The original Mario Bros. was created in 1983 by the programmer Shigeru Miyamoto. This was not the first time Mario had appeared in a video game (it was in fact in Donkey Kong (1981)) but this is the first title he had to himself. This was not the side scrolling platform style Mario game that we know today, instead, it was a single screen platform game for two players. The franchise then developed into the 2D side scrolling frenzy and then further into 3D Mario. So how did technology affect the different genres of Mario and was the original one screen game created purely because of the limitations of the arcade technology, and further, this game was ‘an absolute riot’ to play, so if the technical limitations played an issue, was it to the advantage of the game design? Miyamoto says it’s all thanks to advances in technology, not his ‘mad skills’ that created and developed the Mario series over the 25years of its existence.
“Looking back, what’s been easy about making the Mario games is that they could naturally change along with the progress of technology.”
– Shigeru Miyamoto, Japanese video games designer and producer.
Does this then mean that the technology influenced what style of game the next Mario would be? And if this is true, without the inventions of the latest technologies such as the Wii, would the Mario franchise get old or would they find a way around the designs? Miyamoto compares making video games to books in the way that as technology advances, so do the Mario games. However, things like books have always been made the same. So therefore if the technological advancements hadn’t changed, Miyamoto does not think the Mario franchise would exist either. Game designers suggest that Miyamoto is just being humble in his words and relate the success to his ‘work methods’ rather than technology. However when I look at the Mario franchise and more specifically Mario Sunshine what comes to mind is something more than work methods and great design. For me, Mario was designed around a specific technical drive, I think the best thing about Mario is the ability to paint different textures on to the walls, this adds a lot of depth to the game especially for younger players that are just starting to learn the rules of video games and want to experiment. I also think it was the work of some very clever game coders that knew what the technology was capable that made the game a success. They were unsure how to implement the mechanic but when it was added to the game it changed the way Mario was played. Whatever the reason for this, there is no doubt that as the technology advanced so too did the Mario series breathing fresh life into a not-so-outdated game. A last thing to note that will hopefully wash some of the cynicism off of Mario would be that even today,
“fourteen years and five flagship Mario games later, when Mario springs out of that green pipe and shouts “Wahoo!” I still get a little chill up my spine.”
– Simon Ludgate, worked at game companies including Strategy First, Electronic Arts, and Gameloft
Surely that’s not all down to technological advancements and is in fact clever game design that creates this immersive exhilaration for gamers?
“The Enrichment Center reminds you that the Companion Cube cannot speak. In the event that the Companion Cube does speak, the Enrichment Center urges you to disregard its advice.”
I think the main difference between the Doom titles and the Mario franchise is that the Mario technology freed up an idea that would have never otherwise been realised. The painting mechanic in Mario is a good example of this. There is very little chance that a designer can write down on paper the mechanics of paint that creates so much fun in the Mario world. The enjoyment the player gets from painting different surfaces can only be realised when you can visualise the impact that it has on the game. Whereas with Doom, the technological advancements had little effect on the mechanics as the games grew older, the player instantly knew all the rules of the game from the previous title.
Another game that used technology in a similar way to Mario is Portal (2007). This is a game that had huge success by using only a few simple mechanics. It is based in a research centre and the player has a teleportation device known as the Portal Gun. The gun can shoot two holes onto any flat surface in the game environment, the first shot serving as an entrance, and the second as an exit, allowing the player to access areas that would otherwise be inaccessible. This mechanic forces the player to navigate some challenging puzzles using the core mechanic in relation to other mechanics set up within the game. This also brings to the game an element of freedom which allows player to tackle each puzzle differently. It focuses more on the players logic rather than technology. Portal was released in 2007 along with the Valve Orange Box which is a collection of 6 games and was not marketed as the main focus of the Orange Box however it got acclaimed as one of the most original games of 2007. It was only by having the technology already in place from an existing game that Portal was dreamt up. The mentality was that if you purchase these games, then you get this small game (Portal), free. But this short game turned out to be the most exciting and original one in the entire box. So if this design was created accidently by playing around with technology surely the game was born from limitations? But if Portal was such a huge success, why hasn’t Portal 2 been released? It is being developed but isn’t pencilled in to be realised until April 2011 which begs the question, why take 4 years to create a sequel? Valve have decided to give Portal 2 all the attention it deserves by adding multiple coloured portals, multiplayer and different cubes. They have transformed this small game into a large stand alone title. Whether it will have the same impact and success of the original game this time round is yet to be seen. I feel that Portals success was down to an inventive way to use the technology rather than full scale game design, however if you design the sequel and create the technology to fit around the game it may have a completely different outcome.
Less and More
Dieter Rams has “‘ten principles to ‘good design'” that he follows when designing products. A few examples of these are; good design is innovative, is aesthetic, is long-lasting and has as little design as possible. If we compare these product design principles to video game design principles we can find some similarities but also some differences. All designers no matter what discipline they are from set out to be innovative in everything they do, but sometimes they cannot achieve what they set out to do and compromise the design to produce it, sometimes the reason for this may be the technology available. Of course, we can’t forget about the fact that when designing a product that has to go through some type of production, cost will be a factor. But if the technology isn’t available we can assume that the cost of the product does not come into consideration. So if designers have to pull back their ideas to make them more manufacture-able, does this mean that the design will improve or get worse? As game designers we look at a product being long-lasting in the same terms as other designers but with different meanings. I think that if a video game is ‘long lasting’ then we consider the game to have ‘replay’ value along with the fact that the core mechanics of the game stay strong through technological advancements. You could argue that through iterative game play testing we also trim off the fat to create as little design as possible. We find the mid ground between having as little content as possible while fully immersing the player in the game.
“In any successful game, the reason for why it is successful usually boil down to a few key things – and what defines a great game versus a rubbish game is how those few key things behave.”
– Tyler, Sigman. (2010) Three Rules to Balance
These few things normally do not eat up endless amounts of bits and bytes and more often than not these few things are the most simple mechanics in a game. We discussed this in the previous section when talking about games such as ‘Doom’ which recreated the same player experience from 1993 to 2004. The few simple things did not have any bearing on technological advancements, it was just down to good game design.