Thursday, August 12, 2010

Game Invader - My weekly gaming column for the New Indian Express

Sorry folks - I've been awfully busy with a bunch of things, and hence no time to update the blog. Should be back to semi-regular updating from next week.

I have, of course, been writing my weekly Game Invader column for The New Indian Express. You can read the whole bunch of articles here.

A few selected pieces below - personal favourites.

The genetic make-up of videogames 

Sometimes, as a game developer and a student of the art form itself, I enjoy taking a close look at a game I’m playing, and try and trace the origins and history of specific features found in it. The genetic make up of videogames is a fascinating study.

Monkey Island 2 gets a makeover 

With the release of Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge Special Edition, one of the greatest and most beloved games of all time gets a fresh coat of paint, so that an entire new generation of gamers can enjoy its renowned sense of humour, devilish puzzles and unforgettable characters.

E3 2010 — Nintendo wins again 

The story of gaming over the past five years or so has been one of Microsoft and Sony playing a desperate game of catch-up, as Nintendo, laughing merrily, leaves them eating gaming dust. The story of E3 2010 was no different.

The video game as a software toy 

I’ve just spent several hours playing Just Cause 2, and strangely enough, so far it’s been more of a toy than a game

Learning to Floo : Episode 1 concludes.

My graphic novel for the Centre for Internet and Society, Learning to Floo, has finally completed its first episode. It's been fun writing, drawing, colouring and lettering eleven full-colour pages, some of them with action-oriented panels, too.

Next week, we move on to Episode 2, where we learn exactly what The Floo is, and what the shady government types want with T33ch.

Here's the last page, as a teaser :

Of course, if you haven't already, you should head over to the CIS web site and read the whole thing.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Diary of an IPL Fan - Episode 4

This is part of an ongoing series I'm doing for . Re-posted here for those who missed it when it originally appeared.

Day Twenty-five

For a few days, I am not going to write anything in this diary. Maybe that will change the luck for my favourite teams, especially Preity.



Day Thirty-two

Some people are saying that KKR and Rajasthan Royals still have a mathematical chance of qualifying. I didn't know they had that kind of thing in IPL. I thought you have to play matches and win. Not a bad idea. Having a maths entrance exam will help people who are weak at cricket, such as KKR, to still do well in IPL. Maybe the IIT-JEE should introduce a cricket match section also, so that those who have done badly in the IPL still have a 'cricketing' chance of getting in.

Day Thirty-five
Why is Lalit Modi Sir saying all those bad things about Mr.Tharoor-ji ?????? Maybe he is upset that Mr.Tharoor-ji has ensured that Sreesanth will still be around in IPL 4.

And why is everyone upset with Lalit Modi Sir about saying stupid things on Twitter? Shahid Kapoor does it all the time, and I don't see anyone calling for an investigation into Shahid's activities. People are biased against Lalit Modi Sir.


Day Thirty-seven

No! No! No! All my favourite teams are now out of the tournament. How could Shah Rukh, Preity and Shilpa have allowed this to happen?

I'm sorry, but even though I am a fan, I have to blame the Bollywood stars for their teams doing so badly. They spend all their time either shooting commercials and films or attending parties, and don't spend any time concentrating on cricket. If Shah Rukh had spent half the time on actual cricket related issues than he did shooting those stupid car ads, KKR would have qualified for the semi-finals for sure.

I agree that people have the same complaints about the players also - that they spend more time shooting and partying than concentrating on cricket. But they have an excuse - they have to keep up their commitments to their team owners and sponsors. Bollywood stars have no such excuses, na? It's just irresponsibility, that's all. When they are shooting films, do they take breaks to play cricket? So they really shouldn't be taking breaks to shoot films when they own IPL teams. Do you see N.Srinivasan or Venkatram Reddy appearing in ads? No. And look at how their teams are doing.


Day Thirty-eight

I am very upset that Mr.Tharoor-ji and Lalit Modi Sir are being dragged into all these needless controversies. Both are great men, and the public and media should not make up these false stories about them.

There is one South Indian writer (can't remember his name) on that leading cricket website who always writes false news about Lalit Modi Sir and everyone else. I think it must be all his doing - he must have written one of his usual made-up false lying news reports, and caused all this controversy. I am going to inform the CBI through SMS. They will nab him and prevent him from spreading lies about the IPL. Serves him right.

Also, this is all Twitter's fault. I think the government should ban twitter. I won't miss it. I can always keep in touch with Shahid and Kareena through Google Buzz. And Google Wave. But nobody has sent me a Wave invite yet.

Diary of an IPL Fan - Episode 3

Note : This is part of a series that I'm currently doing for . Republished here for those of you who missed it when it first appeared.

Day Nineteen

I don't know why everybody criticises the commentators so much. They are all either former cricketers, or hardworking upcoming actors, and we must repect them for their achievements. Except for Arun Lal. I can't remember exactly what he does, but I remember that his father was also a sports commentator. One funny thing about his father - sometimes he used to be called Anupam Ghulati, and sometimes he was called Kishore Bhimani! Hahaha I always wondered why the same commentator would use different names, but then realized that it was probably so that fans don't get confused - so he used one name for cricket and another for other sports. That and probably some tax reasons, I guess.

But anyway, why always poke fun at commentators and everything they say? I agree that they say very basic and stupid things sometimes, but we must remember that their comments are very useful and educational for people who don't know anything about cricket - such as Shilpa Shetty. And John Buchanan.


Day Twenty

They have selected the Indian team for the T20 world cup - and I must admit that I am disappointed. Why have they only selected Indian players? I can understand if it was for fifty overs format, but in T20 you are allowed four foreigners in the team, no? Why doesn't Lalit Modi Sir explain this to K.Srikkanth ? At least he could have explained it to Narendra Hirwani before throwing him out of that exclusive IPL lounge no?

This is not fair. Now all the other teams will be packed with foreigners, and our Indian team will have none. Surely we are going to lose. And this Srikkanth is always selecting players from his own state - like Dhoni and Raina. Clearly he is biased.


Day Twenty Two

This middle part of the IPL is really very boring. All the matches are beginning to look like each other - no excitement. This is why I am so happy that Mr.Vivek Oberoi has decided to release his new film, Prince, at this time. It shows how much Mr.Vivek cares about the people of India - so he is releasing his film despite the fact that the IPL is going on. Other selfish and greedy producers are holding back their releases until after the IPL is over. This clearly shows that they are only interested in money. Mr.Vivek Oberoi is different - he is not bothered if his film flops (which it surely will, since everyone is watching IPL) as long as the fans are happy. What a man!


Day Twenty Three

My friend laughed at me today for saying that the Vodafone Zoozoo ads have superb animation. He says that these ads are not animated. Hahahahahahahaha. He is a donkey. He probably thinks that Shaktimaan is a fictional character. He doesn't know that I once met Shaktimaan many years ago, when I was in school. Many people have told me that that was just an actor wearing a Shaktimaan costume, but they are wrong. Why would anyone wear such a stupid costume if they weren't actually Shaktimaan?


Day Twenty Four

Damn. I called that stupid telephone line so that I could speak to a cheerleader, and they connected me to R.P.Singh! What a waste! Why would I want to speak to R.P.Singh? So anyway, I asked him if he could introduce me to any cheerleaders. He immediately hung up. I think he doesn't know any. I think tomorrow's 'Star Connect' is with Shane Warne. Surely he will be able to introduce me to some girls. I will try again tomorrow.

Diary of an IPL Fan - Episode 2

Note : This is part of a series that I'm currently doing for . Republished here for those of you who missed it when it first appeared.

