Nearly everyone who's played Super Mario Bros. knows instinctively what the first level looks like. Mario is left-of-center, he moves to the right, the screen pans around the platform, there's the first question block — gleaming subtly, which is important, but more on that later — and then a goomba trundles toward Mario.
This point in the game is crucial. The player either loses a life upon contact with the Goomba, or jumps, with Mario accidentally bumping the question block. A great level design is one that doesn't need words to convey what a player should be doing. Games should feel inherently actionable. The more complex a game is at first glance, the more jarring it becomes to immerse into.
Shigeru Miyamoto knows this well. He designed that level, that game, and many Mario mainline entries along with other Nintendo-backed projects soon after. What looks on surface level as a run-of-the-mill stage is actually a masterstroke in level design; it's a level, and by extension, a game that doesn't need to communicate how to play it.
Shigeru Miyamoto's Design Process
"When Miyamoto makes games, he always tries to do something differently than other designers," according to a new video by Vox that attempts to cross-examine his design process.
So, how exactly does Miyamoto creates his games?
Artists Designs Games
"I think [at first] is that a game needs a sense of accomplishment," said Miyamoto. It's what drives and motivates players to course through numerous obstacles; a purpose underpinning the mechanics. In Super Mario, it's to save the princess, as was the case with Donkey Kong, a video game Miyamoto designed, having been commanded to create Radar Scope arcade replacements, 2,000 units of which were left unsold.
At the time, according to Miyamoto, games were created by technologists, programmers, and hardware designers — all three of which Miyamoto wasn't.
"I was a designer, I studied industrial design, I was an artist, I drew pictures."
Miyamoto thinks that in his generation, people who labored over video games became designers instead of programmers, or to put it simply: artists instead of exclusively skilled coders.
Why The Near-Collapse Of The Game Industry Didn't Swerve Nintendo's Fans
When Donkey Kong was released in 1981, America's video game industry had been skirting the brim of collapse. Because home computers were starting to get traction, the hoi polloi simply didn't see the logic in purchasing a separate game console just for the purpose of playing games on.
But Nintendo's games such as Super Mario and Zelda were a special breed of games because they weren't just. They were layered with a narrative element that added a sense of complexity, making it more compelling experiences than simple time-wasters that come and go. This appeal was largely thanks to Miyamoto's genius.
"When I approach my design of games, what I have to think about is how I'm showing a situation to a player, conveying to them what they're supposed to do," said Miyamoto.
The first Super Mario level was designed to naturally teach the player how to play the game. If Mario comes into contact with a Goomba because players don't know what to do, he'll die, and the game will start over. This already teaches players that Goomba's shouldn't be come into contact with. So what should they do with it? Avoid or stomp, obviously.
Then there are question blocks, which by design — a glistening question mark, no less — already piques the player's interest. Hitting the first fetches a point. Hitting the second sprouts a mushroom, which then hightails into Mario's way. Because the bricks and the question blocks limit the jumping area, the player will inevitably touch the mushroom. They'd find out that it'll cause Mario to grow, instead of being killed, as exemplified by the previous Goomba. This instantly teaches players that a yellow mushroom is a power up.
These instructions are sent across with nary a word. It's immediate, subtle, and complex without parading its complexity. It's all embedded underneath the fabric of the game, which in turn increases the game's level of immersion and depth.
Games Need to Be Immersive
"The last is the immersive quality of the game — being able to feel like it's a world you're immersed in, that you've become a hero, that you've become brave," said Miyamoto.
A game's immersive quality is greatly spearheaded by the controller, according to Vox, and Nintendo has pioneered a lot of new controller technology: the D-Pad, left and right shoulder buttons, a 360-degree thumbstick, and motion control.
So, game developers, take note. To create great games, the players must have a sense of purpose, must be instinctively — not ostensively — taught how the game works, and must be immersed in the game.