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 It’s hilariously outdated now (poor old Pluto).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).