Will We Keep Breaking Olympic Records Forever?

With the Olympics drawing to a close shortly, I couldn’t help noticing the tremendously high number of Olympic and world records that have been broken. According to the official site 36 world records and 74 Olympic records have been broken as of August 19th. It certainly makes for an entertaining Olympic games, but this started me wondering about the future of sport in general and the Olympics in particular. The question I ask myself is, just how close are we to the limit of human potential as far sporting endeavours go?

Where are we now…?

I would say that if we haven’t passed that limit already, then we are surely very close to what humans with no technological assistance are capable of. And this of course raises the point, just how much of a role is science and technology currently playing in sport?

It is clear that sport has become more professional over the last several decades. Just about all athletes now competing at the games do their sport professionally and certainly training techniques have improved tremendously as well (sport is big business now after all). However, no-one can say that technology isn’t playing a major role:

  • sophisticated monitoring equipment
  • specially formulated drinks and meals
  • statistical analysis supported by advanced data storage and retrieval techniques
  • etc.

All these now play a major role in the life and training of a professional athlete. And none of those things would be remotely possible without powerful software, hardware and advances in chemistry, biology and medicine. Let us also not forget the medical imaging and testing technologies that can help avoid injury and help athletes recover much faster and more fully in the event of injury. All of this goes on behind the scenes, the only things the public sees are chiselled muscles and jaw-dropping performances.

Of course, one can still argue that all this science and technology is only indirectly supporting athletes, but no-one can argue that equipment used by most sports has become, fully as sophisticated as the training methods. This equipment is in no small part responsible for how far performance in many sports has advanced. There has been a lot of controversy already about the shark-skin swim-suits that have become popular in recent years; with some experts saying that they give too much of a boost to what someone without the aid of a suit would be able to do. And let’s face it one of those things could make Buddha look like Apollo tight as they are, so I am inclined to believe it. But what about some other sports that have benefited directly:

  • tennis (graphite and carbon rackets, nylon strings)
  • pole vaulting (poles made of fibreglass composites rather than bamboo)
  • running (specially designed runners and spikes, skin hugging body suits etc.)
  • cycling (a decent racing bike costs almost as much as a decent car, I am not even going to go into the technologies involved)
  • rowing (they don’t make those boats out of wood any more :))
  • there are many others

Surely the results we are seeing now could never have been possible without the modern equipment that science and technology has produced. So, can we really say that all those world and Olympic records are purely the result of human effort? I don’t think so.

What about the future …?

Where does all this leave us in years to come? Well, modern equipment, training methods and fancy suits can only take us so far. The way we are going, given another couple of decades, we will surely hit a performance plateau. What will happen then, no highly entertaining sport competitions, Olympics where no records are broken? Possible but unlikely, like I said sport is big business; losing audience is simply not an option, so we are back to the original question, what next?

Surely none of us are naive enough to believe that all the athletes competing in the games are drug free. I would certainly bet good money that at least some of them are using some kind of performance enhancing juice. Therefore the next step might be to legalize such drugs. Given free reign, science can surely come up with some very interesting substances (with equally interesting side effects I am sure :)) that would push athletes beyond anything we ever dreamed possible. That possibility is somewhat horrible to contemplate, certainly interesting, but no less horrible for the fascination.

The other option, is for us to redefine what “purely human endeavour” actually means. We can allow the use of “assistive technologies” in sport, it would surely provide a lot of entertainment value (miniature jet packs anyone :)), but it will no longer be the sports we know, that is beyond doubt.

Looking even further into the future, will drug tests be replaced by genetic modification tests, or will genetic engineering technologies become an accepted way for athletes to “reach new height of excellence”? Well, I say, bring on the monkey-robot-clone-trooper synchronised diving team it certainly appeals to my sense of the macabre. I would however love to hear other opinions, do you think science and technology have pushed us beyond what humans are capable of, or do you think blood, sweat and tears are the cause of the impressive results that we have seen in the Olympics?

Top Indie Games You Wouldn’t Mind Paying For

A couple of years ago I found that I was completely sick of the bland and derivative games that were being released by the top publishers (Fifa 200X indeed :)). So, I went looking around the web for something better, games that could draw me in with innovative and immersive gameplay. This is how I became acquainted with the indie gaming scene. Since that time I’ve compiled a small list of indie games that have really stood out from the crowd for me, games that I felt were more than worth the price I payed for them.

I thought I would share these games with the world in one convenient list. None of the games here are what I would term ‘casual games’ (no puzzlers, tetris clones or tower defense types), also none of these are multiplayer. However, just about all of these are innovative games that will keep you busy for hours on end at a fraction of the price you would normally pay for commercial games (they have certainly kept me entertained for longer than most commercial titles).

Well, without further ado, here is the list, in no.

