Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Magic Circles & Assumptions

I'd never heard of the term Magic Circle in regards to games before, but ran into it in a discussion on Metafilter today.  The explanation on Wikipedia had me thinking about the recent post by -C on player assumptions.
"Castronova uses the term 'synthetic world' because a synthetic world 'cannot be sealed completely; people are crossing it all the time in both directions, carrying their behavioral assumptions and attitudes with them.'"
If you think of each campaign along with whatever ruleset is being run as a "synthetic world" then players moving from one campaign to another would be similarly carrying over assumptions from one world to another.  Sounds pretty obvious, I guess.  But it's interesting to me that video games might drive scholarship that can apply equally to our rpgs.

Other thoughts, the flailsnails conventions and the conversion rules in the 1e DMG seem to be the analog of this allowing of movement between circles, but I find it hard to imagine video game companies doing that now.  Though it would be cool to head West in Fallout 3 and end up in New Vegas, or to head North (?) in Oblivion and reach Skyrim.  Even the old Baldur's Gate games allowed some of this.  Is it just console games that allow no transfer from circle to circle?  You can't take a Sim from the Sim 2 PC game to Sim 3 can you? 

I realize there's a big difference in technologies from one title to another but find it curious that there is no market for sequels that a person could take a character through.  Note, no mention of MMORPGs from me because I have zero interest in paying a monthly fee to grind (to be honest, I'm sure my lizard brain I would get wrapped up in it, but my rational brain has so far prevented this from happening).


  1. Interesting thoughts here. The points about Fallout and Oblivion are particularly interesting. I am definitely not a computer expert but I think game technology is moving in that direction, you can port your old equipment from Fable 1 into Fable 2. And the different areas and things you can get from DLC for Fallout, like Point Lookout, seem like steps in that direction.

  2. The technology isn't so much moving in that direction at actually. If anything there were a LOT more games in the past that used that system. Such as Quest for Glory, Neverwinter Nights and Baldur's Gate. Today we have Mass Effect, but I think it's less a technology issue and more them not making the design choice not to do it, or not considering the design choice to do it.

  3. Kind of getting off topic, and I don't recall the specifics any more, but back in the 1980s there were a few CRPGs that let you transfer characters too -- I think Wizardry characters could be transferred to Bard's Tale, or Might & Magic, or something along those lines. I think that some of the earlier Ultima games did that too. From what I recall, it was mostly the names that carried over; other stuff was lost or reset. :(

  4. Mass effect is a good example. I think the limitations are less about the technology and more about the design as Oddbit was saying. I think compatibility is really the main ingredient for the ability to travel from one game to the next, and compatibility is not one of the things that game designers are going for, since each game needs to look better and play better than its predecessors. New Vegas was heavily criticized for being too similar to Fallout 3.

  5. Actually Pierce, I think they could work around the look better aspect. Mass Effect let you stick with a possibly warped character or update your face. And honestly, I would be willing to step out of my 'in characterness' to adjust my avatar to match the more beautiful surroundings.

    I think the main issue is the idea of play better. If I were to import a character from a previous game, and they tuned or changed gameplay, some abilities may not exist any longer, some may be heavily tweaked, and some may just not be worthwhile anymore. Truth be told, even in Mass Effect only the basic theme of statistics was maintained, and some major choices. As far as the transferred data goes, it likely was a matter of NAME, 010101010 (Class and about 6 major choices tracked for the future.) Yes I may be simplifying a bit, but notice they basically just let you start from the beginning with a few minor bonuses.

    I'm curious with 3 if they just do a full reboot again myself.

  6. Interesting. I like Huizinga from the history articles I've read, but weirdly I've never picked up Homo Ludens. I should.

    I suspect that what he calls a magic circle I call an "arena:" it is my contention that the primary purpose of many, many games (especially eg. poker, battleships, the Balinese cock-fight and D&D) is not the stated core activity outlined in the rules but the formation of such an arena, within which many other kinds of games - generally undeclared - can be played alongside the declared activity. So, obvious eg., poker is ostensibly a game about calculating odds and maximizing your hand, but its primary purpose is to create an arena for bluffing and social performance.

