Magic

Why do so many virtual worlds feature magic?

One explanation is that virtual worlds have to be the same as the real world to a great extent (so that players aren't distracted by trying to understand an alien physics), but that they also have to be different in key ways (so that players can perceive them to be separate from reality, thereby freeing them to act in ways they wouldn't ordinarily). Magic is a well-understood trope that enables this distinction to be made very easily.

But still, why magic rather than technology or the supernatural or even history? All of them can easily separate the real from the imagined without distracting the player. Why magic?

Roy Trubshaw had read more SF than Fantasy when he began MUD1, but he still went for a Fantasy world. Most of the players had read more SF, too, but it was never suggested that we wrote for that genre. Fantasy seemed just to be the natural thing.

I gave a talk in Amsterdam this week (masochists will shortly be able to download it from here), where the subject of magic came up. I advanced the same explanation that I did at the start of this post, which is a fair enough functional account. However, it doesn't suggest any reason why people would prefer magic over any other mechanism for separating the real and the virtual in players' minds. Some 85% of virtual worlds are Fantasy by genre; can it all be explained in terms of jumping on bandwagons, or is there a deeper reason for it?

What do you think?


Comments on Magic:

ren reynolds says:

My feeling is that virtual words have magic because they can. What I mean by this is that within the fiction of a virtual world and the agency that an individual has, magic can occur and makes sense (it has emotional resonance). The underlying reason is that I guess that people want powers that transcend what it is to be human, virutal worlds go a little to providing this feeling. Using artefacts etc would not do this, but magic has that feeling of otherness. Here I’m lumping ‘magic’ together with super human powers such as in city of heros where one can fly, use ice ray’s that sort of thing as these also seem to be based on non-technological stuff. This type of magic literally is supernatural so I guess I lump that in too. In the end I guess we would all like to be able to fly.

Posted Sep 24, 2005 7:57:11 AM | link

Lisa Galarneau says:

I've always assumed that we have magic because we've always had magic. And while I enjoy magic quite a bit, I'm thrilled to pieces whenever I see something that clearly diverges from that 85% that Richard refers to. Is it possible that the affection for magic represents a lack of imagination to conjure up (pun intended) something more fantastical? Or am I being too harsh? Do people just really love it?

Posted Sep 24, 2005 8:09:18 AM | link

MisterRabbit says:

I think there are three reasons:

1. History. Historically, most of the big RPGs (in particular THE big RPG: DND) have had a magic system. Virtually all (no pun intended) MMOs can trace their lineage (hah!) all the way back to pen and paper Dungeons and Dragons. I suspect that if Gygax and company had been Star Trek fans rather than Tolkien fans things would be different.

2. Mechanics. Magic exists in MMOs (and all RPGs) for the same reason that Healthpacks exist in Quake: without them, the game is very short, and more than a little frustrating. In reality, if a rabid bear mauls you or a venomous snake bites you out in the middle of nowhere, you die. If some guy with a double barreled shotgun empties three or four rounds into you, you die. Therefore, there must be a "magical" (or so high tech that it may as well be magic - ie nanobots in Anarchy Online) means of preventing your death. Hence, the healing spell. Furthermore, magic (or its analog) needs to exist in the world for the lowly man to overpower the massive evils that the world presents.

3. It's cool.

Posted Sep 24, 2005 8:11:08 AM | link

Brent Michael Krupp says:

Yeah, what MisterRabbit said. Magic is anything goes so you can conform it to fit the other details of your game world and game engine. SF tends to have some rules and logic to it (if it doesn't, it's just re-skinned fantasy/magic, which is what AO is).

It doesn't bother us so much whacking things repeatedly with swords to kill them and being able to magically heal wounds. It's much more suspension-of-disbelief breaking when you have to shoot something over and over with a big gun and when bullet wounds can be made to go away with a simple "med kit".

Posted Sep 24, 2005 8:34:44 AM | link

Chris says:

I agree with Brent's point that the drawback with technology etc. is that implies rules and logic, and by extension arguments about consistency. Magic is a free-for-all - nobody expects much of a logical paradigm or even anything approaching consistency with magic. The paradigm of magic gives the imagination a free hand. In an escapist medium, that has to be broadly preferable, doesn't it?

Posted Sep 24, 2005 8:50:09 AM | link

margoth says:

My intuition on this says that in a fantasy/magic genre you get away far easier with irrationality: "it's magic, wave a hand and it just works". With SciFi the requirement for a rational world restricts the freedom to come up with whatever gimmick that suits a fancy idea or happens balance out the rules. And once you start down that fantasy path, why not throw away the rest of the "realism" like lethal weapons (re: Brent).

But it's not just the designers: some players have no interest or regard for rationality. Even when playing SciFi games some will propose, request or demand fantastic and magical features (a common one being immortality). Is there enough player interest for realistic and believable MMORPGs to warrant anything but fringe productions?

Yet does magic have to be irrational and omnipotent? In literature there are magical fantasy worlds where magic obeys rules and respects strict limits. When magic is scarce, its use might be more dramatic. Are there MMORPGs out there with laws of magic?

"Science is a way of talking about the universe in words that bind it to a common reality. Magic is a method of talking to the universe in words that it cannot ignore. The two are rarely compatible."
-Neil Gaiman, "Books of Magic"

Posted Sep 24, 2005 9:45:14 AM | link

Ratufa says:

One reason: magic-based advancement makes one feel powerful (as a player) in ways that technology doesn't, because magical abilities are intrinsic to the player and technological "abilities" are extrinsic.

In other words, if I'm powerful (in a game) mainly because I have great tools (which is basically what realistic technology boils down to), it's less satisfying on a personal level than if I'm powerful because of special abilities that I possess as an individual. And the way to give players these abilities is either through magic or technology that might as well be magic.

Posted Sep 24, 2005 12:52:53 PM | link

Bill Klimke says:

For the same reason people believe in nonexistent deities. Maybe Hammer is right, and there is a "God" gene.

Posted Sep 24, 2005 12:58:14 PM | link

Steve Williams says:

I find it interesting that technology is considered an immersion-breaker in most fantasy realms. I think the answer to your question, Richard, is simply this: If it doesn't mimic Tolkien/Lieber/DnD then it isn't "real fantasy."

SW

Posted Sep 24, 2005 1:34:12 PM | link

Torley Wong/Torley Torgeson says:

Before coming to Second Life, I wondered why there weren't more cyberpunk online worlds that took place in the, well, say a near-contemporary future of 2050-2100 A.D. I was actually looking for something akin to Deus Ex, only multiplayer.

Tieing in with some of the aforementioned, no wonder then that the "cyberpunk" MMOs are actually more like postpostpostcyberpunk with such a HIGH degree of technology that it'd be unfathomable for another few centuries, at least. (Well at least there's a Star Trek one on the way, which won't be set too far!)

I think there are fascinating merits in magic vs. technology dynamics, for example The Longest Journey's contrast or Final Fantasy VI's conflict. They just haven't been explored more.

There's a wonder in having something work but not be explainable. I sometimes attribute this to computers in jest—i.e. out of everything that could possibly go wrong. ;)

Hoi good to see this from ya Richard... BTW did you ever see my email from awhile back? Cheerio!

Posted Sep 24, 2005 1:55:03 PM | link

David says:

There is a simple reason that "magic" is favored over science. That is you need a non-rigid society for most of current gaming. Going on an adventure in the wilderness to kill monsters and "bad guys" just makes no sense in a modern or post-modern setting. Where are the police, or the military. Lawless gaming-style behavior makes little sense in a modern society, at least over an extended period of time, because a large ruling organization will reassert order quickly in most instances. I guess you could set a online game in Beruit, but that might be too harsh to appeal to modern American gamers.

Second, in a modern or imagined future world money tends to dominate other things. For instance, in most fantasy games and D&D, characters develop over time by gaining "experience". But modern weapons require less skill than ancient ones, and anyone with a gun will be fairly effective in a fight even with only basic training. Also there is little modern "armor" except for bullet-proof vests, which would lead to less game variety, or relative levels of protection in the game.

Also, as the Iraq war illustrates, technology dominates modern warfare, so that an obsolete tank is no match for a modern one, and air power beats most things on the ground. This, in a game environment, would mean that the player had little impact on the battle, their war machine and military support were mostly responsible for the victory. Also, only a soldier would reasonably have access to modern war machines, so that limits the game options, and soldiers have to follow orders, so the chances to "do your own thing" are also highly constrained.

Any game set in a SF world will have to accept certain natural laws that will limit the game experience. Even if spaceships were reliable and cheap enough that private individuals could own them, and assuming that space was like the wild west with no laws(two huge assumptions), having a lot of power in game would still revolve around buying or having political access to the "best" spaceship, and assuming there are aliens on other worlds you could visit, technology would probably give either you or them an unbeatable advantage, thus negating the battles and leveling-up of most modern fantasy games. These constraints tend to limit SF games to military shooters or economic simulators with lasers, which limits their appeal.

Until games surpass the limitations of the D&D system and have fully developed stories, the fantasy genre is just so much easier to design and explain (ohh its Magic) that it will continue to dominate the gaming landscape.

