Category Archives: Game Design

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.


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.

Obsession, Escapism, Wish Fulfillment – Proper Media Consumption pt. 1

Obsession is weird, but interesting.

This post might feel a bit disconnected from the rest of the blog, which I overwhelmingly use just for postmortems and the occasional coding rants – Please bear with me though.  I think what I plan on doing is writing several successive posts (sometime) that expand on the stuff here and organize it into more of a coherent theory.

There are two things going on with an initial post of this nature : firstly, I want you to have a good preview of the topic so if you think it’s intriguing you can go off and do your own research, and secondly, I want you to know where I’m coming from so in the future you’re better equipped to make intelligent decisions about whether or not you agree with me and can see exactly where I’ve gone right or wrong.

I’ve been thinking lately about the way I play games – specifically what makes me like or dislike a game outside of the content of a game itself.  It’s tough to deconstruct behaviors or do research in cases like this for several reasons -

a) There’s a huge variability in the games I play, and
b) It’s tough for me to reassess a game after I’ve already formed an opinion on it.

And of course, complicating the above,
c) There’s only so much objective research I can do on a game analysis without losing out on the really important bits.

I’m an introverted person, and I do the overwhelming majority of my game theory research by deconstructing my own feelings – it’s something that, in my humble opinion, I have gotten quite good at.  I don’t mean deconstruction in the literary sense but rather that I start with a finished observation and try and break it down into smaller ideas instead of starting with smaller ideas and using them to predict what I should be seeing.  I start with the forest and work my way down to the trees, not the other way around, ie. interpretation rather than correction.

Whether or not that’s acceptable methodology for analysis is a subject for another post, but the point is that because I think about games this way, when I objectively divorce myself from the experience or feelings I’m having during a game I find it much more difficult to draw useful conclusions.  Hence the difficulty resolving c) and b).  Sometimes I’m not sure how much my views on a game are influenced by the way that I play a game and how much they reflect the actual quality, which always makes me nervous whenever I research topics like this.

I don’t like escapism; I don’t think it’s healthy, and I don’t think it really satisfies you as a consumer.  I’ve talked about this a little bit in the past, but I usually take the view that when a game, movie, or book draws you into its world so much that you want to disregard the real world, you’re sort of missing the point of the whole experience.  Reality is satisfying.  I know that there are a number of people that fundamentally disagree with me on this point, and even among the people that do agree with me, a large number don’t take the reasoning quite as far as I do, but again, that’s a subject for another post.

Suffice to say that when I encounter media that makes me want to obsess over it, my first reaction is usually to ask myself, “what do I really want, and how do I get it?”  If I’m drawn to a game, it’s probably because there’s something that I could be doing or exploring in the real world that I’m not right now.

So having just said all of that, you would probably expect me to advocate for a balanced consumption of media with other activities – read a chapter of a book, play a half-hour of a game, etc… then go out and meet some friends and do real world stuff.  That should be healthy.  I would expect this to be my view as well.

I’m finding that it isn’t.  Overwhelmingly, when I consume media in small chunks, it doesn’t have the same impact on me as when I obsess over it.

For instance, I’ve played through somewhere between 4 and 6 hours of Aquaria, maybe the first quarter of the game, mostly because I felt obligated to (next post).  I am fairly certain it’s a good game.  I am pretty sure that it is a game I should like.  In fact, it should be one of my favorite games.  Almost every element of the narrative and mechanics excites me on a very deep level.

But I never actually, you know, finished it.  Because I played it responsibly, and balanced it with my classes and went out and did other stuff every other night.  So of course it couldn’t hold my interest because I never really gave it my interest beyond a very cursory glance.

I read through Fallout Equestria, a massive 625,000 word novel, in less than three days, then I spent another two or three thinking about pretty much nothing else except the universe : it was a vastly different experience to Aquaria.  Looking back, I have issues with the book, both in its execution and its content, but I definitely enjoyed it more than Aquaria, and I definitely remember the experience with a lot more fondness – I learned a lot about my own worldview during that period, and I can say that because of it, Fallout Equestria is honestly one of my favorite books.

