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Friday, August 14, 2015

Three Real Game Design Lessons: Super Mario Maker!

By LUDWIG VON KOOPA - All the realities of being a real company level designer, with limited financial risk!

Last time we checked how Super Mario Maker was doing, we saw that Nintendo teamed up with Facebook to have a two-day hackathon. There were many Facebook employees who entered, and they took it pretty seriously with team names and whiteboards and everything. Nintendo Minute remarked that Facebook's process (which was probably over-the-top) was reminiscent of how Shigeru Miyamoto designed the levels of Super Mario Bros. on graph paper.

Super Mario Maker Facebook hackathon Ship Love winning level
"Ship Love", the winning level of the hackathon.

Well, if you really want to know about the levels the Facebook folk came up with, you can check out the Nintendo Minute video here. We have a more important video to embed.

Some new news about this game even now, under a month before it releases:
  • Sound recordings and music blocks. You can record sounds with the Wii U mic and have them play in the level. There are also music blocks that play notes depending on their positioning.
  • You can stream randomly-selected courses with 100-lives or 10-lives.
  • You do not start with every element at the beginning of the game. There are nine groups of place-able elements that are unlocked one group a day if you play for five minutes a day. (This is the subject of today's article.) 
This design decision to not have every element usable right away has garnered a fair bit of controversy. I'm not really sure why, because it makes perfect sense to me for three reasons: One, Super Mario Maker is a game. Two, Super Mario Maker is a game design simulator. And three, Super Mario Maker is trying to ease the learning curve.

Super Mario Maker new course elements are now available
Hm, I dunno wot to pick. But I like the implied skin tone on the delivery guy.

Super Mario Maker is a videogame.

Let's be clear: Super Mario Maker is a videogame. Videogames have unlockables to give a sense of progression. How does Super Mario Maker have a sense of progression? By having unlockable tools. When Nintendo released WarioWare D.I.Y. on the DS, it was a similar concept. You could create your own microgames and share them with friends! (Until Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection got pulled.) However, you didn't have every asset at your disposal right away. You had to watch tutorials. You had to wait some days for the pre-made levels to all be playable. (You could work off those pre-made levels for designs as you can with levels other folks have made in Super Mario Maker.)

I don't think anyone really complained back then, and there isn't any sense complaining now because this isn't a bad thing. Not having 100% completion right away keeps people playing.

Super Mario Maker is a game design simulator.

We saw from the Facebook hackathon how seriously you can take designing levels. They did the same design methods that the real Super Mario Bros. team used. Basically, Super Mario Maker gives gamers their dream opportunity: Become level designers for a Nintendo property. Every kid playing a Nintendo game wants to grow up to work at Nintendo. While obviously Nintendo can't fulfill this dream for everyone, Super Mario Maker gets pretty close.

That said, it's not all dreams and happiness working in the videogame industry. And Super Mario Maker communicates that well. You have to work on a team to get things done in production. You're the level design team, and you have some cool ideas for what to put in the levels but it's not currently built on your engine. So you ask your engineering team to build the new asset and behaviour. And you know what? That takes days. Or weeks, or even months.

All Super Mario Maker is asking for is five minutes, and then a day. It's not a 100%-accurate simulation, of course, or else you'd be waiting a lot longer. And you're not necessarily asking to get to play with Chain Chomps. But maybe someone else on the team is, and the engineers can't do everything at once. They gotta prioritise somehow.

Super Mario Maker new course elements every day
Working on Saturdays? Now you get to know what crunch-time feels like.


Super Mario Maker wants to have a nice learning curve.

As the video itself explains, it's "lucky" that Super Mario Maker doesn't involve everything at once. Many elements in Super Mario Maker can interact with others, and every marginal new element can grant a dizzying amount of new emergent possibilities. That's insane, and it would definitely overwhelm people who are just trying to learn how to put levels together.

Game design emergent learning complexity curve
Would you rather have Day 1's y-coordinate be Day 9's? Nah.

It would be bad design on Nintendo's part to drop people in with all of these possibilities right away. Yes, there are a wide range of people who will be playing this game, ranging from small children who benefit from just having the fundamental design elements on Day 1, to people who already have experience designing complicated levels. For that latter group, what's wrong with waiting nine days? You already waited for the game's release date.

For the level of emergence that Super Mario Maker offers, a few tutorials won't do it. It's considerably more complicated than WarioWare D.I.Y., and the game designers don't even know the full extent of it. Tutorials can't teach emergence. It takes a natural progression to do that, and only restricting your options (just like in real life) allows you to learn.

In conclusion, Nintendo knows how to design games, and they know how to build a tool that helps other folks learn how to design games. And they also know how to design that tool to be a game. And it's silly that people can't put these concepts together.

Ludwig himself is a game designer. You can play some of his games that he made for KoopaTV here. He's not happy that he's not available in Super Mario Maker.


  1. Oooooh, now you're defending it?
    I see.
    But, seriously, I agree with what you say.
    Super Mario Maker is a nice way for players to practice thorough level design, planning, and structure much like Nintendo's own employees, minus any actual affiliation with Nintendo beyond purchasing their products (most likely).
    The way I, and most likely you see it, it's not a bad game, more so it's overlooked, especially in the wake of more hyped games in the eye of the gaming community.
    Eh, whatever. I'm not really planning on getting it anyway. You?

    1. Hopefully after playing SMM, people will get a better sense of game design.
      The best way to learn game design is to try to make games, so yeah.

      I'm not getting it because I really really hate SMB physics. If it was $60 for a level editor and endless levels for physics of a game I actually like (ex. Mega Man), then I'd be more comfortable with it.

      So I'm all for the concept of SMM (don't confuse me making fun of it for getting absolutely horribly small crowds at Best Buy during E3 for me hating on it), but it's just the series it's attached to I don't particularly enjoy.

    2. Ah, okay.
      How sad.
      And notably ironic.
      Oh well.
      It's okay, I don't want it either.
      Mario games have gotten a little.. bland to me.
      So, here I am, playing Super Mario Sunshine, wondering where Mario went wrong.

      ..And why Splatoon doesn't have an Isle Delfino DLC.

  2. From the moment it was announced, I had zero interest in Super Mario Maker...
    I've been watching videos of it lately... and... I'm starting to want it. o_o

    1. ...Exactly.
      Believe me, I had nothing but negativity for the game when it was announced. I mean, that's document.

      But I keep writing relatively positive articles on it.

      "I'm not getting it because I really really hate SMB physics. If it was $60 for a level editor and endless levels for physics of a game I actually like (ex. Mega Man), then I'd be more comfortable with it." - My comment above


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