Interview with Maticolotto - creator of Magic Research
We sat down for an exclusive interview with Maticolotto - creator of a popular new game Magic Research. Gain unique insights into his creative process and the road to crafting a great game.
Our goal with these interview segments is to promote indie developers and their games - and to give our readers a glimpse into the creation of the games we have all come to love! To that end, we’re starting a new series of spotlight interviews, and Maticolotto is our first subject!
Our hope is to highlight the creativity and innovation of indie game developers like you, and to showcase the hard work and dedication that goes into making these games. Thanks for joining us today!
Thank you for thinking about me and Magic Research for this series of interviews! Nice to meet you and happy to answer any questions you may have
Awesome. First things first, would you like to introduce your game, as well as the platforms it is available on?
Sure thing! Magic Research is an incremental game where you are the headmaster of a newly created school of magic, with the goal of leading the school to win the prestigious Tournament of Magic - a competition between magical institutions. On the way there, you do research on a lot of different kinds of magic, and discover over 100 spells, dozens of side stories, several game features, and much more. What adventures await you on the way?
Magic Research is available both on Steam for PC as well as for Android and iOS on the App Stores. There is a free demo available on Steam, Android and on web (the free demo is not available for iOS, but the web demo should be playable from iOS devices, too) and the save data can be easily transferred from the demo to the full game.
And much more indeed - speaking from experience. Sank a good deal of time into the game myself, definitely one of my favorites in recent memory! Let's dive right into talking about the game. What gave you the idea for Magic Research?
So for a long time, I've always been very intrigued about the concept of magic that's portrayed on fantasy RPGs. Whenever I have the chance in one of those games, I always end up playing Wizard or any other similar spell-casting class. The idea of magic being able to essentially do almost anything you can conceive, with little limits, feels very creative and enticing to me. Together with that, I've been playing incremental (and other) games for a long time. One thing that didn't feel right with me is that there are really few games out there (in this genre) that are actually good. As I grew older and more busy and end up having less time, I became more critical of the games I played, and noticed that the majority of the games in this genre are just not too great - and it felt like there was room for another one. Because of those reasons, I decided to give it a try and see: how would a 'good' incremental game look like if the focus was around discovering a lot of different kinds of magic which could be used to do so many different things in the game, perhaps even 'everything'? That's what got me into prototyping Magic Research in the first place in my free time.
For a little bit it was just a few random thoughts for a game that I had put into a small app to play with, but I think something really clicked when I introduced Apprentices, which is a feature you unlock near the beginning of the game and is essentially the game's automation. The fact that you could get Apprentices to cast any spell, and that most of the things that you do are spells and therefore can be automated in that way, made it feel like an extra compelling feature. And I found myself wanting to continue working on and playing my own game over just playing other games in my free time. When I noticed that, I started thinking I might have something special in my hands, and it gave me the energy and motivation to continue working on it and eventually get it past the finish line.
I can certainly relate to seeing a lot these kinds of games out there that are not good. I will say, the discovery portion of the game did end up being implemented really well - Magic Research does a great job making sure that all the new things you find remain exciting!
Did you have an idea of exactly what you wanted the game to be when you started that process? Or did it just sort of snowball from that starting point?
No, I actually didn't have much of an idea at that point just yet. I kept implementing new features and adding stuff to the game as it felt right to do so, and I think what happened is that after I built Exploration I noticed that it was very possible to add more and more depth into it, which I did - and which ended shaping most of the game.
I did have some principles I wanted to try to follow as I designed and built the game: _ A constant sense of progression, where new content and unlocks happen periodically - there should never be a lapse of time too long where there isn't something new going on. _ Do not build a game that requires idling in order to make any meaningful progress. Base it around active play, and instead reward idling in a limited manner. (I think for this one, I ultimately failed, but I think it ended up okay anyway) _ Capture the joy of discovery - keep the player wanting to continue playing in order to discover new spells, things, features. At the same time, make those new discoveries have a clear, decisive, strong impact on how the game plays. _ Have a sense of ultimate goal and an ending. Unlike many idle and incremental games, I wanted to have a game with a concrete ending, and this ending should be achievable without extreme, months- or years-long playtimes. _ Create the possibility of synergies to be able to quickly or effectively make progress through the game. But do not make the game so difficult that they are required. _ If something is not fun while it is tested, rethink it and modify it until it becomes fun. \* Last, but not least: Do not design the game as a way to make income. Focus on making a good and enjoyable game and do not build in freemium or ads into the game.
