Sunday, October 18, 2015

Super Mario Maker Has an Important Lesson to Teach: Being a Game Developer Sucks

…or “A Diary of my Bittersweet Adventures with Super Mario Maker

Ben Kuchera over at Polygon wrote an article shortly before Super Mario Maker released about how the game teaches one the anguish of being an indie developer. If you read Ben’s article, this post is going to seem slightly familiar; I don’t mean to copy his piece, but rather give my own spin on an idea that I think rings very true. I’d also like to broaden the thought a bit from indie developers to simply all developers. Yes, beneath its inviting and nostalgic exterior, Super Mario Maker has an important lesson for those who really sink their teeth into the level creation side of it: being a game developer must really be the pits.

Now, this is something I already knew, but it’s something that I’ve now, in some small, disconnected way, experienced for myself. I picked up Super Mario Maker the afternoon of its US release day, and holding the copy in my hands after I got into my car, I felt a kind of childlike glee. I couldn’t wait to dive into this robust world of imagination and start building and playing levels. I fiddled around with the level creation tool a bit and then hit up “Course World”, where everyone’s levels go after they upload them for the world to see. Already, there was a plethora of levels and several ones were already hugely popular (I knew this by the amount of “stars” they had acquired from players). Having just got the game, I was only allowed to upload ten levels myself until I earned more stars and therefore unlocked medals which would allow me to increase my max upload limit (up to 100 levels after acquiring all 10 medals). I wasn’t too intimidated by this. After all, the levels I’d played already had thousands of stars and creators seemed to already have achieved the ability to upload the max number of levels in just a day, and while their levels were good, they were nothing earth-shattering and I could already feel dozens of ideas forming in my head that would surely be a hit. It shouldn’t be too hard to rake in the stars as long as I shared creative and inspired levels, which of course was my plan.

Making some Mario
The first couple of levels I uploaded were basic and nothing to speak of really; I didn’t bother putting much effort into them because I didn’t have all of the game’s creation elements unlocked yet through the game’s annoying but oh so Nintendo “delivery system”, where the Course Maker is slowly expanded over the course of several days (or hours, if you know how to effectively cheat the system, which I recommend doing). As I unlocked more and more elements to play around with, I soon began to feel inspiration strike and I began to naturally get an idea as soon as I began to lay some blocks down. The first course I uploaded that I actually thought was worth a damn (not too many damns, mind, but at least one), I shared with some pride, this time actually somewhat pleased with my creation. I looked forward to seeing how it would be received. As of this writing, “Magikoopa’s Platform Keep” (I’ll share some of my course IDs at the bottom of this article if you’re interested) has a meager 131 plays and 5 stars. For the longest time, it didn’t get any stars at all. Ok, so in retrospect, that course wasn’t that great. I still didn’t have all the course-making elements at that point, and it’s still a largely basic level. It didn’t take too long to make, so I wasn’t too discouraged. The next course I made I spent a lot more time on and put even more effort into, but the one after that is where I really went overboard. I’d finally unlocked every tool and spent a combined twelve hours over the course of two days to build “The Grand Koopaship”, a massive flying airship designed with a meticulous attention to detail to resemble an actual ship. I paid special attention to the aesthetics of the ship and agonized over the placement of power-ups and how difficult each section should be. This thing has a cargo bay, bunks, a bathroom, a mess hall, a bridge, an engine room and finally the captain’s quarters, where a showdown with Bowser occurs before a fast escape out the back of the ship to the goal. It’s not a perfect course by any means, but I poured my heart into the thing and I think it turned out pretty nifty. It’s currently one of my most popular courses with 412 plays and 23 stars, which doesn’t seem too bad, but compare that to “Don’t press anything” (ID: AA64-0000-000F-7D4C) by creator Niramou, one of the first (or possibly the first, at least uploaded to the released game's servers) hugely popular Rube Goldberg-style “automatic” courses (in which you, um, don’t press anything to reach the goal), which currently has 1,676,474 plays and 104,848 stars. Yeah, my “Grand Koopaship’s” numbers suddenly seem pretty pathetic, huh?

So at this point you may be thinking: “Wah, wah, so you made some courses that no one likes and are salty about it?” (unless, of course, you own Mario Maker, are invested in creating courses, and are not part of the Star Ranking category elite, in which case there’s a good chance you’re already nodding your head along in sympathy to everything I’m saying), which is of course true, but I’m also working towards a point…sort of. So in order to better illustrate that point, I’ll stop talking about myself for the moment and concentrate on someone else, a maker by the name of “Ricky”. I know of Ricky from a YouTube Let’s Play group he is a part of known as “Adamant Ditto” (their Kirby Let’s Plays are really fun; check em’ out). Ricky made a course known as “Super Smash Labyrinth” (ID: 099D-0000-003A-EB5F), an ambitious and clever idea that allows the player to choose one of twelve pathways, each one beginning with a  transformation into a character from the original Super Smash Bros. via one of Mario Maker’s sprite-changing mystery mushrooms, with each pathway themed around the particular character one chooses. I can’t fathom that a course based on such a popular series and one that is such a well-executed idea would have anything less than top status in the charts. Last time I checked, it has a respectable 1,548 plays and 127 stars…but isn’t exactly “Don’t press anything” numbers. This gives me pause. It makes me think that maybe, just maybe, Mario Maker’s sharing system might be a load of total bollocks. And there are several other fantastic creators and courses I’ve come across, sadly not getting the recognition they deserve. Ricky has proven himself a maker to keep an eye on, with several other inspired courses including a spooky “Haunted Hotel” level (ID: 9C6B-0000-0043-BF08), another excellently done horror-themed level known as “Mirror Manor” (ID: 1992-0000-0072-2F13), an “RPG Adventure!” (ID: A5C3-0000-0091-03A0), and a lot more, but he still has yet to reach the max upload limit of 100 courses (last I checked he is capped at 50 uploads), and the fact that such a clearly worthy creator should be limited in any way is just crap.

