Monday, December 19, 2005

The Art of Building Empires

Real-Time Strategy games and their evolution over the past decade

Most of us will be familiar with Chess, and recognize it as a strategy game that requires thought, cunning and for the really good players, a fair amount of planning. As we all know, chess is a turn-based strategy game, where each player has to wait while the other thinks and executes his move on a board. In the computer gaming world though, there exist different genres of strategy games: Abstract Strategy, Simulation, Real Time Strategy, Turn based and City Building. Over the years though, while turn based strategy games have enjoyed very niche popularity, Real-Time Strategy games have emerged at the most popular because of the quick micromanagement and quick thinking required.

A real-time strategy (RTS) game is a type of computer strategy game which does not have "turns" like conventional turn-based strategy video or board games. Rather, game time progresses in "real time": that is, it is continuous rather than turn-by-turn. Players play simultaneously, and opposing armies and economies are built at the same time. Early computer strategy games adhered firmly to the turn-based concepts of their board game ancestors, where--by necessity--players had time to plan their turns before their opponents had a chance to move. Here, I'll be referring to the (harvest - build - destroy) type of games, which has arguably seen the most evolution and popularity since the genre was first defined. Real-time strategy changed all of that so that games would begin to more closely resemble reality: Time was limited, and if you wasted yours, your opponents would probably be taking advantage of theirs. These games are played either against computer opponents or against human players over a network or over the internet. Imagine playing in the persona of Joan of Arc and defending France against the English, or Genghis Khan in his conquest of Europe, or even an army of the human race fighting to save earth from destructive aliens in space battles - all this and much more is possible by playing some of the best games created this decade.

A brief history of how the genre started: in the early 80's game developers were toying with the idea of introducing war strategy into their mostly action packed shooting and gathering games, but were limited by the technology available at the time as well as the difficulties in getting the elements to strategy to work correctly in a simultaneous play setting. Dune 2, released in 1992 and was the first real-time strategy game which defined the genre, and even today's games have a lot in common with this classic. Whwasn'tit wasn't a huge commercial success, Dune 2 went on to inspire hundred of game developers to create better, faster, and more complex strategy games.

I was first introduced to the genre of turn-based strategy games in 1995 with Heroes of Might and Magic, an epic series of games that survives to this date - version 5 of the series is due to be released early next year. While turn based strategy has it own charm, when the original Command and Conquer series was released, I became an instant fan along with gamers all over the world who were delighted to play a real time strategy game that looked great and played well. Blowing up tanks, building aircraft carriers and playing multiplayer in real-time lead to a huge jump in fun playing a strategy game. Then cam e along Warcraft 2 in 1996 (in India), and that set the stagebeginininge begiing of the strategy game revolution. The Warcraft (Blizzard) and Command and Conquer (Westwood Studios) series were bitter rivals over the next few years, each trying to outdo the other in terms of features, gameplay and graphics. So who won the battle of the most played strategy game at the time? According to game historians, Blizzard, the makers of Warcraft, won by a huge margin - but not because of Warcraft! In 1998, Blizzard released arguably one of the best strategy games ever made: Starcraft. Not only did this game become a huge hit with gamers, it pushed the genre to a completely new level; world of real-time strategy hasn't been the same since. In a time where there were other good strategy games like Command and Conquer: Red Alert, Total Annihilation, Dark Reign and the classic Age of Empires 2, Starcraft just cleanly ripped apart the competition with its simple to use interface, deep strategy possibilities and addictive gameplay.

Age of Empires too needs a mention, as one of the best strategy games ever created; but it was too complex for some people, and while it got very pdidn'tar, it didn't see the kind of numbers Starcraft did.

Fast forward to 5 years later: Warcraft 3, Age of Empires 3, Command and Conquer: Generals, the Homeworld series and Rise of Nations are just some of the RTS games that have attracted a lot of fans. While the basic premise of these modern strategy games hasn't changed much, (the harvest, build and destroy theme still applies) the games are a huge step ahead of their predecessors. For one, they're all 3D games, with beautiful environments which can be zoomed into and camera angles can be rotated. What this means for the player is immersive graphics with unprecedented attention to detail, among other things. Zooming in on one of your 40 tanks and being able to see the tank commander giving orders, or clicking on a hero and watching his cloak blow in the wind and his sword gleam are just a couple of example of what I mean by detail. Today's powerful computers and graphics cards have made this possible, and the future looks even better. Future games are likely to further enhance the realism of RTS games, giving each unit a limited intelligence and experience levels, similar to what Warcraft 3 and Age of Empires 3 have already done to some extent.

