Lessons from Super Mario Maker

I’ve been playing a lot of Super Mario Maker on the WiiU lately. This is a videogame where players can design and build levels in the style of four flagship Mario games from different eras and systems, and share the levels with other players. As a sort of spiritual descendent of Mario Paint, it is a “sandbox” more than a “game”, a tool for creating an experience rather than an experience in and of itself. There are some game aspects added, challenging players to complete user-created levels. And of course, each level has a goal. But once you’ve gone through the process to unlock all of the tools and elements, you’re left to your own devices.

Mario Maker is sort of a game design toy. What can you do within the confines of the given ruleset. That tickles my brain as a designer, and I bought it as sort of an experiment. After spending some time with it, I began to wonder if Mario Maker was eating into my real game design time, or using up some of my game design mental energy. But as I played more, I realized that Mario Maker was giving me another way to hone my design skills, and I started to see lessons in all sorts of aspects of the game. So I wrote them down, and here’s what I’ve learned so far.

  • Familiar mechanics make a game easy to learn.

I’d wager that every single person who plays Mario Maker is already familiar with the basic mechanics. So even if you don’t know how everything works, you can jump in and start playing immediately. In boardgames this comes from using established mechanics as a starting point: worker placement, card drafting, trick taking–these things lighten the burden of starting a new game, even if you add on a lot of complications.

  • Familiar themes make games accessible.

Mario is probably the most widely recognized and family friendly game characters. He doesn’t scare a lot of people off. Not everybody likes Mario games, but most people already know what the game will be like just by knowing it’s a Mario game, and thus already have a good idea if they want to play. Your theme choice sends a message about your game, and matching that message to player expectations will help your players enjoy the game.

  • Allow the player to fail safely, and early.

This is a tenet of Mario game level design refined over several games. (see the discussion of kishoutenketsu in this article, and this video showing it in action) First show the player something new, let them get familiar with it in a safe environment, and then test their skill at it. It’s not the only way to design, but it is important in Mario Maker because levels are otherwise so disjointed. In boardgames, this is allowing the player to make mistakes and still be engaged in the game, which can be achieved by showing the results of bad decisions quickly. The designer and player aren’t enemies. The designer is trying to help the player complete the level in an interesting way, not defeat the player.

  • But don’t make failure repetitive.

Once a player fails, let them move on. So many Mario Maker levels add difficulty by requiring an exact movement that requires practice. Success after repeated failure is a reward. But if you have multiple parts requiring practice, a player has to repeat the success to continue. Failure after repeated success is a punishment. Failure should not push a player back, but help a player move forward.

  • Give the player guidance on what to do and where to go.

It’s not just about explaining it in the rules. It’s about including indicators of what is important in the game. This can be quite literal in Mario Maker, including arrows or putting a platform that runs along a path, but it can also be showing players something they won’t reach until later, or using coins to mark a path or location. It can even be as simple as using the same obstacle, in easy and harder configurations, so they know how to handle the obstacle the next time it occurs. Boardgames can do this by how the boards and cards are laid out, by the scoring, or by the pace of the game.

  • But don’t force players along a single path.

Give them choices with how to deal with things. Take out a piranha plant with a fireball, or wait until it ducks into a pipe, go another way and avoid it, or jump over it. Heck, even run through it, while giving up a powerup. When you take away the options, you take away the game. Mario Maker takes this to an extreme with “Automatic” levels that use a combination of platforms and springs to move the player along without any input. Choice is such a big factor in games, and when you remove choice, you lose a chance to engage the player.

  • Plan for your players to try and cheat.

Sometimes, the player will find an alternate path through the level, that you didn’t expect to provide. I have played so many levels where the design has interesting things happening, but the player can skip it due to a flaw in the design. I missed an obvious flaw like that in one of my own levels. Frequently this is due to including capes and Lakitu’s clouds that let a player fly over the interesting parts of a level. In boardgames, this becomes ignoring interesting mechanics in order to exploit more effective “broken” mechanics. Players will be better at finding these than you will be at avoiding them as a designer. So if you can’t get rid of ways to cheat, plan around it, and expect it to.

As a corollary to the last point,

  • Don’t just take mechanics at face value.

Understand what everything CAN do in the game, not just what it is intended to do. As an example, many tough levels require Mario to be big, or have multiple powerups to pass, turning powerups into keys, not simply tools that make it easier to play.  Part of this is to see the game through the player’s eyes, and part is to give you even more tools to create experiences. Turn old game mechanics on their head, like Hanabi did by hiding information from only one player.

