and working largely without the pressures that come with large scale, these studios are trying to push the envelope and come up with content that will attract the attention of a local, or perhaps even global market.

And the results are becoming visible. While Hanuman has its detractors in terms of its animation quality, few will argue that it demonstrated that a franchise building model could be successful in India. And Disney's Roadside Romeo, despite not finding box-office success, achieved a level of animation quality that is surely a signpost of better things to come. On television, shows such as Toonz's 'Tenali Raman', Green Gold's 'Chota Bheem', and BIG Animation's 'Little Krishna' are a far cry from earlier efforts, and are closer to world-class than anything we've seen in India before.

However, the question remains if any of this content can be made into a true-blue franchise. Today, while studios have come a long way in terms of animation and filmmaking skills, they sadly remain stuck with the old habit of dipping into Mythology or Folklore for stories. All these characters and stories are in the public domain, and can never really be exploited commercially as IP, at least when compared to original creations such as Ben10 or Avatar:The Last Airbender. This has already had an effect, with at least three separate creations based on Krishna being aired on different channels, surely diluting the viewership.

While the practice of using stories from mythology and folklore, which I'm going to call the 'Amar Chitra Katha' hangover, will perhaps build a market quicker, the animation industry will stand to profit much more from creating original creative IP, because this is the only way that the stakeholders can hold the rights to monetize what they create. While the other factors are slowly falling into place to create an environment conducive to throwing forth a breakthrough animation IP, the dependence on the perceived 'safe zone' of mythology / folklore needs to reduce before Indian animation fulfils the promise of the mid nineties.. The quicker we recover from the Amar Chitra Katha hangover, the better.

Monster Hunting - not for the meek.

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

Every so often, there comes along a game so lovingly, unabashedly hardcore that it reminds us of why videogames have managed to attract such a devoted, almost tribe-like fan following.

Monster Hunter : Freedom Unite on the PSP is one such game. While the gameplay is merely a polished, slightly improved version of its predecessors, this is the first release officially available in India. And for the hardcore set, this game alone is reason to get a PSP.

While most games today mollycoddle new players by offering tutorials that ease the learning curve, and difficulty levels that make failure near impossible, Monster Hunter : FU lives up to its abbreviated name by being so unforgivingly deep and difficult from the word go, that it seems to mock your feeble efforts at playing it. Sure, it has a superb tutorial that explains every facet of the game – but the tutorial itself will take over two hours to complete.

You'll go up against some baaaaaad monsters in this game.

Monster Hunter : FU is essentially an action / role-playing game in which you must protect a village by hunting down different kinds of monsters that roam the surrounding countryside. While this may sound like a regulation formula, nothing could be further from the truth. Hunting a monster in this game doesn't mean running brazenly into the forests, slashing the beast into ribbons, and hurrying back for a reward. You'll have to prepare carefully for each hunt – meticulously choosing your equipment and strategies depending on the weather, terrain and nature of the beast. Wander off into the snowy mountains without the proper warm clothing and hot drinks, and the frost will kill you even before you face your first monster battle. Forget to carry enough food, and you'll be so weak from trekking, climbing and running through rugged terrain the monsters will likely die laughing before you even scratch them. Trying to hunt down a flying monster armed only with a great-sword? Bad idea.

If you think you'll take this guy down by button-mashing, you'll be dead before you hit 'X'

The sheer number of things to do in the game is bound to delight RPG purists. Monster hunting, naturally, is incredibly varied and satisfying. Apart from a range of melee and ranged weapons, you can choose from a variety of traps, thrown weapons, bombs and the like to lure monsters, track them, conceal your approach and evolve unique strategies for each hunt.

Apart from this, there's a weapon, armour and item crafting system where you can use materials gathered from the wilderness to improve your equipment, create potions and suchlike. Gathering stuff in itself is deep and detailed – you can pick herbs and flowers, catch insects with a bugnet, catch fish, and carve items such as bones and meat from killed monsters. You can grow your own ingredients on your farm.You can cut precious gemstones from veins that you find on rock-faces in the mountains. You can cook a steak if you need food on a long and lonely hunt. And yes, you can burn it if you're not careful.

I haven't come across this guy yet, but when I do, I'll probably quit and get back to playing 'Rock Band Unplugged'. Mummy!

Sadly, there's no online multiplayer, so you'll need a friend with a PSP to play the ad-hoc coop mode – but it's worth it. The team hunts are great fun, and the only way to take down some of the tougher beasts in the game. Make sure you play with headphones for a vastly improved experience.

Monster Hunter : FU successfully delivers the thrill of the hunt on the PSP's tiny screen. This is a game that almost dares you to play it – but rewards the hardcore like few other games do. Easily among the best handheld action RPGs available today.

Who're you gonna call? (sorry - couldn't resist)

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

It's been a good month for film franchise based videogame adaptations – Ghostbusters and Wolverine garnering the critical acclaim that normally evades titles based on movies.

While the Wolverine game ended up being way better than the terrible movie it was based on, it was the Ghostbusters game that I was more interested in. The film is a much-loved classic that had a fantastic cast, great humour, and an odd mix of creepy-funny-cool that few films have matched. Living up to that legacy was always going to be hard, especially more than a decade after the film first came out.

But, hoo boy! This game is spades of fun, especially if you, like me, grew up loving everything about Ghostbusters. It's an authentic Ghostbusters experience in every way.

