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Magic: Legends - Exclusive Interview With Executive Producer Stephen Ricossa

Joseph Bradford Posted:
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When Magic: Legends was first unveiled during The Game Awards last December, many fans were intrigued immediately. A MMO/Action RPG set in the Magic: the Gathering universe is instantly alluring to many fans of the card game and being able to live in the planes that make up the iconic settings had me instantly interested.

Since the reveal, we’ve seen more information come out such as the different Planeswalker classes you can choose to play as, as well as a glimpse at early gameplay. However, in addition to the Action RPG gameplay, Cryptic Studios, the team behind the upcoming game, has billed this as an MMO as well.

 

The MMO moniker nowadays has different meanings for many people. For some, an MMO has to be akin to the games we played in the late 90s/early 2000s such as Ultima or World of Warcraft. Survival games like Ark and Conan Exiles are sometimes lumped in the MMO world due to the multiplayer online components. However, Stephen Ricossa, Magic Legends’ executive producer, thinks MMO means very specific features for in a gaming experience.

“For me, I played MMOs before I was ever in the industry,” Stephen told us via a phone interview this week. “I saw that [an MMO] was a game with deep progression, where you’re unlocking stuff and playing with your friends or people you just met, online, and going on these kinds of large quests. Not necessarily quests, but adventures to unlock gear and progress your character.”

When we think traditional MMOs, we are constantly looking at games that have set camera angles and large skill bars, as well as tons of players in groups fighting enemies alongside each other. During the golden age of MMORPGs we were seeing massive 40 person raids, large PvP battles and more – and we still see those to a degree today. EVE Online is constantly setting records for PvP battles, and World of Warcraft still has massive raids for large groups to tackle in Battle for Azeroth. But they are becoming less and less the norm in more modern MMOs.

You’ve still got some raids in Final Fantasy XIV that are 24-person groups, but games like The Elder Scrolls Online maxes its Trials at 12-person groups. The size of regular questing groups in MMOs usually isn't very large either when you're just questing - usually it's 4-6 players in a single group during an instance.

 

 

Group size in Magic: Legends is something of a sticking point with some in the community as Legends has you grouping with two other Planeswalkers on your adventures. However, there is a good reason for this, and it comes down to balancing the Magic elements of the MMO.

“If you’re looking at most instances in most games you’re looking at five, maybe ten, or on the off-chance twenty [people in a group],’’ Ricossa told me. “You’re not seeing the 40-person raids as common anymore, right? We’re using the Cryptic Engine, we have missions that run 10, 20-people in Star Trek Online, we have 10-person missions in Neverwinter. But we were looking at what we want to do for the game, Magic is built on this paradigm of Five colors. We looked at it and we [could] allow five players and [the players] have one player for every color if that’s what they want. The downside of that is each color has a strength and a weakness that’s often balanced out by a difference color on the other side of the wheel. So, if we pick five then every weakness is covered and there’s not a lot of give or take. [W]e intentionally put it in three to let the color dynamic of Magic shine through. And while you may be picturing three adventurers in another game fighting and casting some spells, you’re also going to have a pretty large volume of summons if you want filling the screen and fighting with you. “

Stephen did leave this open as well, stating that if we get on the live servers and the feedback is such to boost this number, they are open to doing so.

The adherence to Magic’s roots is evident throughout the upcoming game, from the settings and characters you’ll meet throughout your adventure, right down to the combat itself. As previously detailed, players will use a 12-card deck of skills that they craft from spells they earn through gameplay and such. These skills will show up on the UI as four cards to cast, and when a skill is spent a new card from the deck is randomly inserted into your hand. As a result, gone are the mundane skill rotations you see in other MMOs – or even standard ARPGs. Instead, at a moment’s notice your teammates will have to work together and communicate to coordinate your skills to get the best results.

 

This wasn’t necessarily by design, but it’s a great by-product of the combat system according to Ricossa.

“The studio’s been in the MMO business for nineteen years, right? We were part of those kinds of paradigms. We knew we wanted to do something very different for Cryptic with this game. We wanted the moment to moment to be super exciting, we wanted the end-game and progression to be engaging at launch and the moment to moment [gameplay] to not fall into that trap.

“And so we’ve seen internally where some people want to focus on heals and buffs and only a few summons, while another guy is going to use a ton of summons or is going to be a ton of sorceries. So you’ll find that teammates would tend to fall into roles more than a jack-of-all-trades. And so the Trinity becomes something a little bit different in our game than it does traditionally.”

That progression is a major part of what makes Magic: Legends an MMO, as the team is trying to “modernize” the MMO space. The classes, such as the Mind Mage and Geomancer, in Legends are more like Loadouts as you create your unique deck to fit your playstyle. And while classes themselves have their own skills and abilities, primarily the skills you use and the combos you create are up to the decks you craft. But you’re still leveling your character and your class throughout your time in the Multiverse.