  • Reward the player for being clever.

In Mario Maker, this can be a plain reward (1-up mushrooms), or a powerup to make the level easier, or skip a hard part. Sometimes it can be as simple as showing a player something new. The same process is usually a more inherent feature of boardgames. When a player makes a particularly good move, the results of that move are usually their own benefit. But I have also played boardgames where this isn’t automatic. A clever move is no more beneficial than a regular move, but requires more effort. That simply teaches players to take the easy route, and hides all of the work you’ve done to make the design interesting.

  • And balance multiple levels of rewards.

Internal rewards like 1-ups are great, but somewhat meaningless in the self-contained levels of Mario Maker. Players simply know that hearing that 1-up jingle signifies a reward within the context of the Mario universe. External rewards tap into the player’s game experience to reward them by giving a feeling of achievement, say, by completing a particularly tough series of obstacles. Sometimes, the reward is almost independent of the game, like showing the player something neat. Many “Automatic” levels rely solely on this. Great boardgames tap into the same sources. Give players benefits in game for making the clever moves. And give players a sense of accomplishment even if they don’t win. I find that in the best games, a well played game is its own reward, even after a loss.

  • You don’t need a lot to do a lot.

It’s easy to create wild levels with all of the tools in Mario Maker, but it’s harder to create levels using only a small or simpler subset. It takes time and effort to unlock all of the objects and elements in Mario Maker after you first get it. But it’s possible to make interesting levels that combine these parts in new ways. A lot of simple game mechanics get used again and again in games, yet people find new ways to combine them all the time. Challenge yourself to find new ways to use existing parts.

This previous point goes along with the idea of kishoutenketsu in saying

  • Don’t throw everything at the player right away.

Let complexity develop throughout the game. Or at least let the player decide if they want to include more complexity or not, so they can jump into it on repeated plays. From a narrative perspective, it’s good to leave something behind to build up to. That’s why a finale is at the end, not the beginning (and the fact that it’s called a finale). Boardgames already take more effort to learn, since players need to enforce the rules. Trying to capture all the layers of strategy and rules at once puts a big burden on the player. Designing your game to develop complexity as it progresses lightens that load.

  • Difficulty is more than making something hard to do.

Many levels simply throw more stuff at you to make it harder. But difficulty can be more than just timing your jumps and dodging bullets. Making choices difficult requires much more thought, and is a subtle difference that many levels overlook. Is it better to jump over, on top of, or duck under this thing coming at me? Should I try to avoid this whole obstacle in one jump, or take my time and deal with each part separately? In a boardgame, it is even more important to make the choices harder. Think about a Chutes and Ladders board where all the ladders are replaced by chutes. Is it harder to win? Yes. is it harder to play? Only in the respect that I would find it harder to sit through a full play. Make the player struggle with decisions, not with execution.

  • Know who your audience is.

There are people out there creating ridiculously tough levels for players who love a challenge. There are levels that are just for fun. And there are so many ways to make a level. I am part of my own audience, so I make levels that I have fun playing. I could make painfully difficult levels, but I decided that I want my levels to be completable by the majority of players. When I design a boardgame, I do the same thing, deciding what kind of players I want to play the game. Not every game has to be for everyone, but every game has to be for someone. Decide who that is, even if it’s just you.

  • Putting together parts work on their own does not mean they will work together.

I created a great level with lots of tricky, but passable, parts. I tested each one. But once I put them together, I discovered that it was almost literally impossible to pass them all in a row, based on unforeseen (and unforeseeable) interactions. This happens all the times when I design board games. As I said recently on Twitter:

Sometimes you can’t see how the pieces fit until you put them in place.

And finally, the single most important lesson I can take away from Mario Maker:

  • Sometimes you need to break the rules.

One of my favorite levels I’ve designed so far ignores about a half dozen of these lessons [C79D-0000-00A4-7D82]. But other rules it gets exactly right. It’s a puzzle that shows you everything you need to know, if you pay attention. Some parts are about timing, other parts are simply about making a good choice. It’s a challenge, but I toned it down quite a bit from the original crazily difficult version. And there are rewards for players who know where to look. If you give it a try, let me know how I did.

A part of game design is knowing what rules you can break, even, or especially, when you’re dealing with an established system. As a game designer you set the boundaries–sometimes literally and sometimes metaphorically. And like the original Super Mario Bros, sometimes you have to stick to the rules, and sometimes you can break through the walls and find a path to a new world.

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