Saturday, October 31, 2009
Monday, October 26, 2009
My talk will be on the creative aspects of game development - and will look at possible ways for Indian game developers to create cool, original game content that has the potential to find global success.
Should be fun. I'll keep posting stuff on this blog as I collect info and feedback from you guys for brain-fuel.
And do let me know if any of you are going to be there in Hyderabad for the summit.
Sunday, October 25, 2009
It's a 100 page comic book on IP rights, copyright, piracy and all that jazz. It features futuristic technology, mind-altering gadgets, laser-blasters, doors that open vertically, conspiracies, jailbreaks and lots of more cool stuff. Starting next week, it will be serialized on the CIS web site, and this blog will act as a companion site, where I'll put up rough sketches, scripts and general background information.
The idea is to throw light on lots of issues surrounding intellectual property, patents, copyrights and trademarks, accessibility of content and technology, open standards and the like.
So, in the spirit of open-source, I'm going to invite anyone interested to collaborate on the project. Initially, I'm asking for suggestions for a name for the book. As we go along, anyone will be free to take the characters, situations and worlds I create, and run off in interesting new directions, creating back-stories, additional content to flesh out the universe, short strips - whatever.
So I'm just putting up the first two pages for you guys to get a sneak peek before anyone else. I'll also be shortly putting up the script for the first ten pages, and a concept note.
Do pitch in with comments, suggestions and the like.
Friday, October 16, 2009
By Anand Ramachandran. Some of you will recognize the inspiration for the title, some of you won't. That's fine, right?
The Suresh Kalmadi - Mike Hooper spat has degenerated into 'beyond ridiculous'. Kalmadi has always been a great source of entertainment over the years (anyone remember the Afro-Asian games, and the speech he gave there?), but this time, he's got some competition from one of his colleagues, A.K.Kesri. Here's a scan of a letter Mr.Kesri wrote to the chairman of the OCCWG, from today's INdian Express. (Thanks to @abithaanandh for the keen spot. She has an eye for this kind of thing, she's the one who discovered Hungama for us.) Do click on the image for a full-size version. Trust me, it's worth it.
Among my favourite parts are "fortunately I escaped from damage to my spectacles" and "always whistling during his movements in the office building", but you will surely find many others to your tastes. Stunning stuff.
Actually, the whole affair seems to be an adult version of a 'Miss! He's taking my pencil box, miss!' type of incident so commonly experienced during the primary school years. To be fair to Hooper, however, I must admit that it is Senor Kalmadi, Herr Bhanot and others who are leading the childishness sweepstakes at the moment.
The reasons given by Mr.Kalmadi calling for Hooper's ouster have been, in a nutshell, that Hooper has been of no use, he has been rude to OC personnel, demoralizing them with negative feedback and that he has been an impediment to work on the games.
This can be roughly reworded as follows :
"Miss! He's useless boy miss!"
"Miss! He's talking bad of me and using bad words, miss."
"Miss! he's not letting me do my work, miss."
But since the gentlemen, and I use the term very loosely, who are involved in this unsightly brouhaha are only corresponding through letters and press-releases, I think it would perhaps be more appropriate to look at the issue from that POV.
My dear Mr.Hooper,,
You are useless. You are spoiling my birthday party. So please leave our school. Go back to your old school.
I'm not useless. You're only useless. You always make things very late. Your party will be late and boring.
Shut up. You always tell bad things to my friends and use bad language. You're a bad boy. I tell to principal.
You shut up. Principal is my uncle, so you can't do anything. I'll tell him you're stupid and you're always late for everything everytime.
Hooper, mein su-su karoonga thumhare sar ke ooper.
And so on. I think all of them should be sent to detention, and the party cancelled.
by Anand Ramachandran. This article first appeared on my weekly Game Invader column for the New Indian Express
Predicting future trends in gaming is every videogame boffin's favourite pastime. In the future, we shall have games so realistic, we won't be able to tell them from real life. We'll have AI so advanced, it will behave exactly like humans, making mistakes, acting unpredictable, and sowing emotion. We'll have chips and nanobots embedded in our bodies. Yeah, whatever.
I'm more interested in a rather more believeable, and much more exciting trend. And it's not all that far away, either.
When a little known service called OnLive demonstrated their 'game streaming' service, observers were greatly excited with the possibilities. Basically, OnLive used a combination of a custom set-top box like device and blazing broadband speeds to deliver a service where you could play any game you want, on any platform – so long as it was there in their library.
The technology is charmingly simple – the only signals that need to travel between the server and your receiver are your controller input, and the real-time AV signal from the game. All the processing is done at the server end – and the video and audio output is streamed to your TV set. It's almost like your games are just another TV channel, which you can control.
