Thursday, October 14, 2010

An Interview with Star Kiwi's Leo Curtis

Star Kiwi member Leo Curtis talks to Max Hart about their exciting game Space Hawk, iPhone games and the New Zealand gaming community.

As a side-scrolling space shooter you have to forgive some people for dismissing Star Kiwi’s Space Hawk as just another R-Type clone.  Yes, there is a big hulking ship (the Space Hawk), that if it dies spells game over; and yes, you have to blow up asteroids and enemy spaceships.  But what’s special is that the game is all about escorting the Space Hawk and making sure it doesn’t go BOOM by defending it with mini-ships via on-screen controls.   Outside of the gameplay, Star Kiwi promises online leaderboards very shortly as well as achievements that go beyond the typical ‘Congratulations! You have completed the game on Hard!’, etc.  Admit it, we all love achievements.

When asked, Leo will tell you that he is a fan of games with a great difficulty curve: “anytime I’m challenged is great”, in particular he cites fighting and sports games as the best examples of this, including his all time personal favourite Fire Pro Wrestling (which his Star Kiwi colleagues mercilessly tease him about).  It seems Leo’s love of difficult games has bled through into Space Hawk itself:  upon completing the Hard difficulty Nightmare Mode is unlocked, which as one reviewer put it: “is quite literally what it says it is”.  Leo laughs when I tell him this, explaining that the mode was actually included more or less as a mistake due to a programmer inserting too many asteroids on the screen at once.  The resulting mode is a slightly toned-back version and as he points out that “to this day our best player can get three quarters of the way but has never finished it”.  As to whether anyone can actually survive long enough to complete the game on Nightmare, Leo doesn’t have a clue, suggesting that if anyone does they would get a very special achievement.

Why make a game for the iPhone?  When I asked this question I half-expected Leo to dive into some technical mumbo-jumbo about accelerometers and particle effects leaving me to stare at a wall for a bit.  Admittedly, he did touch on this but there was a much more simple reason behind the decision.  StarKiwi CEO Ryan Thatcher had become hooked by the iPhone game Air Traffic Controller and was astounded that such a simple game could become so addicting...oh and also sell four million units in a year.  So along came the simple thought of ‘You know what?  I reckon I could do better’, kicking off the Space Hawk process.

While Space Hawk was a plan bursting with ambition, Star Kiwi found themselves without a coder – a somewhat essential part of any game development company – thankfully, the Game Developers Meetup solved this issue.  A once a month meeting off Queen Street, the Game Developers Meetup serves not only as a forum for avid local developers to discuss their projects, but also provides an opportunity to network and find work.  The latter part comes along in the form of a section affectionately called ‘Desperately Seeking’, where anyone can put their hand up to say “Hey I’m working on a project I need a programmer/artist/coder”.  Star Kiwi stepped up to the plate and gave a little spiel requesting a coder and came across the answer to their prayers – a.k.a. Matthew Gatlang: “He was able to fix little issues that we had just over night and suddenly we could see this game coming full circle”.  Star Kiwi had a team.

But what about the funds?  The big boss man Thatcher had some, but that alone would not be enough.  So the Star Kiwi crew got on the wire and began approaching potential investors.  What followed was a somewhat tiresome process, says Leo: “First of all they didn’t understand that it was a game, they kept on saying ‘Why are you building another app? Everyone builds apps,’”.  The frustrating issue was that people did not realise that there were people in New Zealand who knew how to make games that could be sold all over the world.  Leo eventually got the message through that people like to have a game with them, whether it’s Solitaire on their computer or Tetris on their phone – making it an almost universal appreciation. 

With a bit of budgeting and some good ol’ fashioned Kiwi hard work Space Hawk was released, and subsequently people began to see that New Zealanders actually making games was a reality.  After Space Hawk’s release interest in the company sky-rocketed: Star Kiwi began to get numerous phone calls from people saying “Hey I have an idea for a game, I have this much money, can you make it for me?”.  So have they taken up these offers?  Leo was pretty mum to discuss this but he did confirm that due to Space Hawke’s success its sequel is currently in the works while at the same time another IP aimed at a broader audience is slated for a February 2011 release.