Multiplayer strategy games have always been amazing fun, because of the fast gameplay and intense micro and macro management required. But multiplayer strategy games have always had a "ceiling" of 8 to 12 players playing simultaneously, simply because more players controlling armies would create serious performance issues for everyone. But the killer RTS type for the future is the Massively Multiplayer Online Real Time Strategy (MMORTS). This new type of strategy game combines real-time strategy (RTS) with a large number of simultaneous players over the Internet. It is a type of massively multiplayer online game, and this genre is set to be the next revolution in strategy gaming. These are early days, and while the current MMORTS games out there are still a little raw, once the big publishing houses like Blizzard get in the foray we can only expect nothing but more beautiful graphics, more addictive gameplay and intense online strategy gaming in the coming years.

Monday, December 05, 2005

The Demise of a Revolution

The erasure of videogame arcades from popular culture across the globe

Remember the dark lights, constant bling-bling of coins and the heady rush of being in a place where most people’s egos make Mount Everest seem like a molehill? Yes, I’m talking about the ‘friendly’ neighborhood videogame arcade of yesteryear, where you could pop in with only 10 rupees in your pocket and get over 5 hours of interactive entertainment (if you’re good – if not, the ten bucks wouldn’t last you more than 2 minutes).

For those not in the know, videogame arcades are commercial establishments that house large videogame machines for people to experience on a “per play” basis. You’d have to put in a few coins (it used to be Re. 1 and Rs. 2 about 10 years ago, but in today’s arcades its Rs. 20 per game) and try and keep your game character alive for as long as possible – if your character died or the game ended, you’d have to put in more coins to continue your game.

Mostly the bastion for teenage males, videogame arcades all over the world have had their fair share of negative vibes; they typically have subdued lighting to inhibit glare and enhance the viewing of the game's video display, making the ambience seem a little, well, dark and dingy. Add to that the ‘putting in coins into a machine’ phenomenon and most people automatically thought that these arcades were gambling houses! *sigh* I wish they were, I’d probably be a millionaire by now :) But anyway, this atmosphere and the combination of people’s perceptions added to their negative reputation, and arcades in the US, Japan, Europe and even India came under a lot of flak by concerned parents and tax-greedy politicians.

The arcade scene in India was comparatively late in arrival, and when arcades did start to sprout, they were restricted to only a few places in the beginning; one of the first videogame arcades in India was in Pune, called “Shoot-In”. Small place, packed with pinball machines and arcade cabinets, it was one of my favorite hang-outs as a kid simply for the fun Tetris competitions they used to have :)

By the mid-1980s, however, the arcade video game craze was beginning to fade in the west due to the reputation of arcades as being seedy, unsafe places as well as the advances in home video game console technology. The last gasp of the youth arcade subculture in Europe and the US, may have been the advent of two-player fighting games such as Street Fighter II (1991), Mortal Kombat (1992), Samurai Showdown (1993), Fatal Fury (1992) and the Tekken series (1996), to name but a few classic all-time-favorites. In India, though, “homebrewed” arcades sprung up all over the place in the late nineties, with homemade arcade machines created out of Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis consoles combined with cheap control systems, video monitors and of course, pirated games.

So what was the difference between the original arcade games and these Indian/Taiwanese arcade games? Well, the Indian ones would “pause” every 3 minutes, forcing you to put in another 2 rupees to continue your game. So it didn’t matter if you were good at the game or not, you’d have to shell out 2 bucks to play for each additional 3 minutes!

Nevertheless, these arcades too came under a lot of flak, and, like the rest were shut down over time. Over the years I’ve been to quite a few arcades: 3 in Mumbai, 1 in Mangalore, 4 more in Pune and even one in Goa, at the Cidade De Goa. I’ve heard of a few in Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai and even Kolkatta – however, only a couple of them remain open to this day. So what happened to these arcades, and why did they close shop?