By centralizing the processing needed for today's heavy-duty games, and depending on broadband to receive controller input and deliver the audio-visual feedback, services such as OnLive can be genuine game-changers, completely redefining the gaming industry landscape.
For one thing, hardware platforms will become irrelevant from a consumer standpoint. It could even eventually see gaming move to one convergent hardware platform – since gamers won't have to choose between platforms anymore, and it just might suit game developers and publishers to break free of the clutches of console manufacturers. The PC has always been the most open and democratic platform, and we may very well see its return, albeit in a more 'server' like avatar.
For another, it will completely eliminate the need for developers to create content for multiple hardware platforms. Whatever the platform, it won't make a difference to consumers anymore – they will be able to play games regardless of platform – since the onus of maintaining the platform will be shifted to the service provider. The console wars will no longer be a roadblock for good quality content to reach the widest possible audience – and situations like single console owners missing out on quality games like Halo, Super Mario Galaxy or Little Big Planet will be a thing of the past. Ultimately, consoles are merely a delivery mechanism – people care about games, not about hardware. If there's another viable delivery mechanism, consoles will die. And good riddance.
Think about it – a future where you will be able to play any game you choose on any internet-enabled device, whenever you want. No more pre-ordering games at exorbitant prices or standing in long queues to get your hands on a copy. No more constantly upgrading your hardware and software just to play new titles. No more missing out on annoying 'platform exclusives' just because you chose the wrong console to buy.
Admittedly, it's still some way away – the broadband speeds required for the service to be viable are way too expensive for end consumers at the moment. But cheaper broadband is something we're bound to see sooner than later.
And then, we'll be able to play Killzone 2 on our mobile phones if we so wish. Brilliant.
Thursday, October 15, 2009
But I mostly had eyes for only one. While the crowds, quite predictably, milled around FIFA and NFS, I joined a few other wise men to feast my eyes, ears and brains on the only game among the lot that could go on to become an all-time classic. Yep. Dragon Age : Origins was there. And, going by my first two hours with it, Bioware could just have created their finest RPG since Baldur's Gate 2.
As soon as I got the chance, I grabbed my chair, put on the headphones, and shut out everything else – the other games, the lunch buffet, the air-conditioning, the scantily-clad girls (okay okay, I'm lying about the last bit). I had been waiting more than a year for this, a chance to test drive what promises to be a role-playing experience to please the most hardcore Dungeons and Dragons fans.
I'm pleased to report that it's an absolute classic waiting to happen.
From the first moment, you can see that this is the game Bioware has been waiting years to make. This is Baldur's Gate on steroids. This is the game Neverwinter Nights could have been. This is the game that will wipe away the softcore hangover from Jade Empire and Mass Effect. It looks simply beautiful – the environments are flawless and the characters are top-notch.
The writing – storyline, dialogues, descriptions – is vintage Bioware. And the storytelling feature that gives the game the tag 'Origins' is something that could redefine the much-vaunted 'replayability' that RPG developers bandy about so recklessly. Essentially, depending on the race and class you choose for your character, you will begin the game in one of six completely different locations. I played two origin stories – the human wizard and the dwarv commoner, and it was like playing two entirely different games based on the same engine. And, through a number of subtle visual, audio and environmental clues, the coherence of the universe is beautifully conveyed. WHen I was playing the second time as the dwarf, I noticed many references that overlapped with the happenings from my earlier play session – looking at the same world through a different perspective. It's absolutely brilliant, and every serious gamer will want to play every origin story at least once.
Bioware has abandoned the Dungeons and Dragons ruleset this time, and gone with a completely original role-playing system. Though it undoubtedly remains rooted in D and D basics, this is a slightly simplified, more intuitive and streamlined system that will please number-crunchers and newbies alike.
The combat, likewise, is a delightful mix of features from earlier Bioware classics. The tactical, top-down view from BG2 and NWN meet the pausable, queueable commands from KOTOR, and then some. Spells and special skills now have a recharge period, and can be cast again when fully charged. This adds a great layer to combat tactics, as you carefully juggle your command queue to outwit your foes.
Just listen to me rambling.
Don't get me wrong, the other games were great, too. In any other circumstances, I'd be raving about how much fun it is being Jack Black, armed with a demonic guitar, getting medieval on a range of hellspawn in Brutal Legend..
But damn. Dragon Age : Origins was so good, it completely distracted me from the other stuff. Sorry EA. I tried.
It's been an incredible year for 2D fighting games. Street Fighter IV announced itself as perhaps the finest the genre has ever seen – featuring gameplay that walked the fine balance between pick-up-and-play and truly hardcore, a superb online experience and great visuals. Marvel vs Capcom 2 was a great revival of an old favourite franchise, with one of the largest and most interesting rosters of all time. BlazBlue was a breath of fresh air to the genre, and created what could turn out to be a blockbuster franchise in the years to come.
