When Theory of Gaming co-founder Nick Olsen approached me with the idea for this site back in 2013, the idea was to provide developers with honest, constructive feedback. However, neither Nick nor I are developers – our expertise comes in the form of a combined forty-plus years as fans of the medium. We may not know how to code or program, but we’ve played great (and bad) games before, and we know what we like and what we don’t like.
That said, I’ve always felt a strong pull toward games that allow me to create in some capacity. Games that allow me to make my own levels have given me a peek into the world of video game developers, and it’s for that reason why I have so much respect for what they do – it’s anything but easy. Thanks to games such as LittleBigPlanet and, to an extent, Minecraft, I know just enough about game design to know that it is insanely difficult and I am terrible at it. But that doesn’t stop me from trying, and my latest attempt at understanding video game development also happens to be one of the most popular titles currently on the market.
Nintendo aimed high with the release of Super Mario Maker, their latest and, in some ways, most ambitious Mario game to date. The goal is simple – allow anyone to create their own 2-D Mario levels, to upload and share with the rest of the community. In return, players have access to an untold number of Mario levels to play, so many in fact that Nintendo has to regularly purge their servers to make room for new content. The result is more Mario levels than any one person could possibly play, and Nintendo hopes that, along the way, the gaming populace becomes a bit more educated on how to create inspired, engaging and fun video games.
After making my own levels and playing countless community-created levels, I thought it would be more in the spirit of Theory of Gaming to present my journey through Super Mario Maker, as opposed to simply commenting on the quality of the title with a review. And my journey as a creator began the moment I first popped the game into my Wii U, right from the title screen.
An Idea So Simple, It’s Genius
The first time you play Super Mario Maker, the game tosses the player into a half-completed level, and asks that they finish it. Immediately, I observed just how intuitive the controls were, and I also had an answer to the one question I’ve been asking myself since Nintendo announced this title – why did it take so long to release this game? Fan-created Mario levels can be found all over the internet, and surely Nintendo was aware of their existence and popularity. So why did it take them so long to release such an obvious hit? The answer has everything to do with the intuitiveness of the controls – this game justifies the existence of the unwieldy, half-tablet half-controller that is the Wii U gamepad.
The biggest obstacle I had with LittleBigPlanet was that creating the most simple of levels took a lot of time, and navigating the menus and knowing how each tool worked took a significant time investment. With Super Mario Maker, it’s as easy as tapping the item you want to place, and then tapping again where you want to place it. It takes less than one minute to grasp the controls, and before long players will be uploading levels for others to try. Without the gamepad, the main appeal of Super Mario Maker would be lost, and I’d argue the game wouldn’t be nearly as successful.
This easy-to-grasp approach is also reflected in the game’s manual. Nintendo’s goal is to make gamers feel like developers, but to do so in the most straight-forward way possible. Therefore, the manual is not filled with long tutorials or FAQs, but with a series of pictures that depict how to make good, fun Mario levels. There is no text accompanying the photos, and yet they are simple enough to understand. If Nintendo is to believed, creating successful levels is a matter of a few easy steps, and although their approach to creating is straight-forward, it is not, as I learned, just that simple. My time as a would-be developer has taught me a few lessons, most importantly that making even the most basic Mario level can be quite the challenge.
Forced Baby Steps
When I initially set out to make my first level, I wanted to keep it simple. After all, the 2-D Mario games are at their best when they provide short, rewarding bursts of gameplay. Only the most sadistic gamers love overly complex, never-ending levels, and since creators must first complete their level before they are able to upload them, I was not in a rush to produce a punishing, brutal level. Instead, my first creation would focus on just the basics.
This turned out to be the correct approach, because Nintendo does not give players access to all of the tools for level creation right at the outset. The idea is that players are given the tools slowly, so that way they can experiment with and understand all of them at a pace better suited for novice developers. Players must use the starting set of blocks and enemies in creation mode for five minutes, at which point the game informs them that the next set will unlock the following day. And when that set unlocks, players must then spend a minimum of five more minutes creating, and so on, before unlocking abilities such as invisible special blocks and the ability to add in sound effects.
Which means that my first level had to be simple, whether I wanted it to be or not. And so I created the aptly named Just Getting Started (Course ID: B308-0000-0162-69B3). My approach was to introduce players to a platforming concept, with no threat of enemies, and then make them replay a similarly designed platforming section with enemies. At the outset there are a few blocks the player has to jump on top of, and then they must make their way back down to ground level by hopping onto green pipes. The player then has to defeat a Goomba, the most basic Mario enemy, and then climb up a series of green pipes laid out in a similar configuration to the last. Only this time, the pipes have Piranha Plants inside them. At the end of this segment, the player is rewarded with a special block that contains a mushroom, to help with the increased chances of being hit by Piranha Plants hidden in a series of pipes the player has to jump across (beneath them is a bottomless pit, an old Mario staple). This process repeats a couple more times, adding in just a few more enemies (green-shelled Koopas make an appearance), and then the level ends.