1. Mount and Blade

Mount and Blade is a truly innovative one-of-a-kind game. Have you ever dreamed of being a knight and commanding an army and fighting it out with bandits or lords, for possession of castles or for prisoners, or just for the hell of it. If you have than this game is for you, it simulates medieval combat to a level of realism not seen in any commercial game (not that there are many commercial games that simulate medieval combat). This game lets you control castles and villages, recruit men for you army, hunt down bandits, and rival lords, fight in the arena etc. There is individual combat and army combat, as well as plenty of RPG elements. An excellent game, with a great community, and it is also highly moddable, with new mods constantly being produced. This game has been on production for a couple of years and has recently been picked up by Paradox for publication, to be released in September. You can pick up the beta now for a bargain price which will let you get the full version for free when it comes out. Don't miss it!

2. New Star Soccer 3

This game looks at soccer simulation from a different angle, why do you have to control or manage the whole team, you're only one person, why not control and manage the career of only one player. That is exactly what you get to do in this game. It is a strategy/simulation/sports game, you get to create a player and sign him up for a club, then you work on his skills, to make him better, you get to be this player in games against other clubs (you only control yourself on the field). As you get better you can join bigger clubs and make more money, as you get rich you can buy your player better houses, cars and all sorts of other stuff, you can enter into sponsorship deals, so much to do. And controlling your player on the field is lots of fun as well! NSS4 is currently in the works, and should be out pretty soon hopefully, until then you have to play this game!

3. Smugglers 4

It was a while ago that I accidentally happened upon a game called Smugglers 3, I gave it a bit of a play and liked it, so it was a good day when I found out that Smugglers 4 has been released, I went and bought the game straight away and I wasn't disappointed. The same formula that made Smugglers 3 great is still here, with improvements and additions all-round. You start as a low ranked pilot in a military of your choice, war is raging between the various factions in the galaxy, it is up to you to swing the balance of forces in the favour of your faction. As you go along you will rise in rank and get to control bigger ships, you can even be granted a planet of your own. This game reminds me a bit of Pirates!, and since Pirates! was awesome, i loved this game too.

4. Gamebiz 2

Have you ever thought that you can make games better than the current publishers and surely you could have made the SNES much more popular than it ever was, well in this game you get the chance to give it a go. You can create games as well as launch platforms and if you're good you watch the money roll in to finance your next big project. If you're any kind of gamer you will want to try this out. Go ahead make the N64 a worldwide sensation. Best of all this game is FREE!

5. ZSX3: Ninjastarmageddon

I am not even going to try to describe this, you have to check this out, anything with a title like that, you have to check out. Lets just say there are zombies and ninjas and pirates and funky cars that fly through space and wacky graphics and … and … c'mon – ninjastarmageddon – play it!

6. Geneforge 4

The indie scene makes a lot of good RPGs, but even there the Geneforge series stands out. Genforge 4 continues the Genforge saga. You take the role of a young shaper, someone with the ability to create life (creatures), how will you use your ability, will you help the rebels or will you support the empire. The world is massive, there are several classes to choose from that all require a different style of play, there are many endings. This game is good for much more than just one play-through.

7. Kudos

You have probably already heard of Kudos, it is one of the few indie games that has gained some mainstream limelight. Kudos is a life sim developed by Positech Games, you control a character and perform their day to day activities, the point is to achieve a balance in all areas of your life, social, professional, personal etc. It is a highly original game and the graphics are pretty awesome too. Give it a try.

8. Kudos Rock Legend

A game by the same people who made Kudos (title probably gives it away :)). In this game you get to control a rock band and take them to startdom. This time your objective is to keep all the band members happy and raise the popularity of the band. You get to play gigs and write songs, record CDs and sign with a record label, can you become a rock legend. Try this game and find out. The graphics are just as nice as Kudos.

9. Democracy 2

Another game by Positech Games, those guys do some good work (actually one guy Cliff Harris, Cliffsky). This time you get to try your hand at running a country, we all think we can do it better than the current government, c'mon admit it. So, this game gives you a chance to prove it. You can set the policies, raise or lower taxes, try to get your country out of debt and watch your wise decisions, lead your country to glory, or ruin whatever the case may be. This game has a cool interface, so many options yet so easy to access. Well worth the money.

10. Depths of Peril

This is possibly the best indie RPG currently out there in my opinion. You start a a barbarian leader of a new faction in the city of Jorvik. You must destroy various monster that threaten the city and complete quests given by the characters in town. At the same time you compete with other factions in Jorvik, you can either be warlike or diplomatic. Recruit other members to your faction to bolster your power and defenses. If you don't complete the quests given to you fast enough, they become harder as monster hordes grow and split to form more monster leaders. The gameplay is innovative and fun, there is a slew of options, the character development options are well thought out, the graphic are great. This game has everything!

