Monday, August 05, 2013

Magic Circle

Some of you may recall a time when all the conversations about game design seemed to be about the "magic circle" and "immersion".

A little while after that, those terms became unpopular.

I think we need to bring them back. Actually, I think they became unpopular because anyone who can read trends knew damn well the games industry was trending against them with the rise of casual games. But trendy or not, I want to bring them back.

See, back in the day, most of the times I disliked a game, it was because either the gameplay got stale or the story had a gaping hole in it. Both are a loss of immersion.

Easy example: FFIX introduced a character so loathsome, so like essence-du-Jarjar, that I got deeply annoyed every time it popped up on screen. I wasn't thinking "what an annoying character". I was thinking "what the hell were the developers thinking?" Shortly thereafter, I stopped playing.

Similarly, in Tales of the Abyss, a major plot point involves blaming a seven year old for something that A) was prophecy and B) he wouldn't have done if anyone had ever bothered to tell him anything or even treated him vaguely nicely. Again, such a worthless story hole that I lost all respect for everyone. Shortly thereafter, I stopped playing.

But, boy, I long for those days. These days, the awkward story and horrible gameplay of top-flight games is still just as awkward, if not more so, but I rarely get too upset at it. Because now there's a new contender: directly breaking the "magic circle" to try and rope the player into some more publisher-advantageous situation. Usually, in-app purchases. Hoo boy, I say "a new contender", but what I mean is that the Tiger Woods of immersion-breaking showed up and is just making every other immersion-breaker look like a child.

For example, remember Sleeping Dogs? As GTA-likes go, that game was best in breed. Interesting setting, excellent level design, fun gameplay, interesting characters, decent dialog... the game only had one flaw for me. On literally every screen aside from the actual gameplay, there was a scrolling marquee: "Log in for the REAL Sleeping Dogs experience (TM)".

Every screen.

And this excellent, super-immersive game... just kind of slipped away from me. I never logged in. Maybe they just wanted to share high scores, and not to sell me pricey DLC. Who knows? It doesn't even matter, because the "magic circle" was broken. My immersion slipped away every time I hit the menu button, every time I hit a loading screen. Even though the game was excellent, I was losing interest and eventually stopped playing about six hours in. It was just too hard to get into the swing of things when the game kept telling me that I wasn't playing the real version of the GAME THIS IS A GAME WE WROTE IT WORSHIP US PLAY IT LIKE WE DEMAND YOU TO THIS IS JUST A GAME STOP GETTING IMMERSED POKE POKE HEY ARE YOU LISTENING.

That's how it felt.

I picked the most extreme sample - the best game with the smallest amount of "magic circle" breakage. It was still enough to destroy the game for me.

Most games are significantly worse, especially AAA games. Obviously, it's all inherited from casual games. And a lot of people will say that casual games kind of changed the culture to make it acceptable, so now it's acceptable. But the thing is, I never bought that excuse. Even in casual games, it's distracting and makes me want to stop playing. I like casual games where I can play the game fully immersed.

As an example, Triple Town. An excellent and immersive casual game... until you run low on moves, at which point it breaks the magic circle and tells you to buy more moves (along with other upgrades). It should be noted that this was when I lost interest in the game.

"Don't you hate paying for stuff? Isn't that the problem?"

Well, no. Trophies are just as bad. When a casual game starts popping up trophies, I'm basically done with it. It's sabotaging its own magic circle. That was the downfall of Farcy 3 to me: three different kinds of popup trophies. So a great game was brought low by magic-circle breaking... even without asking me for any money.

Sure, asking for money tends to be worse... but that's because the implementation tends to be a lot more aggressive. That's because money is involved: the developers or publishers want it to be more aggressive so they can make more money.

With me it backfires, but I don't know whether that's true of a lot of people. Obviously, there are a lot of people who are fine with the "magic circle" being broken. Trophies as standard practice make that obvious, as does the success of in-app purchasing. But I think maybe it's time to consider that people may not know what they need. Many of these practices abuse gambling disorders and addictive mindsets rather than actually providing an interesting game. Maybe there is a way to make money by offering a good game, rather than by making your game crappy but addictive.

I also think maybe it's not as straightforward as it looks. I think there probably are a lot of gamers - the vast "silent majority" - that don't buy into this distracting trophy-and-IAP stuff. However, they might buy into a game that is properly immersive. The question is - how can you make money off that? Off me, to be specific?

First, I guess we should talk briefly about "magic circles" and why I keep putting quotes around the term.

