Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Super Mario Galaxy: A breakup note

Last week we picked up Super Mario Galaxy. It has always been a private shame of mine that I never truly experienced Mario 64, despite all the accolades that it has garnered. Years ago, I played for the first level, enjoyed running about and marveling at the scenery. But then, as I recall, the game became impossibly difficult. Not for all people. Just for me. Completing precision jumps across lava filled 3D chasms while ominous monstrosities slobber at my heels is my own private form of hell.

The hot hookup
But Super Mario Galaxy has received universally great reviews; it maintains an ample 97.3% on It is also supposedly relatively easy to beat and the controls are dead simple, a stance in line with Nintendo's lovely new casual bent. So, what the heck. Targ├ęt, the local French emporium of stylish goods, had it on sale for 35 smackers. I figured I'd give it a shot.

So I plopped it in the Wii and sat through the drearily long intro movie. First impressions...the camera still sucks, but it is cool that you can tag the little star bits with the wiimote. Ooh, a spherical world. Wow, this camera really does suck! I'm suddenly navigating upside down and my head is cocked at a 90 degree angle. I barely know where my little dude is heading.

So I gamely struggle with the wonky interface up until the first black hole. I immediately drive my drunken Mario tank directly off the ledge into the hole's waiting maw. Boom, back at the beginning of the level I go. And I lose a life. Confusion sets in. Shouldn't there be like a quicksave or something that lets me try this dastardly trap again? Surely, a mistake made in a fraction of a second surely shouldn't be punished by a minute long replay penalty.

The frustration of not finding your soul mate
Oh, but it is. At this point I'm pissed. For me, the first hour of Super Mario Galaxy simply isn't any fun. It is stressful, irritating and it punishes me when I make the slightest mistake. And then it gets worse. I jumped from enjoying WiiSports to playing Super Mario Galaxy. The difference in expected play styles is quite the shock.
  • Time between failure and retry is too long: If you make a mistake, retrying again should only be less than 15 seconds away. Even a minute is too long. The easy levels of Knytt are just about right...3 to 10 seconds between retries. Something like Braid promises to be even better. Replay just as much as you need to.
  • Lack of dynamic difficulty: My wife died five times in a row trying to run around behind a giant tromping plant. How hard is it to reduce the difficulty level of an enemy if they end up blocking a player's progress? Make the monster tromp slower. Require fewer hits to kill. We build games in a one size fits all manner when the obvious reality is that there are lots of different types of players. Try to meet up half away instead of asking the player to do all the work.
  • Blocking linear challenges: Naturally, my wife quit the game after this repeated punishment. Classic burnout. Never block the player with a challenge that presents no option but continued failure. When the player is presented with challenge after challenge in a linear manner, eventually they get to one that they can't pass. Beating your head against such an obstacle is frustrating. Instead, let the player try something else. (Eventually you gain access to multiple galaxies at once, but not soon enough. Also most individual levels remain quite linear)
  • Too much of a focus on learning through failure and repetition: A good 80% of the levels teach the player new skills by killing them if they screw up. A player new to the 3D platformer genre is expected to rack up hundreds of deaths before they reach the end. Many areas require a half dozen or more attempts, each lasting minutes, before success is achieved. And this is fun?
If you fixed these things, it wouldn't be a Mario game
None of these problems are the fault of Super Mario Galaxy.
I'm playing the game incorrectly. My suggestions are like trying to improve a lover that isn't quite the right match. Mario is a game about all those things I want to fix. You see, when I play, my most happy moments are exploring and chatting with the little cute mushroom guys. All this jumping crap just gets in my way. But the point of Mario is the jumping crap.

Super Mario Galaxy is all about mastering physical skills. If you map out the skill atoms, everything relies on movement and timing. This is reptile brain stuff that is learned in one very simple manner: repetition. Remember, Karate Kid? Wax on, wax off. The game design is a slave to this biological requirement. If you want to encourage the player to master navigate a narrow path above a black hole, you need to force them to perform variations on that action a thousand times. Each failure improves our muscle memory a fraction more.

This is core of Mario:
  • Move accurately.
  • If you fail, you die and try again.
  • If you succeed, a new challenge appears where you must move with even greater accuracy.
There are of course some lovely exploration elements and cute graphics mixed in with the basic activiities. However, if you removed the core elements of timing and jumping, you wouldn't have a Mario platformer any longer.

It's not you, it's me
Sometimes, it is the player, not the design that is at fault. Somewhere along the way, I have diverged from the traditional gamer path. Those simple pleasures of twitching in sequence to bizarre spacial/temporal puzzles are lost on me. Instead of finding them fun, I find them to be obnoxious time wasters.

This goes back to the work of Chris Bateman, Nicole Lazzaro, Nicholas Lee and others exploring different play styles. Not all people enjoy the same sort of games. It's an obvious statement that is still making itself heard throughout the gaming ecosystem.

