jueves, 29 de octubre de 2015

The Time Caverns

This has become one of my favorite among my Mario Maker levels. Mostly because it's very challenging but I hope not in an unfair way:

The id of the current version is BC99-0000-00C8-7E48. I posted the first version in /r/MarioMaker and it was decently received. But it was much harder than I intended, with only one person beating it after 24 attempts. I don't want to make levels super hard because those do badly in 100 Mario Challenge and I have very little chances for exposure.

What's interesting about this level besides of the tough enemy combinations is that it has a special system. There are 3 occasions in which at the end of an area there is a P switch, and depending of how long it took you to reach the P switch from the start of the area, the P switch will make a different vine appear that will take you to a distinct area. In this level, this feature is first used to give you a grade A or B and assign a special sub-area, depending on how well you did in the first area. Then in the second area if you took too long it will take you to a slightly longer version of the third area. And the third area is very special, at the end it will tell you a grade, either A+, B or F and end the level. Try getting an A+, it's "fun".

Two days ago, Nintendo announced that they will finally add checkpoints to the game. But the past attempts to add unofficial checkpoints to the game weren't fruitless. A common idea was to use P switches and Vines or Bob-bombs to maybe unlock certain areas depending on a password you input. This idea can be adapted to things other than passwords. In this occasion, the 'password' is replaced with 3 blocks attached to a track. It will take the blocks a while to reach the position below the Muncher and stop the Muncher from falling and blocking the Shell's path. The shell's path then determines which Vine to open.

I hope someone is reading this blog and enjoys the level.

viernes, 9 de octubre de 2015

One-screen puzzles

Shortly after Mario Maker's release date, Seth Bling of youtube fame published a level entitled "One-screen puzzle".

Levels featuring puzzles in a single screen were not a novelty, but what was and what made this level worthy of that name that implies it's THE One-screen level was that the solution was very interesting definitely not trivial and you could spend an hour trying to solve this level. It got quite a bunch of stars and a place in the elusive top 100. It made the genre rise in popularity and Seth made other 4 such puzzles since then.

As a fan of puzzle games I couldn't help but try my own take on these levels.

 Pow It - (course id: 30CB-0000-0098-7220)

Living Fire (course id: 9334-0000-0090-111E)

 Flight Day (course id: 82B6-0000-0093-FA1D)

So let's talk one-screen puzzles.

About Puzzles Levels

I may have spent a good amount of free time making levels for a puzzle game to be left unnamed for now. When I think of puzzles there are some things to find interesting. Light spoilers for Seth Bling's puzzle :
  • The mechanic(s): A puzzle level in a game like Mario that has plenty of kinds of objects and combinations between them should center around a game mechanic (you call them gimmicks when you don't like them). A player that finishes the level should leave with a new learned trick. The better and more interesting/unique the mechanic the cooler the level will be.  If you want to you can try and make a single level about multiple mechanics. It can really up the difficulty and make it more challenging but this is risky as it makes the level more confusing. I prefer centering around a single thing, specially in one-screen ones where space is tight. In Seth Bling's level above I'd say the key thing is the way the P switch is actually more solid than the caparace. That's something I didn't keep present until solving it. 
  •  The contradiction: The mechanic acts like a key, lacking the key should lead to game states in which things don't make much sense. In a Portal level, you need to push two buttons under a time limit so tight that you almost need to be two places at once. In Seth Bling's puzzle, you need to use the spring both to jump and also to send objects in another path, and it appears that one usage negates the other.
  • The diversion: The solution to the puzzle needs certain objects but just leaving them might make it too obvious that they are needed there and might make the solution seem trivial or worse, happen by total coincidence without the player realizing it. Giving some objects fake / initial roles and requiring the player to take them out of them can be a nice detail. In Seth Bling's puzzle, the red koopa's evident use is to help save Yoshi.
  • The Hints: On the other hand, you don't want the player to feel clueless about things. If the mechanic is way original the player might need help getting there. This help is really one of the hardest parts of puzzle design. You want the player to feel clever. So the clues shouldn't be super explicit, but the player should also not feel lost for too long. In Mario Maker that means they'll skip the level in a flash.
  • The Implementation: Just knowing what to do is one thing, doing it is another topic. Implementation and logic are often at odds. Too much logic and the puzzle is a pure brain teaser. While cool, it wouldn't fit too well in Mario. Too much implementation and the level is not that much of puzzle anymore. Difficulty is another thing. I dislike puzzles in which implementation is difficult because, to me, it adds frustration. You are the player and you KNOW how to solve this but the stupid puzzle just won't let you actually do it. This is the part I like least about Seth Bling's puzzle levels. After figuring it out I still needed 40 or so attempts before getting it right, at that point the level felt more like a Kaizo level than a puzzle.
If you want to try my puzzles on your own (pleeaaaase someone play my levels!) you should stop reading as I am about to spoil them big time.