In brief, the "magic circle" is a concept where the rules and scenarios of the game define a reality that is different from the rest of the world. There is a clear line - this is within the game, that is outside the game. It was a concept very much in vogue for a year or two, but then everyone realized that it's far too simplistic to represent the actual situation that games create. Personally, I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss it. While insufficient, I think it's a good starting point.

I think the heart of our discussion isn't about "how to make money using the magic circle", but instead "how to put money inside the magic circle". This is why secondary currencies are so popular. Buy the secondary currency with real money in one brief moment, and now that currency has been put into the game world and can be spent without breaking the circle. People talk about how those kinds of intermediate currencies "trick" the player into "mis-estimating" the "actual cost" of a transaction... but I think it's simpler than that. They simply lower the barrier. If the money exists in the game, you can spend it in the game.

If the money doesn't exist in the game, then the quality of your game is a barrier to spending money. The better your game is, the less likely a player is going to want to break the magic circle and screw up the game. So, conversely, crappy games may actually have an easier time getting players to spend outside money, because the player is okay with "surfacing" and breaking the crappy "magic circle".

It's certainly possible to put things inside the circle, but it's also possible to put things outside of a weak circle where players are okay with surfacing for it. For example, every multiplayer game has expanded the circle to include many players, lobbies, and so forth.

If you think of these games as a series of gears rather than a magic circle, you might see how this is done. There is one gear, small and fast. This is the gameplay itself. Very immersive, very deep. Alongside it is a larger, slower gear. This is the lobby and scoring system, where you can show your enthusiasm, set up new matches, alter match parameters (such as what you are wearing) and so on.

The two gears drive each other, serving two different needs. The small gear drives the large gear, yes. In turn, the large gear offers a valuable stop-off. While the large gear isn't very interesting or immersive on its own, it's almost painless to go from the large gear to a real-money store due to the shallowness of the circle. Similarly, switching between the gears is much less painful than jumping directly from the match to the outside world or visa-versa. The power of the core game gear keeps the large gear spinning even though it doesn't have much power itself.

You don't have to take this geared approach, though. Several "massively single player" games have come out - Dragon's Dogma, Dark Souls, and so on. Most of the things that would be in the large, slow gear are made almost entirely automatic, and handled within the game itself. Can you monetize it? Maybe, if you can put monetized currency in that primary game.

The core concept here is that in order to monetize a game without alienating me, you have to monetize it without breaking the "magic circle". There are, in my thinking, three basic ways to do this. Just to recap, they are:

1) Charge before I play. Classic method, yes, but also useful for expansions, renting servers, etc.

2) Create a gentle gradient to the outside world by "gearing" your game. It has to be really gentle. Generally, a store accessible from the slowest, shallowest, most meta part of the game.

3) In-game currency fueled by out-of-game purchases. However, this is excessively easy to screw up. Your core gameplay loop can easily be damaged by it, in addition to the less tangible risks to the "magic circle". It is very easy to use an intermediate currency and still break immersion all the time.

Anyway, as mentioned, it's clear that many people don't have a problem with all this un-immersive stuff. I may be an outlier.

Or I may be more common than you think, and we're a market that everyone is ignoring.


Ellipsis said...

I'm pretty sure the only time I've ever paid money from within a game is when it was explicitly a demo, and spending money carried with it the promise to never have the magic circle broken again (this was the case with Puzzle Quest 2).

My reaction isn't always as strong as yours, but generally I agree. Even in a casual game, doing anything outside of the circle to gain an advantage within the circle isn't just annoying - it feels fundamentally wrong. The reason the old MMOs never allowed players to buy in-game currency wasn't because it never occured to them to do so, but because they believed players really cared about that boundary line, and that artificial scarcity within the world is what made things seem valuable. I think what broke this philosophy wasn't a change in the gamer - it was the dominance of WoW. When it became impossible to compete with WoW for subscription revenue online games had to adapt and start exploring other kinds of revenue, and then once freemium was just starting to gain some traction it ran into casual platforms and started growing out of control.

I think at heart what we want is for publishers to try to earn our trust, and convince us that if we spend money, we'll get a great experience out of it. That requires that whatever free/demo content is available is sufficiently engaging to win us over, and that we believe that putting down money will allow us to enter the magic circle unmolested (until we decide to leave and seek more content out).

Craig Perko said...

Basically, I agree... although I'm a bit more flexible about payment. I think I probably spend quite a lot more on games than you, although I'm no whale.

Well, if money is really all they're after, the absolute best way to do it is to let players sell their own created content and take a cut.

But I think most developers don't want to lose control of their game to hardcore porn quiiiite that fast.