Day fourteen

What is Preity's team doing? Selfish, greedy buggers. Don't they want to win to make her happy? Such a sweet girl - she is so nice to them. She even pays them salaries and cheers for them during the matches. No other team owner will do this. And how do they repay her kindness? By losing again and again.

I think Yuvraj is annoyed at losing the captaincy to Kumar Sangakkara, so he is trying to win it back by turning into Arjuna Ranatunga, so that the Sri Lankans will listen to him. Idiot - always worrying about runs, wickets and captaincy. He should realize that Preity's happiness is all that matters.


Day fifteen

Damn. My fantasy league team is doing really badly. I can understand Lalit Modi sir's decision to keep Pakistan players out of the IPL, but at least he could have given permission for them to play in fantasy cricket, no? If I had Shahid Afridi, Umar Akmal and Umar Gul in my fantasy team, surely I would have done well. They are quality players in any format. Why keep them out of fantasy leagues and insult them? I hope that Mohammed Yousuf doesn't retire from fantasy cricket in a huff. The game needs him.

Oh - and speaking of Pakistani cricketers, what's all this about Shoaib Malik marrying Sania Mirza? She should realize we're a conservative country. She shouldn't have married into another sport. But I hope she's happy, and serves her husband better than she serves, period.


Day Sixteen

I am so proud. We finally have a real blimp in India.

I have no idea what it is, but since L.Sivaramakrishnan said that it's some great modern technological marvel, it must be so. Why would he lie? In fact, these Tamils know a lot about technology. They have lots of time to study all these technological things, since they don't have Bollywood to distract them, I guess.

Lalit Modi sir is truly a genius for getting such technologies into cricket. Superbowl is the biggest sporting event other than the IPL - and they also have a blimp made by a tyre company. The IPL is a trendsetter for sure. Soon the Superbowl organisers will also copy the IPL and get cheerleaders, more advertisements and even strategy breaks. Then their tournament will also become as famous as IPL.


Day Seventeen

Harbhajan is a great player, but he should learn to calm down. Why did he shout at T.Suman that day? He only shouts at players who are smaller than him. They should send Sunjay Dutt sir into the ground to deal with players who are indisciplined. Just seeing that costume will be enough to silence anybody. 


Day eighteen

The Hon. Sports Minister has unnecessarily criticized Modi Sir, because he is using cricket for entertainment it seems. Isn't cricket supposed to be for entertainment? Why else are we watching cricket? For education or what? I think they should remove boring old Mr.Gill and make Lalit Modi Sir the sports minister. He will be able to make anything interesting. Even Tennikoit.

Also, KKR isn't doing as well as I thought. But they obviously haven't taken my advice. I told them to buy Sachin - but I see that Sachin is still with Mumbai Indians. And see how well they're doing? I am beginning to doubt my hero Shah Rukh. I don't think they are really following the advice of fans like me - I think it is just some advertising trick.But I know how to reach Shah Rukh - the one place where famous people like him can be reached directly. So see you guys later - need to go and set up a twitter account.


Diary of an IPL Fan - Episode 1

Note : This is part of a series that I'm currently doing for . Republished here for those of you who missed it when it first appeared.

Day Zero
I am so excited that the IPL has begun. A true battle between some of our best and sexiest film stars! May the best person win - Shah Rukh, Preity, Shilpa, Katrina, all the best. Except to that boring Chennai team. K.Srikkanth it seems - who wants HIM as a brand ambassador? And that weirdo who drums on a river.


Day Four

Good that Shah Rukh has finally come to his senses and is accepting advice from those who truly understand and love his team - random people from all over India. Better than trusting Australians like Buchanan. In previous years also I had suggested many strategies by leaving over 200 comments on his team's web site, but I'm sure those idiots who maintained the web site never forwarded them to him. Morons - do they think he can personally visit the site and read all the comments? Lazy.

This time I have sent all my advice in a large book, couriered to his office. I'm sure that newspaper guy, that TV serial aunty and that chicken-catching dude must have done the same. If their advice can help KKR win their first two matches, surely mine will help them even more? Watch out - KKR will surely win this year.


Day Seven

Damn. My 'fake IPL player' blog is not taking off. What's the matter with people - what I write is so much funnier than that guy from last year. Maybe I shouldn't have pretended to be 'fake Anirudh Singh'. I've even copied some of the Fake IPL Player's original posts. Why can't people who watch the same movie multiple times enjoy reading the same blog post multiple times? Snobs. Losers.

Anyway, there's still hope. One gentleman has left a comment on the blog, promoting something called 'Male Organ Enhancement'. Why would he choose my blog to promote something, unless he knew lots of people are visiting it ?


Day Ten

I'm so happy that Preity's team finally won! Her smile is SO much nicer than N.Srinivasan's.


Day Twelve

Lalit Modi sir is a genius and a true visionary. He has managed to get two more teams into the IPL - from Pune and some place in Kerala. He will make everybody rich I think - except for those people who buy these teams for huge amounts of money, even more than English football teams. But this is not a problem for them - they are rich people anyway.

Lots of people are making jokes that Dubai is a part of Kerala, but these jokes are silly and repetitive, and they don't fool me. I know that it is a part of Arab. Kerala is a part of Sri Lanka.


Day Thirteen

Am so excited that I'm going to watch an IPL match next week. I haven't bought tickets, but I have entered many contests, and will surely win at least one free ticket. This is the law of averages. Even Kings XI Punjab managed to win a match, no? The law never fails.

See you guys in a little while.

The iPad could be the next blockbuster gaming console. Seriously.

by Anand Ramachandran. This article first appeared in OPEN magazine.

While the jury is still out on the iPad's impact as an e-reader on the publishing industry, there's one area where it's already being touted as a certain game-changer. The videogames industry has welcomed Apple's self-described 'magical' new tablet with open arms, and almost all major publishers are looking at the device as a serious platform for growth.

Why are developers and publishers all agog about the iPad? The reasons are multiple. The iPhone, with its multitouch capability and accelerometer, proved to be a terrific gaming device, but its small screen size meant that the range of games that were well suited to it was fairly limited. The iPad, with its faster processor, larger screen area and improved accelerometer opens up possibilities for a far wider range of genres to work effectively on the device.

Sure enough, some genres will work better than others. Former GameSpot editor and celebrity gaming journalist Jeff Gertzmann has already said on Twitter that the iPad sucks for playing action games. Action games have always needed quick, responsive controls - especially in terms of simultaneous directional (run, climb) and instantaneous (jump, shoot) input, not the kind of control scheme that touch screens are ideal for. Additionally, mucking about with your thumbs and fingers directly on the screen tends to obscure the action itself, which interferes with the split-second decision making that is an integral part of action gameplay. However, action games such as Call of Duty, NOVA and Mirror's Edge are already doing fairly well on the iPad, and smart designers might yet find a way around these problems that works better than the ubiquitous 'virtual joystick' compromise.

However, genres such as strategy, roleplaying, adventure and puzzle games stand to benefit greatly from the reduced abstraction levels afforded by direct touch-screen input. A cursory glance at the iPad games library reveals a number of heavy-duty strategy franchises already (The Sims, Civilization Revolution, Command and Conquer, Plants vs. Zombies). It's a great fit - since most strategy and tactical combat titles involve constantly clicking on different parts of the screen as the primary user interaction. This works beautifully on the iPad - intuitive, smooth and accessible. Ditto for adventure and puzzle games. In fact, the iPad might just revolutionize standard board games as well. Place it flat on your table and Voila! - an instant scrabble, chess, monopoly or parcheesi board. The iPad's larger screen and ability to register multiple touches also makes it ideal for two-player games such as air-hockey.