Whether you want to prove Leo wrong and earn that achievement Nightmare Mode achievement or just want to play Star Kiwi’s much-touted Space Hawk, the good news is that it’s available right now on the iTunes App Store for just $1.29.  For what is essentially loose change you could have this on your iPhone provided it’s 3GS or 4G (sorry 3G iPhone users, the 3D effects will kick your phone to the curb).  Space Hawk is also about to be released for those lucky punters with iPads too, so watch this space!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

New Car Baby!

Yea so as you may have guessed, despite my pessimism of my own TradeMe browsing habit, I have just bought a car.  Feels good.
So now I’ve got to find some other way to procrastinate.  While not spending money I totally don’t have.
I may have overstepped my mark budget-wise slightly on the price of the car though.  So I pretty much have a full month to survive on my overdraft.  Now normally this would not be a problem as all I have to do is not buy stuff.  Unfortunately with a new car comes the cost of registering under my name, leading to me realising that I had an illegible drivers license. 

So how do you solve this problem?  By throwing $38 at it and having to endure a three week wait the replacement license arrives.  Meaning that every time I go out to a bar, town, or just to buy beer from the supermarket I have to bring my passport which surprise, surprise is going to need to be replaced soon (another $100 or so). 

Buuut I think I can survive until payday...unless

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Great Car Hunt

So I need to stop going to TradeMe.  My plan at the moment is to save up my money for a big-ass OE adventure (hence my previous post), but in the meantime I’m saving up for a car in time for summer. 

Originally I was hoping to get about $6000, but thanks to my rather weak will power and other factors I don’t think I’ll hit that mark.  So in the meantime I’ve been eyeing up TradeMe to gauge what car I can get for, say, $4000-$5000. 

Introducing my problem:  I’ve begun seriously looking at cars within my current price range.  While this isn’t all bad, it’s shorter than I’d planned for – think midget playing basketball short.  The decent cars I find within my price range are usually out of reach in the auction’s last hour, where bidders (or is that bastards?) boost the price up another grand. 

But what would happen if the car I’m currently looking at stays within my price range and I (somehow) win the auction?  What else do I have to pay for?

Well there’s insurance ($60-odd a month I’ve worked out).


Registration (for the minty fresh Jap imports).

Okay, so maybe aside from rego I’d be all good with the initial cost.

But then I hear all these horror stories about people getting a seemingly mean car that turns into a total lemon.  Take my dad’s car for example.  He bought it about eight or so years ago and it worked great....for about 5 years.  In the last year the air suspension has seized up completely, the doors have decided to enter their rebellious teenage years and now refuse to close properly and then there’s the automatic transmission that just plain prematurely changes gear at the most inappropriate of times.  While the first of these isn’t exactly a necessity, the other two are just a complete pain that makes me not want to own a car.

However, my need for a car is constantly on the rise now.  A car would enable me to get to my friends' places at night without having to fork out the cash for a cab, or worry about having to pick up my parent’s car the morning after. 

It would also aid my health and safety.  Instead of dodging stressed out mums and BMW drivers on my usual running route round the neighbourhood, I could easily take myself to places where all I’d have to worry about are murderous speed-walkers.
Complete with bijon frise grenades.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Tristan da Cunha: A Hermit's Wet Dream

In the last few months I've been thinking about where I want to go on my OE: I want to get some money working in England and (maybe) the States, but I also have plenty of places that I just want to go visit.  Some of them are have awesome castles (The Rhine river in Germany), others are less than safe (hi Iraq, please don't kill me), and others I just saw them in a movie (step on down Bruges!).

And then there was those that are just in the middle of fucking no-where.

Introducing Tristan da Cunha.

Hidden away in the South Atlantic Ocean between Africa and South America, this British overseas territory proudly holds the honour of being the remotest bloody place in the world. 

