Monday, 27 July 2015

Chris Hadfield's It's Not Rocket Science

When I was a small girl I wanted to be an astronomer. I also wanted to make cartoons. My best friend and I spent hours writing and drawing a planetary guide for kids like ourselves, mostly copied from the Osborne Book of Astronomy which I still have. It’s hilariously outdated now (poor old Pluto). My cartooning developed in a weekly comic strip about a hunky scientist and his amazing hair, a coincidental prediction of Brian Cox. I wasn’t the best artist, but I didn’t care. The point was to say something that I wanted to say, whether a big important point about the universe, or a daft joke. They hadn't invented Twitter then, you see.

Many years later I had a career in marketing and a copy of what was then new software, Macromedia Flash (since acquired by Adobe). Anyone could learn to animate in Flash, and so I did. Badly, but again the point was to make something rather than just thinking about making something. I made stop-motion comedies from LEGO, pilots for kid’s cartoons that would never be finished, and the beginning of a science CD-ROM inspired by Incarta. Not at all sorry I didn’t finish that one. 

Then the marketing career took over, and I left my ambition alone (but not forgotten) until Thursday December 18th 2008 when I saw Tim Minchin perform his beat poem Storm at Robin Ince’s 8 Lessons and Carols For Godless People at the Bloomsbury Theatre. That night I said to my partner, Dan ‘DC’ Turner, “let’s make that poem into an animation” and three years later the world said “hey that’s great!”. So we quit our day jobs and started an animation company to make, in the main, science cartoons.

If you’d said to me last year “if you could make a science cartoon with anyone, who would it be?”, I’d have said the astronaut Chris Hadfield. So when Chris tweeted that he was planning a YouTube series and was looking for animators, I emailed. I explained about our work, our passion, our ambition. I sent Writer/Producer Evan Hadfield links to our work, and we created some concept art. “He needs a funny sidekick”, I told Dan, “does Chris have a dog?”. Dan Googled, “he has a pug!”. Awesome. Pugs are hilarious. We put Albert the pug in our pitch. It worked. 

So this is the series, It’s Not Rocket Science. We’ve launched a Patreon if you want access to making-of stuff, exclusive videos and photos, even signed Chris Hadfield books. The series will launch on YouTube this Autumn, and I’m very, very excited. I hope you are too.

PS If you’re thinking “yeah but what of your failed ambition to be an astronomer?”, as a kid I variously wanted to be an air hostess, a dancer, a lawyer, Prime Minister, and a truck.

Saturday, 4 July 2015

My Favourite iPad Games

One of the benefits of iPad gaming is that it's portable and games are often designed for extremely casual play. It's not surprising that games you can pop in and play for five minutes here and there are popular with the half of the population that continues to bear the bulk of childcare and domestic responsibilities. When game reviewer Yahtzee described the game Peggle as "crack for housewives", he accidentally (and insultingly) stumbled across the crux of the demographic - not women who have nothing to do, but women who have too much to do. Too much to do for a 100-hour RPG, when evenings and weekends do not represent an empty stretch of free time.

I don't have kids (three cats do not count as children), but I run a business and a home and my intense gaming days are mostly over. I rarely have the time for anything more than a game I can pick up whilst on the toilet or in bed, and put down again when the phone rings or a client emails. Sorry, giant sprawling open world game, it's not you, it's me. IOS is the perfect platform for super casual gaming, not least because I have my iPad or phone with me all the time.

So without further ado and in no particular order, I present to you some of my favourite/most played (in short bursts) iPad games. Some of these are also available on smartphones and in browser, so don't be accusing me of Apple bias.

Kingdom Rush 
Developer: Iron Hide
Genre: Tower defence
Price and link to buy: 79 pee
One of the loveliest things about the Kingdom Rush games is that although there are now two sequels alongside the original, the developers continue to put out new levels and content for the first iteration. So, that's where I recommend you start, but all three are equally wonderful. Dotted with sci fi and fantasy pop culture references, amusing Matt Berry-style voice acting (not actually him though), and cute charaters, each level is an an area which you must protect from invasion by building different types of towers and upgrading them. If you don't generally enjoy tower defence games, you probably won't like this, but I think it's the very best in the genre and funny to boot.

Joe Danger Touch
Developer: Hello Games
Genre: Stunt racing (is that a genre?)
Price and link to buy: 99 pee 
Originally a console game, Joe Danger is probably the best mobile port I've ever played. It's nigh on perfect, which is no mean feat. You are Joe, a stunt motorcycle daredevil type with a big quiff, and you have to complete levels by jumping or ducking or pulling off a stunt in exactly the right place. It's fast and satisfying and the achievements are that brilliant balance of frustrating and winnable. All you do is tap or swipe, it's more about timing than anything, and levels are really short so you can just pop in and pull off one or two stunts while you're doing your Kegels waiting for a bus.

