Indie studio Question lampoons game development in The Magic Circle.
On his wall at home, Jordan Thomas keeps a piece of artwork showing a feature cut from BioShock Infinite's development.
It's a "Shadow Liz" drawn by former Irrational Games concept artist Robb Waters, from back when Thomas and FX artist Stephen Alexander experimented with a way to show that the game's "tears" were connected to the character Elizabeth. Thomas had the idea to make a "ghost" or "shadow" version of her appear next to each tear, but the team wasn't able to make it read clearly. Some who saw it thought it looked like a bug; others thought it looked like a "little glowy peanut," says Alexander.
So Thomas hung up a piece of concept art for the idea as a badge of honor. "And in classic Irrational fashion, my mistake has a beautiful sketch surrounded by everybody's signatures," he says.
It's one of many examples, Thomas says, of how game development is harder than it seems from the outside. Ideas fail. People lose faith. People change their minds. People disagree. People need fresh eyes. Years drag on.
Growing up, Thomas idolized name brand developers he saw in magazines, like Ken and Roberta Williams at Sierra, and Doug Church, Warren Spector and Ken Levine at Looking Glass, thinking that they could easily dictate game ideas. But after witnessing the process firsthand, he realized that almost everyone struggles to make games work, and many game design decisions don't have clear answers.
"There are flawed people behind each of those decisions," says Thomas. "And though they are often requested to present as unified a front as possible, behind the scenes it is Lord of the Flies, man."
So he decided to make a game about it.
About a year ago, Thomas and Alexander went independent.
Thomas had done a stint at Ion Storm Austin, then spent a decade working largely on the BioShock series at both Irrational and a team he helped build at 2K Marin, where he served as creative director on BioShock 2.
Alexander had worked for Golden Tee Golf developer Incredible Technologies, then spent seven years at Irrational as an FX artist on BioShock and BioShock Infinite.
They wanted to do something new, so they formed a studio called Question and later brought on Dishonored AI programmer Kain Shin to complete the team. Three people with limited outsourcing — a structure they hoped would allow them to avoid many of the issues they had with large production game development.
Which, after all, they intended to lampoon.
The Magic Circle
Sit down to play The Magic Circle and you might not immediately know it's about game development. You don't see cubicles lined with toys and monitors running Unity. The game places you inside a prototype of a game-within-the-game, also called The Magic Circle, designed by a fictional "legendary" designer named Starfather.
You see black and white environments that look like placeholder art, and you play by running around and editing creatures' abilities like a game designer would. Early on, you come across a dog-like creature called a Howler who has been programmed to attack you, so a simple solution to avoid getting hurt is to edit the Howler's abilities to make it your friend instead of your enemy (as seen in the tutorial video below). As the game goes on, you learn you can program the Howler to attack other creatures, you can earn special abilities, you can program other creatures and you can combine the abilities and creatures in creative ways.
It looks like a first-person action game, but you don't shoot a gun or swing a weapon — you program other creatures to do the work for you. It's more about solving puzzles than it is about combat. The idea is to give players a surface-level feeling of what it's like to be a game designer.
Then there's another layer to the game with a more direct commentary on game development — as you play through the game-within-the-game, you can hear its fictional developers talking in the background. It feels like you're sitting at a desk in a development studio playing their game while you overhear them talking about each other and their design choices.
It feels like you're sitting at a desk in a development studio playing their game.
The game they're making has been in development for many years with no end in sight, analogous to something like Duke Nukem Forever, or perhaps, BioShock Infinite. And the team can't seem to commit to decisions, so the main character is simply "The Hero" rather than someone with a name or even a gender.
The story tackles the challenges that come with one auteur creative leader running a project, the loss of confidence that everyone has from time to time and the struggles of making a game work as well for a player as it does in a designer's head.
"[We want to] make it interesting to people who do have a passing interest in the process of making games," says Alexander. "People who consider themselves armchair designers or just have followed the development of games and wondered, 'Well, why was this game delayed?' and espouse theories about it. You know, just to kind of open that satirical door a little bit and say, 'Here are some reasons.'"
Part of the problem
According to Thomas, The Magic Circle isn't about any specific game or person in the real world. It's not a tell-all disguised as a game or a way to criticize someone who upset him. He says it's not about Irrational head Ken Levine, as some have speculated, and the game doesn't use real-world examples; even game industry conference E3 appears in the game as "E4." Instead the game is about the process of making high-end games — with "stylized versions of experiences all of us have had across the many studios we've worked for."