Of course, the material had a great deal to do with that - Fallout Equestria had to actually be a good book.  And of course, I did move on and stop thinking about the universe, if that step never happened I’d be inclined to think there was something wrong.  I allowed myself to become obsessed, let it linger for a while, figured out what I was actually obsessed with, and then came up with a final analysis.  But that small period where I allowed the story to become reality was an integral part of the experience, and that’s still slightly confusing to me.

I know from personal experience that escapism makes my life worse and me unhappy, and that media application makes my life better and me happier, but whenever I try and throw obsession out of the window in totality and just focus on the application bit, I ruin the whole thing and get neither escapism or morals.

Games (and media in general) are good at communicating because they employ escapism and wish fulfillment.  That allows them to do some special things.  Of course all of this makes them very very dangerous, but not so dangerous that we don’t want to occasionally trust them with our time.  Media is special; unlike almost any other medium it lets us actually experience empathy for another person’s worldview.  But in order to take part in that, you need to be willing to temporarily lose your grip on your own worldview; to take the experience at face value and treat it like reality, and leave off all of your processing and analysis for later.

Perhaps part of the problem is that we spend a lot of time rejecting that to the point that we throw up a lot of blockades.  We go into art like connoisseurs rather than explorers – we treat media like some type of abridged essay – we skim it just long enough to get the general idea, very quickly form an opinion on whether or not we like it, and then jump right back out.

My question then is whether or not there exists an objective sweet spot somewhere between healthy consumption and pure escapism, and more importantly, can we use that line to correct some of the bad habits we have when we engage with games in the first place?

When people talk about the “good old day”‘ of gaming, what I suspect they really mean is, “back when I was able to actually devote my whole attention to a medium on its own terms without analyzing it and forming a bunch of half-baked opinions on every individual part of it.”  There was no good old day for games, you were just a better player.

Which I know isn’t exactly helpful, but I’ll go into more detail about that at some undisclosed distant time.  I do have a number of theories on the subject, but like anything else, it’s complicated, and I think I want to cement them more in my own mind before I talk about them.  Until then, maybe you have some ideas?  How do you play games?

Back Alley Witness

I’m a huge Mafia fan despite the obvious flaws, so I’ve been excited to try its more streamlined adaptation, Are You the Traitor? for a while.  I thought I’d get the chance this Thanksgiving.  Unfortunately when I broached the subject to my family, multiple people came forward about being turned off by the medieval/fantasy setting.

I could see their point; it is an overused trope in a lot of board games, so I offered the following suggestion: I’d rename the cards and rewrite the plot over the afternoon to incorporate an actual mob type setting, and we’d try it out then.

It struck me as I was working my way through the rules later on in the day that Are You the Traitor actually had a number of elements that I didn’t really think would work well; so I did a rough-draft of a variant that worked its way back towards the Mafia roots.  My family played a round, and then my brother-in-law and I sat down and talked through the rules.  He added a good number of refinements, and even ended up nailing down the final setup.

The entire process ended up taking around 2 hours, and five of us spent around another 60 to 90 minutes playing it, and it seems to work pretty well.  If you want to give it a try, I’ve embedded a doc of the rules below.  Note that this is licensed under the creative commons attribution-noncommercial license, which is a little bit more restrictive than the stuff I normally post.

Link to the doc itself here.

Peanut Gallery : A Portal 2 map

I made a Portal 2 map!  These things have been exploding ever since Valve released the level editor; for me it’s been like Christmas, both as a gamer and a designer.

There are so many great puzzles on here.  Portal was really the first game to convince me to start actually looking at how beautiful a good brain teaser could be, and now I have hundreds and hundreds of people who are really good at making puzzles and have no problem letting me see their work and deconstructing it.  Rudolf Kremer’s Level Design, has taught me a huge amount about level design, but I’ve learned almost just as much just playing through Valve’s developer commentaries.  Now I get an opportunity to practice and learn from others.