KOF XII wouldn't last a single round with Street Fighter IV or BlazBlue
Amidst all this excitement, it's hard to understand why anyone would bother with a thoroughly mediocre title like the King of Fighters XII. The latest in the venerable franchise is a classic example of what not to do with a sequel – a laundry list of game design don'ts.
In case you get the wrong idea – let's make it clear that the basic fighting system in KOF XII is as solid and sophisticated as ever. All the classic 3-on-3 team fighting mechanics that made it a much loved title on the Neo-Geo platform return in the latest version, with some small tweaks and additions. There are improved knockdown attacks and juggles that open up new offensive possibilities. There's a new critical counter system that, if timed perfectly, stuns your opponent and renders them vulnerable to offensive chains. It's a system that has stood the test of time, offering equal opportunities to offensive and defensive players – but it's really a no-brainer for the development team, who were working with gameplay that has been honed over fifteen years.
They've got almost everything else wrong.
The visuals are fairly decent, but given the achievements of Street Fighter IV and BlazBlue, they don't really hold up. The backgrounds are decent but not spectacular. The sprites are animated fairly well, but still have a jaggy, retro look. While this is fine for a truly retro title like MVC 2, they don't quite cut it in a full price game. But it's fine, really. The visuals would be tolerable if the rest of the game wasn't so broken.
You see, the essential problem with KOF XII is that there's nothing to do. Offline, there's a basic single player mode, a versus more, a training mode, and some unlockable art. That's it. No challenges, no story mode, no survival, nothing. In this day and age, for a full-price game, that's simply unacceptable. The single player arcade mode is essentially a time trial – there is no boss character to play, and no reason to play repeatedly. This game is only fun when you're playing it with a buddy on the same console.
The online experience could have perhaps justified the price, but it's simply awful. The lag is terrible – a deal breaker for a fighting game where timing is everything. You can't find players with decent connections. You can't quit out of spectator mode until the bout is over.
Better learn to love this menu - because you can't quit out of it.
Even more unforgivable – the game's offline and online menus appear to have been designed by either incompetents or sadists. For instance, you can't quit from the character selection screen to the main menu – you have to first start a match, and then quit to the main menu. This deserves a resounding WTF? It's ridiculous that a game this broken made it to retail.
KOF XII's lack of features and bad design combine to catapult it into 'disaster' territory. Avoid this, and spend your money on Street Fighter IV or BlazBlue.
It's interesting to see that several of the best releases (in what has been a rather weak year for gaming so far) are actually 2-D games, available for less than full-price on digital distribution channels.
Thanks to the CD / DVD based retail distribution that has been the norm for gaming over the past decade and more, gaming has been surely and steadily moving towards the blockbuster culture seen in films and books – the focus has been on high-budget, high-technology and high-profile products that will prove to be worldwide hits and generate millions of dollars in revenue in order to justify their production and marketing costs. This meant that there was hardly any place for good quality but low-budget games that didn't fit in to the scheme of things simply because they weren't suitable for mass retail distribution. Think small, independent films that don't make it to big screens because of distribution bottlenecks that have no room for low-cost, low-risk and low-profit products.
Thankfully, thanks to digital distribution channels like Steam, XBOX Live and PlayStation Store, that seems to be changing, if the recent success of titles like Trine, Shadow Complex and Plants vs. Zombies is any indication.
Shadow Complex is a 2D platform shooter in the best traditions of the genre. The developers have admitted to being greatly inspired by Metroid, and I couldn't help seeing traces of the classic 2D shooter Abuse when playing it. Importantly, Shadow Complex uses the Unreal 3 engine – resulting in a 2D game that has state-of-the-art 3D graphics. It features proven, timeless gameplay, a few interesting new features, and current-gen presentation – a mix that has proved to be a hit with gamers worldwide. Sure, it's short. Sure, it's 2D. But that hasn't mattered to hundreds of thousands of people who have paid for and downloaded the game on XBOX live, primarily because it doesn't cost as much as a full-retail boxed release. So the gamers get a great game for a good price, the publisher makes a decent profit since they don't have to incur huge marketing, packaging and distribution costs, and everyone's happy.
The excellent Trine is another example of a 3D engine being used to deliver amazing gameplay on a classical 2D platform plane. While the gameplay remains firmly in the Super Mario / Prince of Persia / Metroid genre, the lighting, textures, animation and environments have a completely modern 3D feel to them. It's a delightful, refreshing and altogether amazing game.
The same goes for games such as Plants vs. Zombies (the latest from those peddlers of addiction, Popcap), and older classics such as Braid, World of Goo and Portal. These games don't cost too much to develop, especially when compared to blockbusters like Killzone or Halo or Need for Speed. And they'd be profitable even without selling a gazillion copies priced at Rs. 2499/- or thereabouts. Now, thanks to internet based distribution, they can sell enough copies to keep the developers in business, without needing to be juggernauts.