Driving games are also enjoying great success on the iPad, thanks to its improved accelerometer making steering completely natural. Need for Speed : Shift, Real racing HD and Asphalt 5 have all had stints in the top seller lists.

Within weeks of its release, games are already the most downloaded apps on the iPad. Over a third of all iPad exclusive applications released are games. Publishers are hoping that the iPad will follow a success path similar to the one enjoyed by Nintendo's Wii - where millions of people who never realized that they were gamers suddenly discover the joy of gaming because of an innovative and intuitive control mechanic. Add a range of affordable games available through a proven digital distribution model (the App Store), and we could be looking at the next blockbuster handheld gaming console.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Destroy. Escape. Create. Solve. The four basic motivations that have powered videogames through the ages.

by Anand Ramachandran. This article first appeared in Gadgets and Gizmos magazine.

The final level in last year's classic Uncharted 2 : Among Thieves was one of the finest cinematic conclusions in the history of videogames, a fitting finale to one of the best games of all time. As the intrepid exporer Nathan Drake, you had to run rings around the game's final boss, while figuring out the way to kill him (your bullets didn't even scratch him), and then make a frantic escape by running, leaping, dodging, clingin on to ledges and get away while the entire building was collapsing around you. It was classic Indiana Jones style high adventure. And it incorporated, in the span of a few minutes, three of the basic player motivations that make up the basic DNA of gaming as a form.

The very first computer game, SpaceWar, established one of gaming's most common conventions - killing the other guy.

Since gaming's earliest days, an overwhelming majority of videogames presented the player with four primary objectives. You kill things. You escape things. You create things. You figure things out. Almost every game from 'Space War' to 'Super Mario Galaxy' to 'Mass Effect 2' has simply featured these four basic motivations in different permutations and combinations. It's a clear illustration of the 'the more things change, the more they stay the same' principle, and a look down gaming's memory lane helps build an understanding of how, beneath all the audio-visual splendour and technological wizardry, games actually force us to keep playing them.

Strangely enough, Pong, the very first videogame, doesn't quite fit into any of these four categories. While it can be argued that the objective of Pong was to 'avoid missing the ball' (as the game's iconic instructions themselves said), this is a bit of a stretch. But the reason becomes clear on a little closer examination – Pong is a representation of tennis (Willy Higginbotham's earlier variant was called Tennis for Two), an adaptation of a real-world sports game. Our study is limited to pure videogames, which leaves out videogame adaptations of sports, board games, or puzzles, which fit into a different evolutionary tree altogether.

However, Space War, the first PC game (which in fact predates Pong) was also the first to establish what is still one of gaming's most popular motivations – kill the other guy. Over 50 years later, this is still the basic thing players need to do in ultra-modern games like Call of Duty : Modern Warfare, Halo 3 and God of War. The simple pleasure of destroying your opponents is what drives a large part of the multi-billion dollar worldwide gaming industry. The implementations have varied through the years – gamers have had to shoot, hack, slash, smash and beat up assorted things which included aliens, monsters, soldiers, pirates, ninjas and multicoloured bricks – but in essence, you had to destroy everything that wasn't you to win the game. It's a very primal survival instinct, and it's not for nothing that combat is pehaps the single most common feature in videogames, so common that many people think all games are violent and there is no other kind of videogame.

Pac-Man's only function was to escape the pursuing Inky, Blinky, Pinky and Clyde. And they would always eventually get you.

Of course, this isn't true. Even as early as the late seventies, games like Pac-Man and Donkey Kong were blazing a different trail. Both these seminal titles motivated the player in completely different ways – instead of the hunter, the player was the hunted. The primary gameplay motivation was escape – you were expected to dodge and avoid your enemies, and reach a point where you could escape and end the level. Sure, you were given tools to destroy your enemies temporarily (Pac-Man's power-pill helped you eat the ghosts, and Mario could grab a hammer and crunch the barrels in Donkey Kong), but they would always respawn and come right back at you. Unlike in Space Invaders or Defender, destroying your enemies was only a means, but not the end itself. You could just as well dodge around them and finish the levels. More games followed that used this formula of escape as opposed to killing – Pitfall, River Raid, Prince of Persia and Super Mario Bros. All featured enemies that were obstacles but not objectives. Running, jumping and dodging with dexterity are more important here than brute strength. The legacy continues well into the present day, with Super Mario Bros remaining one of gaming's most powerful franchises, and games like Prince of Persia, Assassin's Creed and Little Big Planet seamlessly incporporating combat and level-navigation in varying degrees to facilitate escape.

Spore is the culmination of Will Wright's design emphasis on creative over destructive gameplay. Wright's games (The Sims, SimCity) are mostly about creative exploration, and largely lack traditional gaming objectives such as 'winning'.

Meanwhile, Will Wright and Sid Meier, with SimCity and Civilization respectively, created a powerful trend in gaming that emphasized creation over destruction. You built and nurtured cities, and indeed entire civilizations that grew and flourished under your care. The motivation worked in an opposite way to the survival instincts that were catered to by killing or escape based games – appealing to a more evolved, sophisticated need to create and care for things. It bust the market wide open – and a flood of games flowed through the breach into the hands of eager fans. Wright went on to create the bestselling The Sims franchise (in which you created and cared for ordinary, everyday virtual people) and the hugely ambitious Spore (in which you saw your beloved single-cell creation evolve into a spacefaring race of super-beings). Meanwhile, the strategy genre took Civilization's lead and ran in different directions, creating a slew of games in which you needed to build things that would give you the power to destroy other things. Awesomeness followed, and superfranchises such as Warcraft, Starcraft, Age of Empires, Command and Conquer, and Warhammer were born.

The Myst series arguably took the puzzle-solving adventure mainstream. It featured devilishly tricky puzzles that many individuals needed to slyly refer to online walkthroughs to solve. Yes, Millenium Internet Cafe users, you know who you are.

An even more sophisticated breed of gamer demanded the need to flex their brain-muscles a little more – and the adventure franchise tapped into this need. Games like Monkey Island, Space Quest, Gabriel Knight and the blockbuster Myst were essentially stories which unfurled as the gamer solved puzzles to advance the plot. While the pure adventure rose, fell, and then enjoyed a renaissance in the casual gaming space, the 'figure-things-out' mechanic has found its way into every other genre – many shooters, role-playing games and strategy games feature 'puzzles' that need to be solved. With the recent release of 'Heavy Rain', adventure games may yet make a comeback into the mainstream.

As gaming evolves and the boundaries between genres blurs even more, the motivation in games becomes more complex, and most games will feature the four basic motivations – destruction, creation, escape and puzzle-solving – in different combinations. And, as Uncharted 2 has shown us, it can be quite the heady cocktail.

Bioshock 2 and the challenge of extending Rapture

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

Rapture is a beautiful gameworld, but rather hard to expand upon.

When Bioshock was first released, it was rightly hailed as an instant classic. However, it was also praised to the heavens for its innovation and gameplay, which was rather baffling. Bioshock's strengths lay in its superb story and breathtaking setting. The visual and sound design were among the finest in the history of gaming, and, as everybody knows, it had the “best water effects ever seen in a videogame”™. The gameplay, however, featured no real innovation (younger gamers – please refer to System Shock 2), the gunfights were cookie-cutter, and the way the game handled player death effectively devalued any real tension the player might have felt during the combat. So while Bioshock remains a triumph of fantastic, atmospheric videogame storytelling, making a sequel was always going to be problematic.

And now, with Bioshock 2, our fears have been confirmed. While the sequel is indeed an excellent game, it simply doesn't blow us away the way its predecessor did.