Posted Sep 24, 2005 1:59:15 PM | link

Richard Bartle says:

Ren>Here I’m lumping ‘magic’ together with super human powers such as in city of heros where one can fly, use ice ray’s that sort of thing as these also seem to be based on non-technological stuff. This type of magic literally is supernatural so I guess I lump that in too.

Yes, but that only gives the same answer I gave when asked, ie. that there's a need for some "otherness". All these possibilities offer such an otherness, but magic is favoured. Why? Is there something important about magic - its mystique, its veiled power, its sense of wonder - that the other offerings can't deliver?

Richard

Posted Sep 24, 2005 3:05:17 PM | link

Richard Bartle says:

Lisa Galarneau>I've always assumed that we have magic because we've always had magic.

Well, it's possible that we only have magic because Roy Trubshaw went for a magical world rather than a SF world, yes. However, virtual worlds were invented independently several more times after MUD1: Sceptre of Goth, Aradath, Avatar, Island of Kesmai and Monster were all written by people with no knowledge of the existence of the others in the set. All of these later "first" virtual worlds also went for a magic-based system. Why did none go for something different?

>And while I enjoy magic quite a bit, I'm thrilled to pieces whenever I see something that clearly diverges from that 85%

Yes, but you've played these games for a while now. If you were a newbie, which genre would you be drawn to the most?

Richard

Posted Sep 24, 2005 3:18:06 PM | link

Richard Bartle says:

Morgoth>Even when playing SciFi games some will propose, request or demand fantastic and magical features (a common one being immortality).

Immortality could be easily solved by supernatural influence, rather than magic. Most of the population of the real world believes in some kind of deity, so why do people ask for magic to resurrect dead character rather than miracles? Why is a spell preferred to a prayer even in a Science Fiction world?

Richard

Posted Sep 24, 2005 3:22:27 PM | link

Richard Bartle says:

Oops, Margoth, not Morgoth, sorry!

Posted Sep 24, 2005 3:23:04 PM | link

Richard Bartle says:

Ratufa>In other words, if I'm powerful (in a game) mainly because I have great tools (which is basically what realistic technology boils down to), it's less satisfying on a personal level than if I'm powerful because of special abilities that I possess as an individual.

So in other words, magic is preferred because it gives the player a sense of empowerment missing from the other possibilities? So people who play virtual worlds which have magic in them are looking to empower themselves?

Hmm, or maybe it's not empowerment but validation? People don't play so as to get a feeling for power that they don't have in the real world; rather, they do it so as to reflect some sense that there's more to them than they can express in the real world?

Richard

Posted Sep 24, 2005 3:29:29 PM | link

greglas says:

I think there is a deeper reason for it, Richard. Why mythology, why creativity, why does humanity want to keep pushing the envelope of what is possible?

To some extent, magic is, in essence, an artistic vision of wish fulfillment writ large (fairy godmothers, wizards, and djinn all grant wishes as their ultimate power) -- and wish fulfillment is probably at the core of artistic expression. We make that which we wish to be.

An interesting thought would be to do a taxonomy and a science of popular magics -- how they work, what the accomplish, and the "science" behind them. Maybe it has been done.

I think we talked a few months ago about the figure of the mad scientist as pretty much a technological mapping of the much older figure of the magician. Sci-fi, I think *is* magic with an effort (to a debatable extent) at explanation. The science of Star Wars, for instance, is certainly more magic than science.

Posted Sep 24, 2005 3:34:44 PM | link

Richard Bartle says:

Steve Williams>If it doesn't mimic Tolkien/Lieber/DnD then it isn't "real fantasy."

Nice oxymoron there!

Actually, there's very little magic in Tolkien. Lieber isn't all that popular these days (Howard, too). D&D certainly has an influence, but the magic in most Fantasy virtual worlds is not the magic of D&D (only remembering a certain number of named spells every day).

The actual magic system doesn't really matter that much, though: it's the fact that people can see it's magic (rather than tech or demon power or whatever) that's important. Besides, even if it were important, that still doesn't suggest why people want to play "real fantasy" rather than "real SF" or "real horror".

Richard

Posted Sep 24, 2005 3:39:19 PM | link

Brian 'Psychochild' Green says:

An interesting question, Richard. I suspect that it's a bit of most of the replies so far: we've "always" done fantasy, so we keep repeating it, it's easier to fudge the rules of fantasy than science fiction, it resonates with people more, and it's possible have great magic in our games. You could go further and say that we focus on high fantasy, which has a few more details than just generic "fantasy".

I think it's easier to see why we have high fantasy if you take a step back and look at literature. High fantasy literature is about people doing the impossible to save something. Frodo had to make his way into the heart of the enemy's lands in order to destroy the one ring and defeat Sauron. Thomas Covenant had to use the white gold to defeat Lord Foul and save the Land. Rand al'Thor has to rise up from his farm boy beginnings, raise armies, and go fight the Dark One. Schmendrick and Molly guide the last unicorn through her trials until she learns the fate of the others. In essence, it's the hero(s) taking initiative and imposing their will upon the world, sometimes reluctantly, but usually to save it.

Now, look at science fiction, which is mostly about how people react to changing technology. Even though the good stories are about the characters, they still aren't controlling the show. Case spent his time dealing with technology, dealing with the drug that crippled his ability to do matrix work, dealing with the poison sacs in his blood stream, dealing with strange forces. And for what? To meet a half-deranged AI that made strangely touching pieces of art. He wasn't saving the world like Frodo, or Covenant, or any of them.

Horror is even worse! This is where the world actively fucks with the characters. Zombies refuse to stay dead, sometimes no matter what you do to them. The characters live in horror of what's going on outside, and it's just a matter of time before the unrelenting forces get them in the end.

Notice the big difference? Fantasy has players acting upon the world. The other popular stories have the world acting upon the players. We've already established in these types of games that players don't like being intruded upon. They prefer to have predictable gameplay elements that they can control. Even if they're "only" cleaning out a dragon's den instead of destroying the One Ring and saving the world, it's still the players acting upon the world and not vice versa.

My thoughts,

Posted Sep 24, 2005 4:30:53 PM | link

Samantha LeCraft says:

Brian said, Fantasy has players acting upon the world. The other popular stories have the world acting upon the players.

Of course, the irony of that is that our modern MMOG fantasy worlds can't be changed by the players, no matter how heroic their actions. They can clean out the dragons' lair, but the dragons will just spawn again after a set amount of time. They can kill the king, but the kingdom and the world will be unchanged for it. Players acting as heroes and acting upon the world is, at best, an illusion.

How would the fantasy/scifi divide be different if the worlds we create could be changed by the actions of players? If a scifi world allowed players to effect the direction and progress of that world, would the feeling of the world acting upon the player be alleviated?

Posted Sep 24, 2005 5:24:43 PM | link

Michael Chui says:

Well, what is magic? It usually involves taking fundamentals and plugging them into an arcane formula and unleashing the power inherent in the combination. The arcane part, I think, is key.

Science fiction has to do with highly advanced technology, which, at the end of the day, is as uplifting as turning on a light switch.

History is musty, ancient, and no one cares. Most virtual worlds cite "medieval", having no real concept of what it is. Medieval means "to have the license to be barbaric", not "in the Middle Ages".

Supernatural cuts too close to real-world religion for us to really feel good about using it. Everything that doesn't have the pagan feel hits too close to home.

None of these actually have the same otherworldly feel that magic does. Magic obeys no real-world rules except those we want it to. Magic isn't musty; it's vivid and exciting. Magic isn't even socially acceptable, though Christianity is. (More or less.)

Posted Sep 24, 2005 5:36:07 PM | link

Michael Chui says:

Oh, by the way. I'm not saying any of these are invalid; that's been proven otherwise. They're all simply less likely to be used, because of the reasons stated.

Posted Sep 24, 2005 7:28:19 PM | link

Socktopuss says:

The real world has many elements related to sci-fi material - technology being the biggest.

When people play MMO's, they want to escape the real world. Magic is the farthest thing from it.

Posted Sep 24, 2005 10:21:30 PM | link

Mike says:

Remember, though, that one of the most influential offline RPGs of all time, Final Fantasy VII, has a technomagical setting -- otherworldly yet relatable.

I have yet to see an MMORPG tap into that combination.

Posted Sep 25, 2005 12:06:44 AM | link

Grax says:

Good post, MisterRabbit.

Posted Sep 25, 2005 12:30:43 AM | link

Jim Self says:

Socktopuss:
>>The real world has many elements related to sci-fi material - technology being the biggest.

When people play MMO's, they want to escape the real world. Magic is the farthest thing from it.>>

Definitely so. However, let me approach your question with what I beleive are similar questions, Richard. Why is Japanese anime so full of ninjas and samurai? Why is Chinese TV so full of kung-fu series? Why are cowboys the most popular historical type for stories in the US?

They all harken back to a time when life was different, and to values that our cultures have relinquished over time (yet we wish we hadn't). The US has such relatively little history from which to draw, and yet even cowboys lived in the Wild West on the open range. The idea of living for honor and adhering to a code of honor is a romantic one. Comparing modern combat to ancient is similar. Enemies crossed swords within reach of one another, rather than firing cruise missiles from miles away. It is much more personal, it is much more emotionally vivid, and it is much more romantic. Overthrowing your tyrannical ruler? The modern equivilent is telling off your boss, and a weak comparison at that.

