12 ways we can do magic differently in games.

About a month ago I finally sat down and thought through all the ways that magic annoys me as a mechanic, which can all basically be summed up as “it’s boring and doesn’t feel like magic.”  This was right about the time that this article came out, so I figured if other people were already talking about it, there was no point in cluttering up the space with my own opinions.

But now it’s started to die down so there’s less baggage on the topic, and I really do still take issue with magic, and I really don’t think that the previous article addressed why.  While Critical Intel has the right idea (current systems don’t feel right), I don’t feel like it goes anywhere with the idea.  And I don’t think that praising Skyrim’s “press A to do magic but first we’ll play an animation of you shouting” mechanic is pushing us in the right direction either.

I don’t like magic as a mechanic, and I don’t think changing the flavor text helps all that much when your mechanic counteracts what you’ve written.

I should clarify – dislike is a strong word.  I don’t have a problem with games using their current systems.  It doesn’t make my blood boil.  I’m just really bored with the whole genre and I want people to do some exciting things.  All the mechanics we have now are fine – they’re just light, fluffy, and kind of sub-par as far as magic goes.  And it’s fine for a game to skimp on it.  But I’d like some not to.

Because ideologically, magic is stinking messed up.  It’s magic.  It works differently on every level than everything else we see in the world.  And if you can’t, purely from mechanics alone, tell the difference between magic and superpowers and technology and your bio-attacks, as far as I’m concerned you haven’t made a magic system, you’ve just made a standard combat system and placed the word “magic” on top of it.

But there are plenty of people already saying stuff like that.  The point I want to make is not that magic is broken or that people should be ashamed of themselves or whatever.  I want you to realize that magic could be much more exciting.

So instead, I’m just going to rattle off the top of my head just about every way I can think of that we could do a magic system that I think would feel unique and interesting and actually magical in at least some way.

It’s not an exhaustive or incredibly researched list.  I’m sure there are a ton more you could think of, and I’m sure there are a ton of problems I’m overlooking. But the point still stands, we don’t have to stay where we are.  There are a ridiculous number of things you could try as a designer right now.  Go try them.

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Magic as an Exchange
The Greeks used animal sacrifices to get the gods to answer their prayers.  We’re not talking about deities in this column, but the philosophy is the same.  Equivalent exchange – you give something to magic, magic gives you something back.  Mana… kind of works.  But it’s not really a sacrifice, it’s a resource, like electricity, or salts.  So forget that, let’s do magic that costs you.  Make me know that every spell is an exchange, an act of giving something up that’s precious to me.  Bending the universe should not be free.

  1. Here’s an easy start – drop the mana-bar and just use my health.  Make my spells drain my health bar.  It’s just one little change, and it would make me actually think really hard about using my special powers in the next survival game I played.  And it would streamline both mechanics and drops, decreasing barrier of entry to the game.
  2. Make magical costs less tangible.  I’m forgetting the book off the top of my head that talks about a cost of magic being literally the act of you short-circuiting the world: you lose the experience, joy, and lessons you’d have gained from doing something the “correct” way -So  how about on top of mana or health you also sacrifice battle rewards, or reduce the amount of XP you get from a battle?  People that relied on magic too much would have more difficulty progressing, so they’d need to balance between taking an easy solution out, or sticking to a more conventional and possibly more difficult approach.
  3. Sacrifice an item to cast a spell.  Take it a step farther; if I’m in an rpg with equipment, you could track my attachment to the item, just by keeping track of how long I’ve used it.  It would be really insanely easy, and then you could scale the power based on how useful I’ve found the item.  You’d need to do a lot of spell balancing here as a designer – your spells would need to be more powerful because you couldn’t spam them nearly as much.  But in a game with, say, perma-death, forcing the player to make a deep permanent sacrifice in the hope of saving their life is a fairly intriguing concept.
  4. Speaking of making hard choices, let’s talk about games like Fire Emblem.  How about we build magic to be more desperate – what if we made you sacrifice a unit to cast a spell?  Or at the very least, poison them or give them a negative status effect or drain a portion of their life.  What if your magicians were literally sucking the lives out of their comrades to cast their spells?

Magic as the Unknown
A lot of work goes into making magic concrete, which I sometimes find myself being very annoyed by.  An alternative view of magic is that it shouldn’t make sense.  Ever.  If it did, it wouldn’t be magic.  We can make that happen in games, or at least make an illusion of that happen.

