“I'd rather reward good teamplay than nerf it for the sake of balance”: an interview with Magicka: Wizard Wars' David Nisshagen

Last week, we had the opportunity to interview David Nisshagen, lead designer of Magicka: Wizard Wars, which recently gained its own Go4 series here at ESL. Read on to find out what he had to say about this latest instalment in the Magicka series as well as its all-important competitive play potential.

ESL: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us, David! So the original Magicka released back in 2011. When and how did you come to the realization that you had the makings of a really great battle arena game?
David Nisshagen: Watching players use the depth of Magicka’s spellcasting system to create the craziest spell combos was a real eye opener. In Magicka, you create spells on the fly by combining eight different elements and then cast the resulting spell in different ways. Fire becomes a Fire Spray, Fire + Earth becomes a long range Fireball, Fire + Earth + Shield becomes a Volcanic Barrier Bomb that absorbs damage and explodes after a while. In the original Magicka, you can combine five of these eight elements into a spell and then cast them in four different ways (on yourself, on the ground, around you or on your weapon). There's literally thousands of different spell combinations - mines, wards, barriers, flaming death beams, arcane lightning storms, ice shards... the depth is incredible and all the players have access to the same spells!

ESL: The versus mode in Magicka was pretty hectic, but a ton of fun. What sort of design decisions did you guys have to make right away when deciding to port the mechanics of that game into Magicka: Wizard Wars?
David Nisshagen: Well, the original Magicka has about 4000 unique spell combinations - that is completely impossible to balance! It's awesome in the chaotic and fun co-op gameplay that made Magicka such a hit, but in a competitive setting, balance becomes critical. So, we decided to keep the beautiful complexity of the eight element combinations but we streamlined the number of elements you can combine into a single spell to thre, and combined the area and self cast to prevent players from killing themselves too often. If you haven't played Magicka yet, here's a brief explanation: selfcasting an Earth spell in the original Magicka means that you get a rock on your head and it will probably kill you. Selfcasting an Earth spell in Magicka: Wizard Wars causes an Earthquake centered on your character, knocking down anyone in range. We cast the spell that is most useful for the player. A rock in your own head is rarely useful 😉

We also changed how defensive shields and barriers work to make the game have one active rock-paper-scissors defence system, and one ward-based system that can completely negate damage that hits you if you can react quickly enough. It's all about skill - there's plenty of videos out there where a single highly skilled player successfully defends themself against four attackers. It's very difficult, but it can be done! We also added movement while Spellcasting to make positioning more important and fights more mobile. You can pursue enemies relentlessly, or fall back while counterspelling.

Another key change is how we tweaked Magicks. They are incredibly powerful spells that can basically kill everybody in the game (including yourself and your own teammates!) if used correctly. A classic Magick is the Meteor Shower, which summons dozens of gigantic fireballs over a large area, larger than the screen. Everybody who stays in that area will die. In the original Magicka, these superspells could be cast quickly over and over which is hilarious, but spammable instadeath in a competitive setting would be... slightly overpowered.

We were inspired by super meters from fighting games - you gain Focus from killing enemies and capturing points, and this focus is then consumed if you cast a Magick. There is also a tier system - a player can cast four Teleports, two Tornados or one Thunderstorm... so you can save up for a tier four ulti (unless you have to use the tier one Haste to get away from an overwhelming force).

All this depth is then played out in real time in a 4v4 setting. It's extremely skill-based - I seriously think Magicka: Wizard Wars has among the highest skill ceilings there is. Watching the really competent players play, it looks like they are playing a keyboard. They are striking chords of counterspells and destruction.

ESL: What is your grand vision for Magicka: Wizard Wars? Did you have eSports aspirations in mind from day one?
David Nisshagen: I don't really think that the developer can decide if a game will become an eSport. It has to come from the community, the players. Magicka: Wizard Wars certainly has the components of an eSport - it's very skill-based, with furious and spectacular gameplay and an amazing community. We are developing the game in the direction the players are telling us - and that direction is competitive.