As to the magic itself? I don't know that the question is so much "Why magic?" as it is "Why a medieval-like setting?" Magic IS the technology, despite the differences noted above. You couldn't very well say that you want a medieval setting but with autos, the internet, and nuclear submarines added. Technology brings about great convenience, and so to avoid restricting players we have magic. The science of Star Wars was mentioned above; this is similar. "Here's what we want, now how do we make it acceptable?"

The majority of people in the world have a belief in a divine/mystic/supernatural force or forces, and beliefs in magic have been around almost since the Creation. That makes magic sufficient for people to suspend belief in a medieval setting. We choose the setting for the romantic ideas, and we use magic as the technology.

Posted Sep 25, 2005 3:26:43 AM | link

Brian 'Psychochild' Green says:

Samantha LeCraft wrote:

Of course, the irony of that is that our modern MMOG fantasy worlds can't be changed by the players, no matter how heroic their actions.

Not quite right. They can't change the world permanently, I'll agree. But, clearing out the dragon's den does give them bragging rights, loot, and sometimes other effects (like the dragon slayer effect in Stormwind when a raid kills a dragon in World of Warcraft).

My point still remains, however. The world is still affected, even if the effect is only temporary.

Posted Sep 25, 2005 4:58:18 AM | link

ren reynolds says:

There are a number of threads of argument here which I am beginning to think are all correct to some degree. There is a general point about a type of agency that I think I was struggling to make. I agree with Brian about impact on the world but only to the extent that things which exhibit these properties become magic i.e. the x-men are magic even though they also happen to be SF. So I think that that magic of this general kind is one of the blocks of the argument, another block is why magic of this particular type. Magic and the word ‘magic’ is the way that this agency is portrayed in Fantasy worlds. So I think the question becomes two fold about the group of people that like this kind of stuff:

a) Why do the feel the need to have this type of agency?
b) Why do Fantasy worlds appeal?

Frankly these questions are beyond my speculation, I might guess as Fantasy worlds being emblematic of a state of bucolic nature that some of us find appealing, buy why the geek sensibility seems drawn to this combination seems to be a question best debated amongst anthropologists, psychologists and sociologist – any in the house? Is there a convincing story about why LOTR is so popular?

Posted Sep 25, 2005 5:27:05 AM | link

Richard Bartle says:

Psychochild>Fantasy has players acting upon the world.

Hmm, that's how my 4-types player model describes achievers..!

So for virtual worlds that are advertised as games (which is to say, as achiever fodder), Fantasy would be more appropriate a genre than SF as it offers what the players want in a way that SF doesn't.

Yes, that makes sense.

Richard

Posted Sep 25, 2005 10:57:21 AM | link

Kirk Job Sluder says:

ren: Is there a convincing story about why LOTR is so popular?

Well...

* Ecapism. Most of us work with technology in our day jobs, even if it's just twiddling words in word processing software. I also suspect that there is a technological backlash afoot. Increasingly, I find myself more a neo-Luddite than a technological utopian.

* An uphill battle for science fiction is preventing the technology getting in the way of the story. I remember Gene Roddenbery's introduction to a Star Trek technology guide in which he tried to make the case that the Enterprise was just a plot device and the details only mattered as long as it enabled the actors to do their jobs. Still, lots of people get mired into trying to figure out how it all works. With fantasy this is replaced somewhat by "backstory." But still J.R.R.T. can get away with just establishing that Sauron was is a very bad guy, who was a servant of an even badder guy in the First Age of the world.

* I suspect that LotR's popularity partly due to its thematic and moral escapism and simplicity. This is the greatest strength or the greatest weakness of LotR depending on your point of view. From a game perspective, this kind of moral escapism gives you license to kill lots of monsters. In other words, I think a lot of fantasy roleplay takes advantage of a setting in which "hack and slash" is acceptable.

* The huge popularity of LotR has established it as the genre-defining archetype. As a result, if you say "fantasy" (when you really mean "sword and sorcery,") most people will have a grasp of how that world works and where they fit in. Cyberpunk? Gibson, Stephenson, Rucker and Cadigan have different rules for how their worlds work. Space Opera? Even worse with everyone trying to create radically distinctive universes. Urban Mythic Fantasy would be a bit easier with a lot of convergence between deLint, and Windling. Star Wars seems to be successful though due to sheer popularity.

* I don't think you can discount being first on the scene. D&D was the first really popular tabletop role-playing game. The early development of muds was influenced by the fact that you had 10 D&D players for every player of a different role-playing game.

Brian Green: Case spent his time dealing with technology, dealing with the drug that crippled his ability to do matrix work, dealing with the poison sacs in his blood stream, dealing with strange forces. And for what? To meet a half-deranged AI that made strangely touching pieces of art.

Heh, I think you are mixing up two different novels there.

Richard: Immortality could be easily solved by supernatural influence, rather than magic. Most of the population of the real world believes in some kind of deity, so why do people ask for magic to resurrect dead character rather than miracles? Why is a spell preferred to a prayer even in a Science Fiction world?

I question this line. D&D started with two different kinds of magic after all, and healing spells within D&D were prayers. (I've not seen any technological game derived from D&D take into account the possibility that perhaps your god doesn't want for you to use that particular spell in that context.) Likewise, in Tolkien's world a lot of the magic we do see maps well onto some fairly Christian mythological elements. Although I'm willing to take his word that nothing in LotRs simple allegory, Gandalf and Saruman are something akin to "angels." Sauron and the Balrog are akin to "demons." And Frodo bears a vial of something akin to holy water and calls on a goddess for help.

I'd also disagree with the whole definition of "Real Fantasy" btw, and lament how Tolkien and his immitators have really dominated the genre to such a huge extent.

Posted Sep 25, 2005 11:01:01 AM | link

Sam Kelly says:

Magic, of whatever sort, tends to go with fantasy - not necessarily the elves-and-knights style of fantasy, but the whole ethos of the Individual Hero, the Special Person. David Brin has an interesting and rather... thorough... rant about it in his book Otherness, and many of the essays on his website are on similar themes. Briefly: Star Wars is fantasy. Fantasy is all about the Hero, science fiction is all about Modernism and the power of collective action & empowerment.

Fantasy, though, is the one genre where killing large numbers of opponents is mostly viewed as entirely acceptable, so I'd suggest that "why do virtual worlds usually have magic" is much the same question as "why do virtual worlds usually involve lots of killing".

Posted Sep 25, 2005 11:47:48 AM | link

Bill Klimke says:

The majority of people in the world have a belief in a divine/mystic/supernatural force or forces, and beliefs in magic have been around almost since the Creation. That makes magic sufficient for people to suspend belief in a medieval setting.

Exactly. Every culture that I know of has some sort of religion, no matter how simple. Technology and science (except for an iPod) are viewed as boring by the vast majority of people. Give the masses the X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Lost and they're happy.

This is far more fundamental that affecting change in a gameworld which could easily be done with technology.

Personally I'd like to see a MMOG based on Paranoia.

Posted Sep 25, 2005 1:20:52 PM | link

Michael Chui says:

As to the magic itself? I don't know that the question is so much "Why magic?" as it is "Why a medieval-like setting?" Magic IS the technology, despite the differences noted above. You couldn't very well say that you want a medieval setting but with autos, the internet, and nuclear submarines added. Technology brings about great convenience, and so to avoid restricting players we have magic.

I think Jim has it right, here. How often do you have a medieval-like setting without the magic? How often do you have magic without the medieval-like setting? Sometimes, but overwhelmingly rare. It's always swords and sorcery.

Most virtual worlds don't have guns. They have fireballs. In the preface to "Treasures of Fantasy", Margaret Weis likened the image of a dragon breathing fire on a village to the image of a bomber dropping napalm onto a forest. One is more powerful as an image. And guess what? It's the damn dragon. You want to fight back? You walk up to the thing and stab it in the neck. None of this launching a SAM from far away.

Magic, of whatever sort, tends to go with fantasy - not necessarily the elves-and-knights style of fantasy, but the whole ethos of the Individual Hero, the Special Person.

I think Sam is also right, here, because there are distinct parallels (the analogy is wildly imperfect) to be drawn between Tolkien and Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey. The Faerie is the fantastical world, the land of Fantasy. This is the place where rules are broken, in which the Hero is the lone adventurer from the real world who seeks to gain something to bring back.

Most players are seekers. Seeking freedom. Seeking power.

And then there is the Tolkienesque (and historical) concept of magic. It's not something that is gained by training; it is there, and if it's not trained, it corrupts. It's a birthright, the justification for dominion.

Posted Sep 25, 2005 2:10:18 PM | link

Heather Sinclair says:

Why Magic?

Classes in the real world are boring. Explaining the standard MMO archetypes (for the moment, let's say they're Tank, Healer, Buffer, CC, DPS) and gameplay (ranged healing!) using real world methods or even Future Tech methods is extremely difficult without sounding downright silly. (Bacta Grenades anyone?). Even when you do finally find mundane equvialents for what normally would be considered magical (let's say, traps instead of root), it's STILL just [i]easier[/i] to present it using flurries of overtly magical particle FX that can communicate to the player what is going on far better than without.