Because, with Bioshock, the developers painted themselves into a bit of a corner in a couple of ways.

First, they chose surface (story, visuals, sound) over core gameplay. Since the surface was so astonishingly brilliant, this didn''t matter the first time around. But, in a sequel, it was always going to be hard to top that effort, and hence player disappointment was almost guaranteed. Even though Bioshock 2 does feature a great story and impressive presentation, it still lacks the 'wow' factor, because the initial bar was set so high. And, in the absence of these things, the gameplay doesn't hold up very well. Games like Halo and God of War don't really need any major innovations in story or visual presentation, because the core gameplay is so much fun that anyhing else is a bonus. Games like these are perfect for churning out sequels, because fans care only about the gameplay – even small innovations or additional features will keep them interested. Halo 3 is a classic example – I enjoyed every minute of the campaign, although I can barely remember what the story was about.

Second, they created a gameworld that, while being splendid and beautiful, is terribly hard to expand upon. The fiction of Bioshock firmly locks Rapture as a single underground city, the vision of one man, now a complete, dystopian wreck, overrun by lunatics and abominations. While it is theoretically possible to jump through a few hoops and contrive ways to expand the game's universe, the solutions would probably still feel just that - contrived. Bioshock 2, which is set in the same Rapture as the original, still feels fresh yet familiar, but it's hard to see the gameworld sustaining interest through yet another sequel. This is even more important for a game that depends on story and setting to hold the players' attention. Contrast this with the gameworlds created for games such as Halo, Fallout, Mass Effect or Dragon Age – all open worlds which make it easy for the designers to add a planet here, a forest there, a dwarven ruin here and infinitely extend the gamer's virtual playground. While I again reiterate that it's certainly not impossible to extend the world of Rapture, it is difficult to do it in a manner that wouldn't feel forced.

None of this would matter if Bioshock featured gameplay that would stand on its own, without the technical and creative wizardry to prop it up. Sadly, it doesn't. Which just demonstrates that old “gameplay over story” chestnut in emphatic fashion.

Dealing with Death.

by Anand Ramachandran. This Article first appeared in my Game Invader column for The New Indian Express

The iconic death screen from 'Oregon Trail. Never heard of it? Look it up. Now.

Death in videogames is almost as old as the medium itself. A huge percentage of early arcade games had the concept of 'lives' – die three times, for instance, and you'd see the dreaded words 'GAME OVER' on your screen. The concept of 'death' was so ingrained into the medium that even in games where you didn't technically 'die' (you'd just miss catching something, or hitting something) you'd still say things like “I have only two lives left” or “I died”.

Soon enough, most genres replaced the idea of a finite number of 'lives' with the concept of 'health' or 'hit points'. You'd start with, say, a 100 hit points. Whenever you did something stupid, like take a rocket launcher in the face, or fall off a cliff, you'd lose health. When your health was completely depleted, you would die. This was probably done to make games more accessible and forgiving to players – the concept of 'dying' because of a single mistake was pretty harsh. And games were difficult back in the day – a single touch of an 'enemy object', such as a bullet or a spike or the enemy itself, would result in instant death in games like Donkey Kong, Pac-Man or Space Invaders. The 'health' concept at least gave players some room for error. Of course, this also made scalable difficulty easier to implement, since the 'degree' of damage could be controlled.

More recently. Many games began to dispense with the idea of 'health' altogether, favouring a damage system where you would die only if you took sustained damage for a period of time. If under fire, the gamer would simply have to take cover for a few seconds, and 'health' would be restored to normal. Halo : Combat Evolved was probably the first game to successfully implement this feature, and today even role-playing games like Mass Effect 2 have followed suit.

It's fairly logical – gamers hate to die. They hate to have to constantly re-load old save games and play through difficult segments repeatedly. Combined with automatic checkpointing systems, these new ways of approaching player death have made games more fun for the average player. In fact, the legendary LucasArts adventure games (Monkey Island, Sam and Max, Full Throttle) did away with the concept of death altogether – you just couldn't die or get hopelessly stuck in a LucasArts adventure. Hardcore gamers scoffed at this, and missed the frenetic tension of desperately clinging on to the last 'life' or miniscule 'health' – playing extra carefully until a reprieve in the form of a 1-UP bonus or health-pack could be found. At least they still have Super Mario Bros.

Now, the recently released 'Heavy Rain' treats death in a wholly new and intriguing way. The game features a parallel narrative technique where the player controls different characters at different points in the game, experiencing the storyline from their converging viewpoints. And if one of the characters happens to die, due to a choice the player makes, the story simply continues – and the death of the relevant character impacts the way the rest of the story pans out. It's very clever and exciting – and could change the way games tug at our emotions. Sure, games like 'Wing Commander' and 'Final Fantasy 7' featured emotional death scenes that impacted the story, but never of a character that the player controlled.

If it works well, interactive narrative would have taken another bold step. If not – oh, well. There's always conveniently placed exploding barrels.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Katrina Kaif's keen mind analyzes the budget.

Here's Katrina Kaif on the budget, from today's TOI.

"The overall Budget is positive for the education, entertainment and energy sectors. Finally, the FM has admitted that India is a nation of moviegoers. Clarification on custom duty for imported cinematographic films will benefit some. It would have been nice if cinema tickets were subsidized.

Entertainment tax in certain states is high. The government must give this a thought. What makes me happy is that the education incentives, especially in primary schools in rural India, will continue. "

Hoo, boy. Where do I even begin? This statement expects us to believe that :

  1. Katrina Kaif has a reasonable understanding of how the economics of the energy and education sectors work.
  2. Katrina Kaif understands the taxation structure for imported cinematographic films.
  3. Katrina Kaif actually said this.

Of course, it's very possible that Ms.Kaif is, indeed, an intelligent and thoughtful young woman who reflects on many aspects of civil society, global economics and existential philosophies whenever she gets some time off from pretending to be a dumb bimbette and making lots of cash.

But consider this TV interview I once saw. The words are not accurate, but the exchange is reproduced precisely as it occurred.

Dumb Interviewer Chick : Do you have any problems with being perceived as just a pretty face ? With how people only pay attention to your looks and not your brains ?

Katrina Kaif : Not at all. I have no problem if people keep harping on my beauty and, you know, don't talk about my . . . you know . . . er . . . um . . . ah . . . er . . . whatever it's called."

Dumb Interviewer Chick " Whatever it's called."

Both nod vigorously.

Katrina Kaif didn't even show enough intelligence to remember the word 'intelligence'. Perhaps it was because she was simultaneously calculating the fiscal deficit.

Shahid Kapur's keen mind analyzes the budget.

Here's Shahid Kapur on yesterday's budget, in today's TOI :

"As the finance minister pointed out, we've had a fairly trouble-free 2009. But, we live in the times of terror and increase in defence capital expenditure was mandatory. I feel that besides giving our border and police forces better amenities like guns and bulletproof vests, we must give them better living conditions. These guys are real heroes and their homes and pay packets need to be bettered. It's the least we can do for them. "

Notice two key features of his message :
  1. The use of the term 'defence capital expenditure'.
  2. Complete sentences with real words.
Now contrast this with the contents of Shahid's twitter stream, for the period leading up to the budget, and the day the budget was presented. Reproduced here for your reading pleasure. Please click the image for a magnified view. It's worth it.

Note the salient features. Only four tweets even remotely resemble proper sentences :
  1. "ishaan to my left"
  2. "hey man" 
  3. "of course i will"
  4. "hey"
Other than pointing out the precise location of Ishaan, and providing a thrilling demonstration of the overuse of punctuation marks, Shahid gives us no evidence on twitter that he is capable of such a lucid response to the budget. "Defence capital expenditure" indeed.

