#548: ‘Mage’s Tale’ Lead Designer on RPG Character Progression & Gameplay Mechanics

David-RogersOculus premiered about a dozen games ahead of GDC this year, and one that stood out to me was Mage’s Tale dungeon crawler for it’s distinct art style and passion in using VR to fulfill childhood fantasies of becoming a spell-casting magician. Mage’s Tale is an action RPG dungeon crawler where you search for dozens of different potion ingredients to create over 100 different spells, and then battle enemies with variations of your fire, ice, wind, and lightening spells. I talked with the lead designer David Rogers about some of the core gameplay mechanics driving Mage’s Tale, how they inspire exploration by hiding potions off of the critical path, as well as the tradeoffs between the choices you have to make while progressing your character.


Mage’s Tale was released on June 20th, 2017 as an Oculus exclusive, but will be eventually released on other platforms as well.

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Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.412] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. My name is Kent Bye, and welcome to the Voices of VR podcast. So just ahead of GDC this year, Oculus showed about a dozen games that were going to be released later in the year. And one of those games was called Mage's Tale, which just came out today, June 20th, 2017. And it's an action RPG dungeon crawler game where you're spellcasting these different spells against the enemies, and you're able to explore these different dungeons and find secret potions. combine these ingredients to create new spells. So I had a chance to talk to the lead designer of David Rogers, and he is super passionate about these different gameplay mechanics, and at the heart of it, being able to create these virtual worlds and experiences that are able to fulfill his fantasies from his childhood imagination. So this interview with David happened at the Oculus event ahead of GDC this year in San Francisco, California on Sunday, February 26, 2017. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:01:12.958] David Rogers: I'm David Rogers, the lead designer for Mage's Tale in Exile. So Mage's Tale is a VR action RPG set in the fantasy world of The Bard's Tale. You're an apprentice mage and your master's just been kidnapped. It's up to you to delve through dungeons, master the arcane arts, defeat enemies, and ultimately save your master. You use the Oculus Touch in order to sling spells, block attacks, and solve puzzles. You collect mystic ingredients in order to craft literally hundreds of spell combinations. And you're delving through 10 dungeons in an over 10-hour long gaming experience, ultimately culminating in a boss battle where you save your master, hopefully, if you're any good.

[00:01:52.614] Kent Bye: Wow. So it seems like you're combining a number of different things here with a dungeon crawler, but also there's a lot of different other elements as well as action RPG. Maybe you could talk a bit of all the different dimensions that you're trying to combine here in this experience.

[00:02:05.718] David Rogers: Sure, yeah. So InXile has a really illustrious history of being an RPG company. We put out Wasteland 2, we just finished a fig campaign for Wasteland 3, we're coming out with Torment Tides of Numenair in like two days, and we're currently working on The Bard's Tale. We love RPGs and so we wanted to bring the RPG to VR, because it seems like such a natural fit. Like, we came up with the Bard's Tale series, and we're trying to herald the return of dungeon crawls. And, you know, it started on graph paper, and then it moved to 2D with, like, the Bard's Tale, and then 3D with games like Grimrock. And now we're putting you in the dungeon, and we feel it makes every element of it just so much more amplified. Monsters are just more intimidating. All those emotions, like claustrophobia, like, just get amplified when you're in the dungeon. Your spatial awareness goes through the roof. So, like, thinking of a classic dungeon crawler, you might turn to the left and see a brick, and you just press brick, and then, like, a wall opens. Now we can get you looking, like, in and around and under things, solving puzzles in these really intimate ways using your hands. And then combat is just super action-oriented, super fast, but it all ties into those RPG elements. So, and when I say RPG elements, you can level up, you can get additional health, unlock new gloves, you can open new spell slots, you can gain unlocks for your shields, and you can grow in all these cool ways. But the other way it's an RPG, and this is one of our real pillars, is spellcrafting. As you find all these puzzles that we've just hidden all over the place, and you can miss them, be sure. We don't put stuff on the critical path. You need to actually explore the dungeon to find all the crafting ingredients. And as you find them, you can take them back to your wizard's lab and you can craft spells. So you might have a fireball, but you could craft it into something so much more powerful. And that's really how you gain in power in terms of damage output. and like crowd control and all these other utilities. I can take a fireball and I can make it a triple shotting fireball that rebounds off walls and doubles damage each time it bounces and seeks enemies and is like rainbow colored and explodes with confetti whenever it hits somebody. The options are, I'm not gonna say limitless, but hundreds, like literally hundreds. You can do guided ice javelins, you can do polymorphing wind blasts, you can do mind laying lightning bolts. Like it's so much fun. I've been playing through it. just doing balance testing, and I can't get myself out of it. I've been really enjoying it.