The so called “golden age of arcade games” was the mid-eighties to the early nineties, according to historians, where video arcades were at their peak popularity in the US and Europe. After that, though, the rapid fall in popularity was due to a combination of three things: the growing power of home consoles and PC gaming; the negative reputation of video arcades; and the lack of new games and technologies coming out from the game developers, who shifted focus to (the more profitable) console and PC development.

In India, however, the reasons videogame arcades died are quite different: the game cabinets were expensive; the arcades come under the entertainment tax scanner; the newer arcades just didn’t become profitable due to their student-unfriendly prices and therefore low occupancy; and quite often, arcades got into trouble due to the betting habits of a few unscrupulous individuals.

With the increase of Internet cafes opening (which also provide gaming services), the need for video arcades and such arcade games have reduced, and therefore many old video game arcades have long since closed. The classic coin-operated games have become largely the province of dedicated hobbyists all over the world, who manage to buy old arcade cabinets at amazing prices.

Japan is now the only country in the world which still has a popular video arcade culture, where they are called “game centers”. New age arcade games are usually tested out in Japan, with new genres like “Dance Dance Revolution” (where the player has to do certain dance moves on a floor-pad) and “The House of the Dead” (where the player holds a gun and shoots at a light-sensitive screen) which were created in the past 5 years. Unfortunately, even in Japan, arcades aren’t what they used to be, and with a very few new games being made, most believe the games centers won’t last too long either.

The good old neighborhood arcade is no more, well, at least not till someone perfects virtual reality machines; but have we lost all those amazing games? Not really! If you’d like to play the arcade games of yesteryear again, you could use an ‘emulator’ called MAME and play most of your old favorites on your PC! You probably won’t get to experience the dark, excitement filled ambience of an arcade again, but at least all the games are still there for the taking.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Kill your friends and steal their weapons

Are the controversies surrounding videogames a cause for concern?

Ok, so I deviated from my promised topic last fortnight; a few days ago a friend who doesn’t play videogames asked me if the controversies surrounding videogames had any substance. Considering this is a question in the mind of most parents, I thought I’d answer the question from a gamers’ point of view.

While playing computer and console games in India is still picking up as a hobby, it’s already gotten into a fair bit of trouble in America and Europe, because of the content of today’s games. These days, you’ll have a hard time finding a PC or console blockbuster that doesn’t involve shooting people, driving at breakneck speeds, violent destruction of property and even stealing for acquiring better items - all this peppered with a copious amount of blood and gore. Sure, there are a fair amount of new games that are non-violent and peaceful, but why don’t they sell in numbers even remotely close to the other more ‘hardcore’ games? On the other hand, why are politicians in America and Europe fighting hard to censor game content? Why has gaming been blamed for certain instances of violent crime in America?

The answer could lie in a combination of two things: understanding youth psychology and acknowledging the fact that acceptance of new entertainment media involves completely different hooks. What appeals to 15-year-olds probably won’t appeal to 24-year-olds and vice versa – just like the effects of disturbing visuals will also be completely different depending on the age group. Can you imagine a videogame that lets players steal cars, drive fast, shoot mobsters, avoid police, pickup prostitutes, have sex and then kill them to get their money back? There is such a game called Grand Theft Auto III, which has been at the heart of the controversies worldwide, and has been strongly condemned by parents' groups, psychologists, religious organizations and politicians.

The ‘videogame’ culture or ‘MTV culture’ (as its been called by people who haven’t experienced the culture) has had its share of ups and downs in the world’s media, most of it being blown out of proportion by people who don’t understand the fundamental “bottom line” followed by older gamers: playing games is for fun and does not reflect what you will do in real life.

On the other hand, Lt. Col. David Grossman, a former psychology professor, has written several books that pertain to the subject of violence in the media, including On Killing and Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill.

He has repeatedly used the term "murder simulator" to describe first-person shooter games, and has argued that video games unethically train children in the use of weapons and, more importantly, harden them emotionally to the act of murder by simulating the killing of hundreds or thousands of opponents in a single typical video game.

