Saturday, September 19, 2015

Mario Maker: Know this about bad levels

Image courtesy of IGN
Mario Maker recently released for the Nintendo Wii U, and dang do I love games like this!  Even back to when I bought the PS3 for the express reason of playing Little Big Planet, or further back when the only thing on my 3rd grade Christmas list was Jazz Jackrabbit 2 so I could play with the Jazz Creation Station, my love of level editors would likely receive a large chapter in the biography that nobody is going out of their way to write about me (yet).

Putting game design in the hands of the player gives the actor the chance to play director for a while, and I feel like this gives a great deal of perspective to gamers that they don't always get.

And sometimes it just results in terrible levels.  What gives?

Most gamers assume that level design is easy.  When you play the original Super Mario Bros, it seems like the stages are lazy plains with sporadic placement of blocks, coins, and turtles.  Easy enough!  Any chimpanzee capable of flinging his feces should be able to do that!

Except that good level design, even when incredibly simple, is only deceptively simple.  It requires a lot of psychology and what I like to call "quantum forethought."

This over dramatic representation of a quantum brain courtesy of Salem News

Quantum forethought?

It's kind of a clunky term for it, and I'm sure that there's better terms already invented for the same idea.  This is what I get for being a self taught game designer!

Quantum forethought is the term I give for when you must design a level around all of the different approaches that all of the different players make.  And those approaches differ wildly.

Didn't think I'd do that now did you?
If you design a level so that you have to jump across a giant gap, perhaps there's only so many players ballsy enough to try it: you have to put an indicator of some sort that this is the right way to go for the more cautious players.  Perhaps there's an intricate maze of hazards designed to encourage that a player use finesse and quick reflexes to avoid the obstacles... but then another player just takes the first hit and uses his invulnerability recovery period to juggernaut through the rest of the obstacles, ruining the entire level.

The reason why I call this quantum forethought is that you have to imagine that you're creating a world that is going to be navigated in an indefinite number of universes where the hero is anything from cautious to too confused to brave on the verge of suicidal to knowing the way the game is made so well that he has learned how to glitch through walls.  You must account for all of the possible ways that somebody is going to approach a situation (by understanding every ability and abuse of the player character's abilities) within reason while still making the level fun, flowing, natural, challenging, interesting, and seemingly not deliberate.  

That's a lot to juggle in your mind at once.  It's one of the reasons why people pay level designers to design levels and give them their own spot in the credits of a game.  They're artists because designing a game's level in a way that both meets all of the criteria I mentioned above and manages to show off every way a game's features can be used to create a fun experience is art.

Image courtesy of
So, now that we understand that lot goes into just thinking about making levels...

The Amateur "Problem"

The issue that arises from a create-your-own-level centered game is that people are making their own levels.  That means none of the artisan quality level design is guaranteed, as you would expect.

I mean, you'd be stupid not to expect it.

But.  People.  Still.  Bitch.  About.  It.  Like.  Crazy.

I can only imagine that people don't realize that there's a great benefit to having a public forum through which those with an interest in creativity can publish their rough works.  Those people perhaps don't realize that this is an open venue for feedback and constructive criticism (of which I see plenty of on Mario Maker).  Perhaps they don't think there can be any benefit to people practicing by making lots of bad levels to learn how to make better levels.  

Tom Hall (co-founder of id Software) once said that you have to make 100 bad games before you start really making good ones, and I agree with that.  I think I made 2,000 bad games before I started making good ones, but I was just being thorough.

I'd also like to point out, to those who complain about this kind of stuff, that the game is called Super Mario Maker.  The emphasis is on making Super Mario games.  If you want to play professionally designed Mario games, there's a lot of them already out there.

But people complain that the game is flooded with bad levels, so let's look at that.

What is a bad level?

Whoa!  Calm down there.  I'm not ready for that kind of commitment.  Answering that question could take several articles and way too much of my time, going well into my later years.

"...and also don't put invisible hazards during complicated platforming sequences.  Also!  Don't..."
Instead, I'm willing to discuss a much more interesting question with you: what is the worst level possible?

I couldn't find Mario doing this, so Batman will have to do.
It may seem obvious to some, but let's take an analysis of different possible "worst" levels possible.  The concept is interesting because when you try to think of a truly "worst" idea there is always another aspect of game design or concept about a different design that is somehow worst-er.