This is important because it gives us a much wider range of choices – lots of great games that would otherwise never make it to store shelves are suddenly available for us to play and enjoy. This makes for a much healthier, vibrant gaming ecosystem.
I'm all for this trend – more power to smaller, independent developers who build quality games at reasonable budgets. Do support them by buying these games from XBOX Live, Steam or PSN. It means we'll have lots more great games to choose from.
by Anand Ramachandran
I've watched a lot of cricket over the past few years, sometimes alone, sometimes with knowledgeable cricket-analyzing friends who will spend the time between overs discussing the biomechanics of the square cut or the quality of top-soil required for a track that will spin on day four. I love it.
But nothing even comes close to my childhood cricket-watching experiences, when watching a game meant watching it with my dad and a group of uncles whose love for the game was matched only by the depth of their collective bias.
This was during the mid-eighties, when India, buoyed by a world cup victory followed by a few successive tournament wins, suddenly gave their fans cause for optimism. Hey – finally, despite the presence of Madan Lal and Ashok Malhotra in the team, we believed we could win cricket matches against the very best teams, except the West Indies. My uncles were probably a part of the first generation of the 'we must win every game, take a wicket every over, hit every ball for four – otherwise we suck' category of Indian cricket fan that is so commonly found today.
They were an imposing bunch – bank managers, insurance company head honchos, and NRIs of uncertain occupation (oh, he is with some big company in Muscat). You couldn't disagree with them, unless you were one of them. Their wives would grumpily serve coffee, mutter under their breaths and retreat to the safety of the kitchen. The kids would never dare to admit they liked Craig McDermott or Carl Hooper or Richard Hadlee if that specific player was out of favour with the 'grand council'. Deep down, you suspected that they didn't know all that much about cricket and were sure that they had no actual say in team selection or match scheduling. But I don't think they had any such doubts – they gathered, snacked, and let fly with some of the most colourful, memorable, and sometimes downright bizarre cricket-based utterances of all time.
Most of them seemed to pull off the rather impressive feat of believing that India was simultaneously the best and the worst team in the world. “Useless fellows!”, someone would thunder after a heartbreaking loss. “They should stop playing cricket altogether for a few years” - as though depriving the team of international competition would somehow ensure that they would suddenly discover a winning formula. Yet, despite this evident negativity, they expected India to win every single game, in the manner of devoted parents sincerely believing that their dullish son would one day achieve exam scores that were disproportionate to his skill levels, and prove that he was better than Sanjay Dugar, or whoever was the designated 'first-rank' boy in class. This expectation of non-stop success from team India is about as fair as expecting Harbhajan Singh to rack up a test match batting average in the low fifties, yet, thanks to the efforts of the early fans, the thought process continues unabated to this day.
One of the uncles, a particularly opinionated gent, (he was senior management at TVS or some other South Indian business giant, and was probably used to every single one of his opinions being enthusiastically agreed with by an army of safari-suit clad subordinates) was known for his impulsive and emotional responses to events on the pitch. A misfield would result in “Amarnath should be sacked immediately”, causing my young mind to conjure up pictures of BCCI officials hurriedly running on to the field to convey the bad news to Jimmy, who would then sadly trot off, and play no further part in the match. A good catch would result in “He is the only fellow who is playing for the team. Sack everyone else and make him the captain.”, a suggestion that essentially meant that the athletic fielder would be skipper of a team that had no other players. I can only hope that my uncle's management style at work did not reflect his cricket team selection views – it would have resulted in a number of junior managers at TVS losing their jobs because they had forgotten to bring their pens, or neglected to berate the peon over his shoddy footwear.
Their favourite players were also expected to be granted immunity from being dismissed leg-before. If my father's opinion of every single lbw decision given against Sachin Tendulkar is to be taken seriously, then his (Sachin's, not my father's) test average would be 66.87. Include close run-out calls, dodgy caught-behinds, and catches close to the ground, and it inches closer to 75. If my dad could figure out a way to somehow introduce an element of doubt to the times Tendulkar has been out clean bowled, his average would probably be around 3269.53. Well above that pesky Bradman, who only played against mediocre attacks, anyway.
But despite believing that K.Srikkanth was better than Sunil Gavaskar, despite insisting that umpires from Pakistan, Australia, Sri Lanka, New Zealand, West Indies and England (other than Dickie Bird) were cheats, despite claiming that Hindi commentary has dismissed more Indian batsmen than Wasim Akram has, these were men who loved their cricket, and made sure that a bunch of us youngsters inherited that love. Thank you gentlemen – watching the games with you was a blast.
Right, time to go now. Need to find a way to blame Atul Wassan for India's early exit from the Champion's Trophy.