Pow It

Pow It is in my opinion the easiest of the bunch. The mechanic it centers around is very simple: The Pow block makes coins fall down, this includes blocks that turned into coins because of the P switch. Big deal huh? Well you see, the contradiction is that if you don't know this there are many ways in which you'll get trapped.

The main diversion exists as the Muncher next to the P switch. Your first reflex will be to use the Pow to kill it so you can grab the P switch.

But doing means you failed the puzzle, remember the intended solution is to use the Pow while the P is active. It's not all that bad though, because using the Pow this way makes the Hint happen; The 3 coins will fall, reminding you that Pow makes coins drop.

How can this be solved? It's my least favorite part of the puzzle. I mentioned how I don't like tricky implementation, but it turns out it might be needed to be able to correctly disguise the solution. In Seth Bling's level, it's hard to make the caparace stop so you can use it again. This makes thinking of using the caparace that way less trivial. In Pow It, it appears you need to kill the Muncher to get the P switch, but it isn't exactly so...

If you somehow gently drop the Pow above the Muncher you can walk on it then with some luck you can jump and fall on the P switch. This makes the Muncher drop in height a bit allowing you to take back the pow (be careful).

I think this part of the level may have creeped a bit over what I originally intended. Are players even supposed to know how to drop the pow without activating it? That you can use it to walk on top of harmful areas?

I may do something like update the level so the pow starts on a Muncher and you can walk on it at first. Better hints or it makes it too obvious?

Living Fire

Living Fire is my favorite of the bunch because the solution is very unique. It begins with a hint: Fire balls can make bob-ombs explode. Right then it shows you a diversion, you need to rush to use a bob-omb to rescue the clown car. You certainly will need the clown car to reach the other side of the level.

That's when the troubles begin. You need to make the two other bob-ombs explode. But the fire can't be moved. There's a yoshi which can eat fire and then use it to throw 3 fireballs, but Yoshi is on a side of the level too far from the fire that falls from the pipe (contradiction).

The mechanic is actually funny: If you live the clown car right below the pipe, the fire ball will take control over the clown car. Did you notice they have eyes? Turns out these fireballs are alive!

Once possessed, the clown car will move towards Mario but is mostly harmless (unless you touch the fire "brain") you can jump to push the clown places. A good place is the bob-omb on the top. So that was the real use of the starman , you didn't only need it to go through the saws but also to kill the fireball and take back control of the clown car.

It's unfortunate that there are no hints that this is even possible. My big hope is that while trying to do things and jumping around it happens naturally that the fire ball possesses the clown by accident. Then they can turn that into a solution.

This doesn't solve how to explode the other bob-omb and what Yoshi's role is in all this, but I think that's enough spoilers.

Flight Day 

There's one key mechanic / puzzle to solve in this level and it is that conveyor belts allow Caped Mario / Tanoki Mario to gain momentum in a small space. To divert away from this, I put the giant spiny on top of the conveyor belt, making it seem like the belt is there just to keep the spiny in place. The koopa then needs to be used in two situations: One is free get the leaf from the question block. But we also need to kill the spiny. There are two ways to do this, both require you to really know how to throw shells.

That secures one pow. The rest of the level is about using the other traits of the cape and this extra pow to get the other pow. This one is really implementation-heavy, but I enjoyed the result so I'm sharing it.

Thanks for reading

Play my levels!

jueves, 8 de octubre de 2015

Super Mario Maker - The Bad

Hello everyone,

Have you heard of Super Mario Maker? It's a wonderful game by Nintendo that allows you to "create and share" your own Super Mario Levels.

I first heard of it in June when I found the Nintendo World Championship Finals video in youtube and I have been getting hyped for it since. By August I was really excited, just a couple more days and we should go buy a wii U and get Super Mario Maker.

On September the 1st, a car hit me and I temporarily lost right arm mobility. I was sad because of all the things I was going to miss out, including SMM. Except, that by the 10-th I was still hyped and realized that it was actually possible to still play Mario using the gamepad attachment in the Wii controllers. So all was setup and I still acquired it. To say that this game has made me endure the long wait for my bones to heal would be an understatement. I really think the distraction and the lack of frustration from missing out has been a massive help to my mental health during all of this and also I have the perfect reason not to stop using my right hand fingers during this.

