level design lesson: to the right, hold on tight

from super mario bros., world 1-1

(also in spanish, french, portuguese and korean.)

much of the following is informed by friend and comrade jeremy penner’s breakdown of design trends in super mario bros. for further reading, see his “breaking the law of miyamoto” in the gamer’s quarter issue seven. i’m also indebted to eric-jon rossel waugh for the metaphor of verbs.

games (digital or otherwise) are composed of rules. certain rules give the player liberty to change the state of the game (the “game state”) in specific ways: i like to call these “verbs,” as in the part of speech. if mario is the subject of most of the sentences in super mario bros.’s story, then “jump” is the verb that most often follows – jumping is so crucial that it gets its own button on the control pad.[1] the idea of jumping into a box to open it or onto an opponent to defeat it makes little sense out of context, but since the player’s foremost means of interacting with the game is through the verb JUMP, all of the game’s elements have been designed as potential objects of that verb.

“mario jumps into a block.” “mario jumps onto a goomba.” “mario jumps on top of a pipe.” “mario jumps across a pit.” this is why almost all of the doors in metroid are opened by gunfire, even though i’ve never encountered a door i had to shoot to open: samus aran, having a gun for an arm, interacts with her world primarily by shooting. it makes sense, within the context of that game, for doors to open upon being shot.

the big question of level design – and i mean that every level design lesson i ever write will be a response to this question – is: how do i teach the player these rules? an unfortunate trend in contemporary games is to spell out every detail in a hand-holding “tutorial” session at the outset of a game – unfortunate because it shows both a great deal of contempt for the player’s intuition and a lack of confidence in the designer’s own design. but more than that, it’s a design failure because it tells the player the rules instead of allowing her to learn them.

what if the first level of the game were laid out in such a way that the player could learn the rules simply by playing through it, without needing to be told them outright?

shown above is the “tutorial” from shigeru miyamoto and takashi tezuka’s super mario bros. these first two screens (bigger image) teach the player almost every crucial rule of the game. how? let’s take the very first screen: the left half of the image, just mario under an open sky, a flat landscape beneath his feet. this is the first thing a player sees on starting the game. so what does it teach her? the first and highest concept in the game: that mario’s goal is to the right!

how does it teach this? mario is at the left side of the screen, facing right.  the ground is laid out like a little path, an unobstructed horizontal surface crossing the screen from left to right. the big open space – there’s nothing in the sky, yet, to take the focus from the ground – invites mario to explore it. the player moves mario to the right, and the screen begins to scroll, showing more of the world. as the world scrolls toward mario, the player sees what next?

that flashing ? block, but by the time the screen has scrolled far enough for mario to reach it, something else has shown up that demands immediate attention: a little brown mushroom with angry eyebrows, tromping toward the player of its own will. this is the first time-sensitive situation in the game. the goomba is the second actor we’ve seen so far, mario being the first, and this one moves without our say-so, those eyes suggesting it has its own malevolent sentience. and it’s coming from the right side of the screen – opposite of mario’s quest – toward us! if the allows it to touch mario, it is instantly made clear that this mushroom is bad news and its touch fatal.

in order to pass this first little guardian, the player must learn that the A button makes mario jump. the nes pad being as clean and clearly-designed as it is – the A button big and bright and concave, an invitation to touch – it’s not hard to discover the jump button with a little experimentation.[2] there are several possible outcomes of mario’s first attempt to jump the goomba: one is that the mario might fall short and land on its head, in which case the player learns that jumping on enemies lets mario defeat them. another: remember that first ? block, which is now likely overheard. jumping the goomba, mario might bump his head on the block, causing it to stop flashing and a coin pop out. the player learns to activate ? blocks by jumping mario into them from below.

once he’s passed the goomba, mario heads right and discovers lots of blocks in the sky to test his new jump on. there are two clear types of blocks here: the more enticing glowing ? blocks and the brown patchs of brick in between them, if mario jumps into one of those he’ll just bump off. but if mario strikes the leftmost ? block, the player will be treated to the most elaborate spectacle in the game thus far.

a mushroom pops out of the box and into the air; it lands on that long platform and speeds to the right. when it reaches the end of the platform, it bumps into the pipe, turns around, and heads back along the ground toward the mario who just released it. note how long this mushroom’s path to mario is: the player is given the opportunity to observe the mushroom’s behavior before mario interacts with it. and note, second, that unlike mushrooms later in the game that mario must chase down, this mushroom comes to mario: if the player has mario hit the block and do nothing else, mario will still get the mushroom.