Video games publishers and more importantly, youth who play video games and are active in voicing their opinions on this subject have dismissed his findings as “skewed’ and “unrealistic”. To me, there’s truth at both ends; just like most media and entertainment have an effect on our psyches – it all depends on how well we take it. Just because you see a movie that portrays violence and crime doesn’t mean that you’ll go out tomorrow and attempt to duplicate it. The same rule applies to games - just because you play a violent game that involves blowing up people with a rocket launcher doesn’t mean you’ll want to do it in real life.

For the past decade, video game violence critics have generally agreed that violent video games are at least as bad an influence on children as are television shows with the same level of violence and cruelty, and most now seem to believe that video games are more threatening to a child's well-being, because the video game player uses the controller to make an on screen character act out the violence personally. It was widely reported that the killers in the Columbine High School massacre in America were, like many teenagers, fans of first-person shooter games. They had recorded a videotape before the massacre in which they said they looked forward to using their shotguns just as in the game Doom.

Some psychologists and parents' groups have criticised video games because they believe they cause children to sit alone in the television/computer room for many hours in a row, interacting with a machine rather than running and playing outside as they exercise and improve their social skills by playing with other children.

Many respond that video games can enhance children's social interaction because many video games are multiplayer games, where two or four players can have fun competing on the same television screen, and that if a child is isolated and antisocial, this is not the fault of video games, but perhaps of the child's inborn disposition, or perhaps of the parents' lack of attention to making sure their child has enough opportunities for social interaction with other children. Additionally, with the advent of online video gaming, it is not difficult for children to find others to play with, although these experiences are often anonymous.

Anyway, the controversies surrounding videogames haven’t stopped, and led to the creation of the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) in America, which employs an age-based ratings system for all videogames, similar to movie ratings. So now parents can judge whether a videogame is suitable for their kids, and kids know which games they should buy because of the violence and gore. So games like Quake 4, Doom 3, Grand Theft Auto and a few others are rated 18+ - but just like the world’s been struggling to keep pornography and violence on television out of the reach of children and failing, games haven’t been very different. In India, where the most popular “officially sold” games are sports titles like Cricket and Football, it might seem that there isn’t much to worry about. Or is there? The ESRB ratings system for videogames doesn’t apply here; hence kids can happily walk off with exceptionally violent and gory games from large department stores across the country, all officially. Of course, this doesn’t even come close to the humungous amount of pirated games sold here to anyone and everyone, irrespective of content.

Have you walked into a cyber cafĂ© in Mumbai or Pune recently? Or even in one in Panjim? If it’s a popular one (like the one near Campal), most of the PCs will be packed with 15-20 year olds playing a game called Counter-Strike, which involves teams of terrorists and counter-terrorists playing simultaneously on the computer network, killing each other and blowing up areas using dynamite. Judging from the loud sounds of mirth, vocal camaraderie and insults, you can tell they’re having fun, for the sake of fun.

Which is what it all boils down to: Fun. Videogames can be entertaining, enable learning, improve hand-eye coordination and in this day of gaming championships and virtual economies, even earn you money. But they are played primarily because of the sheer joy one gets in playing as a team, or casting amazing magic spells or driving at breakneck speeds. Sure, there should be some discretion when introducing children to games that are meant for mature audiences. But the end of the day, all you have to do is remember that it’s all virtual, and reality is a completely different game.

In case you’d like to read more about the subject, take a look at:

Monday, October 31, 2005

The Business of Escapism

The Business of Escapism: An Introduction

Think video games are a strange source for entertainment? Well, with the gaming industry poised to be worth over $55 Billlion (PriceWaterhouseCoopers, September 2005) next year, most people familiar with gaming will disagree with you.

What kind of gaming are we discussing? Well, a game in this context is composed of a computer-controlled virtual universe with which players interact. Player input is taken through various types of controls, and output is usually given through a screen and sound devices, as well as through an increasing trend toward haptic feedback. Playing videogames as a source of interactive entertainment is becoming more mainstream now than it ever has over the last decade, for reasons that go beyond just a need to escape reality. Today there are many different devices that games may be played on. Personal computers, consoles, handheld systems, and arcade machines are all common. There is a thin line between games played on the computer and those on the console in terms of genre.

“What rock and roll was to the youth of the Sixties, gaming is to the youth of today.”