And always, you risk spending all that time and then just having people claim it's "reskinned fantasy", as others in this thread have called AO.

Magic isn't around "just cause", it's around because players generally demand classic gameplay and archetypes, and that gameplay and archetypes demand magic because it's hard to explain it any other way. Want no magic? Then new gameplay and archetypes need to be created. What those would be, I don't even know.

Posted Sep 25, 2005 2:54:52 PM | link

chris Arkenberg says:

Magic is growing in popularity in general. A simple survey of modern manga and kids cartoons shows a strong current of magical & shamanic thought. It's a very compelling way to view the world and can provide more meaning and agency than a viewpoint that is strictly materialist. Any really good scientists are magicians as well.

In a nutshell, we want the magic that was stripped by rational materialism to return back into our lives. Immersive 3d worlds provide a nice playground to this end.

Posted Sep 25, 2005 3:53:29 PM | link

Kafka says:

I was interested in someone's question about why don't games try something different?

My observation about why we see oft-repeated use of magic in game worlds is a consequence of the players, their expectations, and how the game world drives those expectations. The game story and genre motivate the play, and establish the parameters of the gameworld.

When a player ability is answered within the narrative itself, then thats not really magic to the player. They accept it as the backdrop of the universe they are in, and thus are not expecting to cast spells or utter prayers or the like. City of Heroes is one example. The player can fly in a magical way, but its not considered magic since its an innate quality of the world definition.

when the player acts in a way that falls outside of the world definition, and affects that world in a way that isn't answered in innate player abilities, then that is magic. From there, player expectation drives that mechanism. They know magic, since they've seen it before, and thus deviations are hard to accept. Your game must carry that baggage properly and deal with it, or the player is going to get frustrated. At that point you have to obey the player's familiarity with the mechanism, just like you would by adding mouse control to the avatar. If you muck around with that, players will go elsewhere.

The reason that many games don't try something "different" is because of this. Deviation has to be carefully framed and properly motivated, or else you end up fighting with player expectation (for good or for bad). Even worse, they'll look at your deviation as a bastard form and, as Heather said, see it as a "reskinned fantasy".

Posted Sep 25, 2005 5:10:17 PM | link

Michael Chui says:

If you define "magic" to be anything and everything that goes above and beyond the everyday humdrum of life as we know it, then issues like immortality, deux ex machina, supernatural entities, science fiction explanations, devices and methodologies, historical settings...

all of those ARE magic.

Posted Sep 26, 2005 12:15:45 AM | link

Brian 'Psychochild' Green says:

ren reynolds wrote:

...the x-men are magic even though they also happen to be SF.

X-Men had a thin veneer of "science" in trying to explain the "mutants". But, it really is magic because the science doesn't really hold up. I suspect this is why City of Heroes was able to do so well in a field dominated by Fantasy: the super powers were essentially "magic", even if you checked the box that said your ice generation came from extreme amounts of training at character creation. :)

Richard Bartle wrote:

Hmm, that's how my 4-types player model describes achievers..!

That would be the reason for my wording. :) I didn't want to get into a total rant about how we cater our games almost exclusively to Achievers.

I suspect that Explorer types would enjoy the world interacting with them as you see in science fiction, but the number of explorers pales in comparison to the number of achievers we attract to our games, currently. There's even arguments that Explorers don't really exist in the current games.

Kirk Job Sluder wrote:

Heh, I think you are mixing up two different novels there.

Two novels from the same trilogy, I believe? It's been a while since I read the Neuromancer trilogy. Yeah, it wasn't Case that went to see the AI in orbit, but the point remains: the AI is the interesting bit here, not the person going to see the AI. This is called "poor design" in the current schools of MMO design thought.

My further thoughts,

Posted Sep 26, 2005 12:44:39 AM | link

Richard Bartle says:

Michael Chui>all of those ARE magic.

They can all be regarded as magic, sure, but that doesn't alter the fact that the only one that self-identifies as magic is the most popular.

There may be other factors involved, though, yes. Magic could work in a SF setting (the RPG Shadowrun mixed shamanistic magic and tech), but for virtual worlds people seem to prefer a European medieval setting instead. I think this is to do with an attraction to an idealised past; the actual medieval world was not very pleasant for the majority of people (serfs), but players don't take on those roles.

Would a utopian future world with magic be more attractive than a utopian medieval world without magic?

Richard

Posted Sep 26, 2005 2:18:32 AM | link

Richard Bartle says:

Psychochild>I didn't want to get into a total rant about how we cater our games almost exclusively to Achievers.

But isn't that always going to happen if we call them "games"? Can virtual worlds that don't appeal much to achievers (eg. Second Life, LambdaMOO) still legitimately be called games?

Richard

Posted Sep 26, 2005 2:21:27 AM | link

William Huber says:

Eddo Stern, game/art designer and theorist associated with "Waco Resurrection", has said that the experience of using a computer interface - of creating effects in computer space - is more like magic than like technology. One might even say that simulating technology in a computer feels more like a 3rd order simulation: simulating technology in the "magical" domain of the computer simulation, which itself is sustained technologically.

This would make the simulation of magic more "natural" than the simulation of technology.

Posted Sep 26, 2005 2:50:50 AM | link

espie says:

Jim> The majority of people in the world have a belief in a divine/mystic/supernatural force or forces, and beliefs in magic have been around almost since the Creation. That makes magic sufficient for people to suspend belief in a medieval setting. We choose the setting for the romantic ideas, and we use magic as the technology.

I think this is a very good explanation of why the Swords and Sorcery-concept is popular. I agree that all humans are seeking something beyond technology and real-life reason. Even non-religious people tend to find some parts of supernatural/magic/sci-fi fascinating. The medieval setting is perhaps also attractive not only for romance but the simpleness. It provides a 'background' devoid of technology in the first place. In this environment the magic or 'technology replacement' has a vast 'space' to fill.

Richard> Would a utopian future world with magic be more attractive than a utopian medieval world without magic?

I simply think that mixing sci-fi with magic can become too complicated. Star Wars is an example that contradict me, but generally I feel that a VW with lots of tech to accomplish tasks etc. leaves too litle room for magic, and magic is the thing many people seek ('God gene' perhaps?)

Posted Sep 26, 2005 6:34:15 AM | link

Darniaq says:

I don't think we can consider Magic exclusively though, because of the "Sword" part of "& Sorcery". The middle ages has been fairly romanticized for centuries, creating all sorts of elements seen in Tolkien's work and every reference thereto. I'm no scholar of course, but the ties seem pretty apparent. The arts of alchemy (both the metal kind and that of potion mixing/herbs), necromancy, big forest-wasting nukes, healing, mesmerizing/mind control, and magically imbued rare items all have roots in almost every culture. All of this is alongside perceived Knights Honor, dragons, protection, equipment, etc.

As a result, it's not just about Magic, but how that Magic is used.

The one thing that hasn't really translated forward is the concept of being just one person in a gigantic army of thousands. But then, Achievers don't want to be a number. They want to be a hero :)

Further, it's easier to imagine oneself in an understood situation than to do so in an open-ended be-anything-anywhere-anyhow one. That's why Star Wars hit a cord. It's a relatively easy to get fantasy-theme against a sci-fi background, even going so far as relying on dynamic close-quarters melee combat and magic (the Force) while borrowing from more mundane yet just-as-easy-to-get plot devices.

Meanwhile, ask the average person to imagine themselves as Joshua Calvert talking to the techno-god in Peter Hamilton's Reality Dysfunction conclusion, or as the Shrike in the Simmons' Endymion series ;)

Posted Sep 26, 2005 9:08:13 AM | link

Sam Kelly says:

One of the things that interests me with regards to magic-in-games (not just MMOs, though there are big social pressures this way - I've always noticed this in tabletop RPGs) is the way players constantly strive to understand the magic, to control it, to find the sweet spots of consistency and reproducibility. They're treating it, in other words, just like engineering, and they whine to the GM (or the devs) when it does something they didn't want or don't understant.

This fits in precisely with Richard's Achiever-type, because it is goal-driven, in my experience - there are always some who do enjoy learning about the game mechanics of magic for its own sake, but not many, and I suspect that's a much more tenable position in MMOs where you can't read the system rulebook or bug the GM in person.

So now I'm wondering about magic for Socializer types - enchantments and magic-type crafting, perhaps. The MUD I code for has a complex system of player-made illusions (well, two parallel systems, but that's by the by). It could be that in this case, it's "cool stuff other people like, with an easy explanation we can all be experts on, roleplaying, for the use of", avoiding the whole messy scenario where some geek with a pile of textbooks and weapon specs shows up and kills the conversation. If it's got a real-world base, no matter how tenuous, someone's going to try and play the Expert card, and that's just boring.

Posted Sep 26, 2005 11:21:55 AM | link

Michael Chui says:

That's why Star Wars hit a cord. It's a relatively easy to get fantasy-theme against a sci-fi background, even going so far as relying on dynamic close-quarters melee combat and magic (the Force) while borrowing from more mundane yet just-as-easy-to-get plot devices.