But other than that no, no real solid idea
That actually brings us right to something else I had planned to ask you about - in a lot of ways, Magic Research isn't your typical incremental game. One of the only real criticisms I've seen is that 'for an idle / incremental, the idle portion leaves something to be desired,' e.g. 'too much micromanagement, not enough idle' - what are your thoughts on this?
I think a lot of it really depends how you decide to play the game. When I originally built Magic Research, I didn't want it to become a game where most of the progress happens by not playing the game. I feel that is a frustrating mechanic and doesn't really make a game more fun - I have limited time and that essentially means the game is not really respecting it. If my way to make progress is by not playing it and waiting 1 hour, or 1 day, it's not really a game I'd enjoy. So the game launched with much more expectation that you would be actively playing the game. It looked quite a bit different from how it does now. For example, Conjure Building didn't exist; Time Pieces were only able to be used to double the speed of the game, and for 10 time pieces per second, rather than the current 3; Smarter Apprentices wasn't a thing; the list goes on. I refused (I still do, actually) to call Magic Research an 'idle' game - I never use that word when referring to the game, and it is on purpose, because I do not see it as an idle game. What ended up happening is that I came to the realization that, inevitably, on a game that plays itself, this is going to be a valid and expected playstyle. So much of this ended up being patched in, and it was difficult because the game was not necessarily balanced around it. It's been one of the biggest learnings from building and releasing the game, and it's a difficult design challenge as I tried to continue abiding to that principle: how do you make the game compelling if you don't idle, but at the same time still make idling rewarding enough for those who play in that way?
If I think about it some more, perhaps one game that handles this really well is Factorio. You can just sit down and wait for your factory to produce 4 hours worth of items, but you can also continue actively playing the game and then get your factory to produce those items in half the time instead - and both are rewarding and valid ways of advancing. I don't think I quite got this in Magic Research. Conjure Building, for example, is good and I think the Time Pieces overall ended up alright. However, Research is still primarily earned by time passing (so you could get sizeable advantages by spending time just researching, especially your primary school), and people still want 'real offline progress' rather than just receiving Time Pieces, so I don't think the game really succeeded at this in either way. But I think in most cases, if you are somewhere in the middle, the game works out alright in the end.
Its funny how often Factorio comes up when I talk to developers of these types of games! Credit where credit is due - going back and rethinking core game mechanics like that, or moving forward without a fully fleshed out plan (like how you said the game evolved organically in your previous answer) is often cited as the most impossible way to develop a game! Another way Magic Research stands out among its peers is in the storylines. Going story heavy is a very unusual choice for this type of game. Was there some specific thought or theory behind making story beats the central component? By extension - is there somewhere that you drew inspiration from specifically for your storylines? I'd love to hear more about the process behind coming up with them - It must have been challenging to come up with so much!
I think the Storylines make up a good amount of the 'joy of discovery' piece. I notice that when I play video games, incremental or not, this factor is one of the things that I enjoy the most. I continue playing in order to see the new landscapes, enemies, challenges, and so on. I think the Storylines add a large amount of this background and lore, which is not really too possible to do in other ways in a game with little or no graphics. For what it's worth, though, I always thought the game's story (and Storylines) were both very casual. There are many things that don't make sense. It's actually not too difficult to come up with new Storylines, to be honest, because the majority of them are essentially side things and you can make up almost anything. The hardest part is finding a way to add in the reward in a way that it makes sense with the story, because rewards from Storylines in Magic Research often require retiring to activate. It has been... quite forced and I think in many cases didn't end up making much sense.
