Level Design Workshop (Mario Maker 2)

Mario Maker Workshop Members (July 2019 – December 2019)

Overview

  • The Mario Maker Workshop is a free online Game and Level Design school based on the communal learning method. This implies that every member of the workshop is essential for the growth of the others thanks to a system of feedback and critique organised in a spreadsheet.
  • The workshop uses Super Mario Maker 2 as engine to create and test ideas quickly.
  • Every week we focuses on a different aspect of Level Design combining both theory through articles and lectures, and practice with a series of specific assignments.
  • The workshop is still active (but the lessons are concluded) and it is managed by Richard “KirbyKid” Terrell, a game designer at Gunfire Games.

My Experience

During the workshop, I have been analysing all the existing Super Mario games in order to better understand Nintendo’s design principles used in Super Mario games. All the research was polished and stored in the workshop hub on Google Sheets (link).

In addition, I designed various levels by following the workshop weekly assignments and lessons. I was also expected to offer feedback to the other members of the workshop to grow and learn together (communal learning).

Along with the descriptions of the various assignments, I have attached the codes of the levels made by me (you will need a Nintendo Switch and the game to play them).

Assignments

Assignment #1 – Blocks Only + Extra Coins

Merry Jumps” ~ Code: NFC-FHM-SWF

“A course’s basic layout largely consists of the formations of its terrain and blocks. These structures define the space Mario can safely maneuver through. Before we think about coins, enemies, power-ups, or secrets, we have to think about how Mario can and cannot move.”

To approach this challenge, I took some references from Super Mario Bros levels and then I made some iterations of possible layouts. I put solid and breakable blocks in interesting ways and then I added coins to “lure” the player towards optional areas and extra challenges.

I put every block to create different structures with enough space between them. My aim was to create a natural flow-motion among the platforms to give the player space to experiment and “fly”.

Coins were used as breadcrumbs to guide the player and to reward who took the time and made efforts to reach optional platforms. These manoeuvres required a deep knowledge of Mario abilities and metrics of the game.

Finally, I also learned that when placing coins, you must also consider their amount, the collection difficulty and time, the travel distance required, and if any power-ups or enemies are required to grab them.

Screenshot of my first assignment + extra coins

Assignment #2 – Bonus Rooms to Go

“Bonus Rooms” ~ Code: 3BX-G4L-MRG

The second assignment was about the design of bonus rooms with no dangerous elements.

This was a perfect time to put on practice the lessons learned from the first assignment about layout and coins to create an interesting and satisfying experience.

Coins are especially important because:

  • Define optional platforming challenges
  • Mark areas that are safe
  • Hint at hidden secrets
  • Reward the player

Coins should also be always collectable, never lead to death or unfair penalties, and support the players without slowing them down.


Assignment #3 – Enemy Gauntlet

“Icy and Fire Tales” ~ Code: XQD-0SQ-YPF

I found the third assignment the most difficult one. The main problems were related to:

  • The large pool of enemies from all the Super Mario games to choose from
  • The creation of challenges without a level to support a natural development of gameplay ideas, learning, and interplay

I set my initial goals for this level to be the use of branching paths thematically different and a final boss fight with Bowser.

After some research and brainstorming, I observed the affinity of Bowser’s castle level with fire, so it made sense to me that the alternate path would have figured the ice element.

The main reason for this contrast was to surprise the player and add an extra layer of Narrative. Indeed, I named the level “Icy and Fire Tales”.

The nature of the course is immediately presented to the player at the start of the level, as shown in the picture below.

Fire Door or Icy Pipe?

I wanted the two paths to be of the same difficulty, even though they stressed a slightly different spectrum of the players’ skills repertoire: fire areas were more about analysing and solving puzzle challenges while the icy rooms focused on dexterity and reflex.

I made several iterations in order to offer the players a good, rewarding, and challenging experience in both paths.

The main challenges to overcome in this context were that each single room had their own enemies combinations; therefore, I had to make more space for letting the players move around while processing all the information required for succeeding.