The Game itself is top notch. Even though I watched so many videos that few things were really a surprise to me. I was ready to start making "the levels of my dreams" and the interface was not going to be an obstacle. Everything about creating levels in this game flows incredibly well. The strange touch screen Wii U 'controller' works extremely well and this game makes it seem like a good idea. It's really impressive.

I made some levels, I submitted them. I was also very interested in playing levels from others, so I played them. There was just a small problem...

... Nobody plays my levels

I don't think I am exaggerating. To this date, My oldest level, "Use the Shells" has been played by 45 different people. It's my second-most played level. My most played level has 61 plays.

In the image, the number next to the foot icon represents the number of people who played it. The flag represents the number of times it has been passed (four!) and the number below it the total number of tries. Out of the 45 people who played, they in total played 290 times. This means on average each person invested 6.44 attempts to win my level. I've received 6 stars.

I created this level on Saturday 12-th, a day after the official release date. I was barely spamming objects on the course creator hoping to unlock new elements when it occurred me to make a semi-puzzle level using shells. There were some okay ideas in this but nothing outworldly, just situations in which you need to kick shells in order to break blocks. Tried to have a Mario flow in the level, making the complexity progressive and adding breaks in which you can get coins / gratuitously kill enemies outside of the puzzle setting.

This was not a good level. In fact, I corrected it and made a version with less frustrating aspects. I'm not complaining about the low success or star rate. But the low play count overall. Must mention that many other levels I made in which I spent more effort have even less people playing them. We are talking of a total of 45 people, since release weekend, in a game that sold millions of units. For comparison, the top starred level has more than 750000 next to the foot icon. What is going on?

Top Starred Courses

What does a player who want to play other people's levels do? The first suspect is the list of the top starred levels. The number of stars needed to be in this list is around the hundreds, and that's assuming the player will bother to scroll down and reach the bottom of the list.

ars technica published an elaborate analysis of the levels you can find in this list. It's not really the type of levels that is concerning to me. I don't share the vocal dislike for autoplay levels. A far more worrying trend is that every author you can find in this list seems to have visibility as a youtuber, or is a big streamer in twitch or has been otherwise featured in a large channel. Don't get me wrong, most of the levels in this list are very nice levels (although a couple of youtubers are definitely overrated). The problem is that in order to reach this top list you need to be already famous.

One of the issues is that the list is stale. Even the option to consider only stars from last week doesn't seem to stop it. Once you play many of the levels in this list, you'll notice that it barely experiences any change. It would be nice to be able to downright hide any level older than a week. I would also love a "last day"  option and perhaps even a "last hour" once. It seems that there's only a "last week" option because Nintendo didn't expect the enormous volume of courses that was uploaded.


There's another section called featured. It's nowhere explained how this section works. Many players believe these levels were picked by Nintendo staffers. Watching this list closely doesn't seem to confirm this. For example, there's a [refresh] button that makes a completely new list to appear. If these were manual picks, you wouldn't expect them to go away as easily.

It's possible that this list shows levels that are found via heuristic to be getting stars in an unusual radio. Some of the levels that appear in this list can be quite good, but there can also be some less good ones. The inconsistency hints towards an automatic kind of curation being involved.


The 100 Mario Challenge

For level makers that are not widely known and who aren't willing to put the work that is promoting their work. The 100 Mario Challenge is the only hope to have levels become known.

The 100 Mario Challenge let's you pick three difficulties: Easy, Normal and Expert. It then provides 100 lives to beat 16 levels (8 in easy mode). If the player is successful, they rescue princess Peach and unlock a weird mushroom costume - These costumes allow Mario to look like another character, there's a wide variety of costumes to unlock including characters from other Nintendo franchises and even Sonic, Megaman, Pacman and Some Pokemon are available. If you instead lose all 100 lives, you get a game over screen. During the game and when the course is beaten, you can leave comments and stars if you like the level. If you don't like a level or think it's too difficult, you can skip it at the cost of one life. The whole process of finding worthy levels without external aid is centered around this challenge.

The problem is that the challenge is motivation for players to beat 16 levels. But it doesn't matter which one. There's no reward for persistence, in fact, it's punished. Players who skip levels aggressively whenever there's too much risk in the level will lose lives at a smaller rate and have more chances to unlock the costumes. Nothing encourages the player to star / comment the levels they liked. In addition, there are levels out there that are made in bad faith: Levels that are unbearably difficult unless you are the author and know the secret shortcut to the end. These shortcuts can be very elaborate and obscure or rely on bugs in the game, making the levels effectively impossible for anyone who is not the author. After facing such things and also the frequent low quality levels, players of 100 Mario challenge would run out of patience and be more prone to skip.