Throughout the level, I strategically placed some blocks and coins that served two purposes. Most of the coins acted as a guide to help the player know where to go (an actual arrow does become an unlockable item, but it’s wisely placed in an update that comes days later, forcing players to not be lazy and actually use good level design to direct players instead of holding their hand). The blocks, however, were optional and out of the way, and accessing them meant that players would have to deal with a Koopa or Goomba they could otherwise easily ignore. This, I hoped, would add some risk to the level, and possibly inspire players to replay the level once they saw all that was in store for them.
I hastily uploaded this level so others could try it, and in doing so I learned a valuable lesson – always play-test your levels, extensively. My level is not broken, but some of the optional challenges I included turned out not to be so challenging. I asked my wife, a fan of the original 2-D Mario games, to give the level a spin, and although it took her two tries (still plenty of deaths for her to turn and curse me out), she was able to exploit my poor level design in areas. I looked on as my deviously placed Koopa, guardian of a treasure trove of coins, was completely bypassed by a jump from a platform I stupidly placed just a few blocks away. All that planning, and for nothing.
But it wasn’t all a lost cause – when my wife completed the level, she actually had a smile on her face, and gave me a slight nod of approval. In some ways, I consider this level to be my most successful, despite its flaws. It’s short, offers just enough of a challenge and above all is fun. Not earth-shattering, mind-bending fun, but a solid first level. After I received the approval from my wife, I decided that it might be worth my time to play other user-created levels, for inspiration and guidance for my future levels. Sadly (and predictably), I realized that the lessons Nintendo hoped to pass onto gamers went unlearned.
It’s A Mad House
Before I dive into the wilderness that is user-created levels, I have to address a complaint about the online Super Mario Maker community. Mainly, how Nintendo still insists on using an archaic, ID number system to find levels, one that is identical to the ill-conceived Friends Codes for the Wii console. For those unfamiliar with Super Mario Maker, the inclusion of a sixteen-digit code next to the title of my first course might have been puzzling. The sad thing is, it’s puzzling to those who are familiar with the game as well, but for entirely different reasons. Nintendo has once again crippled an online community with long codes, in this case making it impossible to search for levels based on keywords, level style or type. Instead, players must first obtain the, and I cannot stress this enough, sixteen-digit code, then they can play said level. It’s such an outdated concept, and serves no clear benefit, that I’m left wondering what it will take for Nintendo to take online play seriously.
That said, there are a few ways players can discover new levels. There are standard lists, such as “most starred” and “new arrivals,” but the best way to experience what the community has created is to play the 100 Mario Challenge. In this mode, players are given one hundred lives, and are tasked with clearing eight randomly selected user-created levels. Once players clear eight levels without spending all their lives, a more difficult version unlocks, tasking players to clear sixteen levels (if players clear this, a version unlocks in which only the most insanely difficult levels are selected). In theory, this mode is a great way to see what types of levels people are making, while finding a few ideas to incorporate into your next level. But the reality is that, more often than not, most levels are half-finished, overly complex and just plain frustrating.
I started one level that took place underwater. Immediately, a giant squid, surrounded by eight smaller squids, was just one move away from defeating me. It took a couple quick deaths for me to see the special block far above my head, and on the third try I was able to swim to it and grab a fire flower. However, in doing so I allowed even more squids to spawn from the many green pipes that were placed just steps away from the starting area, which meant that I frantically tried to time my vertical movement so I could catch some of the squids with my fire flower. Eventually I made it past them, only to come across wave after wave of green fish, which wouldn’t have been so difficult to navigate if it weren’t for the seemingly-random spike blocks that were placed in my way, forcing me to take a very specific path. Of course the fish could swim right through these spike blocks, but I could not. I never did to get see what was on the other side of that death maze, because Nintendo thankfully allows players to skip levels in the 100 Mario Challenge. Skipping a level doesn’t lower the total amount of stages that need to be cleared to complete the mode, and although it seems like cheating, it really is necessary.
The biggest problem I had with most user created levels is that they didn’t give players a chance to take in their surroundings. Many levels begin with an enemy placed directly above the player’s spawn point, meaning players have to run and jump instantly or else they’ll have to immediately start over. Beyond that, many players (and I’m guilty of this with my own levels) don’t understand pacing, and some levels will have long stretches with few enemies and obstacles, only to hit the halfway mark and find that the rest of the level looks like the nightmare of the world’s biggest internet troll. Goombas with Piranha Plants on their backs, the ones that spit fire, will be supersized and will hunt the player down like the Terminator, only the player can’t focus on them because they have to instead watch the ground, since lava will randomly shoot up from the floor every few steps. And of course there will be three Bowsers. Why? Because.