    I find it hard to imagine video game companies doing that now... curious that there is no market for sequels that a person could take a character through.

    Pokemon is the prime example of such a series, in which you can port game tokens - but not PCs - from v.1 all the way up to current v.5. It used to happen (per Rients' diagram) back when there was little money in video games and code was compact and held in the hands of individual programmers. Nowadays, even if you had multiple games that shared significant code (like the Quake engine), there would be legal mountains to climb, and liability for porting in-game assets. Money, the legal concerns of big industry, marketing, share and position all cry out against inter-company compatability, to say nothing of technical considerations, which would also be considerable.

    Apart from all that, aside from in MMORPGs there's not much market for character development. The desire for a personalized character was largely hived off into its own genre in the mid 90s.

  7. Thanks, everyone.

    @Pierce: if DLC allowed me to transition from one of these "circles" to another, I'd be on it like stink on a skunk. As they are they just seem like cheap attempts o squeeze more money out of me, or stall until they get the next big title out.

    New Vegas was heavily criticized for being too similar to Fallout 3.

    Really? Weird, I thought they did a good job of keeping most of what was good about the tone/color, while changing the environment completely. If anything they failed at providing an actual sandbox, with it being a narrow railroad corridor, and in providing a bug free experience. Sweet lord, I've never played a console game before or since that crashed or locked up. I'd be ashamed if I worked on the team that shipped New Vegas.

    @Oddbit: Yeah, I fondly remember playing the first Baldur's Gate and making certain choices because I intended to take that character to the sequel.

    @Mike: yeah, I wasn't familiar with them until Jeff posted about them. Check my 3rd link.

    @Richard: re: undeclared games, yes in our D&D game there are a lot of cool things that happen because we set up the "arena," the biggest probably being humor. I don't like the term "arena" though, sounds too competitive to me, and these undeclared games seem mostly collaborative.

    As you probably guessed I missed Pokemon completely. A shame because I would probably like he training/planning/ strategy aspect it has.

    The desire for a personalized character was largely hived off into its own genre in the mid 90s.

    Not sure what you're referring to here. Example?

  8. well, I was being a bit facetious with the mid 90s thing, but that's more or less when MMORPGs went graphical (Ultima Online) and became a big money concern. There was a lot of excitement at that moment about the potential for roleplaying a character (gasp!) in a computer game. Simultaneously a lot of discussion about developing the characters in FPS and strategy games abruptly stopped. Publishers were already getting a strong case of me-too-ism, and a successful MMORPG seemed to signal that MMORPGs were one of the waves of the future, not that roleplaying or character development itself might be attractive in more genres. Also the pure adventure game market pretty much died. There was a big push toward "characters" (like Lara Croft) whom you played in their combats and enjoyed otherwise is cutscenes, but didn't inhabit or invest in, as such.

    All of these are wild generalizations - I could cite a bunch of products that bucked these trends - but my sense at the time was what I've said: a promising middle ground fell out of the industry, so that either you were in someone's interactive movie story, playing the role they'd pre-set, or you were MMOing and causing trouble for developers who'd never previously taken on the costs of DMing (ie griefing, PvPing, forming gangs, taunting on message boards and swearing in in-game chat, etc etc).

  9. Fan mods allow transitions in elderscrolls: http://morroblivion.com/

  10. @marcus: that's wonderful. I had no idea. And possibly relevant to my current project: thank you.

    The morroblivioskyrim thread explains how it's the use of a third party engine + open development kit that makes it possible, and that this possibility will very likely go away again in the next iteration - presumably unless it becomes part of Bethesda's marketing strategy. They're one of the few independents crazy enough to try, though.

  11. Thanks Marcus, but as far as I can tell that's just a graphics refresh, not a way to move from one world to another.