Real game designers reveal how to create the best ‘Super Mario Maker’ levels
Everyone loves Mario. Be it Mario Kart or the classic Mario levels, I reckon everyone at some point in their lives have played as Mario. And got really, really into it. Here’s Mashable and some Game Designers telling you how it’s done!
Super Mario Maker, the latest entry in Nintendo’s flagship franchise, gives you everything you need to make your own Super Mario levels. There’s just one problem: everyone else has those tools, too.
The following tips should help you unleash your inner level designer and teach you a little about professional game development along the way, too.
Learn by stealing
There are few things more intimidating than a blank canvas. Thankfully, there’s an easy way to get started: copy what you know.
Nobody’s better at making Super Mario levels than Nintendo; after all, they’ve been doing it for the better part of three decades. And if you’re looking for inspiration, older Mario games are a great resource. As Radek Koncewicz, lead designer at Incubator Games, says, “Mario and other Nintendo brands have stayed strong over the years [because of] the company’s dedication to releasing polished products… Don’t be shy about learning from the greats.”
A good Mario level teaches players what they need to know as they go along.
If you’re already a Mario super-fan, Koncewicz recommends trying to recreate your favorite Mario levels from memory. Next, play both the original stage and your remake, and pay attention to the differences. Take note of things like the distance that Mario needs to jump across pits, the spacing of various platforms and the enemies’ locations.
Feel free to study other games, too. Players have already used Super Mario Maker to recreate levels from the Nintendo Entertainment System’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the mobile hit Flappy Bird.
Pick a theme, and stick to it
When you’re ready to create something original, start by choosing a theme. This could be anything: a specific gameplay mechanic, a favorite piece of art or even an abstract word or phrase. What you’re looking for is a central idea that’ll unify every aspect of your level; ideally, your theme informs every decision that you make, from the layout, to the gameplay mechanics, to the visuals.
“We always start with the level theme,” says Yacht Club Games founder Sean Velasco. For the old-school-flavored platformer Shovel Knight, Velasco and his team themed each level after one of the game’s cartoony boss characters. For example, when the Shovel Knight designers started working on a stage for Mole Knight, they decided to create a subterranean metropolis. Everything else spun out from there.
Since moles are famous for digging, Velasco and his team wanted players to feel like they were burrowing through the dirt. “We made a basic stage flow, which we decided should progress downward, like you were delving deeper and deeper,” Velasco says. “There are no ascending screens in that stage.”
Because the stage is set underground, lava appears as both a hazard and a means of transportation. The graphics are full of cracks, cool blues and pitch-black backgrounds that suggest dark, rocky caves.
According to Velasco, a good theme doesn’t just get the creative process started. It also gives your level its own identity.
In Shovel Knight, unique themes like Propeller Knight’s windy airship or Tinker Knight’s clockwork fortress make each level feel fresh and exciting. The last thing you want to do is bore your players, and offering them new, cohesive experiences is a great way to keep their attention.
Keep things simple
In a 2D platforming game like Super Mario Bros., simpler is better. Super Mario Maker limits the number of objects that you can use out of the box. But after about a week, you’ll have access to almost everything. At that point, it’s tempting to throw everything into one massive level.
Instead, try to be judicious with your use of in-game assets. At best, levels that are too busy feel random and sloppy; at worst, they’ll actually confuse the players. Jakob Hannson, who worked as a level designer on the 2010 puzzle-platformer Limbo, says that the Playdead team built levels by honing in on one specific type of object (ropes, gears, rotating walls, etc.), and keeping the focus extremely narrow.
“The best challenges,” Hannson says, “usually have a simple, clear idea and theme, and use just a few elements that can be interacted with.”
In fact, while initially designing Limbo’s puzzles, the Playdead developers only used so-called “primitive” shapes — basic geometric forms like circles, squares, and triangles. All the aesthetic flourishes came later. “The idea was, each puzzle should be so strongly designed that it would be fun to play even without any pretty graphics,” Hannson says.
According to Hannson, all the variety your level really needs is a strong initial idea, a couple of different objects and one surprise twist (a clever spin on an established pattern, or a more challenging version of a previous hazard).
Go ahead and make it challenging
Being economical doesn’t mean making your levels easy. Sometimes, the simplest levels are also the hardest. Just look at the PlayStation 4-exclusive N++, the third (and final) entry in the fiendishly difficult N series. N++’s levels only take up a single screen, yet many of them will take tens, if not hundreds, of attempts to master.
Just make sure that your levels are hard for the right reasons. If a level’s hard, it should be fair.
“N++ rides a very fine line between frustrating and fun,” says Mare Sheppard, one of Metanet Software’s two designers, and a key member of the N++team. “We have to beat the levels many times while testing, which means if it’s too unfair or un-fun we’ll end up hating it, and it will be cut or edited until it’s more fun for us.”
Nintendo won’t let you share your Super Mario Maker level with other users until you can beat it yourself at least once — so pay attention while you’re playing. If a level’s too frustrating for you, other people will probably feel the same way.
Like other designers, Sheppard advises keeping your levels clutter-free. “We never add objects just to fill up space,” she says. “We feel it’s important to prevent the level itself from being too distracting, because this will make the game more difficult.”
Balancing the level visually — using the right mix of positive and negative space, using repeating patterns, and employing symmetrical designs — can make the action easier to follow. A level should be challenging because it pushes your skills to their limits, not because it’s hard to figure out where your character is.
If it’s not working, get rid of it
All of the developers we talked to emphasized the importance of iterative design in level creation. In an iterative design process, you don’t complete your level once and send it off; you play it again and again, tweaking things as you go, and then testing the impact of your changes. That’s why the gap between N+ and N++ lasted almost seven years: Sheppard and the Metanet team handcrafted every single one of the game’s 2,360 levels, testing each one dozens of times. Even the “classic” levels they pulled from N and N+ were reconfigured to fit the new engine.
That means you’ll be changing your level constantly; it also means that you might have to throw out some of your work. That’s what the two-man Bits & Beasts team did when developing Feist, its nature-themed platformer. According to designer Florian Faller, he and his partner, Adrian Stutz, created a variety of small setpieces, then stitched them together into bigger, overarching levels. Sometimes, those small chunks didn’t fit nicely into the larger whole. When that happened, the content was cut.
Deleting something you spent a lot of time on can be difficult, but it’s usually the right call.
Let other people play, too. Shovel Knight’s Sean Velasco warns that designers can get “tunnel vision” when working on their own levels, since they’ll play them over and over. In Super Mario Maker, other players can give you feedback. Listen to them. It’s better to change your level than to push forward with something that isn’t working. Your levels will be better, you’ll learn more, and ultimately, your fans will thank you.