Coming up with a Storyline is fairly simple. Sometimes I start from the reward, i.e. there is a mechanic that is painful at this point in the game, can we make it better via something unlocked through a Storyline? Sometimes I start from the setting, i.e. I am building a new dungeon that is a forest, what could potentially happen in the forest? And then a few are simply 'I decided that you get a permanent reward of unlocking X when you clear this part of the Story, so since permanent rewards have to be Storylines, let's make a Storyline for it'
Writing it can be a little painful though!
Haha, yeah I think I may have noticed one or two instances that might have made you feel that way about forcing the implementation. Fortunately, it ends up just adding to the overall charm - sometimes the nonsensical stuff ends up being the most fun. You mentioned that you were playing Magic Research a good bit yourself. What part of the game do you think turned out best, or what part of your game do you find yourself most proud of?
Hmm, it's a good question...
Stumped! Too humble!
** GAME SPOILER AHEAD ** Some people disagree (especially at the beginning when it is very basic) but I find the Exploration mechanics very compelling. Another one that I like is the mastery bonuses. They grant a very strong power boost and really change the way many of the schools feel like. I guess a final third one is one of the buildings you unlock in the Temple of Darkness. (Not sure if you want to add a spoiler for it) The Dimensional Artifacts ended up feeling like a clever idea to me.
It's not really a coincidence that the game ended up becoming so heavily Exploration based when I didn't really have a plan. It just really lends itself to a lot of added depth very easily.
And while you may think 'oh, it's another auto battler' and think of all the other incremental F2P / freemium games that we have so many of, I think very, very few of them even get to a level of depth that is close to what it ends up having in Magic Research
It's not even really an original combat system. There are other games that already did this in the past. But they are very few.
Fair point. We'll be sure to add ample spoiler warnings. Magic Research does have surprisingly rewarding combat mechanics - especially given the genre it exists in. Theres a very unique blend of automation and active participation that feels very fresh for combat. How about the opposite? Is there anything that aren't happy with, or that you would have done differently in hindsight?
Yes. It's very obvious: The unlock mechanic for Storylines.
We talked earlier about this game not being too idle, but I don't think that's the game's biggest failure. I think it's the randomness inherent to Storylines. It adds a lot to player frustration, because Storylines are a big source of progress in the game since they are so powerful, and yet many of them happen at random and (until late in the game) you have no real means of influencing this, which leads to a lot of frustrating AFKing and hoping you get a certain Storyline.
To be honest, there's a few reasons why it turned out this way. The first reason is that I never saw those Storylines as required to make progress in the game. You can really get through a lot of the game with very few of those random Storylines activated, until you unlock Divination, which makes unlocking Storylines easier - and then the game slowly starts expecting that you complete them. The second reason is that I thought of those Storylines as another way to add lore and discovery to the game. If you play through the game without the explicit goal of unlocking a certain random Storyline (as the game was intended to be played at the beginning) then when you do find a random Storyline, it becomes a source of joy and wonder. Obviously, that's what I intended but not what actually ended up happening: people become aware of those bonuses and Storylines (either from completing Storylines and choosing one reward out of many, or from looking at a guide, or from looking at Stats, or from talking to others) and they start wanting to get those Storylines before making further progress in the game, which leads to frustration.
Overall, it has been a big lesson to me. Because of Divination being embedded into the game, it feels very difficult to fix at this point. But if I were to make the game again from scratch, I would drastically change this mechanic. I would probably still have random Storylines per dungeon or so, but I might make it something like 'you unlock 1 Storyline per dungeon per retirement' and 'the Storyline is guaranteed to trigger once you defeat 200~300 enemies in that dungeon' rather than have it be a random chance
Thats a tough transition. The more rewarding and unique the exploration becomes, the more challenging it becomes as a completionist. Every game is going to have its weak points. As far as biggest failures go, I think its fair to say that the positive far outweighs the negative here. The reception of Magic Research has been overwhelmingly positive - with a 9/10 on Steam and 4.65/5 on the Play Store. Was there any responses or feedback that you got that really resonated with you that you'd like to share? Or negative that you'd like to address/share?