I suspect that Shahid is an extremely articulate, perceptive and intelligent young man who deliberately recruits half-wit morons to ghost-tweet on his behalf. But I could be wrong.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Control Freaks : A brief look at the evolution of the videogame controller.

by Anand Ramachandran. This article first appeared in India Today's Gadgets and Gizmos magazine.

2010 could well be the year of the motion controller – with Sony's yet unnamed magic wand, and Microsoft's eagerly awaited Project Natal set to make their debuts, to challenge Nintendo's monopoly over motion-control console gaming.

When they introduced the now ubiquitous Wiimote controller back in 2006, Nintendo changed the rules for the gaming industry – exploding into completely new target segments and exponentially growing the size of the videogames market. Sony and Microsoft were caught napping, and ended up fighting for the smaller, more saturated 'hardcore' segment while millions of new gamers gleefully lapped up the Wii, which ended up outselling the XBOX and the PS3 combined by some distance.

Now Sony and Microsoft are finally getting into this game, hoping to get a chunk of the huge numbers of casual gamers – kids, women, families – that Nintendo currently targets. While Sony's offering looked rather uninspiring, reminding us of a Wiimote clone combined with Sony's own PS2 eye-toy gadget, Microsoft's much-hyped Project Natal has the potential to be just as revolutionary and influential as the Wii was. When Microsoft demonstrated their 'controller-less' gaming system at E3 last year, people were blown away. Using a true motion capture system, the control scheme allowed gamers to translate their real-life gestures such as punching, kicking, ducking and jumping into the game environment. It also featured voice-recognition and face-recognition systems, offering gamers a completely new, immersive gaming experience.

So could Natal end up being the next game-changing controller innovation? Or is it doomed to becoame another one-off novelty like the Eye-Toy or Nintendo's Power-Glove? Is the success of a game controller purely due to innovation? Or are there other factors?

For the answers, it would help to take a trip down the memory lane of videogame controller history.

Surprisingly, game controllers have changed very little since the very first conventions were established – early arcade games, after some experimentation with sliders, knobs and all-button layouts, settled nicely into a joystick-button combination, which is still the dominant control scheme today. And it works so well purely because it neatly captures the two most commonly used inputs in all games – directional input and instantaneous input (jump, do this, do that). Interestingly, the first home video consoles didn't have multiple cartridges – they came with built-in games, and so featured highly customised controls, such as motorcycle handlebars for 'Stunt Cycle' and dual joysticks for 'Tank'. Only when the 'cartridge' system of selling multiple games for home consoles became the norm, the need for a common controller that would work for multiple games ensured that the joystick-button combination became the standard. And everyone was happy for more than two decades.

The ATARI 2600 joystick evolved from the ones found in Arcade Cabinets, and handled the two kinds of inout that most games require - directional and instantaneous. It worked remarkably well for many years.

Of course, controllers evolved in small ways. The ubiquitous Atari 2600 joystick featured one Joystick and a single button, and worked remarkably well. Then, Mattel experimented with a disc-based directional input, and a telephone-like number-pad that you could use for multiple button-inputs. There were many alternatives for specific games, such as paddles / knobs, trackballs and steering-wheels, but the joystick remained the dominant control scheme.

Then the 8-bit and 16-bit consoles such as the NES, SNES, Sega Master System and Genesis introduced the gamepad design, which made more efficient use of both hands. The joystick was replaced by a directional pad, which performed the same function of directional input, by using a single thumb (as opposed to the entire right hand), freeing up the other fingers for holding the controller and operating more buttons.

The PlayStation was the first system to introduce twin analog sticks - thus establishing the modern controller configuration. All modern conventional console controllers are merely variations of this basic design.

The next generation of consoles, including the PlayStation, the Dreamcast and the Nintendo 64 introduced analog joysticks, more face buttons and shoulder-buttons. The analog joystick, referred to as a thumbstick, was an important design leap forward – it could, like the d-pad, be operated using a single thumb, and yet offered more precise directional and speed control. The Playstation 2 was the first system to offer two analog sticks and a directional-pad, thus establishing the modern console controller configuration. Microsoft introduced Analog 'triggers' in place of the shoulder buttons for their XBOX console, and basic controller design hit a plateau after that. The XBOX 360 and PS3 controllers are merely small, mostly ergonomic improvements, but the two-thumbsticks / face buttons / analog triggers / shoulder buttons combination is quite the same as the previous generation's.

Then, Nintendo changed everything with their Wiimote, and people were pointing at the screen, waving and swinging their controllers to play tennis, golf and boxing games. Or did things really change that much? Even Nintendo admits that, after the novelty factor wore off, people played a large percentage of games using the Wiimote turned sideways, like a normal controller. Sure, the motion-control is still a huge winner for the Wii, but it hasn't replaced conventional control schemes altogether. And there's a darned good reason for this – ultimately, controlling videogames has an inescapable layer of abstraction to it. So, to most game players, convenience and comfort tends to be more important than innovation or immersion or realism. After a point, they simply don't care, they just need a convenient, easy, efficient way to tell their on-screen avatars what to do. And the basic joystick-buttons combination works just fine for that.

Nintendo's famous Wiimote ushered in the first controller paradigm-shift in years, forcing Sony's and Microsoft's hand. Both companies are set to introduce their own motion-controllers later this year.

Even in theory, the Wiimote is just an evolution of a pointing device that gamers have used for ages – the humble PC mouse. Aiming using the Wiimote and moving with the Nunchuck feels vaguely similar to the mouse-keyboard combo that PC gamers have always used. Sure, the Wiimote is wireless and senses motion in three dimensions, but at its core, it's just an improvement over the gesture-functionality offered by the mouse. Games like Die By The Sword even managed to create fairly effective swordplay mechanics using the mouse input alone, long before No More Heroes arrived on the Wii. Similar in concept? You bet.

Innovative 'music' controllers have played a huge part in creating and popularizing a whole new mainstream genre of rhythm games - an example of how controller innovation can help sell games.

However, this isn't to say that innovation is dead or useless. The guitar and drum controllers for the Guitar Hero / Rock Band games, the turntable for DJ Hero, steering wheels for racers, and the dance Mats for dance games have shown that, when there's a fit, innovative controllers do make a huge difference, and sell lots of games. However, it's important to note that each of these unconventional controllers enhances the fun-factor of the games they're meant for without sacrificing usability or comfort levels. Therein lies the rub.

In the final analysis, Natal will be a game-changer only if it also comes with games that fit well with its motion-capture input scheme. It has to make games easier, more comfortable and more fun to play. If Microsoft tries to shoehorn the controller into existing genres, then we could very well see it recede into the realm of forgotten novelties, and everyone returning to their beloved conventional controllers for another decade.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Alternate ways to deal with the 'Manglik' curse.

One of my friends has just been told the bad news in no uncertain terms. His brutally honest, grim-faced astrologer has informed him that he is 'Manglik'. And hence he would have to marry an earthen pot.

I have nothing against earthen pots – they're cute, unargumentative, and eco-friendly – but I would draw the line at marrying one. No insurance benefits, and the sex would be below par. Not to mention the horrifying prospect of the house being filled with the pitter-patter--plunkety-plonk-oops-crash of little anthropomorphic pots resembling something from those badly animated advertisements seen on Doordarshan during the eighties.

But I digress. The reason for this downright bizarre practice is, of course, to prevent your bride(or groom)-to-be from meeting with a grisly end a few months into the marriage. By marrying the pot, your 'curse' is transferred to the innocent container, which then frees your beloved to live long, prosper, and nag you about your clothes. The pot is then destroyed, ending the curse. Neat.

