Why can’t magic in games feel more magical?

Although I like my warlock alt, playing him is not an immersive experience.

You sit at the back, you hit buttons to cast your spells, but you might as well be firing a gun or throwing stones — the ‘magic’ is just a veneer.

There is no sense of being a student of an ancient mysticism, or studying and researching spells in libraries, or having to work out hand gestures and counterspells on the fly. Casting spells in fantasy games is usually just down to what animations you get. My warlock summons demons, but I don’t feel drawn to the dark side or that I have to make tricky deals with evasive and malicious beings.

Now I realise that players (or their parents) are incredibly sensitive to anything that smacks of real world mysticism in their games. But that isn’t what I am asking for, I just want designers to put some effort into making me feel like an proper fantasy wizard.

By contrast, one of the reasons that I love my warrior in WoW is how hands on the combat feels. Obviously it’s nothing like swinging a real weapon but position and maneuvering does matter, it’s important that she keeps her weapons in good condition (by repairing them), and the speed at which she swings depends on the weapon type. It’s cosmetic too, but warriors are a very visceral class to play, and this is one reason for their popularity. You go Rar and hit things over the head, and that’s the experience the game delivers.

Wizards are part of the D&D setup, but they have to lose so much of their identity to go join an adventuring party with the standard rogue, cleric, and fighter. It isn’t enough just to don the robes and wave the staff.

How could magic feel more magical?

In classic fantasy, wizards are often scholars. Even in Harry Potter, the centre of the magical universe is a school and some of the most powerful wizards are teachers. So I’d like to feel that sense of scholarship, of spending downtime studying or discussing issues with other wizards in libraries. I’d like to collect books, be a repository of lore, and understand more about how the world works than other classes. I’d like to read ancient languages and decipher arcane codes.

I want to build my high tower, and bargain with strange eldritch beings. I want  magical adventures, but also be called on by regular NPCs who want a wizard’s help with something they can’t do alone.  I’d like to feel that I could use magic to help the corn to grow better as well as cast fireballs on people. I want my wizard to feel like a part of her local community, the spooky but well disposed caster in her tower on the edge of the forest.

I also want to see how a community of mages would really work. How might they work together? How might they pick and train apprentices? How might they bicker or fight?

I also want proper magical duels, like Merlin fought in Sword in the Stone.

So what I’d want to see is a more flexible system, where magic could be used in a number of ways. I like the idea of casting spells on the fly, so a puzzle-based system of combat might work quite well. Maybe you’d have to include knowledge based elements based on what you were fighting, then a skill based element for how powerful the spell should be, and possibly collaborative elements if more than one wizard was working together on a spell.

The only game I know which is so focussed on casters is Wizard 101. As a kid-friendly game, it’s not quite what I had in mind. But not a bad start. It’s free to try if anyone is curious. I didn’t really feel that the card system did it for me (it’s  a bad sign when I preferred to  spend more time playing the mana regen minigames than actually doing quests).

It’s surprising to me that I don’t know of more single player games that are designed around a caster as the main character too. Because normally you’d think of those as a better immersive platform. Do designers just assume everyone wants to either hit things or carry a big gun?

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9 thoughts on “Why can’t magic in games feel more magical?

  1. I know where you’re coming from.

    However it has been like this for a very long time. I began playing AD&D in 1978 and players were already using Wizards as a shotgun loaded with Fireball-calibre ammo even back then.

    • 1978? Respect :)

      I remember never really feeling happy about how magic-users and clerics fitted into the game. You don’t really imagine them as typical adventurers.

  2. Back in original EQ, casters could buy only a very few of their spells. Most spells had to be researched by finding scraps of lore while adventuring (or buying them from other people) and trying to assemble them into a spell. The secrets of how to assemble these were written in tomes which you could sometimes find or buy which were written in long ago dead languages. This meant seeking out a PLAYER who knew the language and studying it from them, which would allow you to read the recipe, which would allow you to combine the spell bits, which, if your skill at spell research was high enough, perhaps give you the spell.