— Killol Bhuta,
Brand Manager,
Ford Motor Company

Before we delve into the details, lets start with a little history first, to help you understand how it all began. Way back in the late 50s and early 60s, when computing was still an elitist occupation and very few people understood the business opportunities computers provided, the first primitive computer and video games were developed in America and ran on platforms such as oscilloscopes, university mainframes and EDSAC computers. Coin-op games (games that ran when you put coins into them) were developed in the 1970s and led to the so-called "Golden Age of Arcade Games", which even saw a brief spurt of interest in metropolitan cities in India.

The 1980’s saw a spurt in home console gaming (a videogame device which connected to a television, displaying 8-bit graphics and with the capability of playing different games with just swapping a cartridge) Companies like Nintendo, Sega and Atari were the kings of the hill at the time, making millions of dollars off parents and children in Japan and North America. Europe caught onto the home console gaming craze slightly later, but also became one of the most important markets for game publishers and console makers.

While the fruit of development in early video games appeared mainly (for the consumer) in video arcades and home consoles, the rapidly evolving home computers of the 1970s and 80s allowed their owners to program simple games. Hobbyist groups for the new computers soon formed and game software followed. With hugely popular games like Wolf3D and Myst, the slew of new games in the 90’s drove both PC sales and cutting edge technology in terms of PC hardware.

And the rest, as they say, is history. Today, most PC games require the Windows operating system to be installed on the computer (There is, however, a continuing movement to get the most popular games to run under the Mac and Linux operating systems.), with powerful graphics cards and surround sound hardware to help make the gaming experience richer.

The major downside of personal computer games is that your computer must meet certain requirements such as CPU speed, memory, video card memory, hard drive space, operating system, Internet connection speed (for Internet games) and other criteria. Otherwise, the game may perform poorly or maybe won't work at all.

Today, the video game industry is a juggernaut of development; profit still drives technological advancement which is then used by other industry sectors.

On the console side, we have three big players: Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft. These companies already have their consoles on the market, and are set to launch their next generation of consoles in 2006. On the PC gaming side, we have the big game publishers like EA Games, Activision, Microsoft, and a select few others. Though maturing, the video game industry is still very volatile, with third-party video game developers quickly cropping up and, just as quickly, going out of business.

The scene in India, however is just a tiny fraction of the gaming industry as a whole. While some gaming companies have been outsourcing certain aspects of development (programming, graphics design and 3D animation) to India for over 5 years now, there are still no mainstream game development companies in India. Sure, we have mobile game development happening, and a couple of failed attempts in making a PC gaming titles, but we haven’t reached the milestone of having one good, critically acclaimed PC or console title with a “Made in India” tag yet. Maybe investors and the people who have the ambition to create their own games believe the market isn’t big enough here yet.

We’ll look at the impact of games on popular culture abroad and its nascent stages in India next fortnight, with a special mention on how multiplayer gaming is taking the world (and Indian kids) for an adrenalin packed roller coaster ride.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Update on Gaming and Books!

Hi everyone, sorry for the looong delay in updating this blog - I've just been quite busy with a lot of things, from work at synapse to stuff in my personal life...

No clue about what's happening in the scene right now, and haven't been in touch. However, I've got quite a few new games, and am currently playing Need For Speed Underground 2 and Half Life 2, with a little Roller Coaster Tycoon 3 thrown in - all this on a spanking new nVidia 6600 TD (a friend's, not mine :) )

Been reading a lot of fiction lately, because of a rekindling of my old love for science fiction and japan due to a movie called The Last Samurai (which i saw for the 3rd time recently)
List of books recently finished:

  • Black Blade by Eric Lustbader
  • The Mediteranean Caper by Clive Cussler
  • Trojan Odyssey by Clive Cussler
  • White Ninja by Eric Lustbader (again, for the 2nd time :) )

My Life
Lots of new things happening! Not only have I joined up for an ICFAI MBA, I've also moved out to my own place (on rent) which has a brilliant view and is being shared with one other person. ;) Things at Synapse have been quite hectic, and my clients have been shifted around and unfortunately the woork just doesn't stop piling up. Anyway, I'll try and get some more time soon to keep writing...