Musing #29: StarCraft discovered

Blizzard caught everyone by surprise earlier this week with the free (as in beer) release of the original StarCraft along with its Brood War expansion. Although it last received an update within the past decade, a 2-decade old game is always treading on the grey area of abandonware. While the intellectual property of the game continues to be of immense values as far as sequels (or prequels) are concerned, the product itself can be considered to be obsolete. 

Hence, it was a masterstroke to release the original version of the game which was certainly not out of altruism but as a promotion for the remastered edition. It is also a great move to maintain compatibility across the two releases since it ensures that there will be a substantial online community associated with the game, even if not many are paying for it.

Against this back drop, it is quite odd then that I never experienced Starcraft in any form, despite being a 90s kid. I had read about its follow-up being a staple diet of eSports events, but even then curiosity eluded me. Some of it must be due to the fact that my first PC and net connection arrived at the fag end of 90s but that doesn't explain it all. India was quite a different place 2 decades back in terms of accessibility to computing as well as the web, but I still reminisce the NFS 2/3 and FIFA 98 days with friends. Hence, it must simply be the social circle that was much more focussed on Age of Empires and Command & Conquer as far as strategy games were concerned.

However, it's better late than never as I fired up the free release of StarCraft just a couple of days back. I can't really be convinced to run it on my gaming desktop, but I found it to be an ideal fit for my Windows tablet (Dell Venue 11 Pro 7140) with its keyboard dock. In what is generally a rarity, the low powered Core M processor ends up being quite an overkill. The gameplay seems to be holding up really well and I guess it has a lot to do with the fact that the 90s were a period where the focus was much more on engagement through gameplay than graphics since processing power was quite limited. I am unsure whether the interface and controls have been tweaked since the original game, but it is surprisingly playable with the small trackpad and the 10.8" screen does more justice to this game than what a separate monitor or TV would. I guess that is precisely the reason why one might wish to go with the remastered edition, but for something that's free, this game is a real gem that beats most of the stuff that comes out on mobile these days.

Musing #14: Euro Mania

It is really odd for someone to be excited about the Euro football tournament without having any association whatsoever with the continent. Perhaps, it is odder still for one who doesn't watch the various football leagues (though I admit that following the table standings and statistics over the course of a year is a bit mesmerizing).

What then governs the love of this tournament? Well, for me it is not this tournament in particular but all international football tournaments including, of course, the World Cup. I guess part of it is what you are brought up on. I have my vague childhood memories of watching only international football tournaments that were broadcast over the terrestrial network in the early 90s. I somehow still recollect the blocky stick figure mascot of the Italia 90, having watched it on a B&W Crown TV set with my Dad and brother.

Another aspect is the passion and rarity of these tournaments. Any tournament that occurs once in every 4 years is bound to get anyone excited for a lot changes occur over the course of that period. The same can be seen in the players who know that a similar opportunity won't arise for another 24 (World Cup) to 48 months (Euro), unlike annual league tournaments. Also, there is the passion of playing for your country rather than a club. Such charm has been lost in the sport of cricket that this country is so mad about on account of over saturation.

These tournaments also happen to coincide with specific occasions. During the school and college years, the beginning of the tournament was marked by the last week of my summer vacation. During graduation and post-graduation, it coincided with the end of the annual examinations. And now, the coincidence is with the arrival of the rains in Mumbai which has actually been true for every year in my life.

With the power of nostalgia, you can't but help love something that has been part of various key moments of your life. However, from a purely objective point of view, the average ranking of the Euro 2016 teams comes out to be 20.67 as against 21.63 for World Cup 2014. So, this makes it the best football tournament on the planet and that is something worth watching!

Musing #8: The state of Formula 1

The 2016 season of F1 is officially under way with its first test day and it would be atypical of me to not have an opinion on something that I have been following for well over 2 decades now. It is always exciting to watch the cars run for the first time but I do so with much trepidation these days. With the rules remaining largely stable and the engine token system still in place, it is difficult to imagine Mercedes not leading the way once again when push comes to shove. More worrisome is the indecision over the 2017 rules which indicates that the sport is now stuck in no man’s land. Late decisions always favour the teams with deeper pockets and that is likely to be the case in 2017, irrespective of the extent of changes. Thus, a lot will change and then nothing will change.

The larger question today is whether F1 is still relevant today as a spectacle. F1 is the epitome of technological development in cars and the efficiency of the present V6 engine (thermal efficiency exceeding 45%) along with the associated recovery systems MGU-K and MGU-H that make up the power unit is simply astounding. That cannot in anyway be a regressive step as some would like to portray. Neither is the common argument of “domination is boring” be a valid excuse for I must admit that I thoroughly enjoyed the domination of Schumacher in the early part of the millennium. Domination borne out of ingenuousness has been a common trait of F1 and that is what makes the sport what it is.

If it is not the machine, then it must be the man. To this point, I am inclined to agree quite a bit. One would accuse me of looking at the past with rose tinted glasses, but there was something gladiatorial about watching Senna and Schumacher compete on the race track, even though their tactics might have been questionable at times. The skill as well as physical exertion that a sport comprises of was on display all the time. Perhaps, seeing a driver jump out and dance instead of pant has taken some shine off the bellicose aspect of the sport. Also, the level of skills required to compete have come to question with the relative success of a 17-year old (however talented) and the prevalence of paid drivers. Hamilton, for all his successes on the track gives the impression of being someone who is driving to win rather than being driven to win like Senna and Schumacher. A case in point is his performance in the latter part of 2015. To that end, Vettel and Alonso seem to be cast in the same mould as the champions from the past, unfortunately bogged down by uncompetitive machinery for the most part. All this makes the classification of F1 as a sport a little hard to digest.

One may still classify F1 as entertainment but for the fact that DRS seems to have killed off the most exciting aspect of any race - overtaking. With slipstreaming and late braking being not quite called in to play, yet another differentiating aspect of the driver has been buried deep under. The sport is now at the mercy of weather to roll the die and thereby guard the viewer from a sleep fest. The age old adage of “keeping it simple” seems to have been lost on Bernie, Todt and other people that matter. Senna had rightly attributed his best races to a time when there was parity in the machinery and absence of politics. While F1 can never devoid itself of these aspects, it just needs to do an introspection and highlight aspects that would further differentiate man from the machine. A good point to start would of course be to punish drivers for even the slightest of mistakes without the slightest compromise in safety for they are professionals after all. Track design has simply made that difficult to achieve. Another aspect would be to simplify aspects of the car that have no bearing on real life car design. One can appreciate the mechanical aspects of car design but aerodynamics seems to have gone crazy, as illustrated by the ridiculously complex front wings. A return to simpler, mechanically driven car design is very much the need of the hour.

Perhaps, the aspect that matters the most is appreciating the intelligence and dedication of the fans. One has to only look at MotoGP for a motorsport that is particularly engaging. Colourful characters who express themselves on the track as well as off it fills you up with nostalgia. Also, it chooses for the most part, to visit countries that actually understand and follow the sport. One doesn’t need to look beyond the F1 calendar to understand where the sport is once again going wrong. Nowadays, I can't even get the Codemaster F1 games to excite me anymore as it brings a feeling of déjà vu with it every year, contrary to the countless hours I spent modding and playing Grand Prix 4. Perhaps there is still a silver lining to all this that no one knows about yet. For me, I will keep following F1 and hope to be able to keep my eyes wide open come March 20.

Image Courtesy and copyright: Reuters