11. Magic Stones

I usually don't like card-type games, but something about this one drew me in and kept me playing for quite a while. You play a druid and you have powers over the elements (air, fire, water etc.), you also control certain creatures, you must travel the world and fight groups of creatures to gain control of more creatures and more elemental powers, so that you can fight it out against other druids and win. There is also a quest mode that you can take part in which gives you special creatures to control. If you like card-style games, you will like this, if you don't give it a go anyway, you might change your mind.

12. Bestseller

Have you ever though you could make it as a writer well in this simulation you get to put your prowess to the test. You control the life of an aspiring writer trying to get his work published, you make all the decisions. What kind of books will you write, will you get an education or will you be a self-study, how long do you spend on your book projects, negotiate with publishers for royalties. Can you write the next Harry Potter, try it and find out.

13. Empires and Dungeons

Another addictive little game by the same people who brought you the Smugglers series. This time we have a fantasy strategy RPG mix, with a twist. Build up your castle, hire men, go take over villages, avoid your destroy your rival, then go down into the dungeon to find treasure and all this on a tiny little map, you wouldn't think such a simple looking game would have so much depth and yet, it is fun, give it a go.

14. Aveyond 2

Aveyond 2 looks like an old-school console RPG, and in essence that is what it is since it was made with RPG Maker. But if you're going to dismiss it because of that, I suggest you think again. From the very first moments you start playing this game, the amount of thought and effort that was put into it, starts to shine through. And this impression is only reinforced as you continue playing. You can recruit companions to help you on your quest, you can shapeshift, you can join a guild and get karma for doing good things. If you loved games like Final Fantasy and miss the console RPGs of yore, give this game a try.

15. Eschalon: Book 1

Eschalon is an isometric RPG, so it also looks a little like the old console RPGs, but the impression is misleading. This game has won multiple awards, and has had numerous excellent reviews and high ratings from all over the web. Most of the game is very random, as everything is calculated through dice rolls. The game is extremely open ended and the world is very dynamic. This is not Oblivion by any stretch of the imagination, but if you like to see a great story unfold and are nostalgic for the 'RPG that used to be' then give this game a try. I won't spoil it for you any more.

16. Evochron Renegades

This is an Elite-style game (if you don't know what Elite is, you owe it to yourself to google it, it is a progenitor of a whole genre). Just like most games of this sort you start out in space with a ship and go from there. There is lots to do and the gameplay is very freeform. This game has very nice 3D graphics as well which is awesome for an indie game. The amount of options you have is staggering, you can explore, trade, race, fight, mine etc. etc. This game also has a lot of information about it on the website as well as an excellent community around it.

17. Flatspace 2

Flatspace 2 is also an Elite-style game.  You start out with a ship in space and you have to travel around and do missions, such as transporting passengers or hunting down enemies. The gameplay is very open ended, so it is up to you to discover what else you can do in the universe. You can upgrade your ship or get new ones. If you like space games, give this one a go.

18. Battles of Norghan

This is a very interesting game, it is a blend of strategy and RPG set in a fantasy universe. Essentially you have to manage a team of gladiators that you recruit, and have them fight it out against other teams, in order to rise through the ranks and the divisions of the gladiatorial combat arena. You train your mercenary gladiators, to improve their skills, you buy them spells and when you are ready, you fight it out against the computer in turn based combat. Fun!

19. Dwarf Fortress

This game is a real gem. Developed by Bay12 games and released absolutely free (that's right, free), this game is so massive in scope it is hard to believe. This is essentially a rogue-like, if you don't know what that is, it essentially means that the graphics are ASCII based,  but don't let that turn you off, because this game is awesome. It is basically 2 games in one, the first is a like a standard rogue-like, the second is the fortress mode. In fortress mode, you start with a few dwarves and some supplies and set out to build a new outpost for your dwarven kingdom. You can control everything, where the dwarves mine, you make them build workshops and sleeping quarters, you create goods for trade, you fight off intruders. If you do well more dwarves come to join your outpost, if you like strategy, simulation and management games, this game is a dream come true. Don't be put off by the graphics, take the time to learn the controls, you won't be sorry!

Well that’s the list. I hope you can get as much enjoyment out of it as I did, most of these games have excellent demos, so you can certainly try them out. Games of this calibre deserve our support, so if you really like any one of these games then go and buy them. I hope that mainstream publishers take a note of these games not just for their innovative ideas and excellent execution, but for the value that they provide the gaming community.

I thought this was going to be a small post, but it ended up being massive :), hope you enjoy reading it and discover some cool new games.

