Secret of the Magic Crystal: Learning about Bad Free-to-Play Design from a Retail GameA column article by: Justin Hutchison
A friend of mine offered me a bet during the Steam sale: if I took a free copy of Secret of the Magic Crystal, a game I hadn't heard of beforehand, I would have to get all of the Steam achievements in the game or I would owe him the $1.50 that he paid for the copy of the game. All of the achievements could be easily acquired through a single playthrough of the game. I have next to no money, being unemployed and only having about $4 in my PayPal left over from meager album sales, but it was a free game. If I just had to play through it once for it to be free, that was a challenge I was willing to take, even as a joke. Unfortunately, the game was much more arduous than I thought it would be.
Secret of the Magic Crystal opens with a short slideshow explaining that you’re the child of a professor who was laughed out of the academic world for saying that he found a magical meteorite with the ability to give horses fantastical powers. For some reason he couldn’t present any evidence of it, which probably would’ve prevented the situation. He then gives the player one of the eponymous magic crystals and forces them to run his horse ranch. I assume he ran off to live as a hermit in the barn’s attic afterwards.
You start off with some money and a pony, which then turns into a unicorn. A few text-only tutorials guide you to the various buildings around the ranch, where you can heal horses, feed them growth hormones (potions) to make them stronger, forge better horseshoes to boost their stats, train them, clean them, and give them their oats. It gave an impression of variety that impressed me at first; the game appeared to have a decent amount of depth. Once I got around to performing these tasks, I realized that wasn’t the case.
The potion-making, horseshoe-forging, and training all utilize the same mechanic: quick-time-events. I’m alright with QTE’s in most circumstances, but making them the main gameplay mechanic in a horse-training simulator seemed like a bad idea. And it was. All of the QTE’s in the game have different times at which you must hit them; there is almost no consistency. When you’re forging or brewing, you have to hit the arrow keys as the arrows on screen turn once. When you’re training, in most cases, you only hit it as it turns once on the first arrow; all subsequent arrows have to be hit as soon as they start turning, or else you miss them. It takes a while to get used to how this works, and it’s never explained in the tutorials, so it was pretty frustrating at first.
After training the first horse, you get to send it out on quests (doing menial chores for other people) and races (which you don’t see outside of some randomized flavor text). Then you wait for them to come back, hopefully with cash. By the end of the first tier of races and quests, I was pretty fed up with the affair. The one-song soundtrack that kept looping throughout the whole experience didn’t help matters. I was wrapped up in the bet, and, broke and cheap as I am, I kept playing.
I wasn’t truly broken by the game until I reached the end of the third tier of races/quests. When you reach the end of a tier, you have to breed until you get a horse of a higher level, which allows you to access the next series of races and quests. Breeding in the game requires you to have two fully-trained horses of the same level mate; this then produces an untrained horse of the next level. This becomes an issue once you reach the higher tiers; you have to buy, train, and breed low-level horses over and over to move up the breeding tree and produce a better horse. All things told, you end up training thirty-one horses over the course of the game, if you play it correctly. I made a bad diagram (shown below) illustrating the breeding tree you end up with; each horizontal layer represents a tier of horse, from level one, at the bottom, to level five, at the top.
You have to take each of these horses through about four training sessions each in most cases (discounting the dumber horses you buy later in the game that require more training and the potions/horseshoes), so you do roughly 124 bad QTE’s to slog through the majority of the game. After realizing this, I stopped playing... until I got kinda bored and did all of the training and breeding necessary to get a level four horse. I have yet to get a level five horse because I’m too scared of the prospect.
It is one of the most repetitive, bland games I have ever played, and yet I kept on playing it because I didn’t want to pay a minuscule amount of money for it. Many of my friends had taken on the same bet, which also pushed me to play it. It felt like a competition between us as to who could brave the horrors of such an awful game and get the final achievement first. I hated myself for playing it instead of other games I had gotten during the Steam sale (Civilization V andEvochron Mercenary), but I kept playing it. Its hooks were in me. All because of a bet.
Thus I was granted a realization: this was almost no different from other Facebook games I had played. There was little active gameplay, what little was there was horrible; the design was based around doing the same things over and over to make a small degree of progress, all of which was based around watching a number get larger (one is not even granted aesthetic changes as in Facebook games that are better at hiding their lackluster design); and the only thing that kept me going was the social aspect, which, in Secret of the Magic Crystal, was extraneous to the game itself. The only reward I was getting was bragging rights, without the sense of accomplishment granted by overcoming a difficult in-game task.
Social games are all about the use of bragging rights, though many use this concept as an excuse to create poor games. Imagine Farmville in a vacuum, without its Facebook hooks, without some form of leaderboard, and without any interaction with other people. No one would play it. No one would pay for the extras or boosts that those free-to-play games thrive on. It would be worthless. Removing the mechanics that force a player to only interact with the game on a restricted basis and making the game a retail product doesn’t help matters at all: one ends up with a Secret of the Magic Crystal situation where it reveals how bad the game is.
The main reason people play games like Farmville, The Sims Social, and the like is that they are competing to, essentially, have a bigger “score” at the game than other people, whether that is through having a bigger farm with tons of animals or a bigger house with a ton of gear you bought. It’s very similar to the average arcade game, except the players are investing time and money rather than skill. Cow Clicker, despite being treated as an average social game by most of its audience, is an excellent commentary on this phenomenon. The only gameplay is clicking a cow; after clicking the cow, you wait more time to click it again. All that changes is the cow aesthetics, as you unlock more cow designs as the game goes on; these aesthetic changes then act as a trophy, rewarding you for your time investment in the game or how much money you paid.
I think Secret of the Magic Crystal is important in a way similar to Cow Clicker, though not in the way the developer intended. By taking this design philosophy and applying it to a retail game without social elements, it shows the inherent flaws within most social games and how the money-based restrictions and aesthetics of those games manage to hide those flaws. Through the lens of Secret of the Magic Crystal, we can see the true nature of the genre.