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Two Bioshock vets go indie to build a darkly comic game about development
June 6, 2014 | By Alex Wawro

Game industry veteran Jordan Thomas seems to be a big fan of the 1976 film Network, citing it as a major source of inspiration for his first indie game no less than three times during our recent interview. Trouble is, I've never seen it.

If you haven't either, know that it's a satire of what goes on behind the scenes of network television, where the budgets are big and the audience is fickle.

Thomas has some experience working on big-budget productions. He was the lead designer of Thief: Deadly Shadows (where he helped design the notoriously terrifying "Into the Cradle" level) who went on to work on the various Bioshock games before bailing on the AAA game business in 2013 to pursue new projects.

Now he's ready to talk about what he's been working on: The Magic Circle, a first-person Unity game designed to playfully lampoon the art of game development.

“You don’t have to be a developer to enjoy this game,” says Thomas. “A bit of knowledge helps you appreciate the humor, but our goal is to be more like 30 Rock, or that '70s movie Network."

Well, shucks.

The well-worn path from AAA to indie

The Magic Circle marks the debut of Question, the indie studio co-founded by Thomas and his fellow Irrational Games expat Stephen Alexander after Thomas’ departure from 2K Marin last year.

Thomas and Alexander both have extensive experience designing first-person ‘immersive sim’ games -- Alexander worked on both Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite alongside Thomas at 2K Games.

They also share an affinity for talking about games as conversations between designers and players. The pair describe The Magic Circle as an attempt to explore that concept: it's a puzzle game with open-ended challenges meant to afford players some choice in how they go about using non-violent abilities to subvert the development of a (fictional) vaporware game from the inside.

The conceit is that players guide an avatar of mysterious origins through the virtual landscapes of a long-delayed game as it’s still being developed, sucking up life-sustaining memory that leaks from objects in the world and expending it to make changes to the code -- rebuilding deleted structures, for example, or editing the form and functions of creatures by swapping simplistic behavioral descriptors like "my enemies are THE HERO" to "my enemies are NOTHING" or sliding meters like "Health" up and down.

It's an ambitious initial offering from a two-man self-funded studio. Thomas affirms that he and Alexander "were probably screwed" by the scope of their game, at least at the outset. They've since brought on Kain Shin -- an experienced gameplay programmer who

"We intend for people to break this game, to a certain extent."
previously worked on first-person immersive sims like Dishonored and Thief: Deadly Shadows -- to help out as a contractor, fortifying their code so that it bends to accommodate a player's tweaks without breaking too badly.

"We intend for people to break this game, to a certain extent," says Alexander. "Your solution to a puzzle might not seem pretty, it might not be perfect, but...fuck that, as long as it works."

The project bears more than a passing resemblance to Double Fine's Early Access game Hack 'N'' Slash, which challenges players to solve puzzles using cheats, exploits and reverse-engineering tools to edit the game as it's running. Alexander and Thomas say they haven't played it, but are eager to do so now after hearing the comparison from multiple sources.

The Magic Circle seems a bit more narrow in scope than what Double Fine is building, and a bit more cathartic for its creators. The pair are trying to build a puzzle game that directly communicates some of their feelings about AAA game development, yet affords players more freedom in how they go about solving problems than a more traditional narrative-driven game like Kentucky Route Zero.

They also seem unwilling or unable to build a game that's as broad in scope as the big-budget immersive sim games they've spent years of their lives making -- the fact that the hero of The Magic Circle seems incapable of wielding a weapon precludes you from taking a "guns blazing" approach, for example, though you could theoretically convince a gun-toting enemy to blaze away on your behalf.

Building a game around the bankshot

“We found while working on immersive sims that there was this really interesting indirect playstyle that was all about 'the bankshot' -- it was all about working through proxies,” says Thomas, referencing the way Bioshock players could overcome tough enemies like the series' iconic Big Daddies by using non-violent abilities to charm them or turn a level’s defenses against them. “We had to focus our efforts, so The Magic Circle is kind of all about that playstyle -- you’re always working through something you’ve pulled from the world.”

Alexander demonstrated by using the eponymous "magic circle" mechanic -- whereby players expend energy to edit game objects within a specific area of effect -- to do things like restore deleted level geometry and edit an enemy hound's behavior to make it serve the player. Question hopes players will use these tools to create their own unique "bankshot" strategies in order to circumvent seemingly insurmountable challenges and opponents, including what in-game characters call "The Sky Bastard," a free-floating blob that represents the editing cursor of the developers who are trying to finish the metafictional game within a game.

The Magic Circle seems to be rife with that kind of humor, but what if those jokes fall flat? Making a genuinely funny game is a nigh-legendary challenge; many have tried, and very few have succeeded.

Games that lampoon game design cliches tend to be especially unfunny -- jokes about mandatory tutorials or “fetch quests” ring hollow when you hear them during an unskippable tutorial or fetch quest. When I mention this to Thomas, he agrees and evinces some trepidation about whether or not The Magic Circle practices what it pokes fun at.

“We have to make damn sure that the elements that are being parodied, those crutches

"I’ve been forced to reconfront all my own biases; there’s not a single development sin that’s being lampooned here that I’m not guilty of."
of game development, are not in our game either,” says Thomas. “I’ve been forced to reconfront all my own biases; there’s not a single development sin that’s being lampooned here that I’m not guilty of.”

Thomas and Alexander both talk about The Magic Circle as a project that lets them work through some of their feelings about game development. When I suggest that they're mythologizing their work by making a game that portrays developers as gods, Thomas agrees -- up to a point.

“There’s this other side of me that has lived through development hell, and that’s more reflected [by a character] for whom none of this has any appeal,” says Thomas. “He kind of sees this all as hokum.”

Hokum or not, it's a hell of a unique perspective on the nature of game development, one that I think could only come from developers who have spent the lion's share of their professional lives making the same kind of game over and over.

Alexander suggests that he and Thomas are bound by their fascination with first-person immersive sims to continue making them, testing the bounds of what experiences and conversations these games can support.

"It’s kind of an ouroboros," says Alexander. "This is the toolset we’ve most often worked with, but at the same time it’s the type of games that have drawn us. It’s both the experiences that we desire, and the experiences that we keep making."

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Marc-Andre Parizeau
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love the artwork... anxious to see the rest of it.

Bart Stewart
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The notion of the "bankshot" mode of play got me thinking -- among the games I enjoyed the most back in the day were System Shock and DOOM. And I enjoyed both of these in part because they offered indirect ways of dealing with challenges.

System Shock was mostly about using guns, but it did let you choose a path to success through how you navigated the world -- guns blazing, or more deliberately and with an eye to the local environment. DOOM was even more about progress-through-combat, but it had the wonderful feature that if enemies injured each other (usually imps throwing fireballs), they would turn on each other.

It seems to me that both of these styles are really forms of bankshot play. Instead of directly changing world-state, the player chooses actions that cause dynamic world-systems to affect each other's state. The fun of this kind of play is in recognizing possible system-combinations, figuring out optimal applicability of combined systems to environmental challenges, and applying those combinations effectively.

The description of The Magic Circle's gameplay -- letting the player affect the world by altering AI attributes of actors -- reminds me strongly of this more thoughtful, indirect, systemic approach to problem-solving.

I look forward to official information about this game that's more than just a meta Web site. ;)