ESL: Comedy seems to be a big part of the Magicka world - do you think that this aspect might hold you back from becoming a serious eSport? Do you think there’s a balance that can be struck between the fun side of Magicka and hopes to turn it into the sort of game that fills studios and stadiums?
David Nisshagen: Yes, absolutely! There is no reason why all core mechanics have to look grim and serious! We have a targetable Crowd Control + Summon Magick that calls down an Outhouse from orbit and summons two imps with toilet brushes when it's destroyed on impact. We also have the Summon Death Magick, which summons the Grim Reaper who relentlessly hunts an enemy down across the map and gibs them in an explosion of blood. It's the contrast between the fun and the grim that makes Magicka: Wizard Wars special. We aim for fun, not silly. And making a whole studio roar with laughter is a good thing!

ESL: In terms of eSports, the MOBA scene is probably the most competitive of all genres, with many well-established as well as up-and-coming titles. Can you walk us through what separates Magicka: Wizard Wars from the competition?
David Nisshagen:

  1. There are no classes or heroes - all players have access to the same spells all the time. The game is 100% about skill in casting the correct spell at the correct time. Everybody is a healer, a tank, ranged DPS, area denial... When you die, you die because the other player was more skilled than you.
  2. Rounds are short - about seven minutes of very high intensity gameplay. The pace is much higher than in other games.
  3. There is no in-game progression - you bring your stat-boosting gear into the game and that's it. Death has only minor consequences - sacrificing yourself for the team is not punished.
  4. Every item in the game increases one stat and decreases another. It's a full sidegrade implementation - boost Lightning and you will become weak with the Earth element.
  5. Friendly fire. Kill your friends, heal your enemies - you need to think before you act. A classic tactic is to kill an enemy, revive them and then kill the enemy again!

ESL: One major aspect of any good eSport is balance. If something is broken, it just won’t fly in the competitive scene. What sort of balance decisions have you guys already made for the game? Is there anything you’re particularly wary of going into the Go4 series?
David Nisshagen: We are constantly tweaking the balance, and there is certainly room for improvement. But since all players can cast all the spells at any time, there is really no imbalance between players. Bugs and unintended behaviour, especially with crowd control, is my personal angst. It takes control away from the player and removes the skill component. I'm also slightly concerned that teamplay may be too powerful, but I'd rather reward good teamplay than nerfing it for the sake of balance.

ESL: What sort of game modes can we expect to see in the competitive scene? Will the focus be primarily on one game mode like most MOBAs or do you guys hope to shuffle through a few modes like some FPS titles in the eSports circuit?
David Nisshagen: We will keep focus on our current game mode Wizard Warfare - it's a 4v4 battle for control over spawn points, similar to Conquest in the Battlefield series. We have a duel game mode where two players can fight it out on an individual level, but teamplay is where Magicka: Wizard Wars shines. Personally I'd love to do both FFA Deathmatch and CTF, but we will see what the future holds!

ESL: What’s one aspect of the game that you guys loved but just couldn’t make work for the current version?
David Nisshagen: Custom games! We want players to be able to challenge other teams in-game, create their own tournaments, etc. The game is still in Early Access on Steam, and we have of course focused on stability and core gameplay, but I wish that we could have custom games already! It's in the pipeline, coming soon.

ESL: Is there one particular mechanic that you’re so attached to that, no matter how much feedback you receive, you’ll still keep in the game?
David Nisshagen: Friendly fire. It's at the very core of all Magicka games - you need real skill to control the high-intensity spellcasting action that is Magicka: Wizard Wars!

Paradox is at the ESL Arena at gamescom, so be sure to come along to check out Pillars of Eternity, Runemaster, bestseller Europa Universalis IV and more! You can also find out more about the ESL Go4WizardWars tournaments at the Go4WizardWars hub page.


Stay up to date

* indicates required

By clicking the "Subscribe" button, I consent to the processing of my personal data and tracking of my activity for marketing purposes, and I agree to receive marketing communications, including newsletters, raffles and surveys from ESL Gaming GmbH, in joint controllership with Dreamhack AB and ESL Gaming Online Inc., all around their products/services. I have read ESL Privacy Notice and I understand I can withdraw my consent at any time.

I understand Braze, a marketing platform, is being used. By clicking to subscribe, I acknowledge that my personal data will be transferred to Braze for processing. Learn more about Braze's privacy practices here.

Login at ESL & Partner

Chose the Account you want to login to play your favorite game