Methods of Analysis and Mario

In the following, I will analyze the gameplay experience of the original Super Mario Bros. as a demonstration of two analytical methods.¹ First, I will isolate the variety of goals common to all goal-oriented games. Second, I will use an overlooked object-based analysis to complement the more common action-based analysis. Through these methods, a better understanding of a game’s generalized experience can be accessed.

The Variety of Goals
Most video games have a variety of goals. Global goals (those that encompass the entire gameplay experience) are either internally or externally constructed. The internal goals are either based in the game’s narrative reality or in the game’s mechanics, while the game’s external goals are socially constructed.

Goals_FlowchartThe dashed line indicates the jump from global to local.

In conversation, I might adopt a global goal to explain a game. “I’m trying to save the princess,” I might say, referencing the narrative goal. Or instead, “I’m trying to finish the game,” referencing a mechanic-informed goal. In yet another explanation, I might say “I’m trying to beat my high score,” or “I’m trying to beat my best time.” None of these explanations capture the essence of Mario, however. All are about reaching an end state, not about the process necessary to reach it.

To understand the gameplay and generalize the game’s individual experiences, analyze local goals instead. The way to access these local goals is by separating global goals into their elements. To achieve Mario’s mechanic-informed global goal (completing the game), a player must complete worlds, which depends upon completing levels. Assuming the player has basic familiarity with Mario, to complete a level, the player must not die. Avoiding death may be considered the irreducible local goal, but it is passive. Translated to an action, the player’s local goal is to gain lives.

Some of these steps from the global to the local were less than obvious, but the point is to understand a game’s experience more accurately. This division could similarly be performed for the other two global goals. I wouldn’t expect the narrative goal to provide much insight for Mario—the fiction has little bearing on the gameplay—but a social goal might lead to a very interesting (and very different) analysis. I will be focusing exclusively on the mechanic-informed local goal (to gain extra lives) from this point onward.

Actions and Objects
While designers such as Anna Anthropy and Chris Crawford have recommended an action- or verb-based analysis of games, this method overlooks aspects. Even though the platformer genre is associated with the act of “platforming,” it is just as associated with collectibles. I do not suggest either mode of analysis in isolation, but an object-based analysis is especially valuable for this genre.

For example, in level 1-1 there is a choice to descend a pipe into a secret area and gain 19 coins or to continue onward with the opportunity for a hidden 1-up, a mushroom (or fire-flower), a star, and 15 coins. What at first appears to be beneficial to the goal is comparatively detrimental. However, this judgment depends on the local goal; a speed-runner would take the “detrimental” route. An action-based analysis overlooks the experience of exploration created through objects.

Objects also affect player choice through the conflict of risk and reward. In level 8-2 there is a 1-up that, while easily found, requires the player to proceed past three winged turtles at an uncomfortable speed. Moving too quickly or too slowly will force the 1-up off screen, and the player will gain nothing. A similar risk occurs again in 8-2 with a mushroom surrounded by bullets and another flying turtle. Objects provide the framework for actions, and challenges imbue objects with value.

More specifically, consider the role of invisible blocks. From the action-analysis, they oppose the player’s expectations. The anticipated jump is interrupted, and the player potentially loses a life for their accidental discovery. Once a hidden block is made visible, however, it extends the range of the player’s actions by providing a new surface to jump off of. Often more valuable is the unexpected content, though. Discovering a secret 1-up or discovering coins concealed in brick is satisfying. This sense of discovery is a central experience in Mario that would be less easily understood from an action-based analysis alone.

The local goal is made meaningful through scarcity as well. In Mario there are three ways to gain lives. For objects, the player can either collect 100 coins or a single 1-up mushroom. This ratio creates value that only exists due to the comparison. For actions, the player can perform a turtle-shell trick. (This means hitting a turtle shell 9 times by either jumping on it repeatedly, hitting it against 8 other enemies, or some combination.) This trick requires several conditions, making it as rare as 1-up mushrooms, while inherently more difficult.