Java and .Net Taking On Contenders And Winning

Ever since I joined the software industry I’ve been hearing, from my older and more experienced colleagues how fluid the software industry is, how quickly languages and frameworks come and go. Older developers would fondly (or, more often, not so fondly :)) remember the days when they were programming in C, then C++, then Smalltalk or Delphi or whatever, languages that have since been essentially superseded by Java and .Net (mostly C#, VB.NET), at least as far as enterprise software development is concerned. The lesson that we the ‘young guns’ were meant to take away from this was that in the software industry, languages are in the spotlight for only a short while and are then eclipsed by newer and arguably better languages that, everyone who is anyone, begins to use.

Well, I am going to put my futurist hat on and make a prediction. We are in uncharted territory with Java and .Net and the trend that I am talking about is not going to repeat itself at least not in the same way. Java and .Net are going to be with us for a long time to come and here is why.

Firstly this trend of languages being replaced by newer better languages may not be  trend after all in my opinion, or at the very least it is nowhere near as quick as many people will have you believe. I don’t really want to go back too far, but lets take COBOL for example. It should certainly be considered well and truly dead by everyone, certainly no new systems are being written in it and yet, i keep hearing about someone needing COBOL programmers to do something with their legacy systems. In fact since COBOL programmers are an endangered species these days they can command quite lucrative salaries. I won’t argue that COBOL is definitely on its last legs, but it is not yet dead, and how long has it been around? What about the newer languages such as C++ for example. It is certainly not the language of choice in the enterprise software world, but what about games development? It is well and truly alive in that corner of the industry, in fact various derivatives of BASIC have found niches where games development is concerned. So the trend is not quite as speedy as it might first appear.

Another question we must ask ourselves is this. Has there ever been a language that had the support and backing of such industry giants as Sun and Microsoft, before Java and .Net came along. I don’t know for sure but I would guess that the answer is no. Java and .Net undoubtedly make huge amounts of money for the companies that drive their development, and these companies would not sit idly by and watch these particular revenue streams run dry while some other upstart language/framework takes market share away from them. And even if such an upstart were to appear it would have to have the backing either of another industry giant on par with Sun or Microsoft, or of a vast chuck of the Open Source community as a whole.

This leads me nicely into my next point. The Open Source movement is now well and truly a massive entity and it has only become such over the past 10 years or so. Before this time it was basically inconsequential. Now most companies have some sort of open source strategy or if not they are at least aware of open source. There is an absolutely humongous amount of open source software written in java (i don’t have as much experience with the .net situation, but I would imagine there is quite a bit of open source software there as well). There is a framework, a library or a piece of code for just about everything you can imagine and probably multiple versions of each. I just don’t see the software development community abandoning all that in favour of another language/platform unless that platform/language can offer as much or more stuff or make everything so easy that all that code becomes unnecessary.

Even if we were to ignore everything i said above, we all must agree that money makes the world go round :). Companies who write software for their needs must pay for it and they certainly have paid for it over the last 10 years or so. There is literally billions invested in enterprise software written in Java or C# or VB.NET all over the world. All this software must be extended and maintained and all of it is slowly getting older. And there is an equally huge amount of money invested in infrastructure to support this software. The point is only a few forward thinking companies are willing to invest significant dollars in unproven technologies, that may or may not pay off. Most companies will stick with what they know, what works, and most importantly what can leverage existing infrastructure easily and cheaply. You guessed it Java and .Net.

What about Ruby? What about Rails? Well my answer is, what about it? Certainly Ruby on Rails did come along and a lot for us have used it and enjoyed it, but i have not seen it take over as the new king of the hill, far from it. Especially not in the enterprise space. More than that, the existence of projects such as JRuby and IronRuby, tell me that while Ruby is all great and all, it would be better if we could combine it with the JVM or the .Net runtime. That may or may not be true, but many people believe that it is true and that in itself is a testament to the longevity of Java and .Net.  And anyway, RoR was basically the only challenger to Java (or the .Net platform) in more than 10 years. Sure there are other languages that are interesting, some very interesting, such as Groovy and Scala for example (both of those run on the JVM by the way :)). But nothing that I have seen has the traction to take on and beat Java and .Net at their own game.

Don’t get me wrong I am not saying that Java and .Net are here forever. No matter how much of a futurist I fancy myself to be I can’t reliably predict what leaps we will make in subsequent years, maybe AI will come into its own or possibly MDA will begin to show more promise (fat chance :)). But these would be massive leaps and I am willing to take the chance on discounting them as probable. What I am saying is that just because Java and .Net are more mature platforms now, does not at all mean that they are dying. I am willing to bet that if you wanted to, you would be able to find a Java job fairly easily any time in the next 15 years and possibly much longer. Certainly we should always try and improve ourselves and learn new technologies and practices, the software industry is very fast paced and skills do become stale. But always learn at your own pace, make sure it is fun, don’t ever let anyone make you feel like there is a train somewhere that is leaving the station and you are missing the last carriage.