On closer examination of the practice, I find that our friends in the astrological community have been rather unimaginative in their process design. The things you can marry to redeem yourself from the dreaded 'Manglik' curse seem mostly limited to earthen pots, banana trees and clay idols. Boring.

My question is – why not expand the scope a little and include a number of things that are better suited to bearing the curse of imminent death? Just a quick glance around will provide numerous examples of things that are probably going to die quickly anway, so what's the harm in going a little 'Manglik' on their sorry asses? A sampling :

  • An XBOX 360 console
    Everybody knows that Microsoft's crappy hardware quality will ensure a 'Red Ring of Death' just a few months after purchase. Perfect for absorbing any Manglik negative energy.

  • Sania Mirza's chances at the next grand slam
    If lack of survival is what you're looking for, then Ms.Mirza is unlikely to let you down.

  • A Mayfly
    The poor creatures only live for a few hours anyway. And their main purpose is reproduction, so you can even squeeze in a quick one before saying goodbye. Caution – might die even before you complete the ceremony, so make it quick and snappy. Register marriages recommended as opposed to those interminably long circuses we sometimes call weddings.

  • The acting careers of Tushar Kapoor, Dino Morea or Suniel Shetty
    While we admit that their careers are dying a tad slower than is ideally suited for this purpose, there's nothing wrong in helping their demise along with a little Manglik magic. 

  • An answer to any question posed on TV by Arnab Goswami
    A very safe bet – since Arnab takes great care to kill all responses quickly and efficiently, by cutting them off after “Well, you see, Arnab, it's a ma . . .”

  • A social revolution started on Twitter or Facebook
    Nothing is more short-lived than attempts by thousands of people on Twitter and Facebook to rid the world of its evils by starting hashtags and saying interesting things about their underwear. Most of these live for about 24 hours, or until someone links to a funny video where Hitler gets upset.

Of course. I realize that many of these things are fairly hard to actually 'marry' – but Astrologers are studs at coming up with ideas to solve such problems. If they can cure chronic gall bladder problems by tying coloured ropes around stone idols hundreds of miles away from the gall bladder in question, this can't be too hard. They'll figure it out.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Learning to Floo

Also - the comic is being serialized now on the CIS India web site. For those of you who missed the beginning - you can start reading here.

Here's the latest page, as a teaser :

We'll be updating mondays and thursdays, so do follow. And let us know your comments and feedback right here on this blog.

The need for game appreciation

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

All other currently thriving art and entertainment forms benefit from a thriving ecosystem of critique, appreciation and deep understanding. Films, books and music are studied and dissected by an army of critics who look at everything the form has to offer, from the popular to the obscure, and throw light on their many aspects – such as cultural relevance, historical significance, sheer aesthetic beauty, technical excellence and so on. This not only helps us as fans understand and enjoy the arts in broader and deeper ways, it also exposes us to a far wider body of work, and indeed enhances our experiences of these arts.

Why, then, don't we have anything similar for games? Why is there precious little in terms of critique or appreciation of videogames as a bona-fide art form as there is for cinema for instance? We cannot argue that games are in their infancy, because they aren't. Videogames are now well over three decades old. All we have are reviews, which are great, but do not qualify as informed criticism. As Greg Costikyan, the renowned independent game designer and journalist pointed out, a review is a buyer's guide, intended to tell people whether the game in question is worth their time and money. It tells us nothing of the game's cultural context or significance within gaming's canon.

For gaming to gain acceptance as a mainstream entertainment medium and art form, we must make efforts to preserve and celebrate its heritage. A young gamer playing Bioshock 2 today is unlikely to know much about the history of shooting games, and the diverse influences which Bioshock brings together.

We need to look at questions that dig deep into gaming's very soul. How does the history of games that are based on destruction differ from that of games based on creation? How are these games different in what needs and desires they fulfil in the gamer? Where does a game like Spore (which gives you tools to create things that help you destroy other things) fit in to the scheme of things? How do games that let you nurture creations (The Sims, Farmville) differ in basic nature from those which depend on mindless destruction (Borderlands, Doom) to engage the gamer? How do we explain games that lack objectives or winning conditions altogether (The Sims, Flower) ? Are they games at all? There's so much to understand and study and shed light on.

Popular discourse based on questions such as these will only help strengthen the foundations of popular gaming, and create a solid base of knowledge from which who knows what kind of games will spring. The sheer variety of choices available to the public in books, films and music is staggering – and games are nowhere close to offering that much variety. But it's growing extremely quickly, and a better critical understanding will doubtless fuel innovation and experimentation.

We need game clubs where young gamers can play the games which are the ancestors of today's blockbusters. An Age of Empires fan must experience Dune II. A Fallout 3 fan should have the opportunity to play Wasteland. An Uncharted 2 fan should be given the chance to check out the original Ninja Gaiden or Prince of Persia or Donkey Kong.

Music and film fans have access to the hits of yore, the creations that shaped and defined the art through the ages, and to intelligent discourse and critique that helps them experience and appreciate it in context. We must ensure that gaming fans have the same.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Is Bioware the greatest developer ever?

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

By releasing two genre-defining games within a few months of each other, Bioware has stamped their authority on cutting-edge game development, and have staked their claim to being the greatest game development studio of all time, at least outside Japan.

Last year's Dragon Age : Origins was a lovingly, intricately and masterfully crafted classical role-playing game, in the traditions of Bioware's own epic, Baldur's Gate 2. It featured a delightfully rich and detailed high-fantasy gameworld, a role-playing system that was a purist's delight, and some of the best squad-based tactical combat in modern gaming. It raised the bar for swords-and-sorcery RPGs, and is now the definitive high fantasy role-playing game by some distance.

Now, merely a few months later, they've gone and done the same for sci-fi based RPGs with the utterly magical Mass Effect 2.

This is a very different role-playing experience from Dragon Age. While the latter is a very old-school, classical, deliberately paced game, Mass Effect 2 lays down the template for the post-modern RPG – faster paced, more accessible and more cinematic. While Dragon Age : Origins is clearly aimed at veteran RPGers, Mass Effect 2 is the kind of game that can introduce a generation of new players to the role-playing genre, which it in fact completely redefines. While Dragon Age feels like you're in a 'Lord of The rings' type epic novel, Mass Effect 2 is like being in a Star Wars movie.

With the Mass Effect franchise, Bioware achieves what no other developer has managed to achieve in the past decade – simultaneously establish a new set of interactive storytelling and role-playing gameplay mechanics, and create one of the most interesting sci-fi universes in recent times. The Mass Effect universe is fleshed out with the usual top-notch writing, great lore and painstaking attention to detail that are all vintage Bioware. It has the potential to be the Star Wars / Star Trek universe of future generations - no mean feat, and it could only have been pulled of by Bioware.

Make no mistake, with Mass Effect 2, Bioware now owns the sci-fi RPG, and indeed have set the new standard for the 'interactive cinematic experience' that has always been gaming's holy grail. And with Dragon Age : Origins, they own the high-fantasy RPG, and the legions of fans of hardcore traditional role-playing. Indeed, while Dragon Age is the successor to Baldur's Gate 2, Mass Effect is descended from Star Wars : Knights of The Old Republic, another of Bioware's best games. And with both games, Bioware has broken free of the shackles of existing franchises (Dungeons and Dragons, Star Wars) and created completely original universes.