Developer: Amanita Design
Genre: Point-and-click puzzler
Price and link to buy: 3 of pounds and 99 pee 
If you only buy one game from this list, make it this one. Or any of the others, actually, whatever. But this one is the most satisfying standalone iPad experience of the lot. It's pretty old, the iPad version was released in 2011, so let's call it "a classic", but the art style and gameplay hasn't dated at all. You play a wickle wobot called Josef (he's named after the dude who coined the word 'robot', cool) who goes on a perlious but hilarious adventure through a robot-populated city and...well, spoilers. The developers made the equally weird 2005 point-and-click PC game Samorost, which you can play for free here:

Civilisation Revolution 2
Developer: 2K
Genre: You're basically a mix of God and that bloke from Grand Designs
Price and link to buy: 3 of pounds and 99 pee 
If you've played the PC classic Civilisation before, you know the gist. If not, it's more or less explore/uncover a map, start cities, build the Hanging Gardens or some other important Wonder, get invaded by the Zulus for some reason, crush the damn Zulus, launch a nuke at Gandhi. Win. Turn-based and grid-based, the iPad version is a very stripped down incarnation of Civ but extremely satisfying for casual play. Civ Rev 2 is basically a slightly fancier version of Civ Rev, so you're not missing anything by not playing the first version.

Peggle Classic HD
Developer: Popcap 
Genre: uh...arcadey puzzley?
Price and link to buy: 79 whole pee
A game so great, I named my kitten after it. Peggle is a big handful of luck with a sprinkle of skill. You aim and release a ball, and it bounces through a series of pegs, lighting up any it touches. The skill kicks in once you've cleared most of the pegs and need to aim like a snooker player, but the sheer joy of accidentally getting an achievement or really high score is as important as careful strategising. The original is by far the best, but Peggle Blast is a perfectly acceptable freemium version if you don't want to risk the upfront cost.

Plants Vs Zombies HD
Developer: Popcap
Genre: Tower defence again, yeah yeah
Price and link to buy: 79 English pee
Bit of a tower defence theme emerging here. Plants vs Zombies is both cute and just the right level of difficulty to keep you coming back. So far I've played through from the beginning a good three times. The gist is that you plant flowers or vegetables that have specific abilities (the squash squashes, the pea shooter shoots peas, you get the punny idea) to defend your house/self from an incoming zombie horde. I hate zombie games usually, but PvZ is adorable. If you're going to nibble my brains, at least have a traffic cone on your head while you do it. Don't bother with the freemium version, PvZ 2, it's a hot mess.

The Room and The Room Two
Developer: Fireproof Games
Genre: Spooky pokey mystery puzzler
Price and link to buy: 79 pee
If Willy Fog got depressed, read a load of HP Lovecraft then decided to make a game, this might be the result. The Room and its successor The Room Two (and soon, The Room Three), are deeply strange vaguely steampunk horror-ish puzzlers that will make you feel simultaneously smart and stupid. It is light on the scares, but heavy on tension and atmosphere, and most importantly, incredibly crafted. You won't resent paying upfront because the journey is unique. Don't skip ahead and buy the sequel first, that's stupid and wrong and I'll send a creepy antique locked box to your house with a secret note inside saying "redrum".

Farmville 2
Developer: Zynga
Genre: There's a clue in the name
Price and link to download: freemium/your soul
Are you SERIOUS? Farmville???! I know. I know. But...its actually really fun. A stripped-down version of the Facebook game, Farmville 2 has you growing crops, feeding animals and making recipes which you then sell in a little farm shop. It is cute as hell and funny with it. The achievements are knowingly cheesy (Get To The Copper; Here We Goat Again; Sheep Thrills), the animal design and animation is wonderful, and there is a genuine community spirit once you join a co-op and start helping your fellow suckers...I mean farmers. Yes, of course as a free game it pushes you to spend real money, but not to the detriment of your progress. Now and again Zynga partner with a major charity, which is the only time I gave it actual cash (all of which the game assured me would go to the charity). So that's kind of okay. It's a little too easy to spend the game's premium currency, keys, by accidentally tapping the wrong bit of screen, but don't spend any real money on keys. If you waste a virtual key, whatever. You can always watch 15 second adverts to earn more keys, which is horribly Black Mirror but I usually spend those 15 seconds looking at Twitter anyway.