For example, on Nick Lee's motivation assessment test, I happen to score high on exploration and socializing tendencies, but don't really give a damn about in-game achievement.
  • I'll put up with fighting enemies or solving puzzles into order to see new vistas or get some coin to help outfitting my character. I'm not in it for the joy of the battle.
  • For a person like myself, Street Fighter is the single dumbest game of all time.
  • On the other hand, wandering about in Animal Crossing and planting sweet rows of pretty apple trees is pure crack.
With the advent of casual and indie games as well as the efforts on the DS and the Wii to broaden the market, I'm starting to see more games that I enjoy quite thoroughly. Games are beginning to finally emerge from their geeky, masochist roots and it delights me to no end.

I should have never listened to his advice
The rest of the ecoystem hasn't quite caught up. That 98% score for Super Mario Galaxy on is so horrendously polluted by a self-selection bias that it is laughable. What percentage of the reviewers fit any of the following criteria?
  • Never played a 3D platformer.
  • Mostly enjoy casual games like Bejeweled.
  • Prefer social board games like Pictionary or Scrabble.
That's a random smattering of non-hardcore play styles and skill levels present in the broader population. I suspect you'll find less than 5% of professional game reviewers fit any of those profiles. The quality signals sent by the extraordinarily biased press are completely inappropriate for anyone who hasn't been playing games as their primary hobby for the past five years.

What will it take for the game industry to adapt to the fact that different gamers like different games? I'm not sure that expert game reviewers, describing their personal tale about their unique experience with the game, have a place in telling most people which games they should play. It's like taking dating advice from a Guild Navigator, so loaded to the gills with the spice of genre addiction that they've mutated into an alien being.

For me, the solution is all about trying the game out before I purchase. This is an area where immense improvement is possible.
  • Customers need to learn to seek out demos. They also need to refuse to buy sight unseen the products that fail to offer a free trial. This is a culture change that will likely take years to complete. It is inevitable. People don't like making $40 mistakes.
  • Developers need to learn the fine art of making great demos. A great demo is a viral marketing engine that cuts out the middleman. They improve customer satisfaction and can improve the margin that a developer takes home. There is a huge opportunity here to merge the lessons of free-to-play service models with the mechanics found in current downloadable games. Unfortunately, building a demo that provides instant value, an incentive to purchase and makes users want to pass it on to others is a skill that is rarely found at most game development shops. We are seeing some early attempts on Xbox Live, the PS3 and the DS download stations, though at the moment, the demo is often a separate from the full version. As the concepts of 'free to play' and 'demo' begin to merge, developers will need to address this disconnect.
  • Platforms need to make demos the default method of promoting a game. If a game is released in the store, I should be able to download a demo online. If your platform doesn't encourage this for most games, your customers are being punished. Ideally, customers can purchase the game from within the trial. This is already the case for the casual download market and I expect it to spread quickly into other areas of the game market.
If Super Mario Galaxy had a demo, I would have tried it out and likely given it a pass.

If only I liked you...
In a way, all this makes me sad. There is an entire herd of twitchy game developers, trained for decades to worship fare like Mario Galaxy. They are out there, busting their beautiful balls to make more games that push the same exact psychological buttons as the pedestal lounging AAA titles of their childhood. They are building some great games, but those games aren't for me.

It's like meeting a girl who is cute and smart, but really, really likes the whole dressing up their boyfriend in black duct tape and then whipping them until they bleed from unmentionable orifices. You'll eventually back away, but there is always that slightest tinge of regret.

You'll find someone
This tale has a happy ending. My wife picked up the controller after I set it down in frustration. The last platformer that she played was Super Mario Bros on the original Famicom, but she figured, what the heck. She came back from being crushed by the first boss, read the walk through sites for tips and finally defeated him. From that point onward, she's been clocking in six to eight hours a day and just picked up her 60th star. She dies over and over again. The addiction and delight on her face when she ends a level is palpable. For her, the game clicks.

Perhaps after she's done, I'll pop into the levels she's already conquered and cherry pick the handful of experiences that fit my style of play. There is a beach level with a cannon and a lagoon. There isn't much there, but it is rather relaxing to hang out with the one scaredy crab (I kill off the hurtful ones) and taking the occasional lazy swim through the pristine waters.

Even universal acclaim is not enough to justify a purchase. Each player has their own distinct playing style and many of these preferences are rarely captured by the hardcore journalists who review most games. Instead of complaining about the game post-purchase, it is far better to grab a demo and experience it directly. This goes for even such gems as Super Mario Galaxy.

Happy New Year,

Updated 10:01AM, January 2nd: Clarified some of the minor bits and added a conclusion so that the main point isn't completely lost in the red haze that comes from hearing a heathen's encounter with the Holy One. :-)