Ice, Ice, Earth, Earth, Earth: The Open Toolbox in Magicka
In a classic adventure game, the main character starts out almost helpless and must earn his way to strength. He battles monsters to gain experience, sells loot to buy better weapons, solves puzzles to obtain power-ups, and completes quests to unlock abilities. By the time the player meets the final boss, a villain who once seemed invincible, the protagonist is prepared to take him on. Sometimes, as in Paper Mario, the two may have even battled at the beginning of the game, the main character’s first inevitable defeat making the final victory all the sweeter.
Many strategy games follow a similar arc. The player initially controls a tiny piece of territory with low technology, a pitiful military, and a bare-bones economy. As he gathers resources, expands his holdings, and devotes time to research, he gains access to improved units, better buildings, and sometimes special abilities. By the end of the game, he controls a vast and mighty empire, poised to destroy any and all opposition.
Of course, this is not the model for all games. For instance, the difference between Mario at the start and end of most of his early adventures is quite small. But Mario doesn’t have a lot of gadgets or abilities; his toolbox is quite limited. In fighting games, on the other hand, characters generally have access to a huge variety of techniques at all times. Even if there is something that unlocks a special power, like the title gems of Power Stone or the Smash Ball of Super Smash Bros. Brawl, that just adds one temporary possibility to the character’s sprawling array of existing moves. I term such a situation, where the vast majority of powers are immediately accessible, the open toolbox. Contrast this with the restricted toolbox, where the player gradually unlocks abilities over the course of a game.
An open toolbox emphasizes the skill of the real-world player, while a restricted toolbox highlights the power of the in-game character. A master of Street Fighter will defeat a novice every time, whereas a mediocre player with level 100 Pokemon stands an excellent chance against a much better trainer whose team is only level 50. Only a talented strategist can win a Total War campaign on Very Hard, while only a hacker can defeat Bowser on the first encounter in Paper Mario.
The open and restricted toolboxes are not mutually exclusive. A player’s grasp over the abstract complexities of a restricted system will improve in parallel to the increasing power of his character. Likewise, even games with an open toolbox often reward long-term play, for example with unlockable weapons in the Soul Calibur series. In Arrowhead’s Magicka, the player discovers spellbooks with unique “Magicks” hidden around the world. Usually these are a reward for exploration, though some are clearly on the expected path, while others are necessary to continue through the game.
What makes Magicka interesting is that it’s an adventure game or RPG with an open toolbox. Those genres traditionally stick to the restricted version, but Arrowhead has changed the formula to good effect. The found spellbooks do contain a few extra abilities, but they pale compared to the vast palette of powers available from the very beginning.
The characters have access to eight primary elements, plus a couple secondary ones. Any spell can contain up to five of these in almost any combination, including duplicates. Once the elements are determined, the player can cast a personal, weapon-focused, targeted, or area-effect version of the spell, and often can charge the spell up or release it right away. There are also some combos, like lightning damage being increased against wet foes. Multiply all that by four, the number of players who can join the same adventure, and the resulting possibilities for spells on screen are mind-boggling, even before you add in the unlockable Magicks.
This could be seen as a negative; an open toolbox can be overwhelming. For players who aren’t comfortable with experimenting, either because they want to practice a known optimal strategy or because they want the game’s system to be introduced more gradually, this can be a serious problem. The open toolbox also sacrifices a sense of progression. There can be pleasure in comparing your end-game character, or empire, to the version you had at the start, but only if the difference is significant.
There are also issues of handling player skill. Since the main vector of improvement lies with the unknown player, not the designed character, it can be harder to craft an appropriate challenge arc. Likewise, a player who beats the game may not want to restart, since the beginning will be easy and dull. A simple difficulty setting can help, but can also be frustrating: smarter players want to face smarter enemies, not just more numerous or powerful ones. In a similar vein, an open toolbox magnifies imbalances between human players, since greater experience with the system provides such a huge advantage.
Despite these drawbacks, there are many reasons to employ the open toolbox. Gaining skill as a player is far more satisfying than having your character gain power. While it’s fun to watch numbers go up, it’s even better to feel yourself improving at a task. The open toolbox encourages experimentation and creativity; there are so many options that you want to explore them all. This adds to a sense of agency. Picking a new Pokemon move is exciting in its own way, but discovering a powerful combination in Magicka makes you feel like a genius.
The sheer variety of possibilities is empowering as well. In a spellcasting game like Magicka, it helps the player imagine he’s really a wizard, with the forces of the natural world at his fingertips. The open toolbox also adds to the experience of sharing your discoveries with friends. In games with a restricted toolbox, most players will follow a similar path, gaining the same powers or at least being aware of everything that’s available. Since there’s a real opportunity for experimentation and discovery in open toolbox games, you can genuinely surprise your friends with the cool stuff you managed to figure out.
Not every game should have an open toolbox. A sense of progression can be critical to pacing and the player’s enjoyment, and the peeling back of restrictive layers is a time-tested technique of both game and narrative design. The open toolbox requires trust, dedication, and a willingness to experiment on the part of the player. But Magicka shows us that the concept can work in unexpected places, and proves that the process of discovering and honing new abilities is truly something special. No matter the type of game you’re making, at least give the open toolbox some serious thought. It can lead to truly innovative gameplay.