[00:04:18.540] Kent Bye: Yeah, I think one of the striking things about this experience was just the art as well as the aesthetics that you have here. And so maybe you could talk a bit about creating the environments that you're exploring here and some of the design intentions that you're having there.

[00:04:31.667] David Rogers: Yeah, so like something I said earlier is one of the things that I think is a hallmark of the dungeon crawl is this sort of claustrophobic like dark dank experience where everything is sort of falling apart around you and we use that in combination with VR to like are there little chunks of the wall missing and you can reach in and find a health potion we hid there Or are there parts of the dungeon you can literally destroy to open up new routes and new secrets that you couldn't find before? We have the player over the course of our 10 dungeons going through three different, we call them tile sets, but they're kind of like dungeon styles. So we have the sewers of Skara Brae, which are very wet and they look amazing, like you said. You saw like the water dripping down the walls and like the waterfalls coming out of pipes. We have a lot of like play with like water levels and things like that. And then you go through what we call the crypt set, where you're delving through these ornate ancient crypts of lost kings. And then lastly, we have this very Giger-esque, these living dungeons of the Charn, which are this ancient evil race. And they almost grew their dungeon to their own needs. And we make the player really participate in sort of their evil acts. Like to open a door, there's a squishy eyeball there, and you have to poke it in order to open the door, and there's a squish sound, and you sort of, you have to be a party to their evil a little bit, and it really puts you in this uncomfortable spot that makes it really immersive. And our art team is amazing. I was like a mission statement. We said, we want to make the best looking VR game we can possibly manage. And then mission two was making it run properly. Well, and then we did. Like you saw there, it ran 90 frames per second, and it was butter smooth. But that's always been a real pillar for us internally. is we want to make something that feels like a AAA-quality VR title, rather than going hyper-stylized in order to make sure we can hit our framerate needs.

[00:06:13.154] Kent Bye: Maybe you could talk a little bit more about the mechanics that you felt were satisfying to do in VR. I got a chance to throw and block things, so you have this ability to use the touch controllers, but I'm curious to hear some of the other mechanics that you felt were a satisfying kind of interaction.

[00:06:29.344] David Rogers: Yeah, so just talking on spellcasting, when we were looking at what spells we wanted to do, we basically started with what postures make you feel powerful? Like when you were a 10-year-old kid playing in your backyard, If you were playing Wizard, what would you do? And so we started like, if you're doing Wind Blast, you need to pose like that because of how we make the spell leave your hand and how you aim it. And if you're doing Ice Javelin, we wrote code to make sure you actually had to throw it like a javelin. If you throw it sideways or weird, it'll limply fall out of your hands. You need to align it properly and get a good heft and really huck it. And then when it comes to, we call them non-essential fun items, but they're absolutely essential. There's these little items that you get to play with. So we have horns and you can pick them up and if you put them to your mouth, they'll blow like the horn of Gondor. I found, which I never really expected, I think I could play a whole game just about eating food. You know, like the act of like drinking, like you have health potions and you put them to your lips and you tip it up and then you, that's how you consume the health potion. That's also how you get back to the main menu and like interact with the pause menu. We have these magic mushrooms you can eat that do exactly what you think they do, and you actually have to put them in your mouth. And that was something I never really expected, but as soon as I discovered how satisfying that was, I just wanted to fit it wherever I could. There's also some really nice interactions. You can pick objects up and throw them, and that's something everyone's familiar with, but we've also played around with just how objects interact with your hands as you just waft them through the world. So there's like objects on ropes and you just, you don't have to grab them, but your hand being there will just push them to the side and they sway gently. Or in the mage's lab, we have lazy Susans that you just sort of pass your hand by and they go spinning and it's actually very gratifying and you find people just like getting them going really fast and it becomes this little toy. It's a toy within a toy.

[00:08:11.404] Kent Bye: Yeah, and it seems like, you know, there's some puzzles, and it was mostly around, you know, finding an object and then, you know, putting it into the right spot. But as you're thinking about this as a 10-hour experience, I'm curious to hear, from a design perspective, how you do this game progression of increasing the difficulty of these puzzles.

