Game Design, It’s More Complex Than You Think

Recently I was looking into theoretical game design and found one of the most awesome, in-depth articles I’ve ever read. It’s a scientific study on the game design of Super Mario World, one of the grandest games ever created. It runs through level design, difficulty curves, placement of obstacles and a huge amount of other things while still keeping a light and easy to read style that even fans of games (let alone anyone who has delved into the crazy world of game design) will love reading. Entitled “Reverse Design: Super Mario World”, here’s a few choice quotes (it’s a long article, these quotes barely dip their toes into the depths that the full article gets into):

There was an article that came out during the writing of this document which I actually liked and found useful, but which illustrates this point clearly. The article included tips like "level design should be efficient" and "good level design is driven by your game’s mechanics" with general explanations of what those principles mean. I agree with both those points completely, but they're not especially helpful to anyone who hasn't already been designing levels for a long time. Although that article offers some great, bigger-picture philosophical principles on game design, it doesn't answer the questions "what do I put in this level?" or "how do I keep level 3 from being too much like level 5, while still keeping them similar?" or numerous others a designer might ask on the way towards creating a game. Our study of Super Mario World aimed to explain how Nintendo answered those questions for that game in particular; what we discovered is applicable to a great variety of games. The construction of Super Mario World reveals a pattern; following that pattern not only makes it possible to fill levels with content, but to make both those levels and the whole game coherent. This pattern exhibits three levels of ascending complexity: the challenge, the cadence, and the skill theme.


A composite game is one in which a player can use the mechanics and abilities of one genre to solve the problems of another genre, making it a composite of two videogame genres. The first game to exhibit all the features of a modern composite game was Super Mario Brothers (abbreviated SMB) in 1985, which is both a platformer and an action game. In the case of SMB, the player uses platforming game mechanics (jumping) to solve action game problems (defeating enemies). Jumping on the head of a Goomba to defeat it typifies the intersection of genres that makes SMB so great. The hallmark of composite design is not just a mash-up of genres stretched across the course of a game, but rather a particular way in which the genres are combined.

This is just a tiny portion of the article that I found within the first two pages (there’s many more than two pages). It’s a touch technical, but having read the whole thing, I really think that anyone who has any interest in game design, hell, even any interest in playing games could find a lot of fun and insight reading through this treasure trove of knowledge about game design.


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