Perusing Course World
And that’s what it all comes down to: that upload limit. I wouldn’t care nearly as much about stars and what’s popular and all this if it wasn’t for the fact that Nintendo has cruelly tied the amount of courses one can upload to the amount of stars they receive. This is a good idea on paper, requiring players to put effort into their creations if they want to keep sharing them, but it all falls apart when makers like Ricky and so many others are pulling more than their share of weight and are still faced with restrictions. The star requirements for each milestone are extremely strict as well; it takes 50 stars to just being able to increase the upload limit from ten levels to twenty levels and it only gets worse from there, requiring 150 stars to get to thirty levels, then 300 stars to reach a 40 level limit, and on and on until 5,000 stars nets you the maximum upload limit of 100 levels. This creates another issue; here I am with all these level ideas in my head that I want to do…but I’m hesitant to put a ton of effort into them if I might not be able to upload them and share them with the world. Therefore, I’m faced with a dilemma: make what I want to make or bite my tongue and try to make something that I think will be super popular and get a lot of stars in a short amount of time (in other words, make a level where you don’t have to press anything or a level with a mystery mushroom costume that’s a remake of a level from another game).

I tried to get around this by making an automatic course, but one with a unique spin on the formula and one that I could be proud of. I decided my creation would not just be a bunch of random nonsense floating in the sky (which can certainly be entertaining if done well), but it would have context and somewhat of a story behind it. I started with the theme of Mario being trapped in some elaborate machine and through the process of creating it, the idea evolved with some inspiration from the Portal series. I designed the course to have two “endings” of sorts: one where a player can choose to not press anything and let the machine take its course; here they would still hit the goal at the end, but Mario would also go flying into a sawblade afterwards, implying that just going with the flow will result in Mario meeting his doom. But, and here’s the Portal-esque part, if players cleverly observe their surroundings, they can escape the machine and discover hidden areas outside of it, such as the observation room where the machine’s operators are watching Mario go through it, and another path that leads to the core of the machine, a hidden boss fight, and finally the true exit out of the machine. I spent hours and hours fine-tuning this course, paying special attention to how it looked and operated, and I kept adding more and more details until finally I felt it was ready. Here was a creation, I thought, that would meet the popular demand for the automatic course, but innovate and put a new twist on it. After uploading it, I wasn’t able to play the game until two days later and I was eager to see how what I felt was my finest creation yet had been received…

The Mushroomatic Machine
…it had 5 plays and 0 stars. In a word, I was crushed. It was simply devastating to have something I worked so hard on and had such high hopes for get such a poor reception, or indeed, not even really be noticed at all. As time went on, it only got worse, because more and more people played it, but none of them starred it. Why didn’t they like it? I thought. Was it not exciting enough? Did they discover the hidden secrets? Did they strive to get to the “good ending”? I had agonized over the name of the course, trying to find something in the small number of characters available that would be both catchy but also capture the intricate nature of the level. Advertising is the most important aspect to consider when uploading a course if you want it to be played. All you have to recommend your course is a name, the zoomed out picture of your course’s layout (or at least part of it) and a second close-up picture of a particular section of your course that you can choose. If these things aren’t eye-catching, people will just pass you up. As of this moment, “The Mushroomatic Machine-2 Exits” as I called it, has a paltry 78 plays and 2 stars. Most people finished it; they just didn’t seem to care for it. I have no idea why, none of them left comments and all I have is a couple of red “Xs” on the zoomed-out picture of the course to show me where people lost lives. This feature doesn’t help much, by the way, especially when it doesn’t show where people died in the course’s “sub-area” (the second part of a level accessed by going down pipes), where most of some of my levels take place. Another thing to take into consideration is that many simply don’t know what “stars” are, or how important they are to level creators. Many people bought Super Mario Maker to partake in the playing side of things and not the creation side, and considering the game never explicitly tells the player about the starring system anywhere except in notifications that randomly pop up on the screen from time to time, it’s easy to consider the fact that many people may have enjoyed my levels, but just don’t think to star them or don’t know what starring is. I also can’t help but wonder about how helpful it would be if I was able to make a brief description of my levels in addition to their title. If I had been able to do this, I could have gotten across what I felt made my machine course unique, not to mention give some context for my other courses as well.