That's it for the first run, don't send me angry tweets saying "what about MY favourite game, you IDIOT?", because either I haven't played it, don't agree with you, or it didn't make the list this time. And no, Minecraft will never appear on my top iPad games lists because it's rubbish on iPad and you should know better. Go and play it on PC or console.

I'll put together a part two as and when I get chance, and please let me know on Twitter if there are any iPad games I should be playing, and have a good time with your bad self.

(Disclaimer: I did not receive any free games or money for this article and the opinions represented here are my true and honest own, guvnor, but also I would really like a Plants vs Zombies plushy).

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Western Digital Creative Champions Competition!

Equipment isn’t everything, but there are some tools you don’t want to work without. When DC Turner and I wanted to make our first animated short, Tim Minchin’s Storm, we needed a Cintiq. You can animate with a regular tablet, but it’s a lot easier to draw directly onto the screen. We were very lucky that the cost of the tablet was covered by supporters of the project, and some fifteen thousand hand-drawn frames later, Storm was complete and has since garnered some 3.5million views.

Another essential tool is digital storage. Rendering is a resource hog, and backups are massive. Anyone working in film or animation runs into storage issues sooner or later, and independent filmmakers don’t necessarily have budget for adequate HDs.

DC Turner and I are on the jury for this lovely competition for aspiring filmmakers and animators from Western Digital to win a frankly enormous amount of storage. It’s open to anyone in the UK, France or Germany, and the closing date is April 19th 2015.

Win this loot!
Winners will receive the following prizes: 2 x WD My Cloud EX2100 OR 1 x WD My Cloud EX4100 4 x WD Red 6 TB 1 x WD My Passport Pro 2TB OR 2 x WD My Passport Ultra 1TB That's 26 TB of storage altogether, with an Approximate Retail Value (ARV) for each prize bundle worth a total of 2,138 Euro to help make your project a reality.
If you have an amazing idea for a feature film, short, documentary or animation, enter here. We’re looking for “fresh ideas that challenge, redefine and inspire with a twist of brilliance and a dash of amazing. Something to believe in, to support, to champion”. Best of luck!

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

J'Adore Asterix x

Most people have heard of Asterix but not everyone has read Asterix, and I’d like to remedy that.

Confirmed bachelors
A quick primer: Asterix is a small Gaulish (read: French) warrior from a little village that is under siege from the Romans. The village has managed to hold out against occupation because of a magic potion brewed by the village druid, Getafix, which grants superhuman strength. Obelix, the best friend of Asterix, fell into the cauldron of magic potion when he was a baby and failed to drown. Instead, he became perma-strong.

But...strength alone is not enough. The truth is that the village survives because of the ingenuity, nay CUNNING of the titular warrior. Also bashing Romans, yes, but mostly the brains thing. So far so standard superhero fodder. Extreme strength plus superior planning plus being on the side of justice, liberty and roast boar for all equals success.

I had to wait for Google to be invented to get this
Where Asterix differs is the humour. Latin puns, history jokes, everyone’s name some amusing ancient variation of a familiar word or phrase. I used to write my name on the flyleaf, Tracyix Kingix. Asterix books felt smarter than other comics. Any kid could get the basics, but beyond that were references to plebiscites (get that pleb a seat), triumvirates (I’ll be one on my own!) and a boxer called Cassius Ceramix.

What’s even more extraordinary is that the wordplay works so well in English. The books were originally written by Rene Goscinny in French, and translated by the amazing Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge, whose challenge was to replace French wordplay with something that worked in English on several levels: as a word ending in –ix if a male Gaul, and –a if a female Gaul; as a reflection of the role or personality of the character; and as a joke. Vitalstatistix is overweight. Getafix the druid is...uh...well he makes magic potions. Cacofonix is a terrible musician. Geratrix is very old, his young and beautiful wife Myopia seems not to see his flaws. In Asterix the Legionary, spy H2So4’s real name is Vitriolix.

Today, the books are written by Jean Yves-Ferri and illustrated by Didier Conrad but still translated by Anthea Bell, as profiled in thislovely Guardian article.

I started reading Asterix aged twelve, and still have my original copies. I even spent a few years searching ebay to replace my non-matching editions with the right ones.

Those editions are long over and I now have to be content with non-matching covers, but I still grab every new volume. If you’re going to start an Asterix collection, begin at the beginning, with Asterix the Gaul, and read them in order if you can. Watching the art style and characters develop from 1961 to present day gives as much pleasure (and a few raised eyebrows) as the stories themselves.
Early Asterix

My own comic – well, illustrated book – Storm is out soon, written by Tim Minchin, illustrated by DC Turner, and published by Orion. Asterix is also published by Orion. You can imagine my joy at this coincidence. During a recent meeting I straight up demanded they allow me to steal the large cutout Asterix adorning the windowsill (they did). Here it is.