Discovered and, rather arrogantly, named after the Portuguese explorer Tristao da Cunha in 1506, it would not be officially surveyed for another 250 years thanks to rough seas.  A chap by the name of John Lambert eventually established a permanent settlement in 1810 re-naming it the Refreshment Islands, however this was a short-lived enterprise as he died just two years later ironically in a boating accident.  Finally, in 1816 the British annexed the islands to prevent the French from using it as a base to free Napoleon and to stop the yanks from, well...they had a little war going on between them at the time, so let’s just leave it at that shall we? 

Anyway, a garrison of British Marines were posted at the island and eventually civilians started popping up along with whalers, which led to the island developing into a settlement.  Aside from being used as a secret British base in WW2, the islands got the short end of the stick as the world discovered steam power and the Suez Canal became the tits of the shipping world.  In 1961 the local volcano decided to throw its toys out of the cot by erupting, forcing the islands’ inhabitants to flee all the way to Mother England.  A couple of years later the islands were declared safe again and the hermits returned, figuring that it would be better to be burned alive by lava or shipwrecked than being eaten by a computer or something.

Om nom nom

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Procrastination's a bitch

Okay so procrastination’s a bitch.

Sitting at home on a crappy August’s day with an assignment due in the coming days my brain should be going into work mode, but ahh yeah nah. You see I should be at the uni library in town, my fingers pitter-pattering away on the keyboard being constructive in the development of my assignment. But there’s one problem: I can’t be bothered to brave the rain to get there.

So, here I am sitting in the kitchen listening to the radio, a copy of Real Groove tantalisingly close, and the internet calling out to me.

And Kung-Fu puppies!

To be honest it’s pretty good that I even got this far. Hell I’ve already done a wee bit of my assignment; the notes are all around me, conveniently covering up the newspaper. But as I said before, I’m impressed I got this far today. A party the night before coupled with a cold bearing down on me made getting out of bed this morning a tough task. Also, I couldn’t help but have a little blast on the PlayStation this morning too, it was just there. Staring at me. Willing me to play. “Just one level monsieur! Shoot a few bad guys before making your mind up, please I implore you monsieur!”

Yes, I’ve decided that my PlayStation is French for today. But the Xbox will always be its fat American cousin, spitting tobacco juice into the bucket, wheezing loudly whenever it has to do any work.

Do you see what’s happening now? My imagination’s spiralling into a hypnotic state of overdrive where I can get carried away with anything that pops into my head.

It’s almost three o’clock now, the day’s practically done and I just got a text from a mate telling me to come round to for a few beers before the 21st tonight. The thought to say “bugger it, I’ll just do this tomorrow” certainly does come to mind, after all I can get (relatively) free parking in town on Sundays anyway.

I told you procrastination’s a bitch.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Curious Georges' Survival Tips for First Year N00bs

So you survived school and all exciting dullness that goes along with it: homework, chumps who just make Geography all the more harder to sleep through, the 9-to-3 drudge of life. But hurrah no worries no more right? You’ve made it into Uni and you are ready to party/sleep/whore your way through a few years and BOOM you’ve got a degree right?

Well aside from a few STDs and maybe waking up in the Waitakere ranges a few times, yeah that sounds about pretty dead on.

In all seriousness though, your upcoming years at Auckland Uni are going to be some of your best and you will remember them for the rest of your life whether you like it or not.

You will always remember when you enquired about the upcoming verbal French test before realising you were in a Civil Engineering lecture, and your friends will remember that time you fell down the stairs after a few too many jugs at Shads that time. 21st fodder right there.

You will also remember seeing great bands at O-Week such as Minuit, The Checks and ol’ King Kapisi (all for FREE!) as well as taking part in the Shadows’ pub quiz. The same goes for getting into the Uni lifestyle by joining up with Bfm and getting all their sweet as bCard deals, cos you like free/cheap stuff right?
But aside from these upcoming moments in your university career there will be some pretty trying times.

Ask around and you’ll surely hear tales of people winging their way through a test they didn’t study for, or starting a 40% essay the day before it’s due and still getting a B+. Makes uni sound pretty breezy right? True. But for those of us who have tried this it really involves about 3 litres of Lift Plus, a truck load of sugar and a computer that doesn’t crap itself just as you’re submitting your essay. In short: yeah it is possible to fluke this shit off, but fuck it sucks doing it.