Hmm, I think most of what I talked about reflects much of what people think of the game, especially the low points to be honest.
I've gotten some really positive responses. To be honest I've been extremely surprised at it and never thought the game would have this level of success. One of the latest ones: 'This is one of the best incremental idle games I've ever played. It's right up there with Realm Grinder and NGU Idle. This is a must have for anyone who is a fan of the genre.' I think a theme I see in many of the positive ones that I really agree with is the level of depth. The game intentionally keeps unlocking new things that change the game even when you think you have already seen everything. On the negative side, besides the things I already talked about, there's also been a few referencing the UI. However, most of this is old and has already been fixed or mitigated in one way or another, I think.
(Maticolotto shares the following Steam review as a review that he thought resonated with what his goals were with Magic Research)
'There something about incremental games that is unusual in its satisfaction. It's essentially just writing, 'I made progress,' over and over on a piece of paper. It's easy to to think that would make it easy to make, but I disagree and Magic Research is definitely 'one of the good ones.' There's a trope, often used for monetization, about exponential gain where you essentially just need to get over the next hump to proceed. Yes, Magic Research has a little of this, but it couples nicely with automation. This is an oddly active idle game, and a lot of the 'idle' parts of it comes with actively figuring out the strategy for automation. You don't just click a 'solve button' and go to sleep for sixteen hours. That's kind of my recommendation: the game does encourage you to walk way from it with how it handles 'offline' progress, and when it's open you are involved with it. The goal is rarely to simply get over a specific hump to make the numbers rise again, it's more layered than that. Restarting your progress is an important decision to make, one the game both encourages _and_ discourages. There are moments of lots of activity, and moments of thoughtful activity, and moments of idleness. In short, it works well and demonstrates this genre can do more than 'number go up.'
Wow yeah thats nail on the head for what you said you were going for.
Lets talk a little more about the nuts and bolts. Whats your preferred programming language for game development and whats your setup like? IDE? Frameworks/engine?
Of course, the biggest reason why I ended up using this is because it's a very similar tech stack to what I was using at work before
But to be honest, I don't think it was a bad decision - I don't regret it.
It's really helped me develop the game very quickly while solving a lot of problems.
That seems to be somewhere near the preferred stack these days! I've been playing with Vue w TS on vscode a lot lately myself. But taking that one step back - whats your background like in terms of programming / design / game development? Self taught? Formal education?
Formal education, but it's been a big mix of things. I learned programming on my own when I was about 10 or 11 years old. I studied computer engineering in college (5 years). Then afterwards I've worked as a software engineer for 9 years as a professional. In terms of game development and design: short of some classes in college, and playing with it a bit myself as a hobby or side projects, I don't have too much background. But I do play a lot of different kinds of games across a wide variety of genres, and I think that has helped expose me to a lot of creativity and variety which has helped me figure out what makes a good game.
Ah, so no formal experience developing videogames, though?
That's correct. Only as a hobby
Is Magic Research the first game you've made / worked on?
The first one I decide to release commercially or even to the public, yes. The rest were just smaller things that were never finished or that were never really intended to be released
It used to be something I just pick up on and off once every few years, usually with RPG Maker since it's so easy to make something that looks decent.
Oh man, RPG Maker - that takes me back. Do you think you'd ever want to try a different tech stack or formal game engine in future, or do you prefer the freedom of building something smaller from the ground up?
I think tech stacks and engines are tools to be used for a purpose. I feel flexible enough that I'm sure I can pick up anything if there is a tool that is better suited for what I want to accomplish, so yes - I would be entirely open to trying something different if it feels like it would give a substantial advantage
For Magic Research, I still feel going React Native was probably one of the best decisions I could have made in terms of tech stack, though, as it prioritized the right things (as I said before)
Do you feel that you learned a lot about game development from working on Magic Research? Any big takeaways?
I learned a big, big takeaway from it. If you're making a game, and you find yourself wanting to play the game for pleasure even though you are the one who made it: you most likely have something very special in your hands.