From this local, mechanic-informed goal of gaining lives, skilled play is characterized by creating optimal routes through objects and actions, risks and rewards. Mario becomes about much more than beating the game or saving the princess.²

TL;DR When analyzing games, it’s beneficial to ask “How does gameplay (constructed by the interaction of objects and actions) affect local goals and, by extension, the generalized experience of a game?”

¹ The version of Super Mario Bros. referenced is from the SNES Super Mario Bros. All Stars.

² This analysis also provides a baseline from which other Mario games may be compared. I will leave this for later, but in brief, a trend of devaluing bonus lives becomes apparent from Super Mario Bros. 3 onward.

Related Reading:
Anna Anthropy’s “Level design lesson: to the right, hold on tight.”

Robert Yang’s “Ludodiegesis, or Pinchbeck’s unified field theory of FPS games.”

A Theory of Cooperative Competition

In cooperative games, players act against a common opposition, while in competitive games players oppose one another. I want to approach these terms—competitive and cooperative—in a different way. Instead of a struggle for shared success, it is useful to define cooperation as a struggle for shared enjoyment.

This definition decouples success from enjoyment, because there can be enjoyment in defeat. When I die in a game to protect my friends regardless of their success without me, when a friend suddenly falls and our virtual mortality is made tangible, or when we resist defeat in a glorious last stand, we have found an enjoyment distinct from success. These examples are a narrow sampling of cooperative gameplay. Cooperative enjoyment can also be part of competitive games. Consider the following examples:

Chess has four general outcomes. 1) Player A wins by a significant amount, and Player B loses. 2) Player A loses by a significant amount, and Player B wins. 3) Player A and Player B tie. 4) Player A wins or loses in a close game.

Because Chess is competitive, success would only be upon victory. This means that outcome 1 is the goal, followed in order of desirability by outcomes 4, 3, and 2. However, anyone who has played Chess knows that outcomes 1 and 2 are the least interesting; a four-move checkmate is only amusing the first time.

The ideal chess game is outcome 4, a series of cunning traps that are detected and circumvented until one succeeds, regardless of victory or defeat. This reality makes more sense from the perspective of cooperative enjoyment than from the traditional notion of competition. Both players are cooperating for the shared enjoyment of outcome 4.

There is also an unusual amount of trust involved. Stronger players might remove pieces, modify rules, or secretly weaken their strategies as handicaps to increase the likelihood of outcomes 4 and decrease the likelihood of outcomes 1 or 2. Either player could also intentionally lose, forcing outcomes 1 or 2, and eliminating all enjoyment. There is a mutually expected sportsmanship.


A visual summary of Chess

The second example is Call of Duty (any of the games since 2007’s Modern Warfare will do). There are three general outcomes in a multiplayer match of CoD. 1) Player A’s kill-death ratio is negative. 2) Player A’s kill-death ratio is positive. 3) Player A’s kill-death ratio is neutral, give or take. This is a specific way of playing CoD; most players ignore deaths and focus instead on whether they were on the winning team or not. However, kill-death ratio is the only way a player can influence my team’s success or failure, so that is the metric I chose. (If recent CoD games offered support interaction, like the medics of CoD3, this would not be the case.) Even so, these categories are scalable down to each engagement in a match, and up to a session of matches without changing my findings.

The only enjoyable outcome is 2. Like any effective random reward schedule, outcome 2 happens just often enough for players to continue playing. Outcome 1 leaves players frustrated, but there is a need to redeem oneself and play “one more match.” Outcome 3 is almost as bad, because players know they are capable of outcome 2. And so they play again.

Most modern competitive shooters amplify these problems. They are designed for competition (and victory), rather than cooperative enjoyment. CoD’s “score streaks” unlock bonuses (e.g. airstrikes, helicopters, dogs) that behave as positive feedback loops. These bonuses cause arbitrary death, which causes the positive feedback loop of frustration. Unreal Tournament 2004’s “adrenaline” also unlocked bonuses (e.g. invisibility, health regeneration, speed boost), but these were not arbitrary.

Unlike Chess, there is no way to examine CoD for cooperative enjoyment. Even if players have friends on their team, the only cooperative interaction is by sharing tactical knowledge, and the benefits of this in CoD are limited. In short, CoD’s multiplayer is severely asocial.