  1. Make interesting things happen when you fail to cast a spell.  Instead of learning a spell, then giving you a 100 percent success rate, increase your mastery of the spell.  Make it less random the more you use it.
  2. Give it invisible effects.  Thaumcraft pulls this off really well with a system that spawns things and messes with the world the more an area gets “contaminated”  (Thaumcraft is a really good example of cool magic in general).  It’s not a great example of magic, but Binding of Isaac adds tons of random effects all the time, and it works great.  Make it react differently depending on what situation you’re in.  Make it randomize part of the world you haven’t seen yet.  Keep track of it and use it to mess with the player’s head later.  Lie to the player and pretend to randomize it, then bias it towards certain results instead.  People have tons of built in biases that they spend a lot of time trying to avoid.  Exploit them – literally make logic not work anymore for your game, or at least make it really stinking hard to use.

Magic from an Art that is Learned
If nothing else, magic is artistic, so let’s add a small level of personality and customization to what we’re doing.  Allow for a level of quality checking with each spell and give me a clear method of improving my spell effectiveness outside of standard leveling systems.  Allow me to quickly use spells in and out of combat without bringing up a menu.  Allow me to learn a ton of spells and tie that into something like, say, memorization, rather than how many xp I’ve sunk into the spell.  Give me a use for actually studying your game world and not just skipping through the text.

  1. Gesture based casting, preferably with  Leap Motion, although pretty much every console has ways to pull this off as well.  The Wii U even has that nifty touchscreen so you could build an interface around it.
  2.  Voice activated casting.  Plus about a billion points if you allow us to custom record our own commands for spells, and allow us to rattle them off mid-battle without a menu or anything while we’re duel wielding.  Forget number one, nobody uses hands to cast magic.
  3. Pre-building specific spells before battle using a crafting system.  Use runes.  Put the recipes for spells inside of books that we find around the world.  Make them complicated.  Make our level up mechanic literally be finding a book and writing down the recipe.  Then long before we need the spell, we’ll hunt for the runes, combine them (not at a crafting station or at a store or anything lame like that), and then pull them out and fire them off in the next battle.  Or just go play and copy Thaumcraft as mentioned above, because it already does this incredibly well.
  4. Magic that monitors my emotional state.  Ok fine, now I’m reaching, but we do actually have the tech: supposedly the PS4 will ship with some of it.  I’d like you to monitor my emotions and force me to invoke certain ones to power up my spells.  See how specific you can get with the current technology – monitor my face and make me laugh if I want to heal someone, or use anger to cast damaging spells.  I should need to learn how to trigger or suppress my own feelings on command – a valuable skill both in games and in the real world.
  5. It goes without saying that any huge complicated casting system that was actually learnable would go here.  There are a lot of games that do this already though, so it’s not necessarily worth getting into.  More should.  Especially roguelikes and games like Minecraft. 

Magic as Empowerment
Last but not least, what if we’re looking at magic as a power fantasy?  That’s the sort of default draw that most fantasies use for their evil Wizards, isn’t it?  So, if we’re putting a player into that role, let’s put the player into that role.  In this case, we’ll constantly think about magic as a way of asserting dominance over an enemy.

A fair number of brawlers have rage meters,  which I think are an excellent mechanic.  The way you get the reward is the way you ought to – you attack or kill lots of things very rapidly, and eventually you enter a raged state where you’re invincible and it’s even easier to kill things.  The mechanic matches the philosophy.  We’ll do some similar stuff, but we’ll switch it around to match the demented philosophy of magical dominance.

  1. Convert enemy health to mana.  This would work as a brawler game mechanic – instead of killing enemies, you’d tag them, and their health would slowly start to convert to a form that you could use in spells.  Leave your enemies alive and unscathed for long enough, and you could eventually release your magic, instantly killing a). all of the hosts that you had just drained of health to cast your spell, and b). any unfortunate enemy in the path of your spell.  As a mechanic, you force the player to balance between immediate, rage-filled violence, and calculated-cold violence.  Leave enemies alive so you can exploit them all at once, or kill them off to make it easier.  It encourages players to see enemies as resources to be exploited, not just as something to be overcome – which is exactly how a power-hungry magician would look at everyone around them.

And that’s the main point of all of this.  I don’t have anything against the current systems that most games use.  They just don’t even remotely feel like the magical systems I see in most books and movies.  There are a ridiculous number of philosophical ways of looking at the supernatural.  I don’t hold it against the games that ignore all of that, but I’d love for more games to explore that, even slightly.  I’d love my mechanics to match what games say I’m doing.

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