Magic: What it is vs What I would want it to be.
Magic is something that appears in numerous video games. It is dominant in a lot of Fantasy RPGs, Strategy Games and also some FPS games. The problem with magic is not its lack of epicness. In most games a mage character can perform feats of incredible power, destroying foes with single spells. The problem with magic, is that it’s often developed as a substitute to using a bow or a sword, rather than making it a power of its own. What do I mean by that? Read on.
Magic, a summary.
When you start off as a mage in a lot of RPGs you will have access to very basic spells. You will have a limited supply of Mana, and with large tear soaked eyes you will gaze at spell stores, where every single new spell costs a fortune. At some point that barrier disappears. You become so powerful, and so overstocked with magic that by that time you usually set your preferences for the rest of the game. In Oblivion, Fable, different D&D based games, and among many other titles there will be the few best spells, which you will keep using, because no other choice is cost-effective. Some games allow you to create your own spells, but very often you do not use your imagination, but rather “What will hurt most”.
In a lot of these very same games, even though you would become a demigod of magic, you status is still that of a lowly mage. You might had defeated Lord Xu of the fifteenth circle of hell, but you are still listening to your teacher, who always is a few levels higher than you. No matter how much power you hold, there always appears to be somebody who knows more than you. This would not be unheard of, as you start off, or as you gain more power. At some point however, it becomes silly.
Seeking magical knowledge is also often un-rewarding. For the sake of balance, most opponents will have access to the same spells as you. Your advantage comes from possible artifacts you gather, rather than solid knowledge you acquire. This does not only apply to magic as such, but in a lot of RPGs you are only as good as a combination of your skills and equipment. Lack in either area and you are very much hopeless.
My biggest problem with Magic today.
I am not entirely evil inclined, but how many times did any of you ask yourself the question “How come that guy has a legion of undead, but I can have only a single summon?”. RPGs due to engine limitations do not allow you to have a battalion of summons, or other creations, following you. As much fun as this could be, RPGs rarely offer you even a chance to use your abilities to summon or create an army, to resolve a problem. Even though you destroyed a Lich, Demonologist or some Necromancer, you do not learn how he could control so many creatures. Instead, you get a bunch of xp and often unrelated loot.
Some Strategy games do this much better. In Majesty specific priests would tame or create allies to bolster your defenses. In Age of Wonders you could use magic to summon magical creatures, while also using a paid army. In Dominions 3, by Illwinter Game Design, you could also create or summon different types of allies, provided you had the resources and knowledge. I found a lot of strategy games designing magic much more carefully, than most RPGs do. In Dominions 3 especially, the careful gathering of mana gems to create specific artifacts, research new spells or cast spells was incredibly rewarding, if it worked. The entire “Magic System” was divided into numerous elements and types of magic. For example, Blood Magic needed sacrifices in order to be used. The only way you could get them was by kidnapping your own followers. Then, if you had enough, you could summon demons, or perhaps attempt to create a perfect mutation, combining all the failed experiments into a shambling horde. When you focused on death magic you needed power sources, like graveyards or battlefields, but also on top of that you needed corpses. If you ran out of bodies you had to wait patiently for a bigger battle, or untill old age kicked in. Your mages always needed their magical source with them, stored in gems or as a bunch of sacrifices following them around. On one hand, you could had been mildly powerful, but without the needed resources, you were mostly helpless.
By far, one of the more interesting games which sparked my magic interest, as an RPG/FPS, was Oblivion. The option to create your own “magic” was previously unheard of to me. The need to store souls in adequate gems might not had been demanding, but your power did not come out of thin air. Although you could not summon a horde of allies, you could improve previous spells you learned. Instead of summoning just Daedric gauntlets you could create a complex spell that granted you a full set of armor, weapon and shield. You could had created more powerful offensive and defensive spells, combining effects, if it was possible. The only limits were your own skill and power.
Magic is not something that should be limited. You, as the player should be able to do whatever you feel like, as long as you are able to. Although in countless games there was always a division between “Book” magic and “Blood” magic, both areas should allow free improvisation. Create a magical disease which causes the enemy to rise up as undead, or a spell which allows you to take the form of any being that you wish. At some stage, power has to be capped, but then, just like in Oblivion, the player should be free to modify the spells he gains access to, improve them, make them his own.
Another thing which would improve magic in my eyes, is to allow the player to control bigger groups of summons. This is more a plead to RPG games than strategy games. You might be an adventurer, or a lowly magic user on a personal quest, but why can’t you achieve more “power”, is the sense of minions? Some games do allow minions, such as Overlord, but they become the focus of the game then, rather than an addition.
Try to create something a tiny bit more original than just “Mana”. The same old magic system has been used and abused, with little actual explanation as to why do some people have more mana than others. In literature and some smaller 2D games (Dungeon Master, “Cow RP“) magic drains you, in one way or another. Perhaps you age more quickly, you get tired, perhaps magic is so demanding in some cases that you have to sacrifice a part of yourself to make it work. In Warhammer Fantasy Role-play (can’t remember which edition) when you wanted to play as a Demonologist or Necromancer the more you explored the “Darker Magicks” the more it affected you. Perhaps small things, like a change in your appearance, or some severe mental disorder. Casting demanding spells would drain you, make you weaker in some way, and in some cases only the careful use of alchemy would keep you alive.
I would imagine that a game focused purely around magic, like Sacrificed, would be a very interesting idea. In Sacrificed with each new level you gained a new spell, depending on which god you served that time. Although you could specialise in one “School”, you had a free hand at mixing your spells, both in the Single and Multiplayer.
What could solve all this?
It would be very difficult to create a complex magic system, because you might have to sacrifice other RPG elements. Balance would be stormed in force, and anybody preferring the more direct “Fighter” approach might be disappointed. On the other hand, there are very few games that focus purely on Magic. Very rarely is there a journey to achieve magical power, even if to defeat some greater evil. A complimentary mention should go to Magicka. Although you do not get more powerful with time (spells stay the same) the weapons and staves you gather make you stronger in some area. In an organised group you can take on any foe by working together. With the different number of attacks you have, there is plenty of tactical thought involved.
More of that please, games industry. I am bored of single summons, and uber spells which kill off the “weaker” spells. Strategy games are mostly fine in this area, but RPGs have a long way to go.
Alex “WriterX” Bielski