As you can see from the picture below, I made various adjustments on the level layouts, enemies number and compositions, and level obstacles.

Still, the icy path was slightly more difficult than the fire one, so I made the boss enemy of the final icy room optional. Then, I added to it a key which can be used for skipping Bowser’s final boss fight. In this way, the players who take the more difficult path will be rewarded in the end.

Use the lit Bob-ombs or the Fire Flower power-up inside the ?-block to defeat Bowser

Assignment #4 – Power Lap

“Clown Magic Tricks” ~ Code: 2RP-RMR-9WG
“Full Stack Hell Yoshi” ~ Code: 6WJ-LN0-1QF

Assignment #4 – Power Lap

For this assignment, I was expected to design levels that explored the influence of powerups in Mario Level Design. I made 2 levels: the first exploring the nuances of the clown magic car while the second showcased the use of multiple powerups at the same time.

“Clown Magic Tricks” showcases the “power” of the clown car (Screenshot by Richard Terrel)

I made short and compact levels for this assignment and I focused on highlighting each property of the chosen powerups in comparison to what small Mario can achieve in the same space.

With all the basic elements of Super Mario Design (Basic Layout, Level Elements, Coins, Enemies and Powerups) done, the workshops moved to high-level concepts. Starting with Difficulty Design.

This part of the workshop was about learning skill and difficulty design using the DKART system made by Richard Terrel. Each letter represents a different type of skill: Knowledge, Dexterity, Adaptation, Reflex and Time.

The following 4 assignments required me to find examples of challenges in existing levels that stressed a specific skill, and then modify them to be less and more difficult.


Assignment #5 – KNOWLEDGE

“Analytical Power” ~ Code: Q7S-FL9-00H
“Castle Loop STM” ~ Code: DJ5-XGH-PRG
“Know Thy Hammers” ~ Code: NLX-6WB-DTF

Assignment #5 – KNOWLEDGE

I designed 3 levels for this assignment focusing on Super Mario Bros levels. Each one stresses a different sub-facet of the Knowledge skill.

“Analytical Power” stresses the analytical skills of the player to figure out how to obtain all the coins. The ?-blocks contain a mushroom power-up. I arranged the rooms based on their difficulty.

The other two levels “Know Thy Hammers” and “Castle Loops” explored the players’ ability to keep track of multiple elements at the same time (channels) and to memorise timers and jump distances for a short period of time (working/short-term memory).


Assignment #6 – DEXTERITY

“Apnea” ~ Code: 5NF-FKG-JVF
“Birds Cage” ~ Code: RPK-N5W-K7G

The second assignment about the difficulty of levels was about stressing the players’ ability to control mechanics/inputs (dexterity).

As for the previous assignment, I analysed existing levels and designed modified versions of less and more difficulty.

In “Apnea” I challenged the player to keep pressing the button to swim (stamina) and to manoeuvre through the enemies (control).

In “Bird Cage”, I wanted the player to learn some more nuanced mechanic combinations with the leaf power-up. The player can either hit the ?-block containing the vines with the Koopa’s Shell or by gliding and hitting it with the tail (leaf power-up moves).

Richard Terrel playing “Birds Cage” up to 23:06

Assignment #7 – REFLEX

“Koopa Hell” ~ Code: PXW-9XC-LDF

My goal in “Koopa Hell” was to use the slopes of the level and the (flying) Koopas to challenge the players’ ability to react to multiple entities at the same time giving enough time frame for their reflexes.

Richard Terrel playing “Koopa Hell” up to 11:36

In this level, I tried to incorporate all the elements studied and designed in the previous assignments.

The result was an experience where the players have to quickly analyse enemies, keep track of their movement, perform complex manoeuvres (some are more subtle, e.g. slope-sliding), and how this simple basic layout reinforce the design choices.

Indeed, this level is a perfect example of how “Adaptation” skill works: multiple skills blending into each other and evolving the players’ repertoire during the course of the level.

