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.