What Super Mario Maker Taught Me About Design

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08 Oct What Super Mario Maker Taught Me About Design

It probably isn’t much of a secret around the office that I greatly enjoy video games. A few weeks ago, the game Super Mario Maker was released and, being a big Mario fan, it was hard to pass up. The point of the game is for users to create their own Super Mario Bros. stages with a simple to use drag and drop interface, and share them with friends and other players around the world. While I haven’t had the time to dive into this game like I would really like to, it’s surprisingly taught me a few things about user design and experience that can be applied to many areas of design.

Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

Super Mario Maker hides most of its tool set behind a play wall, meaning that the more you create, the more items and options you will be allowed to use. It is a novel idea because it forces users to familiarize themselves with the building process. However, once they have access to everything, many users build levels using too many ideas at once. These stages are frustrating and simply not fun to play. I personally skip any stage that has too much going on.

Remember to limit your design. If you have 50 ideas for a product, all 50 aren’t going to work well together. Go back through your ideas and pick the very best ones to nurture, even if it means sacrificing some good ideas (they can always be used in another project).

Your design is never as friendly as you think.

I spent over three hours creating and fine tuning one of my levels in Super Mario Maker. I was convinced that what I built was a well-made stage and, while I still think the idea behind my stage was sound, the execution was another story.

At first I noticed that players were not completing my level, so I looked at the data— how many people have played a stage, how many succeeded in finishing it, and where the players lost lives. This feedback was helpful, but not helpful enough. I was torn as to why people were not finishing my stage. Surely what I built was incredible!

It wasn’t until I watched people actually play it in person that I saw the flaws in my design. After watching one person struggle with the stage, I went back into the editor, cut out half the content and added more items to make it easier. Then, I watched another person try it. They still struggled. The stage was a complete failure.

The stage in question. The tiny X's show where players lost and, as you can see, the Clear Rate is very low.

The stage in question. The tiny X’s show where players lost and, as you can see, the Clear Rate is very low.

 

It helps tremendously to have another set of eyes look at a design or project. When building something, you learn it inside and out. It becomes hard to detach yourself from a project. Handing something off to someone with a fresh set of eyes and observing how they use it can mean the difference between a successful product and a poor one. Which brings me to my next point.

If something is easy to understand, make it easier, and then make it easier again.

Of course, as the designer, you have no trouble understanding your concept, but before you consider handing it off to someone to test, go through and iterate on what you already have. Strip out the fluff and make it easier to understand. Once you’re at that point, go through and repeat the process again. The goal is simplicity.

Slowly introduce your concept and build on it.

It can be enticing to show your hand all at once, but you want to ease users into your experience. In the case of a Super Mario Maker stage, that means allowing the player to fail at the start. Maybe there is a tricky jump that sets the precedent for all future jumps, and instead of having a bottomless pit, you give the player a chance to fall and get themselves out of it. Get the user to trust you at first, and as the stage goes on, you can slowly begin to turn up the heat. By not overwhelming the user with options up front, you’re able to allow them time to learn how to use your product. In no time at all they’ll be masters and hopefully having fun.

This stage applies many of the lessons I learned. It's compact, short, and slowly introduces tougher challenges. The result is a much higher Clear Rate and more people enjoying themselves.

This stage applies many of the lessons I learned. It’s compact, short, and slowly introduces tougher challenges. The result is a much higher Clear Rate and more people enjoying themselves.

 

Use these steps as a  strong foundation for a great user experience, and get ready to crank out a badass Mario stage too.

Philip Summers
psummers@leadnomics.com

Philip Summers is the web and design manager at Leadnomics. He's an expert designer and animator dedicated to optimizing user experience and website aesthetics. According to legend, he's also a world-class salsa dancer.

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