Since people complain so much about bad level design, let's delve into how bad this can get.

Edit: I want to point out, as this had been disputed by a close friend, that all of the following criteria is in relation to Mario platforming games.  Some of the later Worst Level categories can work just fine as minimalistic art pieces, but in a game whose objective is for you to play, overcome obstacles, and reach a goal: all of the following are technically the worst.  A good example of some concepts that would be considered "the worst" in the following list that actually work quite well with the mission and goals of the game in which they are housed would be Ennuigi.

Worst Level 1: The Great Empty

Nothing left, only the goal to the right.  Nothing else.  Just Mario, the floor, and the flag.  A vast expanse between them.  Bonus points if the ground is something that slows you down so the level takes even longer.

Why It's Bad: It's boring.  There's nothing there.  The level designer didn't design anything.  It's winnable, but by what merit is holding the right button on a d-pad winning?  This design is so bad that I'm getting existential just thinking about it.

The real sin here is that no effort is put forth.  No thought or anything.  It's just a long walk to the finish.

Worst Level 2: Why God Why?

The whole level is a chaotic cloud of enemies much larger than that shown in the example picture.  Usually the most annoying, difficult, and confusing enemy too.  Maybe they're even raining on you.  And, just, so many of them.  You're probably not getting any powerups or health items either.  Whoever made this level is an asshole.

Why It's Bad: The player doesn't reasonably dictate the outcome of this.  They need the votes of at least three different ancient faiths' Gods of fortune or war to overcome this.  Even with Ares, Thor, and Gilgamesh smiling on you this will still be no fun.  It might be less lazy and boring than The Great Empty, but it does worse than a total neutral by going into the negatives and being very frustrating.

It's questionable that the person who made the level ever actually beat it, or in the case of Mario Maker (where the level has to have beaten at least once by the creator) it's questionable that they did so without dedicating 15 hours to trial and error.

Worst Level 3: The Great Empty 2: Electric Boogaloo

Single block platforms.  At random intervals.  All spaced far apart.

Why It's Bad: I consider this to be Hell in Mario terms.  It combines the frustration of Why God Why? with the laziness and doldrums of The Great Empty 1.  Every jump must be perfect and might require a running start- and your runway is one block wide.  The longer this level is, the worse it is.  It's like an ironman challenge with no real level of satisfaction.  It's just terrible all around.

Worst Level 4: The Nothing

You start at the end.  There is nothing inbetween.

Why It's Bad: This is somehow even more lazy than The Great Empty.  Such a level has a 100% win rate, because you win by playing it.  There's no other option.  There's not even time for the player to input any controls.  The level is over before a millisecond passes.  While not outwardly offensive like Why God Why? and The Great Empty 2, The Nothing manages to be bad by virtue of not even existing.

Worst Level 5: Watching Paint Dry

A variation of The Great Empty, except the player needs to put no effort toward getting to the exit.  They just sit and watch their player get moved through the level, perhaps by a conveyor belt, until they reach the finish.

Why It's Bad: A combination of the non-gameplay of The Nothing and the boringness of The Great Empty.  There are variations on this concept where the player watches an exciting roller coaster of set pieces which the player avoids without any input, but that's not what I'm talking about here.  I'm talking about the player simply watching their player move from point A to point B with no drama.  Amazingly boring.

Those are really bad.

Now, those are absolute worst levels as far as Mario Maker can go.  But, what if we removed this stipulation of Mario Maker: the stipulation that the creator must beat their own level before uploading.  How bad can we really get?

Worst Level 6: The Greatest Empty

Walk to the left.  Walk to the right.  Walk either way as much as you'd like.  There is no end in sight.

Why It's Bad: There is no goal, first of all.  There's nothing going on other than boring.  It is, on a very technical level, no longer a level.  It's not even a sandbox because there is nothing to play with.

Worst Level 7: Tantalus's Punishment

It's right there.  The end of the level is right there.  Please, let me get to the end of the level.  It's right there.

Why It's Bad: You can't reach the goal, which automatically makes it futile.  What's especially painful is that there is a goal and it's staring you in the face.  But you can't get it.  Something insurmountable is in your way.

This is one of the reasons why people hate exclusive items and DLC: when there's something that you can't get even if you wanted to because a certain point has passed, you feel like the game developers are arbitrarily waving something in your face that you want but can never hope to get.