At this point, I had a nine-world (four courses per world) Mario adventure planned out in my head that I wanted to build in Super Mario Maker (well, not just in my head, as I outlined the whole damn thing with pen and paper). That was what I really wanted to start making, but with nine courses already uploaded out of the ten course limit that I was struggling to break through and the stars very slowly coming in, even after a handful of levels I spent hours of effort making, I didn’t want to start making that game when I wouldn’t be able to upload (and keep uploaded) the whole thing. So I had one final idea. One final crazy idea that would surely get some stars and “fund” my game. I would make a “remake” level, the other popular surefire thing. But if I was going to do this, I was going to make something I would enjoy doing, that I would be passionate about, and that would be a fun challenge to undertake…

So I decided I would recreate Clock Town from The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask in Super Mario Maker, Stock Pot Inn included.

Four days and many hours later, I felt that I had pulled this feat off, at least as best as I could within the limitations of the game. In the end, it was a fun challenge, and also one that drained me. After my last big course failed “financially”, I tried not to get my hopes up too much, but surely…

Just over twenty four hours after uploading it, my Clock Town recreation had 13 plays and 3 stars. Not a bad turnaround compared to how slowly my other courses acquired stars, but still not exactly big money (last I checked it’s my most starred course with 24 stars at least). But hey, I finally hit fifty stars at this point and could now upload up to a meager twenty courses. That’s just great, but now all I could think about was how long of a road it was going to be to reach 150 stars and the thirty course limit, which still wouldn’t be enough to hold my ambitious nine-world adventure (which I eventually thought of a tenth bonus world for…aren’t I the dreamer?). Even after uploading six more courses (including one of the worlds from my planned game) following Clock Town, I still have yet to reach 150 stars and to date still only have just a little over 100.

Clock Town's clock in Super Mario Maker
I want to be clear about something: outside of a handful of very notable problems I feel the game has (which I’ll talk about more in a follow-up post, including some suggested remedies for my problems with the level sharing system), I love Super Mario Maker. The game is a childhood dream of mine come true and I’m happy it exists. It even reignited a creative side of me that I’ve been keeping dormant lately, which I can’t be more grateful for. With that said, my experience creating and uploading courses in Super Mario Maker has been completely demoralizing. Melodramatic? Sure. But I create what I feel is my best course yet, and one that I am sure will be popular, and no one cares or notices. I spend hours and days and weeks pouring my heart and soul into a creation I truly believe in, but no one is buying. I spend so much time arduously testing and re-testing, tweaking and re-tweaking, only to discover one possibly large problem I missed after uploading my level and to fret about whether it will break the whole thing for people. In the end, I can’t imagine making a whole video game, something I spend years putting my life into, only to have someone finish it overnight and nitpick about a bunch of stuff wrong with it. In the end, people are only buying the stuff that’s already popular, the stuff with the good review scores (stars) and the most sales (plays), whether that camp is full of several similar ideas or not (just to be clear: I don’t mean to say that the mega popular courses are bad, in fact most of them are pretty awesome and there’s some really inspired ideas in there, just that there’s so much more out there just as awesome that is getting ignored). Worst of all, perhaps, is when you see that someone else had your same idea, and that their version of it is getting a ton of attention while yours rots in the back alleys of the Course World server (this hasn’t really happened to me personally, but it’s definitely a possibility, and I’ve seen others execute ideas that I still have in my head, or two different versions of the same idea, one much more noticed than another, regardless of quality). I gave in, just a bit, and tried to make something that would appeal to the masses, but still something I can be proud of, and all to fund the stuff that I really want to be making. And my attempts to cash in this way fell on their face too. And yet I’m still dreaming of all the great worlds I want to put in my full Mario game, and getting more ideas every day. In the end, I’ve had a blast creating levels because of the passion I have for creation and the joy it brings me, even though I know few will likely appreciate or even play my stuff. Being a Mario level creator has its rewards, and I’m sure being a game developer does as well, but it’s also pretty shitty and I, for one, am totally burnt out on Mario making right now.

My conclusion with all this? Right before Super Mario Maker’s release in the US, I played through The Last of Us for the first time, and I wrote about how I thought it was an unrelentingly stressful and bleak experience that was almost difficult to play (and also a great experience I highly recommend for the record). After finishing it, I was greatly looking forward to relaxing with some colorful Nintendo fun in Super Mario Maker, but found instead an experience even more emotionally devastating. Game developers, you have my sympathy and infinite respect.

For those interested, here are a few of my course IDs, including the ones I mentioned in this piece (if you want to check out all sixteen of the courses I currently have uploaded, than simply check out my profile in the game):

Magikoopa’s Platform Keep: 5D6F-0000-0031-2F1D

The Grand Koopaship: 0662-0000-0040-5BFD

The Mushroomatic Machine-2 Exits: 1E81-0000-0049-6843

Zelda: Majora’s Mask-Clock Town: 4AAB-0000-0062-DC60

4-1: The Lost Village: 7464-0000-009C-8759

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