The Magic Circle is an essentially finished game about the tortured development of a notoriously unfinished game. Last week, developer Question launched the game in Early Access, Steam's storefront for unfinished games. While that could be construed as a clever joke, Question co-founders Jordan Thomas and Stephen Alexander told GamesIndustry.biz this week that was just a bonus.
"We're really happy with the Early Access experience, and we recommend it," Thomas said. "A short period, even with a narratively heavy game, has been a benefit to us. And I haven't heard anybody say that before."
"We have a chemistry set of game design, and we knew they were going to find ways to make it explode. We just didn't know some of them would be so clever."
The Magic Circle is a systems-heavy game, or as Thomas explained it, an immersive sim like Thief or BioShock, but without the straight-forward shooting/slashing path. As players explore The Magic Circle, they can reach into the denizens' AI, altering their logic and behavior to create their own solutions to the game's problems.
"We have a chemistry set of game design, and we knew they were going to find ways to make it explode," Thomas said. "We just didn't know some of them would be so clever."
While they did a round of proper QA testing with The Research Centaur (The Behemoth's San Diego-based test lab-for-hire), Alexander said they didn't have the budget to have them thoroughly test the limits of the systems-driven gameplay. The Research Centaur QA was just to make sure the critical bugs that would seriously damage players' experiences were out of the way, so if they did break the game, they would at least understand why and how. Fortunately, a group of Early Access players took over where the pros left off.
"Having people who are willing to basically be your QA and actually take pleasure in it has been sort of amazing," Alexander said. "That people have leapt forward to do that and have really reveled in it has been a great surprise, and I really can't thank them enough."
Thomas added, "And it reminds you of the stigma that has been associated with gamers over 2014, especially, that there's an opposite end to that. There's a desire to solve problems and a nobility that can emerge."
"That people have leapt forward to do [QA through Early Access] and have really reveled in it has been a great surprise, and I really can't thank them enough."
While QA pros might chafe at the idea of losing out on a paycheck to the volunteerism of customers, Thomas said there wasn't much to lose out on.
"QA professionals for the most part aren't missing out on that sweet income they would get from us," Thomas said. "It would be awkward half-smiles and Steam codes to a game they're already sick of."
If anything, the process of making The Magic Circle has only given Thomas and Alexander a deeper appreciation of developers outside their core disciplines (design in Thomas' case, art in Alexander's). Thomas said he didn't have enough perspective on the game yet to come up with a proper post-mortem, but one takeaway he's sure of is just how much they contribute.
"We did underestimate the amount of work that everyone else outside of our discipline had done in our pampered AAA history," Thomas said, alluding to the developers' time working on games like BioShock and BioShock Infinite. "I have just tenfold respect for every producer, every QA tester, every technical specialist who would come in to bring up the frame rate at the last second. All of those people were near invisible, honestly, in my average day, but here we're doing all of those jobs part-time, and I look back with gratitude."
That actually led directly to some significant issues with the game's scope. When Alexander and Thomas first started working on The Magic Circle, they thought they'd be able to handle more of the programming and audio chores themselves. Instead, they wound up, in Thomas' words, "pretty doomed," heading for exactly the same sort of development hell they were supposed to be skewering with the game. They eventually rescued themselves by bringing audio director Patrick Balthrop and programmer Kain Shin on board.
"That part did not go according to plan," Thomas said. "We overestimated what the two of us could do as programmers, especially. And definitely as sound designers. But those two guys showed up to save us from ourselves."
"There's an advantage to the self-made myth, right? If you can make it seem like you risked more than other people, you suffered more than other people, there's a certain romance to that and it will get you more ink."
Despite the change in development, both Alexander and Thomas said they were fairly calm during the game's actual creation. Thomas said a graph of his anxiety over the course of The Magic Circle development would look like "a giant pit with a flat bottom," the peaks happening now--with the game nearing its proper release and their next steps depending on how it performs financially--and when they first made the decision to go indie.
"The will to detach from the mothership that I had been part of for so long, I didn't know if my brain would even adapt to this mode of life," Thomas said. "There was a tremendous amount of anxiety associated with that. And just talking to my wife about how this would affect our lives for the next two years... it was a huge ask. Whatever happens to the Magic Circle, we owe them an inestimable amount, because they said yes, ok, we'll support you through this. It's tectonic for us."
Alexander agreed, saying, "Obviously this is completely impossible for me without the support of my significant other. She supported this idea, she wanted it to happen, and she has never once said anything to discourage it, which is sort of heroic in my mind, because she's been carrying me literally now for two years. I'm sorry, maybe not literally. [laughs] But I feel so indebted and so grateful that I should mention it every time I can, because it's just impossible for us without it."
It's common for developers to thank their families, but considerably less so to admit they've been financially reliant on them.
"There's an advantage to the self-made myth, right? If you can make it seem like you risked more than other people, you suffered more than other people, there's a certain romance to that and it will get you more ink," Thomas said. "So there's definitely a lot of developers out there who conceal the cost, not just in indie, in AAA too... Maybe 2015 has made us a little more aware of privilege, frankly, and more likely to disclose that up front. Because here we are, being compared against many other independent games, right? And the reason we have a professional voice cast who bring 500 percent more than we could have done with text or amateurs to our project, is all because of that privilege. And it just feels wrong to conceal that, somehow, in addition to just wanting to show gratitude."