Massively Multiplayer Mario

‘Tis the season for collaborative Mario fangames, apparently. A few days ago, SMW Central released An SMW Central Production, a Mario world romhack featuring levels created by the community. Then Talking Time unleashed Super Talking Time Bros. unto the world. I’ve also heard that Super RMN Bros. 2 is coming along, although if it’s anything like Super RMN Bros. 1 I shan’t be playing it, not for a million coins.

I’ve got two levels on STTB, Dragon Road and Overgrown Tower, and I’m very happy with them. I wish I’d been able to contribute more, and tried to do so, but the half-dozen or so levels I worked on (Devilish Heaven, Dank Catacomb, Boiling Point, Tunnel Vision, Bullet Heck) either didn’t work the way I wanted them to or were so boring that they annoyed even me. Maybe their day will come — Super Talking Time Bros. 2, perhaps?

Of the three, though, I’ve only actually played SMW Central’s game, and even then only a little. (My home computer gives me puppy-dog eyes whenever I try to run SMBX on it, which is why all my level-building was done on other people’s computers.) What little I’ve played of it is pretty unremarkable (although the custom graphics are fugly), but maybe it gets better. There sure are a lot of hidden exits, though, and I don’t really have the patience for that kind of crap anymore… It’s also apparently got a story, and Mario games simply should not have stories unless they’ve also got turn-based combat, I’m sorry.

I do find it curious that there’s been such a surge of group games recently, though. Most fangames I’ve run across are single-mind affairs — or at least, a duo, with one idea guy and one programming guy. Unsurprisingly, most fangames are also pretty weak, or at least have very obvious flaws. I’ve noted in the past that romhacks made by one person tend to showcase that person’s blind spots — the kinds of puzzles they like show up out of proportion, the difficulty tends to be to their liking, difficult platforming setups get overused. I’m curious to see if a “wisdom of crowds” approach can break people of these tendencies, since they’re no longer judge, jury, and executioner as it were.

At the same time, though, I find group games to be a little… directionless, maybe? It’s hard to make a game that works as a whole when nobody’s directing the flow (I think I’ll call this “TV Tropes syndrome”), so what you get are a collection of excellent bits that aren’t really connected in any meaningful way. If you play a real Mario game — Mario 1 or 3 or World — you’ll find that there’s a very carefully-crafted progression in play, not just of difficulty but also in terms of concepts introduced and the kinds of twists the game throws at you. The first levels of Mario 1 and 3 are masterpieces in demonstrating to the player the kinds of things their character is capable of and how to safely interact with objects without beating them over the head with it or holding their hand, and the games are great about introducing new enemies or obstacles in softball situations early, then changing them up later on to increase the challenge. You can’t really get that kind of coherency in a game where dozens of different people are making levels, and the best you can do is arrange them in ascending order of difficulty and hope for the best.

The solution, obviously, would be to assign a “director” who’s in charge of thinking about the game in these broader terms — but since group games tend to be pretty casual, friendly affairs, it’s hard to lean on people if their levels need to be changed for whatever reason, especially if the level is fine in isolation. (People seem pretty willing to change levels if they’re broken or too hard, but changing a level that “works” because the game’s overall design requires it would seem to be a tougher pill to swallow.)

Also, you’ve got the added wrinkle that these fangames aren’t going to be played by general audiences like real ones are, so perhaps that progression isn’t as necessary in the grand scheme of things. Anyone who plays a fangame knows their Mario already; they don’t need to be told how blocks work or that they shouldn’t kick a Koopa shell into a wall. (On the other hand, they might need to be told obscure things like the properties of the spin jump, which is where many romhacks are tripped up.)

I’m interested to see how things go, in the end. Is the group project the new direction for fangames, or will we go back to mad solo creators piecing together impossible games one level at a time? We’ll see, I guess!


1 Response to “Massively Multiplayer Mario”

  1. 1 Jonathon Howard January 6, 2011 at 4:24 pm

    It probably has a lot to do with a simple, easy-to-use tool that allows the average joe to construct a game. It reminds me of the shareware time in PC gaming where the programming was simple enough that the bar to entry was low enough for just about anyone.

    A lot of shareware was terrible. Even stuff by CliffyB like the Palace of Deceit:the Dragon’s Plight and Dare to Dream Volume One: In a Darkened Room.

    One can hope that such tools will allow designers to hone their skills. No one writes a great book, or makes a great game the first time.

    Having a director isn’t a bad idea though and it seems like the TT LoZ game will end up being more like that with Dart Zaiyder filling the role.

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