As part of that, Thomas doesn't want the game to come across as though he, Alexander and Shin aren't taking any of the blame upon themselves. Thomas says they put every part of the game's story through a filter, only keeping those experiences they personally have been guilty of.
"The way that we have attempted to keep ourselves honest is that most of the failings described among the dev team characters, we've lived," says Thomas. "You know, we've been responsible for. We've participated in."
Giving examples of his own mistakes to show that he's been part of the kinds of problems the game describes, Thomas says some of his biggest regrets come from his time working on BioShock 2.
"BioShock 2 is definitely where I earned my right to pen a script about failure," he laughs. "Because, while the game did fine and I'm still proud of what we made in the time we had, there were many, many things I wanted that didn't happen, many, many regrets I had, certainly, about the way that I managed as a rookie director. And if I imagine that multiplied over 20 years, it gets to a comic place."
"BioShock 2 is definitely where I earned my right to pen a script about failure."
"I was told at the beginning of BioShock 2 that I — despite what I wanted — I had to do the game in Rapture [the same setting as the original BioShock]," says Thomas. "And I have regretted ever since not fighting harder [against that]. Because at the end of the day, I strongly believe we would have continued to work on the game until it was done, regardless of what we were being told at the time."
Thomas says one of his biggest flaws is his eagerness to make decisions to solve problems in the moment, even if it might not be the best for a project in the long term.
"I wanted to show that this amazing team I had put together could make something that was good anyway, despite a major constraint being dictated like [taking place in Rapture from the start]," he says. "But I really should have fought that one. And I believe that I probably could have won."
Another personal flaw Thomas points to is taking too long to let go of something that's not working. On BioShock 2, he pushed for a Silent Hill-style dream sequence set in Rapture that players responded to poorly because it took away their powers. "And I just would not let it go," says Thomas. "It cost a lot of resources." The team eventually cut it.
"When I look back, there are a lot of things I would change, both in cases where I should have fought harder, because people were expecting me to, and cases where I held on way, way, way too long."
Humor, therapy and education
Playing The Magic Circle, it quickly becomes clear that the gameplay takes place in the fictional prototype, and the story takes place in the audio commentary from the fictional developers you can hear in the background. What's not clear up-front is whether the game takes its story seriously. Early on, it plays the development commentary for jokes.
As the game goes on, though, it starts to become more about the characters and their concerns with the fictional game's progress. Thomas, Alexander and Shin say that Question is tackling the subject in part for the humor, in part to give players a better understanding of game development and in part for the therapeutic side of doing something new and voicing creative frustrations.
"It's definitely not therapy of the 'tell me about your mother' type, where I need to air grievances," says Thomas. "Because the truth is that I have not been wronged on the scale where I feel I have claim to that. I went through lots of pretty terrible crap at companies, but I believe that they would be true of other industries, A, and I believe that I was complicit in remaining there as long as I did, B.
"So, putting that aside ... it's therapeutic in that there's a designer and a writer that live in my head, and they actually wanna throttle each other on a daily basis. And the idea of letting those voices be embodied by different characters — it's liberating. So that side of it I enjoy a lot, and I do think it helps a little bit in that I can at least talk about the horrible things they say about each other."
"Every single day I wonder how much of this game is strangely osmotic with journalism."
Ultimately, Thomas says, the game isn't designed as a college course and intentionally doesn't stick all the details, but in broad terms it may help to explain some ways that game development is harder than it seems.
"Every single day I wonder how much of this game is strangely osmotic with journalism," he says. "I hope that people who know very little about the game industry will come out the other side knowing more of what it might be like to make one."
Lizard brain massage
Despite Question's various goals for The Magic Circle, Thomas says the most important thing for the team is to work on something new. Something different from BioShock.
"I think we're primarily motivated by a desire for danger to an extent," he says. "We deliberately departed, almost 100%, from at least the narrative comfort zone that we've been in for years. Systems-wise, certainly we can't rely on murder as the kind of like lizard brain massage that will [satisfy] a player who has become frustrated trying to engage with the other systems."
He points out that Question's name wasn't chosen by accident — "there's a lot we're leaving unsaid" — and that the team's next game "will probably be radically unlike The Magic Circle."
For now, though, the team members have a lot of work ahead polishing, play testing and finishing the game. And they're well aware of the potential reaction if the game's development drags on, mirroring the issues they discuss in the game.
It would be poetic, perhaps, but as they've said all along, they're just as guilty of these faults as anyone.