I think Star Wars is an important point... if you're honest about it, you have to admit that Star Wars is, for all intents and purposes, a reskinned fantasy. It's just a galactic scale, with a setting rife with highly advanced technology, that makes it seem scifi. It's not. It's fantasy.

Remember that Lucas consulted deeply with Joseph Campbell, and the story of Skywalker is unquestionably a hero's journey.

Posted Sep 26, 2005 1:51:00 PM | link

Glazius says:

Technology is too reliable.

I couldn't find a better example of this than the episode of the cartoon "Teen Titans" where Cyborg is fighting Atlas, a similarly powerful robot. Cyborg's got a strain meter on his arms measuring their output as a percentage of his rated maximum, and when he hits 100% and that's still not enough he's convinced that it's impossible to win.

But, since he's part-human, in the end he musters up the will to kick himself into overdrive and out-power Atlas, and the only thing he breaks are the strain meters.

In the main, it doesn't make sense that concentrating could make your plane fly faster, your gun shoot harder, or your electronic lockpick crack an electronic lock quicker. Replace that with a flight spell, a fireball, and a pair of ordinary picks and suddenly it makes a lot more sense.

Shadowrun did a great job doing an end run on this whole thing, not only with technology so advanced it _could_ be slightly 'unreliable' - that is, tied to human skill - but in instituting a global mechanic for 'Karma', in essence a second chance from an unspecified origin.

But technology as we know it is a bit too defined to make for good storytelling.

--GF

Posted Sep 26, 2005 2:06:39 PM | link

Neil McConnell says:

Preamble: while I was writing this post, i started to realise that it's actually kind of tricky to separate magic from science sometimes. Most of the posters here are lumping semi-science, Bruce-Banner-was-hit-by-gamma-rays type stuff in as magic, but for the purpose of my post, I'm confining the term magic to refer to effects that are not accompanied by science-ish explanations
---------------------------

I think the key reason why magic is used for screwing with reality is that it can be done with the least window dressing. We start out with the premise that the game reality will be different from consensus reality, and then we need some explanation for the discrepancy.

If I say, "I have powers because of magic", that's a dead end explanation that doesn't add anything to the game or the story, but it doesn't distract either. Semi-scifi (or softcore scifi, whatever you want to call it) is rife with magic dressed up as science, and it tends to be distracting at best, offensive to good sense at the worst.

As soon as someone busts out 'psi powers' that badly violate physics laws, or an author spends significant time explaning some technology that's total bullshit, I just want to put down the book. The only example I can think of off the top of my head is the Matrix, which isn't the best example, but if demons had taken over the earth, and Neo had done Magic, it's my opinion that the movie would have lost nothing, and I wouldn't have had to scream "that's such total bullshit" every ten minutes.

Wait, I've got a better one - Independence Day. The use of technology for magic effect there (especially uploading a computer virus to a mac-compatible UFO) took a brainless movie into the realm of the unforgivably stupid.

Anyway, using technology invites scrutiny, whereas magic is like a code for "please suspend disbelief - trust me, it's good for the story". So science is only a good idea if you're either making a story that revolves around reasonable technological developments, ie hard scifi, or you're willing to put a lot of effort into fact-checking your science. For people who just want to tell a good story, magic is much more convenient.


Okay, someone just mentioned starwars, but didn't point out that the force has evloved from magic into science-lite during the course of the series. In starwars 4-6, the force was something mystical that sprang from life itself. It was magic, no doubt. The force as magic worked wonderfully - it was the premise for a fantastic universe, and almost a religion, and we all accepted it. In starwars 1-3, Spielberg tried to make the force into science with the introduction of the cringeworthy "midichlorians". For me, the Force as magic versus the Force as science is an extremely potent argument for magic without the pseudoscience trappings.

Posted Sep 26, 2005 2:43:18 PM | link

Mike Sellers says:

Technology is too reliable.

How is magic as depicted in MMOGs not reliable?

Players went to great extents to remove the layer of mystery that the devs put over high-power spells in Asheron's Call (with the 'personal taper' system as I recall), and will figure damage per second down to several decimal places for every spell and device if the game rewards this.

IMO, magic as used in MMOs is (to reverse Clarke) indistinguishable from technology. While I think there are deep psychological archetypes in play here, I also think that the primary reason we (devs and players) continue to gravitate toward magic because we have done so in the past. It's a known quantity to both devs and players, and so removes a great deal of gameplay risk from the design.

Coming up with something not-magic that plays on the same archetypal tropes requires a great deal of creativity, work, and risk.

Posted Sep 26, 2005 2:44:29 PM | link

Bart Stewart says:

I can imagine a number of answers to the question of why so many virtual worlds base player power on magic rather than technology. Which reasons apply to an individual developer will depend on that developer's nature.

1. People perceive fantasy to be an "easy" genre in which to create, and fantasy worlds have magic.

It's the same reason why more fantasy has been appearing on bookstore shelves over the past twenty years than "hard" SF -- people think it's easier to write.

To be charitable, I'm not suggesting that many developers are lazy; I can understand wanting to choose a simple wrapping for action-oriented game features because there are only so many hours in a day. I'm just not convinced that good fantasy is always simpler/easier than good SF (or other well-written genre fiction).

2. As Jim Self suggested, it's not so much about choosing magic as choosing a medieval setting.

Magic is simply a consequence of that choice. Since imposing technology on a medieval setting will at some point make it no longer medieval, magic allows the developer to have a static world that doesn't need to be "reset" (as in ATITD). Since no one expects magic to advance, no one expects the medieval setting to change, allowing the world to be timeless.

(Note that until Anne McCaffrey introduced the AIVAS computer in later books, the setting of her Pern novels was basically described as a magic-using medieval society that didn't change. Once the AIVAS started restoring lost high technology to intelligent and curious people, however, Pern stopped being either magical or medieval.)

Question 1: What would a virtual world look like that allowed magic to advance in the same way that technology advanced in our real world? Is such a design possible? Would it force ATITD-like world resets?

Question 2: An alternative to medievalism implying magic is the "Connecticut Yankee" kind of story. Would that work as a MMORPG? What would a CY player be able to do? How could you have multiple "Boss" CYs? How would having multiple CYs affect the societies in which they introduced their advanced technology? Wouldn't having hundreds of CYs running around creating new technology have to change society somehow for the entire world to be believable? If so, wouldn't that require the world to be reset periodically like ATITD?

3. People perceive magic to be more humanistic than technology.

To some extent, we're still seeing the effects of the "robots and rocketships" stories from the Golden Age of SF. Despite the best efforts of writers of the '70s to humanize it, science fiction is still considered to be about "cold" technology.

So we still tend not to think of technology when we're looking for tools to evoke emotional responses. What's left? Magic.

...

Some other comments:

I see magic and technology as about power, not validation. (I'm not saying I'm right; just that this is my perception.) Fire is said to be a powerful servant but a dangerous master -- isn't that true of technology generally? Wouldn't it be equally true of magic?

Carroll Quigley made the interesting point that the power of the state is affected by the prevailing weapons technology. When weapons are expensive and complicated, only an army of professionals can afford to use them, supporting authoritarian regimes. But when new technology makes weapons easy to obtain and use, governments are forced to change to more democratic forms to reflect the new balance of power. (In this light, treating encryption algorithms as "munitions" makes a kind of sense, doesn't it?)

So what happens when instead of technology, we're talking about magic? If it's about power, what should that do to society? What should we expect a society to look like in which magic is complex and hard to access except by professionals? What about a society in which magic is common?

As Ratufa noted, magic is usually considered intrinsic, while technology is seen as extrinsic, but this isn't always the case. It's getting on to 15 years now since I wrote an (unpublished) essay that applied the old four-quandrant analysis to describe the styles of magic commonly used in fantasy literature.

I won't bore anyone with that here (although you're welcome to ask me about it if you're interested *g*), but one of the things I found is that magic can be extrinsic, too: it can be embedded in objects (such as Tolkien's "One Ring" or Moorcock's "Stormbringer"), or it can be taught to anyone as a skill like sailing or carpentry.

Finally, as an Explorer-type I'd probably enjoy playing a game in which magic was treated like a kind of engineering or computer science... but wouldn't that suck the magic out of magic?

Is magic beautiful because there's joy in using knowledge? Or is magic only an act of beauty if done purely for its own sake?

Who were the more wondrous creatures: the Wizards or the Elves?

--Bart

Posted Sep 26, 2005 3:41:14 PM | link

Avi Bar-Zeev says:


A couple of points to add from writer-dom and I'll hopefully tie them to the main question in the end...

- Among many genre writers, "Science Fiction" (or the preferred, "Speculative Fiction") is less about science and technology and more about the result(s) of speculative change(s) on people, places, and societies. The agents of change can be scienfitic or technological, but natural disasters, even speculations on political/social trends will work. Basically, this is the "What If?" scenario-play in story form. Space ships and ray guns need not (necessarily) apply. The exceptions to this are "Hard SF" which sometimes focuses on an author's pet techology idea at the expense of good storytelling, and "Space Opera" which is mostly seen as Horse Opera with fancy guns and faster-than-light horses.