[00:08:28.652] David Rogers: So it's all about building that consistent language with the player. And so you played level 1. And so we taught you, sometimes objects go in other objects and that was like that really basic lesson and from then on out you're thinking okay I know I can do that and I'm looking for opportunities to put a gem in a statue or to put like something on a pedestal but as we sort of scale that complexity we start asking you what goes in this statue or do you have to like somehow discover the statue this goes in that's like a really simple example like a much later puzzle we have for instance that uses that same mechanic and we have plenty of them I'll go over a few was, I know I can insert things into other things, but we introduce a magic mouth, and he gives you a riddle, and the riddle very, like, sort of vaguely and esoterically tells you what order you should be putting these little statues on these pedestals in, and it's a mind game. You know how to insert objects into other objects, but now you have to solve a very literal riddle, and it feels like an old D&D campaign, which is another note we were really trying to hit. When it comes to other puzzles, there's a lot of really classic stuff that has to do with your spells. You're a wizard, so you interact with the world first and foremost with your spells. So you're going to run into a lot of circumstances where you're going to find there's a torch, and if I light it, turns out it opens a secret door. But later, there's a torch with a water spout pouring over it. How can I light the torch if there's water over it? Well, my ice freezes water, so I can start there, and then I can light the torch. And now the statue's in the wrong position. Well, my wind blast can blow the torch, and my ice can stop the water, and my fireball can light the torch, and you can see sort of how that would scale up. And so, how can your spells interact with the world? And lastly, there's combat. And combat is a puzzle. So like the clearest example of that is there's these shield-wielding enemies and they can't be attacked from the front. So how do I hurt someone if I can't throw something directly at them? Well, can I build a bouncing fireball and I can ricochet it off a wall and hit them in the back? Or can I build a guided ice javelin and fly it around the room and hit them in the back? Or can I use wind blast to knock them over and then freeze them solid when they're on the ground?

[00:10:21.302] Kent Bye: Can you talk about some of the different, let's say, character archetypes that you have? Because you have a number of different choices that you are making. So, you know, what are the different type of paths that you could create to really optimize the different types of styles to play the game?

[00:10:34.685] David Rogers: Sure, so you're a wizard, or you're a mage, first and foremost, so you're going to do mage stuff. There's no warrior, there's no rogue, but being a mage is pretty rad, so I'm not going to knock it. When it comes to what kind of player archetype you form, part of that's expressed in how you level up. Every time you level up, we present you with two options, and you choose one of them. And so clearly, like early on, am I going to go really tanky? Am I going to try and be a glass cannon with spell recharge? Should I get the shield unlock or should I unlock the extra spell slot? How am I going to customize my playstyle? The other big element, and this is probably where your archetype really comes out and where your player preference comes out, is what kind of spells am I going to launch? Am I going to do really long cooldown, high damage spells? Am I going to concentrate on crowd control? Maybe I take it slow and easy, but I'm really locking enemies down as I go. How am I managing these crowds? And that's really heavily influenced by how much you explore. Again, like all those spell reagents that we talked about, virtually none of them are on the critical path. You have to explore to find them. So if you and your friend are talking about that mage tale session you both played last night, you're probably going to have very different experiences, because he probably found a totally different secret than you did, because we hide them on purpose. For you to feel clever about finding a secret, it needs to be hidden, and you need to take ownership over finding it. You need to feel like, I think I found something that I bet someone else didn't. And then you find these unlockable mystic ingredients, and then it's how do you use them.

[00:11:51.588] Kent Bye: Yeah, and it sounds like as you're moving forward that they start to have, the first level seemed to be pretty linear, but I imagine that as you go further there's going to be a little bit more of like sprawling dungeons in all different directions and potentially even different levels. Maybe you can talk about that, how they become more and more complex of these different levels.

[00:12:08.208] David Rogers: So we certainly have a couple of styles. The first dungeon, we have to teach you how to play the game, so we kind of move you in this little linear fashion. But there are some hidden rooms that even you didn't find, and some hidden puzzles that you didn't quite hone in on. And so even in the first level, there's something to go back to, because you probably missed it. And we hit a couple of notes. We have some levels that are purposefully labyrinthine. They're hard to find your way around. You get lost, and we want you to get lost. That's part of the fun. You have to find those points of interest and figure out how to orient yourself. We have others that hub, like there's a central hub that you would stay at. and then you branch off into these different sort of challenge corridors and then you come back in order to unlock like a final secret room. And so we try to keep things beyond the first level, things really start to open up. But the first level, we really want to make sure you know how to play the game before we let you loose and get you like really daunted by what could be a really challenging experience otherwise.

[00:12:55.515] Kent Bye: Great. So what do you want to experience in VR?

[00:12:59.615] David Rogers: So those experiences you imagined when you were a kid, We're sort of in a position now in VR where we can make all those imaginary play experiences real and with better graphics. And so I love stepping into the shoes of, I personally like flight, and so any game that gives me the gift of flight, I usually really gravitate towards. I also love the sense of being a deity or a god and dealing with miniature people and bending them to my whim. And so I think the ones that let me do all the things I did as a kid. That's the vaguest answer I can give, but it's also the most all-encompassing. It's just fantasy realization.

