How Super Mario Maker 2 helped me to be a better game designer21st July 2019
I was hesitant to get into Super Mario Maker 2.
I'm making a 2D platform game of my own (it's called Cornflake Crisis!) and I was a little concerned that Mario Maker would use up too much of my creative energy for real game development - I never owned a WiiU, so this was my first foray into the world of Mario making.
What really drew me to Nintendo's new sequel in the first instance - more than the promise of creating my own Mario levels - was the possibility of being able to play an endless supply of user-created levels and mine them for inspiration.
I'd seen some of the levels created using the first game via cultural osmosis, and I was looking forward to witnessing those deep wells of creativity firsthand. When I did eventually get into the Course Maker, however, I found that it had surprising value for me - far beyond that which I'd initially foreseen.
Playing Super Mario Maker 2's ever-expanding library of user-submitted Mario courses is a fascinating experience for anybody with even a passing interest in level design.
There are beautifully structured courses that could have been made by an in-house Nintendo designer, wild and wacky creations that do wonderful things the professionals would never dare, and haphazard messes made with seemingly no rhyme or reason. It's a great place to learn what works, what doesn't and why.
Many of us know that level design is a medium of personal expression as with any other form of artistic creation, but there is perhaps no better place to observe this than Super Mario Maker 2's Course World.
Playing courses back-to-back from a diverse global collection of creators gave me a new appreciation for how readily personality can be communicated through level design. I'm not just talking about the wildly creative levels, but also the more mundane efforts - it doesn't take long to get a sense of how the creator thinks just from interacting with the environments they have prepared for you.
Sometimes, the designer's intent is clearly adversarial, laying traps to 'catch you out'; at other times, they seem to be a benevolent force guiding you amiably through a set of pleasant experiences. Frequently, an elegant sequence of puzzles feels like a conversation with a stranger - particularly when you find that they have anticipated your attempt to cheese the riddle with a cheap solution.
If you happen to have a group of friends invested in the game - I have been sharing and playing levels with people on Twitter and Discord - there's also something nice about playing the levels they've created and seeing how the people you know each have a different approach to the project of designing a Mario level. In short, for anybody with an interest in analysing the ins and outs of game design, Super Mario Maker 2's Course World is an endless goldmine of interesting material.
Actually creating levels myself was something that didn't initially interest me when I bought the game - but that quickly changed.
My first experiences with the Course Maker were less than stellar, to be honest. I very rarely use my Switch in its handheld capacity, and so my first impression of the Maker was that it was an awkward mess of tools that were horribly unintuitive to use with a Pro Controller and a TV. I fumbled around for an hour or so until the frustration overpowered my desire to continue.
A few days later, having reflected on my experiences and spoken to a few people online, I resolved to try again in handheld mode. Armed with a cheap stylus, I undocked my Switch and set to work - finding out almost immediately that this was the way to do it, as the touch-screen controls make drawing platforms and dragging elements into the right places a breeze.
To my surprise, I discovered that designing Mario levels didn't eat up any of the creative energy that I rely on to get my own game done. It was a completely different experience - if designing Cornflake Crisis is doing real work, playing with Super Mario Maker 2's Course Maker is doodling in a sketchbook.
With all the elements already laid out and programmed for you, there is nothing to do but to try things out. Working on your own game, the logical solution is to reprogram something if it doesn't function the way you imagined ('no, I want this enemy to interact with that element like this').
With that possibility removed, the Super Mario Maker 2 Course Maker is an exercise in making the most of a set of finite parts, none of which require any coding to get working. This may seem to be a bizarre or obvious observation, but the fact is that to try out a wide variety of game mechanics in one's own actual game is to spend a great deal of time coding and testing and debugging things that you may not actually end up using (which is neither efficient nor particularly fun, at least for me).
Instead, Super Mario Maker 2 allows you to very quickly test out ideas and combinations of elements in ways that are ready to go right out of the box, which is a refreshing if not liberating situation for a solo game developer. Using the Course Maker, I can quickly give myself a mini-project with an interesting set of constraints (such as building the most compact level possible, or a level that involves only one type of enemy) - each of which ultimately gives me invaluable experience tackling a variety of game design problems.
The sheer speed with which you can experiment and iterate makes Super Mario Maker 2 a wonderful training ground for any aspiring game designer. Personally, I have been consciously aware that my time spent with the game has helped me to develop better instincts for things that work and things that don't - and given me a number of ideas for things I could implement in my own project.
As of the time of writing, my many evenings of 'doodling' have resulted in four uploaded levels so far - if you'd like to check them out the course IDs are:
- "Koopa Kaboom Kaper": FGP-9PM-YTF
- "Super Lava Chicken": 584-5KN-B2H
- "Four Cursed Blocks": RC9-CJL-GSG
- "Shell Switch Kingdom": 09J-QWR-N8G
How about you, dear readers - what has been your experience of designing levels in Super Mario Maker 2? I'd be curious to hear from both seasoned developers and also people for whom the title has been your first foray into game design - so please feel free to hit me up on Twitter!