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.