Finally, the last assignment regarding the difficulty design was about Time.


Assignment #8 – TIME

“Tick Tock” ~ Code: YVD-KHF-53G
“Spooky Clock” ~ Code: C9S-9Y1-00H
“Over the Rainbow” ~ Code: KLF-DVQ-LWG

Richard Terrell playing my levels:

“Over the Rainbow” stressing acceleratetempo challenges (14:00-18:00)
“Spooky Clock” stressing the ability to keep track of multiple timers (31:36-34:44)
“Tick Tock” stressing the capacity of dealing with complex timers (38:00-40:50)

Workbench

The last weeks of the workshop was about collaboration between workshop members to build levels.

After many weeks spent playing each other levels, we were all aware of our design strengths and weaknesses; therefore, we were able to work well together and rely on each other competences.

What the workbench for collaborating looks like (link)

I worked as a member of a team on the following levels:

First Collaboration

“Time Loop ~ Code: P94-JTR-GYF

Role

  • Encounter designer with a focus on time challenges

Tasks Completed

  • I introduced the concept of raising and descending lava as a constant timer to keep track of.
  • I modified the basic layout to keep the players on their toes because of the lava movements (some platforms are submerged when lava is up).
  • I added more doughnut blocks below the firebars to create a circular flow and safe places from the lava and enemies.
  • I added Bob-ombs coming from a pipe as an extra challenge while waiting for the snake block. The player can kick lit bob-ombs to break the walls (third picture below).
  • I added doors to reset all the timers of the level (time-loop gameplay idea).
  • Firebars used thematically as “hands of a clock”.

Second Collaboration

“Slip and Slide” ~ Code: M06-H38-48G

Role

  • Layout, Enemy, and Encounter Designer

Tasks Completed

  • I placed bullies as main enemies for their special body property: every unit that they touch (including the player) bounces away. As a consequence, the players must pay more attention if they want to slide in the slopes and keep descending fast.
  • I added Spinies to create a dangerous interplay between the slopes, the bullies, and the player abilities to slide, run, and wall-jump. This “counterpoint” adds depth to the level creating dynamic and emergent gameplay.
  • I added some extra platforms and coins where the players have to lure bullies in order to jump higher and grab the coins.
  • I added bouncing platforms as Kishōtenketsu (twist) element. This reinforces themes and gameplay ideas of the level and also surprises the players grabbing their attention (flow state).
Richard Terrel playing Slip and Slide (26:50-29:15)

Third Collaboration

“Donut Rain” ~ Code: CGR-KQG-7CG

Role

  • Layout, Enemy, Coins, Balance, Layers, and Encounter Designer

Tasks Completed

My last submission was a level collaboration with another member of the workshop. The level is called Donut Rain.

The whole experience is built around the idea of having donut platforms falling from the sky with the aim of exploring interesting dynamics and challenges in this scenario.

I was responsible of expanding the basic layout done by my team mate and to refine level layers and challenges.

You can see from the picture below the modification I made. In particular, I added thematic enemies (the cactus “Pokey” and Spikey) which work well together. For example, Spikey can hit the cactus and level elements letting the players shape their own experience.

Spikey was also placed to subvert players’ expectation of the development of the level (Kishōtenketsu), again taking inspiration from Nintendo’s 4-act development method.

Donut Rain: basic layout made by Firecakes
Donut Rain: changes I made to the level

Richard Terrel playing Donut Rain (29:43-35:15)

Final Thoughts

This experience with the Mario Maker Workshop has let me develop my skills way further my expectations. I felt that every hour I put into led to self-reflection and growth.

I wanted to improve my understanding of Game and Level design and by the end of the workshop, I am pretty satisfied with my learning growth. I feel now able to dissect games at a deeper level and to design and implement according to set principles and directions.

For the future, I would continue to refine my skills and to apply the learning lessons during my career.

Graduation stats here