But most importantly, many levels do not give the player any sense of success. Players need obstacles they can overcome, which builds confidence and allows them to be engaged in the more difficult challenges that await them as the level progresses. But many user-created levels are relentless in their placement of enemies, and the end product is that a depressing amount of levels get skipped, which defeats the whole purpose of creating for an audience.
All of this criticism suggests that, when I went on to create my next batch of levels, I made stellar, well-received pieces of platforming art. Instead, I went crazy with the power Nintendo was giving me, and became part of the problem, not the solution.
After unlocking a fair amount of tools, I decided to give level creation another go. Of course, I didn’t make a fun, simple level my next time out. Perhaps being inspired by the community, I decided to make the level I personally find to be my most enjoyable, Just Messing w/ You (Course ID: 9194-0000-0183-5404).
The idea was to make a level that would mess with the player’s expectations, so random blocks would include mushrooms and coins and special blocks would actually have enemies pop out of them. Players would run up to a series of Bullet Bill launchers, duck and wait for impending doom, only to be showered in coins. I didn’t want to make the level overly difficult, but if the player goes in expecting the normal Mario rules to apply, they will be challenged to a greater degree than they expect.
As of this writing, a mere eight people have attempted the level, with only one of them clearing it, taking over three and a half minutes (congratulations Hulk from the U.K.). I again asked my wife to play the level, and although she did complete it, it came at the cost of being threatened with sleeping on the couch for the rest of the week. Lesson learned – going forward, only serious levels.
A popular trend is for players to create levels based on a theme, and seeing as I was still obviously a novice at this, I decided to try my hand at levels based on other Mario games, specifically the 3-D releases. The thought was that making themed levels based off Mario games would mean there would be inherent similarities, therefore improving my odds of the end result being a success. Some of my favorite levels in the 3-D Mario games are ones where the player is tasked with collecting a number of special coins, such as the eight red coins challenges in Super Mario 64, or the one hundred purple coin challenges in Super Mario Galaxy. Thus, two levels were born – Collect the 45 Coins (Course ID: 1ADD-0000-0176-2C55) and Collect the 75 Coins (Course ID: C707-0000-0199-2B63).
There is no mechanism in Super Mario Maker that allows players to block off the exit until certain conditions are met, so when I created these levels I knew players could just run through them, not collecting the coins, and technically complete them. But I hoped that the name would inspire players to accept the challenge, and I did everything I could think of to make it an engaging, well-paced challenge. I’m sure I failed, because my wife got three attempts into Collect the 45 Coins before she put the controller down and drilled a glare through my forehead. As of this writing, that level has been attempted forty times, and only completed three times, giving it a completion rate just over seven percent. This is astronomical when compared to Collect the 75 Coins, which has been attempted thirteen times and completed zero, for a completion rate of zero percent.
This experience has led to the most important, and harsh, lesson that Super Mario Maker can give. Unlike my first creation, I spent hours on these levels, fine-tuning them, play testing them over and over and over again. Then I’d play them again, just to make sure the level wasn’t broken. And then I’d play them again, this time trying not to complete the levels but instead break them. “How would I approach this section of the game if my intent was to destroy everything I’ve worked so hard to accomplish?” I would often ask myself. Eventually, I grew confident that these levels were ready for primetime, only to see them largely ignored. I’ve received no stars, which means that, currently, the total number of levels I can upload is capped at ten, since the ability to upload more levels is tied to the number of stars people give your levels. My time as a pseudo-developer has been filled with moments like this – hard work and pride only to be crushed by the uncaring masses, who have already moved onto something else, while I’m left to figure out what went wrong.
If it sounds like I’ve regretted my time in Super Mario Maker, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Writing this piece took twice as long as normal, because I kept stopping to play a new level (or replay one of my own) as “research.” It is, after all, a Mario game, and creating levels is so intuitive and fun that it almost doesn’t matter if no one plays them – the process is a joy in itself.
But there are some very important reasons as to why gamers should spend some time making their own levels and playing ones created by other gamers – the appreciation I have for the process, from building a level to testing it to distributing it, is greater than it was before I placed my first Goomba. And my hope is that Nintendo doesn’t stop at Mario when it comes to teaching gamers the lessons of game design – I would love to see versions of this concept, but with 2-D Metroid and top-down Legend of Zelda games. Given how successful Super Mario Maker is, branching out into slightly more complex Nintendo favorites would, hopefully, educate an entire generation of gamers about game design, leading to better games and a higher appreciation of them all around.
I’m still working on creating new levels – my current work in progress is a level based off of BioShock Infinite (which is sure to be a hit with my fellow Theory of Gaming writers). I have nearly all of the tools unlocked (I honestly do not know which ones I’m missing, but I’ll gladly take more), and with the experiences I’ve gained, it’s opening up all sorts of possibilities. Most importantly, it’s providing a glimpse into the world of those who spend countless hours, week in and week out, crafting the games I love. I may not know exactly what it’s like to work on a AAA-title, but at least I have more appreciation for the process than I did before, and in that regard Super Mario Maker is a success.