About That Indie Feel pt.4
Saturday, January 8, 2011 at 3:05PM
Richard Terrell (KirbyKid) in Indie, Learning, Motivation, & The Mind, Nuance, Super Mario Bros.

Imagine the prototypical, stereotypical, exaggerated, and possibly unrealistic indie game maker. The lights are dim. The hour is late. And the programmer is hunched over a keyboard trying to iron bugs out of the code. He or she adjusts the numbers and runs the code every 30 seconds or so to check. He/she is the creator, programmer, and play tester. And as he/she continues to design levels for this game something interesting happens. Without anyone else to test the levels or provide feedback, the difficulty of the levels continues to increase. As the programmer develops skills he/she continues to tweak the challenges of the game to challenge his/her ever increasing level of skill. By the time the game comes out, the difficulty is tuned for nuance and mastery and not the beginning player. 

I wrote about nuance vs power here, but it's worth revisiting for clarification.

I typically use the word nuance to describe elements of player mechanics, but it can describe any interaction in a game. Like elegant and brute force solutions there is a bit of subjectivity involved with defining what is a nuance and what isn't. 

I started this blog by examining Super Mario Brothers (SMB). The mechanics of SMB should all be very familiar to us by now. We've certainly internalized many of the design philosophies and rules that Miyamoto and the team had in mind when they created the game. When I say that every coin in SMB is placed so that they can be grabbed safely (without dying), this statement should ring true to you. Also there are no traps in the game so that when you fall in, you cannot escape forcing you to kill yourself or wait for the time to expire. There are no areas that can only be accessed with Small Mario. This makes it so that players never feel truly disadvantaged for being Super/Fire Mario. Along with these rules, there are many structures, enemy arrangements, and layered challenges that are never implemented into SMB to keep the core challenges clear and straightforward. 

So what do all of these guiding philosophies amount to? There's a reason why Super Mario Bros. is one of the greatest games of all time. The way I see it, it's not because the game helped pick up the video game industry. It's not because Mario helped start off Nintendo and the platforming series. It's not because there was nothing better around (there are still few games that are of SMB's quality today). Super Mario Bros. is great because the designers were conscious of every element and arrangement anticipating how gamers really play games, how difficult it is to develop knowledge skills (especially nuance), and how emergent play and gameplay is. 

The smooth Super Mario gameplay runs without a hitch because the core challenges strictly adhered to the rules without forcing the player to learn many nuances. There's no better way to understand why the level design of SMB is so great than to compare it to an indie developer who's made a series of levels via an editor. Any old level modder won't do. I need to scrutinize someone's modded levels who knows game design and Mario well. So...

I submit my own work. Before we get into it, here's a list generally gauging the nuance of Super Mario Bros. interactions.


Power/Primary Mechanic(s)


Nuance lv.1


Nuance lv.2


Nuance lv.3


Nuance lv. 4





As you can see, many of my secrets require nuanced techniques. A few areas push even the whimsical, unrealistic Mario fiction for some slightly inorganic structures. I destroyed the purity of coin placement. I created some powerups locks that only Small or Super/Fire Mario can access respectively. And some enemies push the player's reflexes to the limit. If you didn't know it coming in to this article, you should realize by now why my levels have that indie feel. Sure, there are some neat ideas, but what did I sacrifice to achieve them?

Certainly these levels won't fit in with the Super Mario Bros. levels. Perhaps my ideas mesh better Mario: Lost Levels or Bros. 3. The lights are on, my eyes are open, and I can see the mistakes I made in my design past. The bottom line is, we can measure skill, level challenge, difficulty, and even nuance. I won't stop refining my design until I can do it all. I have much to learn. Until next time.

Article originally appeared on Critical-Gaming Network (http://critical-gaming.com/).
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