Lessons from Mario Maker

I’ve been trying with various levels of success to make video games for forever. I’ve settled on kids’ books as the ideal match of my talents to the world’s needs, but my love of coding hasn’t gone away, nor have I given up on the concept.

So I spent some money I shouldn’t have on Mario Maker 2 to see what I thought of building levels for an existing game.

And I have learned something. I can kind of get into level design, but not really.

I have a notion of game design that video games have three legitimate foci:

  • The Toy: The mechanics, the physics engine, the RPG elemental rock/paper/scissors, the deck of cards. What many call the mechanics.
  • The Challenge: The win and loss conditions. The levels, and their differences. If a game has a boss rush mode, what you have is different challenges with the same toy.
  • The Experience: The art, the music, the story. What the creators are trying to make you think or feel as a result of playing the game.

I maintain that a game may legitimately be focused around either the toy, or the mechanics, or the experience. You should when making a game try to make all three as good as possible, but one of these three must be prime, and the other two exist to serve its needs.

Games based around the Toy include Mario Odyssey, Minecraft, and Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and Sonic 2. Games based around the Challenge include Castlevania: Circle of the Moon, Megaman X, and Sonic 1. Games based around the Experience include Journey, Final Fantasy, and Mass Effect.

This notion needs some refining. Reality doesn’t fit it precisely. It’s hard to know for sure in some cases where the toy ends and the challenge begins. But I think it is a useful notion. And it comes out in my observations when it comes to playing Mario Maker 2.

Namely, throughout the entire experience I constantly wanted to tweak the mechanics, while being largely indifferent to the whole point of the game — the level making.

In SMB1, you can kick shells, but not pick them up. In SMB3 you can pick them up and kick them. In SMW, you can kick them upwards and drop them down as well as kick them forward. And in New Super Marios… you can pick them up and kick them. But only forward.

Why? Why can’t I kick shells upwards in the game that added wall jumping and ground pounds? I want a toy that gives me wall jumping, ground pounds, and the power to launch held items in any direction!

And there it is. I care about the toy. I don’t really care about the challenge. I don’t really care about the puzzles. In Pokémon, I don’t care about building a competitive team, or whether the in-game NPCs are challenging. I care about finding hidden creatures, and breeding good stats onto the ones I like.

In short, level design is not beyond me, but it is not the part of game design I find interesting.

Which means if I make games, I need to consider making the level design automatic in some sense (e.g. a procedural or semi-procedural approach like unto Spelunky) or have a team member who enjoys that kind of thing.

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