Saturday, April 13, 2013

Magical Overdoses or: Why Skyrim Sucks

I was thinking yesterday about the problem of magic in games. My biggest problem with Skyrim is that the whole game just feels like I'm clicking on enemies until they die, with occasional choices affecting how fast they do so. The graphics are the only thing differentiating a lightning bolt from a gun.

That doesn't really work for me. I want to live in a magic world for a while! Dammit, that's what I paid for. Now, in the case of magic, it's a little bit of an inherently intractable problem - the feeling of magicalness is inherently a feeling of otherworldliness, so it gets destroyed when we're constantly exposed to something.

Which leads to the first strategy for defeating magical overdosing: Spread it out. From a gameplay experience point of view, this is what mana bars, recharge times, and limited charges on magic items do for us. You can even see this in non-magic games - raise your hand if you've ever saved your shots from the aerial bombardment weapon "just in case", only to never actually use them.

[at this point I raised my hand]

That's probably the most powerful counter to magical overdosing, because it cuts right to the core - if you limit the player's chances to use it, the player will perceive that rarity as differentiating it from their other problem-solving options. Of course, everything is relative - if magic is rare but so are bullets, then it won't feel any more special. In my recent experiences playing D&D I've been struck by how effective magic is hard for me to find - but effective combat strategies are just as hard for me to find. (keep your comments about my sub-optimal character design to yourself - I don't care.)

Of course, the other popular strategy is simply to make magic feel different in the game, by clever asset work - if magic is the only thing that makes flashy particle and light effects, then baller for you. Magic feels flashy! Once that gets assimilated into the player's system, though, flashy just seems like another option. Magical overdose again, game over.

The strategy that I haven't seen tried as much, which (I theorize) has much better resistance to magical overdosing, is to change up how the player produces their magical effects. Maybe they shoot by clicking the mouse button or pulling the trigger, but they cast magic by actually speaking words into the microphone - or entering mouse gestures, or tracing out patterns in the game floor. Maybe they have to actually stand up and strike a pose for the camera!

You have to use these techniques sparingly, because if the player constantly casts magic in these ways, then it just becomes a mouse gesture game, or a pattern-walking game, or a silly kinect game. In order to stand out, magic can never become the norm. You're constantly fighting a battle to avoid the player getting used to the magic.

[also, shut up, I haven't actually played Skyrim.]