If your level has failed to call the interest of the player and has made them lose a couple of lives already, it might be skipped. This will ensure the success rate stays low, 0% or close to 0%. In turn this will make the level be classified as Expert. In Expert mode, the problems are amplified. Not only are players less willing to spend lives in your level, there are also far less players playing in Expert mode. Once my levels reach this state, I can easily tell because the rate at which players play the level drops noticeably.

Following Makers

The game also provides an option to follow your favorite makers. Unfortunately, a more suitable name for this feature would be 'bookmark'. You can have a list of makers you like and manually open their pages to see their levels. It would be far more useful if it generated a feed with the latest levels by people you follow (and perhaps also levels starred by them). In its current state this feature is useful only to save you the hassle of constantly typing your friends' level ids.

Up and Coming 

"Up and Coming" is the section that shows levels as they are uploaded. Few people seem to like the idea of trying these levels. This section is useful to see one of the root issues: One thing you can tell is that hitting the refresh button makes a bunch of newer levels appear. It seems like a couple of minutes sees the upload of a few tens of levels if not hundreds. There's just too many levels. We are talking far more than a single person can play in their whole life.

"You may also like"

One last method the game provides for discovery consists of a list of courses you may like to try just after playing another one. The results seem to be also based on stars and similarity to the course you just played. The suggestions tend to always have an already large amount of stars.

What does it matter what others think about your level?

Why not just enjoy making levels and sharing them with friends? Unfortunately, SMM is presented as a game and like even the most closed-minded definition  of a game, it has failure conditions. There's a limit on the number of levels that you can share, the only way to raise this limit is earning stars. If you wish to share levels with your friends you will need to keep the limit in mind.

Worse still, The Manual implies that levels that don't reach an undisclosed amount of stars will eventually be deleted.

I wish you could share levels in private , outside of the limits and without the level getting picked for 100 Mario challenge. Until then earning stars is really a mandatory part of the game if you are the kind of person to want to make a plenty of new things.


Third Party Sites

In the realization that the game's methods for course discovery won't help you when your level has barely any plays and less than 10 (or 3) stars, you might try to advertise your level in third party sites. That's the moment you realize that everyone is having exactly the same problem.

Try any article in a major site discusing Mario Maker without asking for level ids. There will be people posting level ids in the comments. E.g these replies to the Kotaku article by Patricia Hernandez about how to find good levels:

The worst part of it is that it doesn't work. Very few people will actually try random level ids they find.

Try a twitter search for #SuperMarioMaker and #MarioMaker HTs. Ignoring the large accounts and the videos, you will find find plenty of ids, in tweets that seem to have no RTs or Favorites or interactions whatsoever.

Nintendo Life has a section where users can submit levels. There are currently over 7000 submissions, but the top rated level has ... 27 likes.

The /r/MarioMaker subreddit has a daily level exchange thread. You are encouraged to play 4 levels before posting your own level id. If people followed these rules, posting your level would be almost guarantee that 4 people will play it. In practice, you are lucky if one person plays it. I've had mixed luck with this but many times I play 4 levels (and the levels tend to be very good) and comment and give feedback but have my level ignored or played by a single person that gives no feedback.

You may try going to twitch and find the rare streamers who don't do 100 Mario Challenge or stream their own level making. A handful of streamers may accept requests to play specific ids. These streamers eventually find their queues collapsed of id requests and decide to stop accepting them.

There's an intrinsic problem in trying to use third party sites to promote your levels. Those sites are already full of other people trying exactly the same. Meanwhile, the players seem to prefer to stick to the (poor) tools the game provides. This might be the reason players find themselves complaining about the terrible quality of Mario Maker levels. Like this now infamous post in the Washington post: “Super Mario Maker” is an engine for circulating horrible new “Mario” levels

To Sum Up

Nobody plays my Mario Maker levels and there are plenty of level creators finding themselves in the same situation. Meanwhile, players willing to play nice levels have to settle with a very poor curation system that mostly benefits people with large fames prior to the existence of the game. SMM is one of the first serious attempts from Nintendo to rely on player content and it shows. Something must be done about this.

Meanwhile, I'll keep spending hours developing and updating levels that will be played for a minute before skipped in Mario Challenge. I have way too much fun doing this and will dedicate this blog to talk about my attempts. I plan to include serious opinions like this post and also Level/Game Design talk. I have no control in regards to how many people play my levels, but I can put my best effort to make the few ones who do stay engaged and not frustrated.

I really, really want to talk about my levels. Welcome to this Mario Maker blog.