The first Ghostbusters game I ever played was an odd, repetitive and fairly boring one on the ATARI 2600 platform. You'd basically drive around the city, find ghosts haunting random buildings, and then use the famous 'Ghostbusters gun' to trap them. Again and again and again. Even Ray Parker Jr.'s iconic 'tananaananaana – tananananaanaana' humming in the background couldn't dull the pain.

This game is very different. And the music still plays. Yeah, baby.

Within the first two hours of gameplay, you get to trap Slimer (again), learn to use the famous Ghostbusters photon beam gun and other cool equipment, find hidden ghosts, and, most importantly, hang out with Peter, Ray and Egon. Who'da thunk, eh?

From the very first moments, the game makes you feel genuinely like one of the gang. The likenesses of Bill Murray, Dan Ackrod and Harold Ramis are fairly convincing, and the spoken dialogue is flawless. The banter is genuinely funny, and feels just like a Ghostbusters movie.

However, none of this would matter if the actual Ghostbusting wasn't any fun. Luckily, it is heaps. It feels genuinely frantic and tense when you focus the beam on a ghost, and then struggle to reel him in. You can actually feel the spook struggle to break free, and it's hugely satisfying to yank him around and slam him into walls, or the floor. Once you wear the bugger down, you'll have to toss a trap on the floor, and get the ghost right on top of it and hold him there for a few seconds, and you have him. The boss battles, in particular, feel appropriately intense and exciting. The music and sound effects add greatly to the cinematic atmosphere. Awesome stuff.

There are also bit where you need to use the geiger-counter like thingie to detect the presence of paranormal energy, and scan the environment for clues to track down hidden ghosts. One sequence early on, where you traverse a series of flooded, dark corridors in search of a fisherman ghost stands out eerie and spooky, without ever once slipping from action-comedy into pure horror. It's a delicate balance, and it's done very well indeed.

There's also a fun sequence where you fight through hordes of ghosts on the city streets, to blaze your way through to the famous Marshmallow Man, whose gigantic figure looms ahead right through the level. Much entertainment – joyous, happy gaming.

Ghostbusters does have it weak spots – the feedback system could have been better (you often get lost if you haven't been paying attention to the voice-overs), the graphics aren't spectacular, and the shooting sections seem forced. But, as movie adaptations go, this is among the best we've seen. Plus, when you get to run with some of Hollywood's greatest comic actors, who's complaining?

'Pain' and 'Flower' show what gaming can be.

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

On a recent visit to Milestone Interactive, I had the opportunity to play two absolutely refreshing and innovative games that reminded me again of how simple, yet effective gameplay ideas can make for great gaming experiences.

The first of these is 'Pain', a game in which your objective is to catapult yourself into objects in the level at great speed, in order to cause yourself as much pain as possible. I'm not kidding. Think 'Burnout Party Crash', but with a guy instead of a car. Hilarious awesomeness.

Catapult yourself into the landscape in creatively agonizing ways. Pain is teh_shite.

The level I played was a city junction, with cars, billboards, construction sites. a moving train, and assorted strategically positioned explosive crates, naturally. You have to launch yourself from a giant catapult, trying to hit specific targets and cause the most spectacular accident possible. The trick is to find the perfect angle, so you'll bounce off things, set off explosions, and damage yourself in unexpected, surprising and delightful ways. It's a joy to watch your charactr sail through the air, crunch into a billboard, and then bounce of numerous ledges, lampposts and the like, to eventually land and get run over by a train. Perfect rag-doll physics add to the fun, and no two launches are the same. 'Pain' is addictive, and offers hours of laugh-out-loud fun, especially as a party game.

Flower is impossible to describe, really. You must play to truly understand.

The second title is the hauntingly beautiful, and extremely strange 'Flower'. It's hard to describe 'Flower', really, as it's hardly a game in the traditional sense. It's more of an interactive audio-visual experience. Think of it as exploring and interacting with a beautiful painting by entering it and flying around within.

In 'Flower', you begin by controlling a single petal blowing in the wind. Using the sixaxis controller, you can guide its path, rising into the skies, or swooping down to kiss the blades of grass. You can waft gently, or carry yourself further by strengthening the wind. As you explore the field, you can pick up other petals from different coloured flowers, until you're eventually controlling a stream of flower petals breezily flying around. You can soar right up into the sky, glide back to ground level, and fly through the tall grass. There are some loose 'objectives' – if you touch all the flowers in a specific area, then the dry grass will be magically transformed into a lush green. All of this happens to some soothing, relaxing music. It's a completely unique, strangely moving experience.

'Flower', in my opinion, takes an important experimental stuff towards exploring different kinds of experiences using videogame technology. It is the first game I've ever played that is not meant to challenge or excite the player. No adrenaline rushes or mental satisfaction here, folks, just a calming, trancelike sensation that is as wonderful as it is unusual in videogames. I'd like to see more games like this in the near future, as an example of where the medium itself can go.

Games like 'Pain' and 'Flower' are great examples of simple, innovative games that can deliver experiences that are memorable and enjoyable. They demonstrate that you don't need sweeping storylines, hollywood-scale production budgets, and BFGs for a game to be great. And, as experiences, they're diametrically opposite. Pain looks to amuse and excite, while Flower chooses to stimulate wonder and soothe. For me, it was delightful to play through games that put me through such a diverse range of emotions.

Both these games are available exclusively as PlayStation Store downloads, but the store isn't available in India yet. It's a travesty, and PlayStation owners in India are being hard done by.