A look at any definitive list of the best games of the last fifteen years will reveal that no other developer has so many entries, with so many different franchises, with the possible exception of that other legendary studio, Blizzard. With the upcoming Star Wars MMO, The Old Republic, Bioware now threatens Blizzard's stranglehold over the MMO landscape. If anyone can dethrone World of Warcraft, a Bioware-Star Wars combination probably stands the best possible chance.

A Blizzard vs Bioware verdict is too close to call – they're both incredibly skilled, influential and successful studios. They've both created top-class fantasy and sci-fi universes. They've both created games that redefine genres. But one factor in favour of Bioware is that, while Blizzard's efforts have so far been restricted to the PC platform, Bioware has found success on consoles as well.
Greatest ever? Close, but a successful Star Wars MMO should seal it conclusively.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

A renaissance in racing games

Titles such as Forza Motorsport 3 are taking racing games back to the forefront of popular gaming.

Racing games have always been one of gaming's more popular genres, selling millions of copies, attracting legions of fans, and playing a stellar role in introducing people to videogames. Along with sports games, racing games are arguably the most common 'first gaming experience' for a huge percentage of gamers - because everybody loves to race cars, right? Many of us old-timers remember fondly the hours spent playing arcade and home console classics like Pole Position, Enduro and Night Driver back in the early eighties. Developers like Accolade and papyrus gave us incredibly realistic (for the time) and enjoyable racing experiences on the PC. Even in India, during the early computing days, you'd very often find Grand Prix CGA or Test Drive or Indycar installed and running on almost every other PC you saw. Franchises like Need for Speed were instrumental in expanding the videogames market in India, and remain at the forefront of every new gamer's wish list.

However, as the years rolled on, something happened. Racing games began to become inaccessible to the new player. Controls became more realistic, the sense of speed was amazing, the games looked better and better – but boy, were they hard to master. Even the more 'arcadey' handling of titles like Need for Speed or Project Gotham Racing (leave alone simulations like TOCA Race Driver, the earlier Forza titles and Gran Turismo) required a skill level that many gamers simply did not possess, especially those who were new to racing. Most of them would enthusiastically pick up a game, enticed by the rave reviews, start off a race, and find themselves hopelessly out of their depth – skidding and spinning and crashing out of control. Frustrated, many would just give up. And miss out on some fantastic gaming fun – unless they had the perseverance to practice and master the skills. While the Burnout games went in the opposite direction - making it n00b friendly by actually encouraging and rewarding crashes and reckless driving - with tremedous success, this was the exception that proved the rule. Racing games had forsaken the newbie who had made them so successful in the first place, in search of an elusive holy grail of being the most ;realistic' or 'hardcore' title on the planet.

This alienation ultimately had its impact - big-name publishers found that they were faced with the twin problems of hugely expanding development budgets (better graphics, ultra-realistic physics, more graphics assets) and shrinking markets. Faced with this situation, companies like Codemasters, Microsoft and Sony had no choice - get more people to buy your games, or perish. And, thanks to some great design innovations, they seem to be on the right track this time.

Codemasters took the lead with last year's excellent Race Driver : GRID, which introduced a nifty 'rewind' feature that vastly improved things for the less-than-immaculate driver. Now, if you crashed negotiating a tricky turn, you didn't have to restart the race – you could simply 'rewind' to a point a few seconds before, and continue from there. Like an 'undo' feature of sorts. It was brilliant (though hardly original – remember The Sands of Time? Braid? ), and made GRID fairly accessible despite it's undoubted hardcoreness.

They repeated the feature in this year's critically acclaimed DiRT 2, with a slew of newbie friendly features and slick presentation that made it a great fun pick-up-and-play experience for players of almost any skill level. And all this was done without sacrificing the hardcoreness or challenge level for more advanced players.

Sadly, GRID and DiRT didn't quite get the sales boost they deserved, partly because of they still carried the baggage of earlier, more hardcore titles from the publisher, and were perceived by new gamers as being too hardcore. But these games undeniably laid the groundwork in terms of design for the seminal Forza Motorsport 3, which has taken accessibility to an entire new level. And, thankfully, Forza 3 sold over a million copies in the first few weeks of its release, and is well on its way to becoming one of Microsoft's top sellers for the XBOX 360.

Unlike in GRID and DiRT 2 which have limited 'rewinds', Forza has removed all limits. You can rewind at any point in the race, how ever many times you want, without any penalty. While this may seen like spoon-feeding to the tuly hardcore – the truth is that you don't have to use it if you don't want to. It doesn't alter the game for the pros, but gives the rest of us n00bs a great opportunity to try those risky moves without fear of instant failure. Eventually, the more casual players will improve their skills, and come to appreciate the game's realism and challenge when they're ready for it - as opposed to being discouraged and put off by difficulty spikes early in the game.

Forza 3 also has some of the best implementation of variable, customizable difficulty levels seen in gaming. Depending on how you want to play, you can turn on or off a number of assists such as auto-braking, stability control, traction control, anti-lock brakes and the series' now famous racing line. Turn all of them on, and the car will practically drive itself – even a first time player will feel like Michael Schumacher. Turn all of them off, and you'd have to BE Michael Schumacher to drive with any sort of success – just like the hardcore simulation fans demand.

This is the kind of brilliant, opt-in game design that we need to take hardcore gaming mainstream. put in the features to attract and encourage newbies, and give the hardcore set the option to safely ignore them. As easy or hard as you want it to be. Microsoft seems to get this – Halo was similarly spread out difficulty wise. On Easy, it was almost impossible to die, but on Legendary, one bullet could be the end. But Forza 3 takes it well beyond that – you can get assists for skills you suck at, and set higher challenge levels for your strength areas. You can customize the challenge to suit your precise skill level and style of play. Absolutely top class game design.

Here's hoping future titles follow Forza Motorsport 3's lead and introduce design features that bring the fun back to racing. After all, we're all not quite hardcore gearheads, but we still like to race. And if publishers give us titles that are more like games and less like boot camps, we'll gladly buy them. Are you listening, Gran Turismo 5?

Is Role-Playing the ultimate videogame genre?

In the beginning, genres were watertight. Action games were pure action – some had the semblance of a story, others just ignored it altogether and let you get on with the leaping, running and killing. Racing and sports games put you in the thick of things, and didn't bother with levels or stats or items. Strategy games just focused on making sure your fingers were almost dropping off from pain. Fighting games featured crazy rosters, mad combo skills, but no customization. Adventure games had great stories, mind-bending puzzles, and little else.

Meanwhile, Role-Playing games were catering to the more hardcore, more intelligent and erudite gamers who demanded more complexity and nuance from their gaming experience. There were engaging stories, lots of complicated stats and items to manage, there were vast and exciting lands to explore, dangerous creatures to kill, puzzles to solve, strategies to formulate. Early CRPGs such as the Ultima games, SSI's legendary Gold Box games based on the Dungeons and Dragons rules, Wasteland, Daggerfall and Betrayal at Krondor were amazingly complete gaming experiences, and prely for the hardcore. They were difficult and demanding – and would usually overwhelm new players who would rather play more simple games such as Doom or Screamer or Prince of Persia.

But the fact was that Role-Playing games offered the most complete gaming experience of all genres – incorporating adventure, strategy, puzzle-solving, and action in addition to the core role-playing mechanics of character development and equipment trading.

Fast-forward to the present day, and you have every single genre scrambling to introduce 'role-playing elements'. Shooters such as Borderlands and Bioshock give you a range of weapons, stats and skills to develop your character. Racing games such as Forza Motorsport have introduced XP points, a level-up system, car customization and vehicle upgrades you can buy from a store. Sports and racing games have introduced story based 'career modes' to further draw players into the experience. Strategy games such as Dawn of War and Warcraft now feature unique 'hero' characters that can be levelled up just like in an RPG, and equipment and items that offer bonuses and boosts. Fighting games such as Soul Calibur now have 'create your own character' modes, skill progression, and unlockable moves and equipment. Even casual games like Farmville have tons of features from traditional RPG designs.