finally note that, in the tight space under that floating platform, if mario tries to jump over the speedy mushroom like he did the goomba, he’s likely to bump his head and be knocked back down into the shroom, whereupon the player will learn that it’s a desirable thing to touch after all. but even before the player has interacted with it at all, the mushroom is differentiated from the goomba in a number of ways: while the goomba marches regardless of the player, the mushroom must be evoked: it does not exist until mario activates it by striking the block. it doesn’t have a face or a little walk animation: it’s an object, not a character, and does not have its own intent. and it glides to the right, the same direction as mario, while the goomba marches toward the left, opposing mario.

when the mushroom touches mario – again, much harder to dodge than the goomba, especially for a first-time player – a fanfare plays and mario grows into big mario. now, if mario strikes those bricks – either as an experiment or because he tried to hit the other ? block and missed (the brick patches are in between the ? blocks, after all, and are closer to this twice-tall mario’s head) the bricks are smashed and the player learns another rule. that ? block at the very top beckons mario to jump through the newly-created gaps and the player to understand how mario can change the game world.

the pipe on the right is the final “guardian” of this screen. it’s a roadblock, to make sure mario doesn’t pass up all these blocks in the sky, it keeps the mushroom from leaving the screen to the right and redirects it toward mario, and it makes sure the player can’t leave this screen before she knows that she can make mario jump higher by holding down the jump button. if the player’s been curious and had mario climb up on top of the floating platform to get at that last ? block, it’s trivial for mario to run or jump off it and land on the pipe. blocks of varying heights on the following screens reinforce the lesson: mario can jump at different heights.

what has the player learned so far? that mario is heading right, and he’ll need to jump (A button) to get there; that he can use his jump to either avoid or kill enemies, to collect coins and to make power-ups appear (by hitting blocks), to smash bricks when big to open new passages, and to climb over obstacles. all in the first two screens – probably minutes of play! and without once explicitly telling the player anything.[3] this is good design!

from super mario bros., world 1-1

here’s another short example from later in 1-1 (bigger image) that i think also bears examination. you can see that these are both essentially the same structure, a staged jump at the top of a staircase, one over a pit and the other – right before it – over solid ground. the other difference between the two is that the second set of stairs – the “for real” jump over the pit – has a top-step that’s twice as wide, both making it easier for a mario bounding up the staircase to land on it without going too far and giving him more room to prepare for the jump.

the first jump is clearly a safe place to practice for the second, yes, but i think it’s also meant as a warning: it’s a harder jump[4], and the player will have an easier time slipping up and landing in the hole. which is likely to have the effect of making her approach the “real” jump with more caution. mario might jump past the top step and fall right in the hole, and the player will make sure to take care in planting mario on that (extra-wide) top step before the real pit. consider that because of the screen scrolling both jumps can’t be seen at the same time: the player might not even realize the second jump is easier, and will probably feel skilled when she messes up the first jump but recovers in time to nail the second, for-keeps one.

good level design is informed by an understanding and anticipation of how the player will move through the game world. all design considers how a thing will be used, and level design is no exception.

[1] the other big red button is for an adverb, “quickly.” mario’s speed, his momentum, dictates the height, angle and duration of his jump. since running is complementary to jumping, the second place in the nes controller’s button heirarchy is reserved for it: the B button, to jump’s A button.

[2] this kind of design is admittedly easier on a nes than a PC, which has tens of buttons to the nes pad’s four. this is why i like the mouse: it has a common denominator of two buttons, plus motion. the more limited range of action is easier for the player to experiment with.

[3] the manual included with the game spells out these rules more blatantly. these days, most digital games have the storage capacity to fit the game instructions in the game itself: that’s what these blatant “tutorials” are. nevertheless, i think the example above proves that good design can obviate the need for the player to be shown explicit instructions (even if they’re available “just in case”).

[4] which is not to say that it’s what we’d call a hard jump, but keep in mind that super mario bros. is the very first of this kind of jumping game that most people played, and the first videogame of any kind that quite a few people played. very careful teaching, here, was essential.

75 thoughts on “level design lesson: to the right, hold on tight”

  1. The run that beats the game without pressing B does so with superhuman timing and exploiting some programming errors. It’s not supposed to be possible, and would certainly be extremely difficult in real time.

    Also Mad Catz made a SNES pad, and it was awesome.

  2. Honestly this post is one of the more important ones I go back to whenever I’m analyzing or reviewing or talking or generally writing about games. Thanks buckets for producing it and making it accessible via the internet.

  3. Pingback: We need more verbs
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