Mages of Mystralia dev dishes out spellcasting wisdom and game industry real talk

Borealys Games' Patric Mondou discusses the design of spellcasting game Mages of Mystralia, and offers up an honest perspective of the direction of the game industry.

A few months ago, Mages of Mystralia re-launched on the Nintendo Switch, giving our friends at the GDC Twitch channel a chance to check in with the developers at Borealys Games and see how life has been treating them after making their custom spellcrafting adventure game.

During that chat, game designer Patric Mondou shared helpful insights about the design of Mages of Mystralia as well as thoughts on the future of game publishing for smaller devs. You can read these selected portions of our Q&A with Mondou down below. 

Why is customizing spells fun anyway? 

Once our spell system was fairly advanced, we mostly toyed around with it and we just played with the spells. Immediately you get inspirations for puzzles just playing with your system. If you can do that with your system, then it’s probably because it’s fairly advanced. It’s probably because you’ve found something that’s worth playing.

If simply just toying around is fun then yeah, then you have a game. I’m pretty sure that all the emergent games out there, like Minecraft, must’ve started with something along those lines. As soon as you see that, you can imagine having fun with the game for hours just looking at it, it means that it’s just complex enough so that players have a lot to explore and discover.

And one of the things that we wanted to design to go along with that system was a set of monsters and puzzles that forced the players to think creatively and create a new spell, and not always simply use the last spell they created and spam it. 

One of the most difficult things we had to do was find enemies that aren’t simply just meat shields, but actually require you to try something new. One of the enemies that's right along that philosophy is the gargoyle. It’s an enemy that you can see in the crypt, which is our third dungeon, our third main area to explore.

When we playtested the game or had players try out the game, one of the first things that they told us about that level is that the gargoyle, the enemy, is one of the most interesting enemies in the game. And not because the enemy itself is particularly difficult or appealing, but mostly because whenever they would discuss it between themselves, the playtesters found out that they each created a different spell to defeat it. 

One of them used what we had designed as the main solution, which was simply using a decoy. Another one...[created] a [stationary] fireball that they would just use as a mine, so that the gargoyle would simply march on it and receive damage.

And another [player], he used an inverse augment on the fireball to shoot fireballs from his back. So we had three players, three playtesters that each had their own approach to solving the combat situation, but with completely different approaches. So once we saw that we decided that’s what we wanted the all of game to be. 

Of course, since we were too deep in production, we could only do so much. But from that point on, I think all the wild moments in the game, all the most interesting puzzles and combat were inspired by that moment of inspiration, where we kind of figured out how to design our enemies.

Making stellar particle effects on a budget

(A follow-up on this blog post)

Another aspect to our production of the whole story behind the spell system is that, for the art style, we started off not being a 3D game, or a not fully 3D game. Initially, we were going for a 2.5D game more along the lines of Don’t Starve, where we could use sprites...We wanted our characters to be 2D sprites in a 3D-ish environment with low-poly [count] and maybe something that was flatter. Definitely flatter. 

As we built our spell system we noticed that one of the most essential parts that we needed for the game was the fireball. So as long as we were able to make and design a fireball, we’d be able to make all sorts of puzzles. It was kind of the building block for all of the puzzles. In a 2.5D game we found out it's super hard to aim at something because you are just a sprite, right? How do you know where you’re looking at?

It was such a pain to design puzzles with that art style that instead we upped our game just a little bit to go full 3D, but still with a cartoony effect on the render. But that opened a new problem where our spells couldn’t be just sprites anymore. They needed to be particle systems and thankfully the particle systems in Unity are easy to create -- it’s quite easy to manipulate. So we had to find a way of designing the visual effects in such a way that if the player added one of the attributes, like augments that make a fireball go right or left or bounce, that the effects would actually represent that faithfully, and not just become a clumsy cluster of particles, which was the case at the beginning.

So we were stuck between learning to make the game in 3D, or reverting and remaking all our assets in 3D, including the particle effects, plus being able to implement that or integrate that into the spell system without being too chaotic on the screen when you shoot your spells. It was a long process too -- maybe not as long as complex as making the spell system, but I think for the technical artists out there, if I ever do write that blog post, I think the technical artists out there might have a fun time reading it, just because that's maybe one of the specialties we didn’t have in the team. 

We had no one who was specialized in making effects, or shaders, or whatever. So we were all trying for the first time. I even made some of them myself. One of our artists made some. We even hired a freelancer for a few months to help with that too. So almost everyone on the project made at least one visual effect which is absurd, but we needed to wrap our head around that system and that way of thinking that Unity has for that particle systems. 

The greatest difficulty in all of that is making them feel natural, even though you’re tampering with your spells and making new, weird stuff in weird patterns...Again, we were not very experienced in that when we started, so our first thought was looking at what other games did. And whenever we saw a game that was a bit cartoony like ours, we found that most effects were very realistic.

I’m not saying we nailed that part...but games like Zelda obviously nail it, like for instance Wind Waker, which obviously has very cartoony particle effects and does it very well. But in general, in the industry it’s very hard to do that. So we kind of instead took inspiration from the visual effects like fire and explosions in manga or movies. 

Some real talk about games as a service and small devs

Most of us had experiences in previous companies, but it doesn’t mean that a publisher will want to fund you simply because you have a resume with one or two shipped titles. It doesn’t mean at all that you can make a game by yourself. Of course, if you can avoid going that way, it’s great! The only problem is that the philosophy of storefronts is somewhat changing in the industry lately...The general tendency, [is toward] games as services.

So this has been around for a while. When I was working at Gameloft, we were already reorienting towards that, but it also means that the type of games that the studios of our size usually make is going to change also. Because when you’re looking out for a publisher obviously, these publishers are very much aware of how the new storefronts will work, or how they’re working now or how they’ll work in the future. 

Knowing that it’s all service now, [publishers] will want to make sure that your game has a way of pushing new content, DLC, updates. It also means that single-player [games]...are not going to be a good bet for a publisher who’ll want games that will constantly be on top of the list on platforms like Discord’s [and Epic's] platforms.

So I think that it’s gonna be quite an adaptation for teams of our size. Most other indie teams as well. And I think it’s gonna be harder and harder to make a game without a publisher in the future. Anyways, that’s my theory about it. It’s just my observation on how things [have gone] in the past few years that makes me believe that -- it doesn’t mean that it's gonna go that way, but the industry is changing. 

You know, 15 years ago you would not imagine having a game charging you $15 per month to play it. It was just not a thing, it was impossible to imagine that. And then the MMOs started, and then some MMOs decided to go free-to-play and have in-game purchases instead, to kind of trump that monthly fee system that was very popular in World of Warcraft. That started in Asia and kind of sparked a whole new generation of games that are just basically games as services, constantly updated, very well made, super-high production quality, because they can afford to maintain the game because they have continuous revenues from them.

We’re moving away slowly from games as a cultural product. You know you’re not buying a music album anymore, you’re buying entertainment for a while. That’s what games are now. Music is going that way now too, with Spotify and all of that and Netflix. 

So you can’t go against the flow -- well you can, but you need to understand that you’ll remain some sort of B-series venture if you do.

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