Just what is happening here?

Looks like game designers are discovering that as the gaming market matures as a whole, gamers are demanding more value from their games – especially considering that games aren't cheap these days. You stick in role-playing elements (character development and customization, item progression, engaging story and setting) and suddenly the same basic gameplay is more involving, and lasts much longer. Job done. Even online communities have all been built as meta-games, which are essentially role-playing in nature – consider XBOX Live's customizable Avatars, achievements and gamerscores, all fundamentally role-playing concepts.

So what we have here is this – whatever you're playing today, it's likely you're playing an RPG at some level.

At a basic psychological level, we're all obsessed with acquiring stuff, and comparing said stuff with our friends and neighbours and total strangers. Role-playing games tap into this need for constant acquisition driven growth, and make it a harmless (mostly) and entertaining virtual experience. And addictive. Game publishers like that.

Alright, off now. Need to play Dragon Age Origins for a few hours – so I can level up my strength to 38 and wear that Blood-Dragon Armour. That'll show Videep Vijay Kumar who's boss.

Weird, beautiful, Japanese.

Japanese game design makes another breathtaking comeback with Bayonetta – the new action adventure from Hideki Kamiya, the creator of Devil May Cry and Viewtiful Joe. Every time you think that Japanese studios can't make weirder, more outlandish games, they go and surprise you by doing exactly that.

Essentially, Bayonetta is a third person beat-em-up featuring insane combos, furious combat, and fantastic graphics. But that's like saying Zinedine Zidane is essentially a midfielder. It's accurate, but entirely useless in describing Zizu's magical, almost superhuman qualities. You play through Bayonetta alternating between frenzied tension, helpless laughter and sheer open-mouthed awe.

It's hard to describe the Bayonetta gameplay experience without sounding like a drug-addled lunatic, but I'll give it a shot. Bayonetta is a dark witch who has pistols in her hands. And she also has pistols that double as high-heels for her shoes. So she can, and does, shoot the bad guys while pirouetting, turning cartweels, leaping and somersaulting through the air, or just strutting around like a fashion model. She also has a variety of kicks and punches, but why bother with mundane martial arts when you can magically produce an iron-maiden and crush your foes in it? Or chop their sorry noggins off with a guillotine that appears out of nowhere? Or eat them by summoning a dragon, which used to be your hair, which used to be your clothes? You'll battle in gothic churches, broken clock-towers that hurtle through the air, abandoned train stations for dead souls – all to the beat of crazy techno music. Do I sound like a drug -addled lunatic yet? Good.

This is where Japanese game design really comes into its own – in the execution of ideas so crazy, so bizarre, that any sane publisher would immediately withdraw support. Luckily for us, the Japanese aren't sane. Which is why we get to play games like Bayonetta. Or Devil May Cry. Or Katamari Damacy. Or Loco Roco. Or Okami.

The Japanese have no problems believing that you can make a commercially successful game out of rolling really big balls using random junk, and using them to create stars in the night sky. Or one where you play a wolf-god and defeat your enemies using calligraphy (yes, calligraphy).

Even the more straight-laced games from Japanese designers, such as the Mario, Zelda and Metal Gear Solid franchises display a basic sense of fun and humour that defy conventional logic. Solid Snake hides from terrorists and other hi-tech enabled bad guys by climbing into a cardboard box, for heavens sake. Can you imagine the Master Chief doing that?

At some level, the Japanese realize that above all else, a game needs to be fun. If it manages that, it doesn't matter if it isn't realistic, or believable, or plausible. This is why they make bold, innovative games that don't puch the design envelope so much as tear it to shreds.

Shigeru Miyamoto, Nintendo's legendary creator of Mario, Zelda and Metroid, once said that he didn't understand why people always wanted to compare games to movies, and want games to be more like motion pictures. He stressed that Nintendo's design philosophy always aimed at creating games that could be enjoyed purely as games. No points for guessing which company sells the most games worldwide.

More power to innovation, I always say. I'd like to see more Bayonettas and Katamari Damacys among the inevitable deluge of derivative Halo and Call of Duty sequels. Thankfully, it seems to be happening increasingly. Good times.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Going one-up. An Aamir Khan - Shah Rukh Khan rivalry story.

 A short story by Anand Ramachandran

“Fuck! I hate my job.”, said Sankalesh Jimmy in exasperation. He would have slammed the phone down in disgust, had it not been a mobile phone. He suddenly hated mobile phones for not being slammable. He then proceeded to hate his coffee, his cubicle, his nose, and even his beloved collection of old 'Dipy's Cowboy' memorabilia – all of which were blameless for his current state of agitation.

But most of all, he hated Aamir Khan, who wasn't.

“What's the matter? You seem upset.”, said James Dare, keenly observant as always. James was one of those guys who, if you had chanced upon his visiting card without having met him, you would have imagined looked like a dynamic, rock-jawed, spacefaring captain who saved the universe on Thursdays. In reality, he looked more like 'Mirchi' Siva in a foul mood, perhaps after losing a closely fought table-tennis game from a winning position.

“Now he wants craters on the fucking SUN! Screw this.”, said Sankalesh


“It's bloody Aamir. Ever since that stupid moon-crater was named after Shah Rukh, he's been desperate for attention. Now he's asking us if we can get a sun-crater named after him. Sun-crater. Can you fucking believe that?”. Sankalesh slumped into his chair and buried his face in his hands.

“You'd think it was a blast being Aamir's PR manager.” he said wryly.

“So you're saying there aren't any craters on the sun?” asked James

“Of course not. You're telling me you didn't know that?” asked Sankalesh incredulously.

“I didn't even know that there were craters on the moon. And that you could name people after them. So there aren't any on the sun? Why not? You can't name people after them?” asked James cheerily.

“Yes there are. Yes you can. No there aren't. Maybe because the sun doesn't have a fucking SURFACE! No you can't, because there's nothing to name.”, said Sankalesh, answering the questions in the correct order, through gritted teeth.

“Oh.” said James absently, peering into Sankalesh's monitor and reading his messages. At any other time, Sankalesh would have been annoyed at this, but now he merely ignored it. He looked up at the ceiling.

“It's always the same. Shah Rukh gets a six-pack, and Aamir invents the eight-pack. Shah Rukh picks up some awards, Aamir stops accepting awards altogether. Shah Rukh plays a psychopath, Aamir plays a violent psychopath with memory-loss, a bad attitude and his contacts list tattooed on his fucking body. Shah Rukh makes a bad movie a hit, Aamir makes the worst movie of all time the biggest hit of all time. It's unbearable.”

“Yeah. Aamir rules. He's the best at everything he does.”, said James, taking a break from reading Sankalesh's monthly accounts statement in order to perform the valuable service of missing the point entirely.

They sat in silence for a few minutes.

“I know what I'm going to do”, said Sankalesh suddenly.

He picked up his phone and dialled.

“Hello? Aamir? Hi, it's Sankalesh. More news on Shah Rukh. Apparently this morning, he woke up and actually contemplated suicide. It's going to be in the TOI tomorrow – front page. Seriously. SRK contemplates suicide. Half-page with colour pictures. What do you suggest we do?”

He waited a few seconds, and then heard the gunshot.

He felt evil.

Note : This post is part of an experiment to treat the same subject of satire in three different ways. There's a cartoon here and a satirical fake news report here.