I have noticed a business opportunity. Sadly, I can’t take advantage of it. I’m already overloaded with projects and have no time for game development. So to get it out of my system, I’m going to explain the idea. This is like a pitch meeting, only instead of asking you for investment money so I can make the game, I’m suggesting you go get the money from someone else and then do it yourself. If you peel away that nonsensical premise, then I suppose you’ll find a very roundabout criticism of Nintendo buried in here somewhere.
This will sound like a lame copycat idea at first, but hear me out. There’s a good reason why this makes financial sense, which I’ll get to eventually. But before we do that, let’s start by talking about this YouTube channel dedicated to streaming Super Mario Maker levels.
Super Mario Maker is a platformer for the Wii U, utilizing the now-familiar Mario-styled gameplay. It’s got all the polish and quality of a Super Mario Brothers game. The difference here is that users can create their own levels and upload them for other people to experience. As you browse through the ocean of user-made content the game lets you see some stats regarding each level. How many times have people played this level? How many of those attempts resulted in success? What’s the fastest anyone has cleared the level?
Rhyukahr, the YouTuber I linked above, uploads a lot of videos where he attempts to run through some of the hardest levels (according to clear rate) the community has to offer. He does livestreams and then uploads highlight reels of this to YouTube. What we have here is a four-part community: 1) Some people make levels. 2) Other people play levels. 3) Some people watch the players live. 4) Some people watch the compilation on YouTube. These four groups obviously overlap with each other, but the point is that there are a lot of ways to engage with this game.
My suggestion is that weAnd by “we” I mean “anyone besides me”. make a Super Mario Maker knockoff, except our game will be targeted at PC / Xbox / Playstation. Here’s what’s involved:
- Design a game around a strong set of platforming mechanics. We don’t need to mindlessly copy the Mario template of POW blocks, P-Switches, mushrooms that enable you to shoot fire, and sewer pipes. In fact, we shouldn’t. Those elements aren’t the magic behind Mario anyway. What makes Mario work is that it’s a tight and responsive platformer with a high skill ceiling that features a lot of different mechanics that can be combined in interesting ways. While iconic, things like mushrooms and Koopas are merely cosmetic. Games like Dustforce, Super Meat Boy, Spelunky, and Braid all manage to deliver brilliant platfroming experiences without copying the Mario formula.
- Give the game a built-in level editor. The player should be able to stop a level at any point and jump seamlessly into edit mode. The mechanics should support pure platforming (like Super Meat Boy) but also allow for action elements (Spelunky-type stuff) or puzzle gameplay (levers and switches and keys and doors) based on what interests the level designer.
- Give it a strong art style. This one should go without saying, but 2D platformers are a very art-forward genre. It might be tempting to distill the experience down to simple geometric shapes, but user expression is going to be a big part of this game and we want to draw in spectators, so we need to spend some money on the art.
- Create a server that allows players to browse the library, search for new levels to play, give non-textual feedback to creators, and keep track of who has beaten which levels. We can have player-focused leaderboards to see who is beating the hardest levels, but also creator-focused leaderboards to show who is making the most popular levels.
- Create tools for server-side level validation. Since this game is going to be on the PC, we also need the server to validate levels. As In Mario Maker, we’ll make it so that you can’t upload a level until you’ve personally beaten it. Otherwise, the level library will become polluted with frustrating unbeatable levels. The challenge here is that since we’re on the PC, users can hack the game client to bypass this and submit any random nonsense level they like. To fix this, the game will submit your winning inputs as part of the level. Both Devil Daggers and Pac-Man Championship Edition have a system like this to validate scores on the leader boards. If a score looks bogus, you can click on it to see a replay. We can use a similar system to discard bogus levels.
This might sound like a lot of work. Spoiler: You’re right. It’s certainly more work than just making a 2D platformer. In fact, this is probably double the work of just making a standalone single-player game.
Why Would We Make This?
The ecosystem of YouTube, Twitch, and Steam forms a feedback loop that sells games. People buy games they see on Twitch, they stream games they own, and they watch Twitch streams of games they’ve played. Fortnite, Five Nights at Freddy’s, Getting Over It, and Amnesia are all games that boosted their visibility and sales through spectators. I think a Mario Maker style game is uniquely positioned to leverage this kind of system and become the next fountain of highlight reels, memes, running jokes, fail GIFs, and micro-communities built atop an ever-shifting metagame.
The key here is that Mario Maker is a great game for streaming. It’s not incomprehensible to outsiders like DOTA 2. It’s not a one-note murderfest like Fortnite, PUBG, and GTA V. It’s not abstract like Hearthstone. It’s not a chaotic explosion of particle effects like Overwatch. Visually, Mario is as easy to follow as watching someone do a free-throw in basketball. You can glance at the game and immediately grasp the central mechanics: You can see where the player needs to go and you can intuit the nature and difficulty of the challenge just by looking at the parabola of the character’s jump. In Hearthstone, someone needs to explain what all these cards do, but in Mario Maker you can immediately understand why spikes and open pits are bad and coins are good.