If you want to play through the puzzle without getting it all spoiled, you can download it here or search for it on Steam under the name Peanut Gallery.  I’ll talk a little bit about the creation process and what I tried to do with it below, then finally I’ll devote a paragraph or two to some elements I feel I got wrong.

I’m of the opinion that, just like narrative, a puzzle should tell a story, and that story should represent some type of ideology or purpose.  In a narrative structure that story revolves around very concrete and personal ideas; the moral of the story, or, if we’re getting away from that trope, some type of philosophy or perspective that you hadn’t considered before.  In a puzzle, that should instead relate to the way you view and interact with the world.  To lead someone through a puzzle is to make abstract concepts real.

In this way, puzzles are an educational concept: it’s not just about solving them, it’s about what happens when you do.  I tried to design Peanut Gallery around two different types of puzzles: the ‘aha’ moment, when you learn a new concept, and flow, when you reinforce concepts you already know in a new way.

The ‘aha’ moment comes about when you internalize an idea, or connect two or more ideas in a way that forms a new one, and realize not just the workings behind it, but the implications as well.  Puzzles do this best when they allow you to understand clearly how different things work before they ask you to combine them.  You shouldn’t have to guess what will happen if you try something.  The player examines the situation and tries one or two (failing) solutions.  At this point, the player will need to ask themselves “what am I missing?”  If, by repeating this process enough times, and by dropping enough subtle clues, the player can be prodded into figuring this out on their own, the entire process will be worth it.  It’s important that they actually figure it out though, and don’t just get it by guessing.  Leading a player through the process of inspiration leads into the concept of puzzle flow.

Hopefully I’m not the only one who’s had the pleasure of playing through a puzzle that just goes quickly and gracefully.  Puzzles like this allow you to demonstrate concepts you’ve already learned, to combine them and iterate on them, and to, generally speaking, show off to yourself how good you are.  That’s what I mean by flow: balancing between problems that aren’t trivial to solve, but that are solvable almost instantaneously, or at least with only a few seconds of thought.  If the previous situation had players asking “what am I missing?”, flow has them asking “What was that trick again?”  You can get the player into a pattern of constantly needing to think and constantly getting a clever solution out of that thought process, and if you put players through this enough, the concepts that were once ‘aha’ moments will become second nature, just like walking or jumping.

To engage flow in my puzzle, I first settled on the idea of using portals to cover great distances quickly.  I start the player out by trapping them behind two panes of glass and a couple of turrets.  Making the player immediately solve a puzzle serves two purposes: one, it gets them used to a couple of key concepts that they’ll need to employ throughout the rest of the puzzle, and two, it forces them to examine and take in the room, particularly the exit, which gives them time to formulate a clear path through the level.  In order to escape the turrets, the player must place a portal on the ceiling, marked by glowing lights (hopefully suggesting at least subconsciously that well-lit areas are important, which helps me push ideas at them later on in the puzzle), and by placing a second portal on a surface revealed via a switch.

The idea of placing a portal on one wall and exiting through another wall isn’t new to an experienced player, but by forcing them to actively reveal the portalable surface on their own, I reinforce the idea that this option can be employed even in situations when it’s not obvious that it is allowed or intended.  Throughout the puzzle, players will need to traverse the room almost entirely via this method, (running around will get you killed quickly) so it’s important that even before starting out that they are comfortable with the idea.  To further enforce this, I leave an opening for the player to attempt to run past the turrets.  It’s impossible to get through this way, of course, but hopefully it leaves the player with the idea that navigation through skill alone is not only unnecessary, but often impossible.