Worst Level 8: One Thing Left To Do

This level has two outcomes: you either do nothing or you kill yourself.

Why It's Bad: It's just really depressing.  If you wish to do anything other than just stand around and stagnate, waiting for the time limit to kill you, the only thing you can do is kill yourself.  There's nothing fun about that, for sure.  At least you can use the sweet release of death to get out of this level.

Worst Level 9: Coma

The player is totally entombed.  There is nothing to do sit in a slot perfectly made for you.  And wait.

Why It's Bad: I hope you're not claustrophobic.  But seriously, this is a bad level.  The player can't do anything and it doesn't end.  In One Thing Left To Do you can end your misery, but in this level your choice has been taken away from you.  You just sit.  And wait.

Worst Level 10: Terminal

You fall and then you unavoidably die.

Why It's Bad: Nothing that you do matters.  Every bit of effort that you take toward getting away from your mortality is pointless and every wiggling of your bloated body on the way down is a pathetic distraction from the painful death that awaits you.

I'm talking about in the game, of course.

Worst Level 11: The True Nothing

You fall.  And that's it.  You keep falling.  There is nothing else.

Why It's Bad: Everything is pointless.  There is no death to look forward to.  You wonder why you play.  Your movements do nothing.  Moving left and right bring you no closer to anything, as there is nothing.  Your position within your fall means nothing as your position is relative to nothing.  After hours of falling you are no closer to the bottom and no further from the top.  Because there is no top.  And there is no bottom.  There is nothing.  Nothing except for you.

Dude, are you okay?

What?  Huh?  Oh, yeah.  No, I'm fine.  Totally fine.

"In a way, I'm-a just an empty shell too! Wah-ha!"

What was all of that about?

Well, a game's levels are how you experience the game.  So, if the level is empty, so is your experience.  When you start stripping away the fundamental aspects of what makes a level good you start to end up with an existentially disturbing void.  A rather meaningless experience, which unfortunately for Mario, will be his entire life if lived within those levels.

It's a reminder that level designers should put effort into their creations because the people experiencing said creations don't want empty experiences.  They also don't want frustrating or futile experiences.  They want fun and challenging experiences that will leave them feeling satisfied with themselves.

This is why I didn't include Kaizo-style near-impossible challenge levels on my list of worst possible levels.  They might be classically bad in that they're frustrating to play, but at least they're designed.  Somebody made the levels to be exactly what they are and put effort into creating levels that you deserve a real-life trophy for completing.  They are, at the very least, satisfying to complete because your skill and dedication count toward the completion of the level.

It's still a pain in the ass though

So how does this affect the way we should look at Mario Maker?

Well, I admittedly got off topic a bit there to talk about what the worst possible levels are, but what the takeaway should be is that a game designed to be designed by amateurs is going to have amateurish design.  I've shown you just how bad a level can be, and just about anything else is kind of a step up from those so count your blessings.

To the level designers out there trying the game out: really think about what you're doing.  I know that some of you are trolls trying to put the hardest possible levels out there to trip people up...

...but those of you really trying to make good levels and simply failing to do so are learning.  People will make some hurtful comments, for sure.  But hey, fuck 'em.  Besides, the Miiverse seems to have some of the most well natured commenters I've ever experienced.

Real Niceguy Eddie right here
I've loved games with level editors going as far back as Space Station Pheta, and using them has undoubtedly made me a better game developer over the years.

Take constructive criticism and don't let positive comments go too much to your head.  Learning level design is an art, even if you're an amateur.  Master it and become an artist.

To everybody else saying that Mario Maker has only been out for a week and is already full of bad levels: it's only been out for a week!  Christ, what do you expect?  Look at the early levels for Little Big Planet!

Ya'll need to calm down and let people learn to be better.

Edit: What about you?

What about me?

What, you haven't made any levels for Mario Maker?

Oh!  Right.

If you're interested in some of my creations in Mario Maker, I'll leave some codes of the better ones below:

The Secret of Goomba Village: 7A36-0000-004E-0AD9

Steel Skyscraper: E8B8-0000-003B-45BB

Vermin Fortress: C1E1-0000-0029-3D11

If you'd like to see the rest of my creations, my Miiverse handle is wjhollyart.  See you around!

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