The game can have a fast-moving laid-back feel if you’re just exploring a puzzle level. Or it can have a frantic feel if you’re doing some sort of time trial. Or it can be a cruel comedy like Getting Over It as the audience watches the player endure a series of pranks on the part of a sadistic designer.
Some people will watch the game and want to make levels for it. Once you’re making levels, you’ll want to hone your skills. You can’t upload a level until you’ve personally beaten it, so getting better at the game will allow you to create more challenging levels. While you’re sharpening those skills you might decide to stream to others, where more people will discover the game and continue the cycle of creation, mastery, and sharing.
But Mario Maker Already Exists!
This is where the business opportunity comes in. Yes, Mario Maker exists. It’s also true that no matter how much money you spend on art, your team will never be able to attain the iconic nature and global cultural dominance enjoyed by Mario. But while those are great attributes to have, you don’t need them for success. Mario Marker is a strong idea and it could easily succeed without the Mario branding.
The problem is that Mario Maker is the right game on the wrong platform. The Wii U was not a successful console and everything about the device, the audience, and the Nintendo ecosystem is working against it. I’ve been checking Twitch for the last few days, and regardless of time of day or day of week, Mario Marker barely registers. At the momentLate on a Thursday night / Friday morning. there are about 800 people watching Super Mario Maker right now. The Last of Us is an older game from an earlier console generation based on bog-standard shooter gameplay that varies very little from player to player, and yet that game has 2,800 viewers right now. Age of Empires II is a real time strategy game from 1999, and it’s got 3,000 viewers. I’ve never even heard of Hunt: Showdown, but 5,000 people are watching that right now.
But despite having rock-solid mechanics, a brilliant system of creation and sharing, and the strongest branding in all of gaming, SMM barely registers. So what’s holding it back?
- The Wii U is a weak platform. Its sales were poor and what few fans it has are quickly leaving for the Nintendo Switch. This means the possible audience for SMM is already going to be pretty low. On top of that, streaming and sharing video from a Nintendo platform is not easy. Assuming you’re looking to do Twitch streaming, then you need a gaming PC and some way to get the console footage over to the PC. That setup requires about $100 of equipment and some technical know-how. That’s not an insurmountable obstacle or anything, but given the small size of the existing userbase, you can’t afford to have that kind of barrier to entry. On the PC, all of this is much easier.
- Nintendo’s business practices have had a chilling effect on user-made Nintendo content. Nintendo is fond of issuing takedown notices to YouTube channels that feature Nintendo games, and they’re pushing people to enter into partnership agreements with them so they get a cut of ad revenue. The result is that my YouTube feed shows a lot less Nintendo content these days. Nobody wants to worry their channel might get hit with a wave of takedown notices, and nobody wants to worry that Nintendo might come knocking and asking for tribute, like the mob asking for protection money. Everyone wants to argue over whether or not Nintendo has the right to do this. I am not a lawyer so I don’t know. Moreover, it doesn’t matter. It’s a stupid, self-destructive business practice. It’s the old problem of punishing people for sharing. Legal or not, it’s a stupid move. The larger and more successful your channel is, the more you’ll want to avoid sharing Nintendo footage on it.
- The PC is a better platform for level design. On a PC you’ve got a mouse-based interface, a large monitor, and a keyboard with access to hotkeys. There’s a reason game developers develop game content on PCs regardless of their target platform. Also, the PC already has a baked-in culture of modding and sharing. This type of thing feels like a natural fit for the desktop ecosystem.
What I’m saying is that a Super Mario Maker style game would do better as a multiplatform PC / PS4 / Xbox One title.
I’ve already done the hard part of coming up with an idea. All that’s left for you to do is devise a solid set of mechanics, secure funding, assemble a team, foster a culture of cooperation, develop an art style, produce the game, find a publisher, build the server infrastructure, make it through beta, and bring the game to market.
 And by “we” I mean “anyone besides me”.
 Late on a Thursday night / Friday morning.
What Does a Robot Want?
No, self-aware robots aren't going to turn on us, Skynet-style. Not unless we designed them to.
Why The Christmas Shopping Season is Worse Every Year
Everyone hates Black Friday sales. Even retailers! So why does it exist?
Silent Hill Turbo HD II
I was trying to make fun of how Silent Hill had lost its way but I ended up making fun of fighting games. Whatever.
Steam Summer Blues
This mess of dross, confusion, and terrible UI design is the storefront the big publishers couldn't beat? Amazing.
Zenimax vs. Facebook
This series explores the troubled history of VR and the strange lawsuit between Zenimax publishing and Facebook.