Basically what this primate is saying to all you plucky first years is: have fun at Uni, but don’t be an arse and think you can out-drink or out-think a seasoned Auckland Uni veteran – these are a hardy bunch and they will make you work for their respect.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Assassin's Creed 2 review

The first Assassin’s Creed received mixed responses from critics and gamers alike. Praise for its style and relative grace as well as just how damn pretty it was, whilst loud complaints were directed towards its tedious and repetitive mission structure as well as its general lack of difficulty. While the game’s praises led many to purchase the title, the flaws halted a number from gritting their teeth to complete the damn thing (myself included). Despite the game’s flaws it was clear that Ubisoft had a franchise worthy of a follow up and hence we have Assassin’s Creed 2.

While many elements of the game will be instantly familiar to those who played the original (free running, combat, stealth, etc) there are a few notable changes. Most obvious of which is the change of scenery: Crusade-era near-east is replaced by Renaissance Italy – whose themes of rediscovery of forgotten ways is very fitting for the sequel. Among multiple references to the original’s protagonist/ancestor, Altair, codex pages are inevitably discovered unlocking more Assassin secrets such as blueprints for a primitive gun and even a second hidden blade. Whereas other games may automatically upgrade your abilities upon collection of these collectibles, it is who you take these seemingly empty collectibles to that gives the game, and setting, real soul and believability – Leonardo da-goddamn Vinci. Yes, the Renaissance-era legend has a firm place in this title by being a close friend of our protagonist’s ancestor Ezio. It’s the little things just like da Vinci that give this game its charm and, as the timeline progresses over the years, the cities themselves change – bridges and churches are built, areas become more populated by believable people, etc. Speaking of which a little while into the game you are given access to your own villa-come-village that, as you invest in it, changes from a dreary hole to a bustling town complete with everything from a church and shops to a brothel (apparently a tourist attraction in Renaissance-era Italy), which earns you money relative to how much money you throw at it.

Settings and themes aside AC2 plays very much like its predecessor which is both good and bad. Good in that it is easy to pick up and thoroughly enjoyable whether whisking along rooftops or descending on a target. Bad in that it is at you may blindly find yourself resembling a squished tomato after gleefully jumping the wrong way off a ledge. Also, at times the combat is too easy with the all too reliable strategy being waiting to counter enemies’ strikes. Luckily these are the only remaining flaws from the original’s gameplay that remain, the tedious eavesdrop/steal/etc missions have been mercifully replaced by more varied missions that provide good pacing and actually feel that they are a part of the wider story arc.

Another major aspect of the original AC that makes a return for the good and bad is the visuals. While there is a lot of visual gratification for climbing up a church spire to admire the view there are at times some very jarring shortcomings in the graphics department. For example, characters’ faces still look exactly as they did in the first game, while very good they appear very tired and just plain lazy when compared to the AAA heavy hitters that AC2 is meant to compete with. While it may seem a very small gripe to make this type of shortcoming does prove to be detrimental to the experience which is a bit of a shame.

Outside of the main story arc Ubisoft have implanted a fair bit of side quests and booty collecting in order for gamers to get the most out of their buck. As well as the aforementioned codex pages (which also grant you more health eventually) you can collect feathers, loot for treasure and take part in side quests such as assassinations, races and deliveries. However there are two particularly notable side quests that will keep platform junkies and conspiracy nuts respectively busy. The first is Prince of Persia-inspired plat forming to be found in assassins tombs which eventually rewards you with your predecessor’s armour. The latter requires you to scan certain anomalies on walls etcetera in order to decipher clues that flesh out the game’s conspiracy – hinting at a presence that has long been among civilised man.

While Assassin’s Creed 2 still contains many similar flaws to its predecessor, it is a solid game for those gamers who want to have a change from online-heavy games like Modern Warfare 2 and Uncharted 2. While still holding onto the original’s charm and beauty the team at Ubisoft have (mostly) listened to fans’ and critics’ concerns by injecting a well-paced plot and believable setting thereby crafting a game that is a joy to both play or to simply admire.

8.5 out of 10