[00:13:35.692] Kent Bye: And so finally, what do you think is the ultimate potential of virtual reality, and what am I be able to enable?

[00:13:43.417] David Rogers: Oh, that's a deep question. You're asking me to tell the future. I'll just say, I think there's a lot of ways it can go. I think augmented reality has a lot of potential, naturally. I mean, you can imagine a game like Mage's Tale, but you were playing it in a park, and the goblin jumped out of an actual tree, and your friend was next to you participating. Like, that's a natural way it can go. You go multiplayer, you go augmented. We're not quite there yet, but I think there's so much potential. And I think as the community grows, and the player base gets bigger, I think multiplayer and shared experiences, where like, I'm standing next to my friend in virtual reality, All my friends sadly live in other states, but I still love playing games with them. And so I would love to see an experience where I could see a realized representation of him and we had a little better body tracking. maybe there's like depth sensors so I can see their movements and gesticulations a little bit more clearly, but to be able to stand next to my friends and participate in multiplayer experiences, which have a lot of value. Now, we purposefully didn't go multiplayer because we wanted to make sure we just nailed a single-player game, and we wanted to make sure our combat system was built to fight the enemies we built, and it was very tailored to that experience. But I think that's a direction that I see a lot of promise in.

[00:14:49.902] Kent Bye: Awesome. Well, thank you so much.

[00:14:51.322] David Rogers: Cool. Thank you very much. I appreciate it.

[00:14:53.407] Kent Bye: So that was David Rogers. He's the lead designer for Mage's Tale. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that, first of all, when you look at the four elements, when I'm looking at the different types of presence that you get into these different games, I think this game in particular is really focused on the fire element. That's the expression of your agency and exploration, looking around and searching for these different potions. as well as the air element which is making choices, solving puzzles, doing higher level strategy, and so those are the main core of this game. The embodiment isn't as much. Now if they would have had like a melee component with like swords where you can do close combat that would be a little bit more embodied but you're throwing spells and you know you're blocking them and so there's a level of embodiment there but it's not as much of the focus as the decisions and strategies of deciding what spells to cast and kind of exploring around. And then the water element in terms of the story is, I think, kind of, you know, just as what you might expect with one of these traditional dungeon crawlers. So I just played through the first level at GDC and just read through some of the reviews, watched some of the gameplay footage, and kind of matched with what I remembered of this game, which I think one of the other interesting parts of this was just the locomotion method such that you kind of have these discrete little steps that you're taking and you can explore around and you're kind of teleporting but it's not like a free ranging locomotion which you can lose that sense of place presence and being embodied into a place when you're teleporting around. But the other thing is that the environment that you're in is super gorgeous and I think you can tell that they actually put a lot of time and energy into creating this world and creating the feeling and vibe of these different dungeons. The other interesting component about the trajectory of this game is that you are making different decisions along the way to decide these different various trade-offs. And I think that I got a lot out of being able to talk to the lead game designer about some of these choices and variations. When you're in the midst of playing a game like this just in the first level, it's hard for me to really kind of know the impact of these choices unless you play it all the way through and play all the different variations. So just the other thing that I remembered from this interview was just the passion and excitement that David had about being able to create this specific experience. And it was clear that they just had a lot of fun with experimenting and trying to come up with things that they just wanted to experience in VR. And you have these different elements where you have fire, water, air and earth. So the different Spells, the fire element is shooting fire. The water element is you're shooting frozen water, you're shooting ice. The air element is shooting wind. And then the final is lightning, which could arguably be either earth or fire, but it's probably more on the fire realm. So those are the different elements that you're also using within the game and being able to combine and explore around, find the potions and create different variations of these. And the other thing was just this idea of fantasy fulfillment of having your childhood imaginations of the things that they wanted to be able to do, and then actually going into VR and seeing what that felt like. And I could tell that this game had a lot of that embedded into it was just like this exploration of what would it be like to be a wizard or a mage in this dungeon crawler exploration type of environment. So Major's Tale just got released today. It's Oculus exclusive for now, but I think at some point they may be releasing it on other platforms as well. So that's all that I have for today. If you would like to express your agency and make choices. Then you could do a couple of things. You could use your power of your words and your mind to communicate to other human beings about what I'm doing with the Voices of VR podcast. Or you could take action and go to patreon.com slash Voices of VR, enter in all the information and make a commitment to sending me a few dollars a month. That would be super rad. Just go to patreon.com slash Voices of VR and donate today. Thanks for listening.

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