I next drop players next behind cover, and allow them the opportunity to click a switch that removes said cover.  I do this, again for two reasons.  The first is that I save their progress before they enter the cover, and I want them to die and know that I’ve done that, and will be doing it throughout the level.  Secondly, I want the player to understand that switches often have different uses than what is at first apparent.  This will become more important for the final ‘aha’ moment of the puzzle, in which the player will be forced to reinterpret the uses of a falling sphere from the sphere itself to the momentum of said sphere.  The switch that exposes the player’s presence to the turrets also shields another part of the map, and by portaling over to that place (again, use portals to travel large distances quickly), the player can reach the next switch.

The next portion serves mostly as exposition to the actual puzzle itself.  A redirection cube (which would enable the player to open the exit door) is dropped on one of two parallel towers.  The player can use their own momentum (a common Portal concept) to almost reach the cube, but unfortunately it eludes their grasp.  By using this same momentum however the player can reach a switch which drops a metal sphere onto an aerial faith plate which then propels the sphere into a wall.

At this point, at least during the limited playtests I did, the player usually attempts to retrieve the sphere, which rolls around the level in a fairly random fashion.  And at this point, ideally, the player reaches a wall.  Portal rarely gives you useless items, and the popular view that people embrace is that, “if it’s there, it must matter.”  The idea is, however, that while items are never useless, the use is often quite different than the item suggests.  This is, hopefully, an application of the previous player experience with the second switch they pressed that exposed them to turrets.  In this case, the sphere itself is important, not because it is a sphere, but because it has huge amounts of momentum.  By placing a portal on the wall where the sphere hits and another on the tower across from the cube (the real object being to reach this) the players can use the sphere to knock the cube to the ground, enforcing all of the concepts they’ve learned so far: the dual use for objects, the usage of portals to cross large distances (at this point allowing objects to cross large distances rather than themselves) and by solving puzzles through thought and not skill (not allowing them to propel across the gap themselves).

Once the player has realized this, the puzzle becomes trivial, although it isn’t over quite yet.

Extra Credits has an excellent video talking about pacing in games that suggests that you should always try to follow a curve with the pacing of a level or game that you design: exposition, rising action, climax, and falling action.  I took this to heart and decided that it was important not to let the player end on a climax.  Rather, I give them one more chance to internalize the lesson (and engage in a little player-rewarding) by allowing  them (requiring really) to kill the turrets that have been attacking them all this time. To do this, they’ll use the same cube that activates the door.

Using redirection cubes to fry turrets isn’t a new concept to anyone who’s played portal, so as soon as the player realizes that the turrets must be killed, they shouldn’t have much difficulty realizing that, before opening the door, they can redirect the laser through several portals and clear a pathway for themselves.  It’s one last chance to apply the concepts on a smaller scale.  Portals bridge the gap between lasers and turrets, no skill is required to evade the turrets, and the cube that they knocked off originally just to open the door now allows them to reach that door and get some revenge in the process.  Once completed, players can use the same faith plate that they used to send the sphere into the cube, to propel them to the exit (one final reinforcement that objects have multiple usages).  This part of the puzzle can be solved at the player’s leisure though.  Once the turrets are gone, players have an opportunity to explore the level and freely roam, hopefully giving a sense of openness to a previously restrictive and harmful environment.

There are other things going on of course, but those are the main ideas.  Several elements ended up working against me here, some puzzles are breakable with just enough timing (bridging the gap is extremely rare, but can be accomplished if one uses turret fire to propel themselves; and turrets themselves have one too many opportunities to hit you (ideally, you should be able to go through the entire level without getting hit).  Save points could use some adjusting and smarter placement, visual cues are sometimes not quite obvious enough to signal what the player needs to do next.  I’m sure there’s other stuff I’m missing.  Finally though, I wish I had come up with a secondary usage for the metal sphere, or some surefire way of destroying it once it’s used.  Most of the rest of the puzzle is efficient, but the ball just rolls around for forever while you solve the rest of the puzzle.  It’s just taking up space.