Sorry mate, I have a boyfriend

Although I say begin at the beginning, you can pick up any volume as a standalone story. If you’re considering testing the waters, here are some of my favourites in order of volume number:

Asterix and the Banquet, #5 – look at the pictures carefully and you’ll see the heroes followed by a small dog who in the final panel is noticed by Obelix. This is the origin of canine sidekick Dogmatix.

Asterix in Switzerland #16 – a darker story than usual and hilariously cheese-oriented. If you find “a packed orgy for one” funny, you’re a shoe-in for enjoying this.

"Mom, what's an orgy?"

Asterix and the Soothsayer #19 – Asterix is a sceptic! This is basically the plot of Storm. A stranger arrives and spouts some ridiculous mysticism, the hairy protagonist objects, the stranger gets captured by Romans. Wait, that’s not the plot of Storm. Close, though. So close.

Sometimes the sceptic and the mystic find common ground...

And the latest is Asterix and the Picts, #35 – If you liked Brave then you’ll like this. A welcome return to form after a few years of post-Goscinny feet-finding, Asterix and Picts is evidence that there’s life in the Gaulish village yet and hopefully for  a long time to come.  



Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Funding A New Generation Of Bedroom Coder

Back in the 80s when gaming evolved past a few lines of Pong on a floppy disc, there were several ways of acquiring new games for the home PC (an Amstrad 464, not even sorry). You could buy them on tape, usually from a branch of Tandy, Woolworths or sometimes a randomly progressive corner newsagent; you could ‘borrow’ them from a friend, an hilariously analogue process involving a tape-to-tape machine and an eyepatch; or you could write your own.

My command of BASIC didn’t go much further than copying syntax from back of hefty magazines, but a handful of intrepid bedroom coders created the foundation for British gaming. Though to be fair, the 80s wasn’t that long ago. But still, pioneers like Jeff Minter, The Oliver Twins, Peter Molyneux, Jez San and many more were experimenting, innovating, and working out how to make money from something they were doing anyway.

Games are fun. No-one disputes that except the occasional Daily Mail writer and angry parent group that give my Custom PC column so much fodder. Making games is not fun. It’s incredibly hard work of the head-banging sort for rewards that sometimes include threats from angry entitled teens, and if everything goes particularly badly, bankruptcy.

So independent developers today, just like bedroom coders in the 80s, are trying to balance ‘make a fun game because I enjoy coding and art and problem-solving’ with ‘pay the rent and have enough left over to eat ramen’. Profit is secondary to covering costs, which is secondary to making the game you want. You might even have a day job. Mike Bithell, creator of the million-copy-selling Thomas Was Alone, completed the game whilst in full-time employment, but is now able to work solely on his follow-up, Volume, using profits from his first release. A rare situation, but proof it can be done, and few indies relish the thought of creativity-sapping investors breathing over their shoulders. That’s neither in the spirit nor the psychological makeup of the bedroom coder.
But funding for developers is scarce, so we shouldn't be surprised or cynical that crowdfunding has become a serious option. For a few years now, coders and producers have been experimenting with publicly-sourced "investment" (of the no-return type) with mixed success. I backed DoubleFine Adventure/Broken Age whilst high on nostalgia and hype, ignoring the nagging voice saying “pretty sure this game isn’t going to live up to its development cost”, but although I personally didn't love the finished product, it certainly can't be knocked for attracting pre-orders and proving a concept.

Although sadly the scale of Broken Age's funding is atypical, it's not unique – Broken Sword, Leisure Suit Larry and others all had successful crowdfunding drives - but nostalgia alone isn’t enough, as the failed 2012 Dizzy Kickstarter showed. In a few years, point-and-click will be again be passe, platformers will be the new black, and a vaguely forgotten developer will get lucky with a reboot of, oh I don't know, Speedy Eggbert. But that's also fine. Games are subject to trends same as anything. We should welcome innovation alongside sentimentality.

While we wait for the Next Big Thing, there are many excellent indie developers trying to get their small thing out there. If you have a spare few quid, take a chance on one of them. When we back a games Kickstarter we're doing exactly what we did in the 80s when we copied games on tape for our friends. Sharing our niche hobbies and obscure finds with like-minded people, and there will always be a market for that.

A version of this article first appeared in Custom PC Magazine in April 2014