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.