- Fantasy, another major branch of Speculative Fiction, is often applied to anything where the normal daily (usually physical) rules don't apply. "High Fantasy" is the typical term for the sub-genre with explicit magic, dwarves, elves, and so on. Urban Fantasy, Magical Realism (same thing, different last names), Historical Fantasy and so on refer to things that are mostly normal and mostly modern, but are somehow "different" (e.g., such as the urban Super Hero and even many Alien-on-earth stories). Horror is usually the variant of Fantasy in which Bad Things Happen. All forms of Fantasy should have self-consistent rule-sets that are generally analogous to our normal physical rules, however simple or complex they may be. Consistency is as critical to any good Fantasy tale as scientific plausability is to Hard SF.

- Now, as Michael Chui and possibly others point out, Star Wars is pretty traditional fantasy cloaked in Space Opera. I'm not convinced Cambell was such a conscious influence for Lucas _before_ the first movie was a mega-hit, but I'll grant the Heroes Journey is a good way of looking at storytelling. Lots of far-future SF is really fantasy, since the science is essentially a substitute for magic (see Clarke's famous quote). The only part of Star Wars I'd grant as true SF is the galactic and local social changes brought on by the rise of the Empire and the Death Star.

I think people have made great points about why magic is usually so much more fun than real life. Science can be fun too. Magic systems are often simpler/more accessible than scientific systems, but need not be. Post-apolyptic SF can be _very_ simple in terms of available rule-sets (i.e., basic chemistry, artifacts, etc...), and I'm still a big fan of Fallout and the like.

Real-world tech is more complex, but the real problem with creating/writing good SF worlds is mostly that it's damn hard to speculate well, especially in the near term, where technology hasn't yet evolved to seem like magic (see the whole "Singularity" debate). At present, a time-line of twelve-months to five years is hard for many to get right. Those that can do this well may tend towards developing actual technologies or trading stocks...

But making MMOs use true S.F. is even harder: technologies evolve, change happens, and in true SF, social effects have a profound effect on the players and on the shape of the world. That's hard to design for. Letting the participants do the designing is one way to address this, albeit with less structured/less traditional story and gaming qualities.

I guess what I'm saying, ultimately, is that "magic" is just "technology without the long-term social side-effects." A magical plague might be a good counter-example, but I think this holds for most cases I know of and I think it goes part-way to explaining why the simpler "magic" in whatever disguise is preferable when designing a fun, repeatable experience for large numbers of voluntary participants.

BTW, the one form of Fantasy that I think is relatively easy and still very under-represented in MMOs is Horror. Now why would that be?

Avi

Posted Sep 26, 2005 3:52:48 PM | link

Nicole Wyatt says:

Anecdote: Within days of starting playing SWG my significant other became annoyed to discover that there weren't realistic differences between pistols, carbines, and rifles. He knows about guns, and he knew it wasn't realistic. It detracted from his enjoyment of the game. Indeed, the very existence of viable melee classes detracted from his enjoyment. (You don't bring a knife to a gunfight and all that.)

However, never once playing EQ or WoW has he complained that frost spells should have a different range than fire spells, or that engineered bombs ought to kill the warrior and send shrapnel from his platemail showering over the field.

Perhaps immersion is easier with magic than technology, because acceptance is easier to procure.

Posted Sep 26, 2005 5:06:46 PM | link

greglas says:

What is magic anyway? That was kind of what I was getting at in the response above -- is it just anything that can happen that defies science, that science wouldn't predict or explain? That would encompass a pretty broad territory.

What I actually enjoy with the iterations of "magic" in fantasy games are how each magic often becomes its own psuedo-science. One becomes "skilled" in magic-wielding through practice, progressing from tiny little spells to the ultimate power of granting wishes. There are classes of magic in many game (e.g. elemental magic, enchantment, divination, conjuring, etc.) There are reagents and alchemy. It all seems very logical/workaday/conventional. Often there's very little that is "magical" about magic in games.

Anyone have examples of "technologies" of magic from the fantasy literature, where the workings of magical practice are explained in terms of an alternative stripe of science? I'm sure there must be a bunch, but I'm blanking at the moment.

Posted Sep 26, 2005 5:25:21 PM | link

Bart Stewart says:

greglas> Anyone have examples of "technologies" of magic from the fantasy literature, where the workings of magical practice are explained in terms of an alternative stripe of science? I'm sure there must be a bunch, but I'm blanking at the moment.

One of the best examples was Lyndon Hardy's Master of the the Five Magics. The first (and best) story of what became a trilogy, the main character in this book must learn five different styles of magic: thaumaturgy, alchemy, magic, sorcery, and wizardry. The rules of each style are carefully laid out, along with the consequences of breaking those rules.

--Bart

Posted Sep 26, 2005 6:38:11 PM | link

hikaru says:

So many threads, so little time...

One key part I think that needs to be touched upon is the fact that the cultural heritage of today's pop fantasy soundly predates Tolkien/Gygax. We're talking about fable and mythology -- occidental and oriental alike. They are the backbone of most of today's stories.

Someone said people assume making/writing fantasy worlds is easier. The reality is that they indeed are. Most of us are already familiar with the stories. They're the same stories reskinned. Their universality makes them stronger.

--

People have mentioned the kinetic appeal of fantasy: drawing a sword and slashing at the fire-breathing dragon. Most people who play MMO's start with warrior-type chars. This is no coincidence.

It's this kinetic connection which makes fantasy accessible. Who is more tangible, your boss, or angry stockholders? What is more tangible, the eye of Sauron, or fascism?

However, this works against the American market. FPS's outsell fantasy MMORPG's by droves because FPS's are unquestionably more visceral. Combat is not stripped to a DPS formula. Killing and dying are blood-pumping, body-shaking experiences when turn-based formulaic magic is not involved.

It would be interesting to analyze markets where SF does appeal over fantasy.

If there isn't a law yet, I'll pen it. The appeal to fantasy grows with a society's level of social/economic complexity. The more mundane we become, the more we cry out for magic to return.

--

Bart Stewart: "So we still tend not to think of technology when we're looking for tools to evoke emotional responses. What's left? Magic."

The problem with emotional responses from magic is that magic is innately assumed to be Make-Believe by virtually everyone over the age of two. Elves, wizards and dragons share the same mindspace as Santa and Barbie and Pokemon. Because of this, the emotional response is lessened. That sci-fi gameworlds such as Halo and FFVII evoke stronger emotional responses from players was just shown in the recent study, by a far margin. SF, being closer to reality, lets people relate easier, for better or worse. A bullet can kill in SF as in real life. A magic missile? We're not so sure.

Posted Sep 26, 2005 6:48:36 PM | link

Avi Bar-Zeev says:

Greg,

Here's a quick google result with examples that are somewhat on point:

http://www.suite101.com/article.cfm/fantasy_worlds/36773

I hate using Piers Anthony as a source, but I'll admit that was the first to come to mind. I can certainly imagine (or maybe I'm remembering) a Flinstones-like take on fantasy tropes that sees, for example, a generator composed of a vampire and a cross set at a fixed proximity...

At the other end of the spectrum, beyond Clarke's technology-as-magic concept, a lot of post-singularity SF gives people/AI the equivalent of God-like powers ("Singularity Sky" comes to mind, also "A Fire Upon the Deep"). The evolution/transformation/transcendence of people towards the "GodHead" is a repeated theme in SF, with the result giving us the ability to literally manipulate space, time, reality... I'd be surprised if there wasn't a fantasy novel or two where the magic was a result of a post-singularity scientific event.

I'll assert that magic _is_ technology (in the literal sense, "know-how") applied to alternate physical laws. Even if that know how was gleaned using non-scientific means, the process of invoking the magic is pretty methodical, repeatable, categorizable. It must be reasonably consistent and rational (except surrealism, perhaps) for stories and gameplay to work. So maybe magic is just lacking its own peer reviewed journal and a national conference or two? :)

In games of either genre, these abilities would be necessarily limited for gameplay. I can't imagine how one would play a game with unlimited/irrational magical _or_ scientific-technological abilities...

Maybe a game based on "Cartoon Physics..." But there, the one fundamental law should be "anything is possible if it's funny." Don't ask me how to code that.

Avi

Posted Sep 26, 2005 6:57:36 PM | link

Bart Stewart says:

greglas> What is magic anyway?

Here's a definition I came up with for that 15-year-old essay:

"Magic" is the control of physical reality through non-physical means. Science relies on physical mechanisms (whether we understand those mechanisms or not) to alter the environment. Magic is any other way of affecting the world.

From a designer's/writer's point of view, the difference between science and magic is one of presentation. If the author constructs a society in which the characters (and thus the reader) are aware of physical processes that can explain all observed behavior, then stories set in that world are scientific, no matter how baffled other groups or individuals in the story world may be. (Again, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court is a good example of this.)

If on the other hand the author creates a world in which those who have the power to alter reality do so in such a way that neither the characters nor the reader can attribute the results to physical processes, then those characters are doing magic.

But if the author nudges the reader and winks and says, "Psst -- it's really just a walkie-talkie," then it's not a magic spell for speaking at a distance, even if the point-of-view character and everyone else in the story thinks it is.

