9 Tips to Make Better Super Mario Maker Levels
If there's one thing we've all learned since the release of Super Mario Maker in September this year, it's that making dumb levels is pretty easy, but making fun, honest-to-goodness great levels is really, really hard. Sure, you can make irredeemably insane courses filled with obstacles, obtuse paths, and insane numbers of enemies, but it doesn't mean those levels will be fun (but they will be frustrating).
So who better to give advice on how to make better levels than Super Mario Maker producer Takashi Tezuka. We gave Tezuka three GameSpot-created levels to play and asked him what he thought. Below are his general tips on how to create outstanding Mario levels.
For reference, our three levels were one created by senior editor Justin Haywald (play it using this ID: 9D7D-0000-00BC-2A68); one made by managing editor Randolph Ramsay (8FD8-0000-0049-0FD8); and one made by Giant Bomb's Dan Ryckert (861E-0000-009C-8913). If you're a fan of Giant Bomb, you may recognise Dan's level as The Ryckoning, the level that almost broke Kotaku's Patrick Klepek (and also managed to raise more than $12,000 for charity). For the record, Nintendo's Tezuka wasn't able to complete Dan's level (and Klepek took 72 hours to finally finish). "Just because… (we) work on this game, I would like to make the disclaimer up front that that doesn't mean we are the most amazing players. Please understand that," Tezuka said.
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Have a type of player in mind before you start building
According to Tezuka, figuring out who you want to create a course for is a vitally important step in creating a level. Are you making it for someone who's new to Mario games? Are you creating for an expert? Or someone in between?
Create courses with a specific "theme" in mind
Having a "theme" means having a central, important challenge or feature that you want players to experience or play through. Is this level, for example, about mastering moving platforms? Is it about the skills required to defeat large groups of enemies? Is it about using dash to cover ground more quickly. "(Having a theme) is a good idea to start with--what do I want to have players do and move forward with that theme," Tezuka said.
When placing items in a level, make sure they have a purpose
Items in a level, Tezuka says, need to have a specific purpose. If a player finds an item in a level, they expect to have to use it. "If you don't create the level in such a way that they are rewarded for going after that they may be a bit confused or wonder what the purpose of the item was for," Tezuka says. So in short, think before you put the fire flower in that block.
Introduce new elements/challenges to players gradually
If you are creating levels for a more "general" audience (ie not someone who has a lifetime of experience with the Mario series), then gradually ramping up of new elements is the ideal way to make sure they're comfortable with the said element/mechanic before throwing them in the deep end. "For example at first you would introduce the new element in a way that is easy to use. The next time you have the player use it, make it a bit more difficult, and eventually challenge them with something fairly difficult. I really think that is the best way to bring new elements and to ask the player to use new elements," Tezuka said.
Contrasting themes within a level can add some needed variety
While choosing a singular theme makes for a good level (see Tezuka's previous point on this), having a level take a swerve halfway through and introduce a completely different feel can be a good way to keep players engaged. But don't overdo it, Tezuka warns.
Your levels will seem easier to you than to the people who will play them
As the creator of your level, you know every inch of your creation. You know exactly where and when to jump, what's coming up next, and exactly what to do. Others who plays your level won't, so don't assume people that will play your level will have the same knowledge as you. "There is this gap between the creator of the course who knows everything about it and the player who is seeing it for the first time. That gap can be a problem sometimes. This happens when we make courses for Mario games here as well," Tezuka said.
Your level doesn't need to be difficult all the damn time
For Tezuka, thinking about the "feelings of the player" is a key consideration when creating a Mario level. Yes, players like to be challenged, but excruciating, non-stop difficulty will also turn a lot of players off. "We try to create courses that give a good variety and switch back and forth between something that is easier and simply enjoyable to play and something that makes the player a bit nervous or puts them on edge or challenges them. We try to avoid making the player feel challenged for too long of a stretch at a time," he said.
Make sure you're giving hints about any secrets you're hiding in your levels
Secrets are a key part to Mario games, but they can't be so secretive that no one ever finds them. So if you're thinking of peppering hidden areas or challenges throughout your levels, make sure you're giving players subtle hints as to their existence. "With placing hints, if you can make the player suspect that there will be a reason or something good waiting for them if they go to a particular area, and then if they go there and find out that there is then they feel sort of rewarded for their effort. For example, (if) you can see the coins lined up across the bottom, I feel like that makes the player think, 'Oh there has got to be a switch around here that will change these coins into blocks and allow me to run across the bottom.' If there is a switch, they will be happy to find it. If there isn't one, then they will feel tricked," Tezuka said.
Ignore other people's advice, even Tezuka's
Tezuka and the team on Super Mario Maker have a long history of creating Mario levels, but ultimately, Tezuka says the game was built for fans to try whatever they wanted to. Just because this is how the Mario team makes their levels, that doesn't mean you have to follow the same rules. "We as the developers of the game don't want to tell people how to play or what courses are good or bad," he said. "We think people should be able to really try making whatever courses they feel are best."