    No other game has copied this, perhaps because people really just want to be point and click killers.

    • I do find that cool as an idea. It just sounds awesome to have to go study ancient languages from other players. I mean, I can see why people would find that annoying but I still think it’s cool.

      I guess part of the problem is that you leave casters with a different (and rather more expensive) minigame compared to melee classes?

  3. @stabs – LMAO I know exactly what you mean.

    Introduce players to the wonders of physics when they cast a fireball into a 10×10 foot room with their friends in front of them and they’ll soon learn. (Or down a dead-end corridor, etc etc. The possibilities for DM “hey, this is what would happen!” evil are endless.) Though in all fairness our group was awesome and we ended up playing Ars Magica, so I guess we had the crotchety studying magus thing down pretty well.

    I suspect it comes down to the old “it’s not heroic” enough. Designers DO just assume everyone wants to hit things and/or carry a big gun because it’s what many of them want to do. It’s not about learning how to do magic (and spending the time to become so damned knowledgeable), it’s about loading up on fireballs and lightning bolts. The whole idea of the wizard as solitary keeper of lore (and as someone who has had to study his ass off to learn & manipulate all this freaky magic stuff) is vanishing, and it’s vanishing from fantasy literature too. Now it’s mostly about tapping into the “stream of magic” which is basically the wizardy version of having a big honkin’ gun.

    Meh.

    • I’m a big fan of Ars Magica, I didn’t mention it here cos I thought no one would have heard of it ;) We had a fairly long running game going that was great fun.

      And it’d make a great MMO.

  4. I suspect its not as much that it wouldn’t feel heroic enough, it would just require way too much brainwork to be enjoyable for the target mass subscribing to World of Warcraft.

    • Could be. On the other hand, look at something like pokemon. You get pokemon who have different types of elemental attack, you train the ones you like, and you have to pick which pokemons you want to use vs specific enemies so you need to know their weaknesses too.

      In some ways, playing pokemon feels way more like playing a mage than WoW does to me. Which is just weird.

  5. Great article, Spinks! I’ve thought about this more than once over the years.

    I have a good reference book titled “Swords and Circuitry” that hits on this at a few points. I quote here from the book:

    “Ask yourself how important you want magic or technology to be in your world. Is it powerful or weak, rare or common? If it’s powerful and rare, then the people who wield it are likely to be feared or distrusted, or revered. Either way, it will most definitely affect their cultural and social standings. If it’s weak and common, then nobody is likely to treat it as anything special, and everybody will largely ignore its presence in the same way that we don’t think much about the miracles of telephones, television or the Internet. Establish for yourself how easy it is to access these tools of power, and be rigorous about applying that concept at every level of your world.”

    From that, I take the common/rare and weak/powerful axes and think a little about how those might apply in common game design. The norm is powerful and common, by and large, so, as with anything common, it really becomes mundane. Part of the “magic” of magic is that it is unusual in our real life experience, and it’s a source of wonder and a little fear.

    That’s what made the first couple of Harry Potter books so fantastic; they explored the wonder that Harry discovered when he started discovering magic. By the last two books, the series was little more than a teenage soap opera/coming of age story in a magical world that had long since become rather mundane. The sense of whimsy and discovery had been lost to the machinations of the storyline.

    We see the same in the industry. Yes, magic should be magical, but it’s really just treated as another set of tools and/or weapons.

    I would LOVE to see a game that really digs into the nature of magic, the implications of introducing it to a world, and letting players really dig into the research and manipulation and customization of magic. The Dragon Knight books by Gordon Dickson are part of another great series that explores the nature of magic, albeit in a very different way than the D&D mechanics that we have grown accustomed to. (Or the Final Fantasy/WoW version.) Even Tolkien had wondrous, elaborate magicks, far from merely bending special effects to further suit rather shallow game mechanics.

    Psychochild has a good article up as well, digging into mana and alternate methods of altering the combat minigame and resource management in the same.

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