Does this definition miss something, or encompass something it shouldn't?

--Bart

P.S. I'd pay good money to play a decent online version of Paranoia, too.

Posted Sep 26, 2005 7:16:38 PM | link

lewy says:

Mister Rabbit wrote:

"1. History. Historically, most of the big RPGs (in particular THE big RPG: DND) have had a magic system. Virtually all (no pun intended) MMOs can trace their lineage (hah!) all the way back to pen and paper Dungeons and Dragons. I suspect that if Gygax and company had been Star Trek fans rather than Tolkien fans things would be different."

Absolutely. I think to fully appreciate the impact of D&D on MMOG's you need to look beyond the subject matter and examine the ruleset closely as well. I don't know the exact percentage, but how many games follow a level based advancement scheme, or measure attributes like "strength" or "dexterity" on a numeric scale, etc.? None of those D&D concepts are required for a fantasy setting yet they're present in the vast majority of the fantasy genre games.

Nicole Wyatt wrote:

"Anecdote: Within days of starting playing SWG my significant other became annoyed to discover that there weren't realistic differences between pistols, carbines, and rifles. He knows about guns, and he knew it wasn't realistic. It detracted from his enjoyment of the game. Indeed, the very existence of viable melee classes detracted from his enjoyment. (You don't bring a knife to a gunfight and all that.)"

I think the problem is that the style of gameplay you're talking about doesn't violate what would be essential for a MMOG--it violates the D&D style of gameplay. What's the analog for "levels" in a gun fight? We don't expect a veteran NCO in the US Army for instance to be any more resistant to a rifle bullet than the greenest recruit. Yet there is still an expectation that as a player levels in a MMOG they should be able to go toe to toe against tougher and tougher monsters in a slug fest, until eventually they can outpunch bull elephants. What's "magical" here isn't the fireballs, it's the idea that someone armored in a chain vest and carry a baseball bat could beat to death an herbivore that weighs tons.

The leveling paradigm even crept into City of Heroes, an otherwise innovative MMOG. How often did you see your favorite comic book hero "level" when you were a kid? Occasionally, but most comic book heroes spring forth fully formed from their origin issue and serve out their lives with the same set of powers. In this case the need to incorporate leveling actually represents a departure from form for the fictional genre the game is trying to emulate.

Posted Sep 26, 2005 9:31:04 PM | link

William Huber says:

Here is the Eddo Stern essay I was referring to.

Posted Sep 27, 2005 2:01:19 AM | link

greglas says:

Bart & Avi -- thanks for the book recs!

Posted Sep 27, 2005 7:01:55 AM | link

Indy says:

Greg: I'd personally recommend checking out Randall Garrett's stories about Lord Darcy, a detective set in a magical world, who uses the 'Laws of Magic' to solve cases. Baen recently published a collection of the stories, you could order it from them at http://www.baen.com/author_catalog.asp?author=rgarrett and also read a sample of it.

Posted Sep 27, 2005 1:22:32 PM | link

Bart Stewart says:

Good point, Indy -- I was thinking about the Lord Darcy stories, too. I'd been looking for some detective-SF stories (such as the "Gil the ARM" stories by Larry Niven) when I remembered I had three Darcy books. (Note: I'd sort of expect to see laws-of-magic worked out for a magical-detective story, wouldn't you?)

Another laws-of-magic example might be Rick Cook's stories about a computer "wiz" who discovers that those skills directly translate into magical abilities in another world. (In-jokes for computer geeks abound, as you might guess.)

I haven't read it, but Geoff Landis wrote a Hugo-nominated novella for Analog called "Elemental" that works out laws of magic as produced by quantum physics. (Funny coincidence: the writer of a bio of Landis turns out to be an old and dear friend of mine. What were the odds?)

As for "Connecticut Yankee" stories, I remembered a couple more. One is Arthur Landis's series of "Camelot" books, which was quite good.

The other is one of my favorite novels. It's a collaboration between David Gerrold (of "Tribbles" fame) and Larry Niven, called The Flying Sorcerers. Not only is this a good look at how intelligent but low-tech people might regard a stranded high-tech researcher (and vice versa), it's hilariously funny. I know, I know, not everyone has the same sense of humor, but Niven and Gerrold really do come up with some howlingly funny scenes.

Baen needs to reprint that one. :-)

--Bart

Posted Sep 27, 2005 1:50:54 PM | link

lewy says:

Another excellent series by Larry Niven deals with a fictional setting where magic is a natural resource, like oil or natural gas. The supply of it in any given location dries up after a while. Eventually the sorcerers in Niven's stories have to deal with a world where all magic everywhere in the world is on the verge of vanishing.

Posted Sep 27, 2005 4:13:34 PM | link

Bart Stewart says:

Dang. "The Magic Goes Away" -- forgot that one.

"What Good Is a Glass Dagger?" was classic.

--Bart

Posted Sep 27, 2005 5:44:16 PM | link

Steven Gabriel says:

I think that Star Wars Galaxies answered this question quite well.

I think that many people make the mistake of thinking that just because Story X is enjoyable to people as fiction that it will be a good match for an MMO world. The idea being that the strong identification players have for, i.e. Star Wars characters, will easily transfer to characters in the game.

But this isn't true and I think Star Wars Galaxies was a good demonstration of this. The problem was that the stories that were played out in Star Wars fiction did not map well to the game systems that the Star Wars developers could implement. The "idea" of being a professional droid manufacturer or spice smuggler resonates very strongly with players. The ability to create a strong and lasting game around this is simply not something that I think MMO developers are capable of yet. This is stuff that is reserved to set-piece fiction and table-top gaming and will continue to be for many years -- in my opinion anyway.

You can't play in a world like Star Wars Galaxies for very long before you get bombarded with thoughts like: so, the Empire can craft a weapon capable of destroying a planet. And yet I have to hit this overgrown lizard 8,000 times with a gun before it goes down?

Some of this is just that the Star Wars license itself is restrictive. Jedi also proved to be a very difficult concept to map into the game even though Jedi are more "magic" than technology. In general, however, I think that sci-fi requires a much more cohesive structure that implies much greater restrictions on the world.

And MMO's right now need all the freedom they can get. All the backstory in the world doesn't save your game if you can't create a good game around it to keep players engaged.

Another good example is one of EQ1's original tactics for avoiding abuses with dragon raids. They found that players were finding it too easy to stay out of range. Solution: have the dragon summon players with magic. The freedom of the concept of magic in EQ1 allows a quick and dirty solution. It allows almost any gameplay mechanic of this nature. With technology your ruleset may be interesting but tends to only get in the way of crafting the game mechanics your game needs to be playable and fun.

Posted Sep 28, 2005 6:40:58 PM | link

David Michael Grouchy says:

Wrong, wrong, close but no cigar, and wrong.

My credentials are irrelivant as 25 years experience impresses no one anymore. Be that as it may, the thesis below is not only correcct, it leads to usefull solutions. In fact I suggest you skip over it, as you will probably not understand what it really says anyway.

Thesis:
People prefer magic over science fiction. Science fiction tends to take one of this days problems and magnify it a thousand times. Magic is excape from this days problems.

I don't want to elaborate. In fact i'm angry at myself for sharing this unsubstantiated bit of my thesis with you all. Suffice it to say that people will run off to Space Ships, lazer weapons, and plasma armor when the fads are hot; like a new movie or book series making them the "flavor of the month". But when the fad wears out, and they always wear out, people come back to fantasy.

David Michael Grouchy II


Posted Sep 29, 2005 1:40:56 PM | link

Raymondo says:

MMOs today are very limited in their gameplay. The object is to go out into the wilderness and fight vicious monsters & npcs with the hope of being rewarded with valuable weapons and armour so that you can go out and fight even more vicious monsters & npcs. Cheap but basically ancient thrills.

In the modern world, as others have said, we gain fame and glory through success in politics, finance, sports and entertainment. There's also crime of course. So games set in a modern or near futuristic setting should reflect this. I know it sounds boring, especially if you're 13, but it's up to developers and in-game story writers to make it work. I don't see why MMOs have to all be about traditional adventuring but they shouldn't necessarily be as daunting as Second Life and other such games.

It is possible, especially if developers can come up with a way of rewarding exceptional player made content. Things like the performing musical troupes, the beauty pageant or the impressive looking shopping malls in Star Wars Galaxies. I've read about theatre groups in Ultima Online and other games too. If players were rewarded for doing these things rather than getting a mere pat on the back, then may be we would see more creative games.

Posted Sep 30, 2005 7:20:09 AM | link

blackrazor says:

Well, if you want players to identify with your MMO's world, and feel connected to it, then you need to create "an age of wonder". Such an age is both timeless and unquestioning. It is "timeless", because constant innovation, research, inquiry, and development are not part of its culture. It is unquestioning for much the same reasons, and because an authoritarian, dogmatic regime is usually in place. Usually it's a "dark age", with previous dim histories of ancient empires and technological wonders infused in the backdrop.

The world is in a state of darkness, but against that backdrop, fantastic adventures can take place for the lucky few willing to adventure & explore, namely player characters.