A visual summary of CoD

TLDR; A multiplayer game’s encounter/match/session needs to be intrinsically satisfying, or else only victory will be. Thinking of competition through the perspective of cooperative enjoyment may help in achieving this.

Note: the graphs are visual representations of my quantified subjective experiences. They are not based upon data I have collected. I could have made the curve steeper for Call of Duty, or scored a tie in Chess less enjoyably, so read them cautiously.

On Multiplayer Level Design: Basics

I’ve designed amateur levels for a while now.¹ For each level, I’ve attempted to explain the rationale behind my specific layout or weapon choices, yet I’ve never written about a general theory of multiplayer level design. That is the point of this post.

Below are several abstracted principles, and though I’ve written them as absolutes for clarity’s sake, they are my subjective observations. The first three principles should be apparent; these are my advice for new level designers. The last three are debatable, so I have attempted to defend them in the text below.

1. A successful design follows from familiarity with the game. Play until you understand.

2. Playing games is necessary, but not sufficient, to understand them.

3. Understanding differs from skill. Inept players can be capable designers.

4. Levels do not exist in isolation.

5. Mechanics inform, but do not determine, level design.

6. Levels are the medium through which players encounter a game’s systems.²

In early 2008 I purchased Unreal Tournament 3 because it had a level editor, not because I loved Unreal. My early levels were flawed by this; they played like Call of Duty, Halo, or whatever I was playing at the time. This isn’t a problem that goes away either. My latest designs are visibly influenced by Quake III. The solution is to be aware of these influences when designing.

In the early Unreal games, there was no codified style. Unreal suffered from imbalanced and redundant weaponry. Although UT99 reduced these problems, the level style was inconsistent. Compare Inoxx’s SpaceNoxx or Pyramid to Akuma’s Viridian or Malevolence. The divergence of styles made UT99 many games in one.

UT2k4 and UT3 were more consistent. Separate styles bound the levels to their respective games. Checker’s Ironic belongs to UT2k4, not UT99 or UT3.³ This same stylistic consistency is true of Quake III, Team Fortress 2, and Counter Strike. I could build Dust in Unreal, but I would be ignoring both mechanical and stylistic differences between the two games. Dust would not be an ideal expression of “Unreal-ness.”

Yet, when modding for UT3 was at its peak, ports of Quake III levels were common. From a mechanical view, these two games are almost identical. The movement, the weapons, and the power-ups are similar. They could be the same game. The style of their levels is incompatible, though, and it’s at this point that most ported levels failed.

One-way paths, dead-ends, and narrow corridors are typical of Quake levels. These elements reinforce strategies built around timing pickups. Many paths are pointlessly dangerous without timing items correctly. UT2k4 and UT3 levels avoid this style of design. Although timing is a part of strategic play, predicting the enemy’s location relative to one’s own is more important.

There are exceptions in both games, though. Quake III’s Vertical Vengeance is compatible with UT3 (Moonflyer built an excellent port), and Inoxx’s UT99 levels are arguably more compatible with Quake than with Unreal. Despite these exceptions, I think my points about the role of level design still stand.

This summer I had a brief, freelance level design gig. An independent programmer needed levels for his mechanically complete game. He requested something like Quake or Unreal, and though there were several design restrictions, he gave me enormous freedom. By designing the first multiplayer level for the game, I was central to defining the style, and—by extension—defining the game.

In designing levels, even as an amateur, be aware. No level exists in isolation, and familiarity with a game’s style and mechanics is essential when designing levels for it. Reviews seldom mention level design, and indies are quick to cut corners, but its role can’t be ignored. If nothing else, remember that to design, you have to play.


¹ I use “amateur” in both senses of the word. I design my levels out of love for the process, but I’m also not paid for my work.

² In games like Skyrim, I consider both the main world and individual dungeons to be levels. There are also many games without levels; this principle doesn’t apply to them.

³ Checker’s Ironic was originally built for UT2k3, not UT2k4. However, the two games and their level design styles are much more similar to each other than they are to UT99 or UT3.