That's specifically about game development. I've learned (and am still learning) a lot of other things, too, both related to game development (I mentioned a few of those earlier in the interview, such as how people end up playing your game can differ from what you originally intended, for example) but also to adjacent things (publishing an app on Steam or the app stores, marketing it, how to drive revenue or sales, etc.; even how to make trailer videos!). To be honest it feels like since releasing the game on Android for the first time on late January, I've learned an overwhelming amount of things in just 4 months.
I'm sure you've got that right. Whats one of the biggest setbacks / bugs you encountered during working on this project? Or alternatively, what was something that ended up being much harder to implement than you initially intended?
Hmm... I think the worst part is people losing their save data. I've had a few bugs of this kind and it always makes me feel really sad.
Losing their save data, or otherwise something ending up corrupting it.
One example of a bad bug somewhat related to save data: At some point, I renamed a spell. It was called Soul Splice, and I renamed it to Soul Slicer following a suggestion. The problem is that I was using the spell name as an id / key (terrible practice). So when I did that, things like apprentice loadouts trying to look for that spell didn't end up finding it, which caused the game to crash on open (or other various failures). Thankfully I was able to fix that one.
Another example: I have a constant representing the initial value of the game state, and when you retire I reset part of the game state to this initial value. However, since I wasn't making a deep copy of it, when I made some optimizations to avoid deep copying the game state on every time tick, this initial value constant was getting overwritten, and retiring no longer worked properly - leading to really odd behavior and saves having wrong data.
Those are the errors that the newbies need to hear the software engineer talk about making!
One final example of a bug I haven't yet been able to fix, also related to saves: If you play the Steam demo, then buy the full game and start the full game without closing the demo, it will fail to open the save data from the demo (which is stored in the same location). But that also means it will not save because it's 'in use', and I have no way of knowing from within the game that it failed to open it. So you could import the save data from the demo by copying it from your clipboard, play for 2 hours, then turn off your PC, and it won't have saved
Is Magic Research 100% complete at this time? Do you have any plans for additional post-game content, re-release, porting, or anything like that? Q. Do you think you’ll continue to make games in this genre/similar games? Or continue to make games at all?
Magic Research is complete in terms of content. I don't have any plans to add any substantial content, but I'm not denying it either. I want to release Linux and Mac OS ports on Steam at some point, and potentially work on a few UI improvements, but otherwise that's most of it.
Do you have any current plans for a next project that you’d be willing to share?
It is a hard question. I enjoyed making Magic Research, so I would like to continue. It might continue being a side thing as it was for the development of Magic Research. I haven't really decided yet.
Do you have any current plans for a next project that you’d be willing to share?
I've begun prototyping some things that I've been wanting to try since releasing Magic Research (now that I finally feel like most of the urgent issues with the game are mitigated in some way), but it's super early. Here's a little screenshot. Too early to say if this will go anywhere.
Considering the experience you’ve accumulated now, do you have any advice for the developers out there just starting their first game, aspiring to someday find success similar to what you’ve achieved with Magic Research?
I have two tips.
The first one: Do not focus on game development as a career. It is not lucrative, and especially making your own game - you don't know how much you would even make from it. Instead, focus on getting a regular software development job, which pay quite well. The only reason why I was able to spend so much time building this game is because I had a good cushion from my real job that I felt that it was ok to spend my time on it. Having no real expectations or need for the game to make money in order to be able to survive made a big, big difference in how I could decide to build and monetize it and what I should be focusing on.
The second one: Make a game you would enjoy playing. As I mentioned before: if you make something that you find you want to play even though you were the one who made it (which means you know everything there is to know about it) it means you may have made something genuinely good and others may also think so, too.
Alright well I thank that just about wraps us up! Maticolotto, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us!
This has been incrementaldb.com here with Maticolotto, the creator of Magic Research, which is available on Steam, Android and iOS now. All links are available by clicking the game below. Maticolotto, thanks for taking the time to talk to us!