Why do medieval or middle-earth type worlds predominate? Because for western culture, that period after the fall of the roman empire (and before the renaissance) represents such a timeless and unquestioning age. We were in the dark ages of ignorance. It was a time of superstition, mythical legends. This resonates with the players. If you place players in such an age, then they will adapt to it, and will be less likely to question your ruleset implementations (i.e. how rifles, swords, or strength actually function).

So medieval and middle-earth type ages provide a defacto cookie-cutter type starting place for creating an age of wonder. But are they the only choice? Certainly not. Asian game makers successfully use a hybrid science / magic world for their age of wonder, and it works fine. (Keep in mind that Asia wasn't in a dark age during the Western dark ages, so that time period won't resonate with them the same way.)

Just have a look at Final Fantasy, Ragnarok Online, Chrono Trigger, or any world from Studio Ghibli for good examples of such techno-magic age-of-wonder hybrids.

Star Wars, the middle three (episodes 4 to 6), took place in a dark age, after the fall of the Republic. The Force was never explained, technology wasn't explained, nor was it used with the precision of today's battlefields. The backgrounds were fuzzy (low budget), so we didn't see or question how things worked. Voila ... age of wonder!

By contrast, Star Wars the first three (episodes 1 to 3) takes place during the Republic. The Force is explained, thus killing its mystical quality. Technology is used in very complex ways on the battlefield; it looks like today's age of reason. Everything is high-budget; we see lots of detail and question everything.

Can medieval or middle-earth worlds break their own age of wonder? Certainly. Larry Niven's "The Magic Goes Away" gives magic a technological explanation, it uses a fuel called mana. "Flight of Dragons" tried to explain these creatures in terms of the lift generated by hot gases. Poof. Enter the age of reason, good-bye age of wonder.

What's the practical upshot of all this rambling?

Well, it has nothing to do with the magic, or even the pseudo-chronological time period. Calling a clever "age of wonder" world set in something other than middle-earth a "reskinned fantasy" is really unfair to that world's makers.

It is possible to create an age of wonder in any genre or hybrid genre mix. The background story, the conversations and expectations of npcs upon the players, and imagery conveyed by the artwork, scenery, and music, all serve to act upon the players. If you can successfully place your game in an age of wonder, players will think and interact on that basis while visiting your game world. Such a timeless and unquestioning world creates none of the burdensome expectations that we have to face in the real world, for we live in an age of reason, where everything is constantly under scutiny, review, and change.

Players in an age of wonder will revert to very satisfying, mystical ways of viewing their own character development.

Is an age of wonder better in some absolute sense, compared to an age of reason? Probably not, but we are heavily into an age of reason, here in the real world. And the grass does seem greener on the other side.

Posted Oct 10, 2005 11:14:53 AM | link

Elizabeth Dalton says:

After reading through all the comments, I'd like to point out something about SF that seems to have been missed: the main character in an SF story usually solves a problem by the application of knowledge (whether it's physics or psychology or whatever). In fact, I'd almost be inclined to list the Lord Darcy stories as SF.

A good example of a challenge to a MMORPG would be the world of Orson Scott Card's Speaker for the Dead. It's a hero quest story, and the main character undeniably has an impact on the world. But he does so by the use of something even more intrinsically personal than "magic" -- his mind, his keen understanding of humanity (and non-human species, as well). The aid of the AI in the story, while entertaining, is almost window dressing.

Short of giving characters an "intelligence" characteristic and revealing plot elements and clues based on this characteristic, how would you script this sort of thing? I've seen it done in good tabletop RPGs, with select players and moderators who have specific real-life backgrounds, but we're just not there in the world of computer games, and I don't know as we ever would be. To make a true SF game work, the game designers would need to be experts in one or more scientific fields and the game would need to teach the details of the field necessary to solve the problems of the game, or the audience would be limited to those players who already possessed such knowledge.

Perhaps another way of looking at this question would be to ask which of Card's four archetype stories most MMO games are following: Milieu, Idea, Character, or Event. LOTR is an Event (or Quest) story, and many MMO games follow that model. That matches pretty well with Richard's "Achiever" model, and it's not surprising that most games appeal to that kind of player. There are a lot of them, and this kind of game is most easily developed. Character games would be a lot more like social games, e.g. MUSH (and sometimes Second Life). A Milieu game would appeal to Explorers, and there are few of them, though again Second Life comes to mind. (Can you tell where I spend my online time?) But most true SF consists of Idea stories, and Idea games are just plain hard to design. Myst had elements of it, mixed in with enough Mileau and Event elements to keep other sorts of players interested.

Actually, I suggest that SL counts as an Idea environment, in that individual creativity is rewarded, rather than externally constructed goals. One can spend hours using expert knowledge of the world (building objects and writing scripts) to solve a problem that no one has ever solved before. Sounds like SF to me.

Elizabeth
(Nekokami Dragonfly in Second Life)

Posted Oct 10, 2005 11:41:08 PM | link

Bart Stewart says:

Good points, Elizabeth.

Since I'm a sucker for four-quadrant stuff, I'd like to comment on your observations.

I might not do it naturally, but if forced to try to find correspondences among the four original player types Richard described and Card's four archetypes (from his Writer's Digest book Plot, yes? been a while since I read it!), I'd propose the following (with Keirsey's four temperaments thrown in for giggles):

Artisan :: Killer :: Event (Quest)
Guardian :: Achiever :: Milieu
Rational :: Explorer :: Idea
Idealist :: Socializer :: Character

Thus, Killers (or, as I like to think of them, Manipulators) are out for the thrill of the chase -- it's not the prize at the end that matters; it's experiencing the intense sensations at the moment of each event that counts. Achievers, with their security-seeking emphasis (the reason for being "collectors"), feel most comfortable in a well-defined milieu. Explorers are looking for the Big Ideas (hence their preference for SF). And Socializers prefer character-driven settings for their emphasis on identity and relationships.

I think this structure captures your notion of SL as being primarily an Idea environment, and thus most attractive to Explorer types. Additionally, I'd suggest that LOTR can be read as primarily a Milieu story, and that if an Achiever type finds it interesting, that's why. (As in Eddings' "Belgariad" books, the quest is just an excuse to explore the world.)

It really is tempting to think that different developers prefer magic or science as the operating technology for their world based on their preferred playstyle/temperament, isn't it?

(What the heck, I'll go out on a limb and suggest how this might work. To all: Please feel free to explain to me just how obviously wrong the following conjectures are, and what a bad and ignorant person I am for even going here. *g*)

The Idea-oriented Explorer designer will design futuristic SF worlds... unless they can dream up a neatly rationalized magic system. (It may be nicely systematized, but where's the wonder?) A few other Explorers will play it, wondering aloud why it's not more popular.

The Character-oriented Socializer designer will design fantasy-based worlds. Grinding out a bunch of scientific details of how everything works just sucks the soul out of the game. Magic doesn't have to make sense; it just is. It may not play well as a game, but it will definitely be pretty and have a small but enthusiastic following composed of women and artists. There Will Be Dragons.

The Milieu-oriented Achiever designer will build a world of hierarchies based on a popular license. The technology might be science, might be magic, might be both or neither -- it doesn't matter; what's important is that there's a world full of stuff to do and things to collect. Everyone will play it. (Side note: Maybe it's just that Achiever designers are most likely to actually finish what they start that leads to more Achiever games that other types!)

As for the Event-oriented Killer designer... are there any? A Killer world would consist of a maze in which the player's character is abused in various ways, then killed as viscerally as possible. Doom3 qualifies as this kind of game, but are there any persistent worlds like this? Do they persist for long? Other than a small number of severely hardcore (and almost exclusively male) powergamers, who plays them?

(Note: Some of the above was slightly tongue-in-cheek. No offense was intended to any individual.)

Maybe the right question is this: is there anyone who thinks there might be a grain of truth in any of the above characterizations?

--Bart

Posted Oct 11, 2005 4:48:19 PM | link

Raymondo says:

Interesting stuff, Elizabeth and Bart, about archetypes.

New concepts for MMORPGs are being invented. A Tale in the Desert and its sequel are games where cooperative non-combat game play is the order of the day. I suppose it sounds boring to most wannabe adventurers. But adventuring games are clearly lacking, otherwise we wouldn’t be discussing their problems.

Posted Oct 13, 2005 10:29:30 AM | link

Elizabeth Dalton says:

Bart,

I think you've added some nice embroidery to my idea. I'm not sure about the milieu = achievers idea, though. Milieu stories, as described in Card's Plot book (yes, you remembered correctly) are usually "there and back again" stories. Vinge's "Journey to the Center of the Earth," Clarke's "Rendezvous with Rama" and Forward's "Flight of the Dragonfly" are all good examples. I think these are classic Explorer stories, but they only show one side of the Explorer persona. The Idea stories are the other side. I'd say the Achievers are the Event folks, trying to save the world and go up a level. I don't think the Killers are represented in Card's set of story archtypes. Card's archtypes are about change-- in location, in the state of the world, in a puzzle or problem, or in a character, and Killers aren't about change. I would also hesitate to align the Artisan archtype with Killers.

Just my 2 pence,

Elizabeth

Posted Oct 13, 2005 1:28:29 PM | link