“Classes aren’t like a traditional MMO where you’re playing a game where you have to log on with your Priest so that way you can have a healer, right? Classes are more like loadouts, and you can level these classes and swap them into your Planeswalker at will. So Magic: Legends will have an overarching character progression that’s the long-term progression system. You’ll be unlocking spells and other things we haven’t announced yet, through progression such as playing through content. We have a variety of ways that you level up your character, your Planeswalker, your spell library and a variety of things we aren’t talking about yet in order to progress your character along different avenues.”

Magic: Legends has all the MMO features that you’d expect from a classic MMO: deep progression, instanced content and the overworld, as well as social zones guilds and more. It’s all wrapped up in the action RPG package. Ricossa mentions that the industry itself is moving more towards the persistent online play, and, as he says, “from an MMO perspective, we’re moving towards established, exciting moment-to-moment gameplay to pair with our persistent progression systems.”

As mentioned, you’ll see plenty of other Planeswalkers in the different social zones found on the various planes in the Magic multiverse. Here you can meet up with other players, grab quests, meet up with vendors and trade in a player-driven economy, and more. Additionally, the team mentioned that guilds themselves will be in Magic: Legends and while they have nothing really to add other than they exist at the moment, my only wish is I can create a sort of offshoot of the Izzet League from Ravnica with my friends.

PvP in an MMO is a touchy subject as well – but Magic historically isn’t a PvE game. When you play the card game, it’s inherently PvP – you aren’t slinging spells against a wall. Cryptic knows this as well.

“I think we’re keeping it kind of high level,” Stephen told me about the PvP in Magic: Legends. “We will have PvP in the game. Cryptic hasn’t historically done the open-world PvP with ganking scenarios, situations like that. That hasn’t been something we’ve done as a studio. Likely instance-based play where you’re pitting your unique decks and class combos against other players to kind of see where you’re at.”

The team at Cryptic from the get-go wanted to do something different with Magic: Legends -the exciting gameplay, the unique classes and combat and the MMO wrapped in the ARPG style-shell. But one of the other things they really wanted to lock down was a clean UI. MMO’s are notorious for having overly complicated and cluttered UIs. In fact, it’s one of the things I hate most about MMOs, especially older MMOs. For newcomers it can make learning a new MMO difficult and for some players it’s simply just sensory overload. But for some MMO’s it’s required – you need all of that stuff on screen.

Magic: Legends was designed to have a really clean experience from the start.

“We wanted to have a really clean UI, something that Star Trek and Neverwinter, and MMOs in general they get pretty busy on the MMO front. We wanted to have a really clean experience that felt like you were playing a non-MMO in the moment-to-moment because you have all this free real estate and you’re paying attention to the awesome combos and visuals and such.”

As a result, many eager fans have speculated that Magic: Legends is being designed with a mobile port in mind. And it makes sense – many companies nowadays are porting MMOs to mobile with great success. EVE Echoes and Black Desert Mobile are seeing great numbers recently – and we’ve seen companies like Grinding Gear Games create a playable demo of Path of Exile Mobile at ExileCon last year. However, Stephen is quite emphatic in saying mobile was never, well, in the cards so to say.

“This is not a mobile game. We’ve never made a mobile game at Cryptic Studios. We’re not making a mobile game. It’s console and PC. So again, just like the three player groups, the UI is a choice.”

Since it’s been planned as a console game from the beginning, though console players will be waiting a little while before getting their hands on Magic: Legends unlike their PC counterparts, the controller support should be much better as it’s been designed with gamepads in mind from the get go. The team has experience porting PC games to console – and it’s no small feat. I remember playing Star Trek Online a few years back at E3 when it was first being brought to console and was amazed at how well it worked on the gamepad knowing full well it likely was never initially designed with the gamepad in mind. Magic: Legends will support gamepads and KBM on PC – and the UI will swap in real time depending on the last input, something that is a nice touch.

Magic: Legends’ ties to its source material is one of its greatest strengths thus far as well, and Cryptic has developers who have worked on Magic in the past – as designers on the paper game all the way to their CEO who used to be the rules lawyer in the 90s and early 2000s. The team even has every single bit of Magic written media , from the novels to the comics ever written in an internal library to pull from. Cryptic is all-in with the Magic multiverse, from bringing iconic characters like Josu Vess, Lyra Dawnbringer and more to life on screen, to recreating the various planes like the Dominarian continent of Benalia. While we won’t see too many Planeswalkers at the start, Stephen mentioned the team wanted you to feel like the iconic Planeswalkers in the Multiverse, there is always a chance to see iconic characters like Ral Zarek, Jace Beleren and more down the road in future updates and modules.

Magic is in Cryptic’s DNA, and while we may not see everything and everyone we’re hoping for right away, according to Stephen:

“Anything’s possible with a long enough timeline.”


lotrlore

Joseph Bradford

Joseph has been writing or podcasting about games in some form since about 2012. Having written for multiple major outlets such as IGN, Playboy, and more, Joseph started writing for MMORPG in 2015. When he's not writing or talking about games, you can typically find him hanging out with his 10-year old or playing Magic: The Gathering with his family. Also, don't get him started on why Balrogs *don't* have wings. You can find him on Twitter @LotrLore