What Game Designers can learn from Advertising by Abhay Ramakrishnan

Before I started making games professionally, I used to make mass media advertising campaigns for some of the biggest brands in India. I learnt a lot while working in 3 ad agencies across 6 years, some of which I think definitely applies to Game Design.

Copywriters are very good at using their medium's constraints to evoke the maximum emotional response from any piece of communication. If you are tasked to write a 30 second commercial, your ad should be able to at least convince the viewer that your brand is aspirational, if not get them to drop everything immediately and actually go buy what's being advertised.

So, here are the 3 skills the advertising industry has taught me which have helped me become a better Game Designer -

1) Well-defined goals lead to measurable results

A Unique Selling Proposition is one of the main tools in an advertising professional's belt. In Zynga, most of our specs have a slide dedicated to a 'Razor' statement. These short, one line statements are incredibly useful when it comes to making something evocative.

If you are working on a game or a specific feature of a game, always write down the Razor first. A sharply defined Razor statement will help you and your team stay on target, instead of either increasing the scope or deviating from the vision.

Here's how I approach writing the Razor statement -

  1. List out what you want players to feel when they play your game/feature
  2. Whittle down your list of adjectives down to 3 essential words
  3. Craft a simple sentence which somebody who doesn't make games will be able to understand

Note - Avoid using vague words like 'fun' or 'engaging' in your statement as they are too broad/subjective.

Some examples -

  • Ridiculous Fishing - A handcrafted game about fishing with guns, chainsaws & toasters.
  • The Hotel feature in Farmville 2 - Build a cozy inn where folks' can check in their animals for a while.
  • Mafia Wars Japan Expansion - Make allies while you rise through the ranks of the Yakuza and become the ultimate Godfather.

 

2) Treat players with respect

The consumer isn’t a moron. She is your wife.
— David Ogilvy, Copywriter

David Ogilvy is called the 'The Father of Advertising' for a very good reason. When he started his career in the 1960s, there was a lot of advertising which was either very dull or superfluous. Advertisers in that era used to treat the consumers like walking wallets who could be spoken down to in a patronizing manner.

We see a similar trend occurring in Free to Play games. Many game developers spend a lot of time and effort implementing monetization strategies that don't support the gameplay experience. I've seen a lot of game developers pour in lots of in-game content with hold little value for most players. Some Free to Play games are blatantly pay to play, with poorly implemented gacha systems.

If you don't provide something valuable for people, they will find somebody who does.

 

3) Selling yourself

As a copywriter, you needed to bring to life each on of your ads and sell it to everybody on your team and your client's team. If you don't, then no matter how good your ad is, it will never see the light of day.

You quickly learn what appeals to different kinds of people. How to project your voice and present the one ad you wrote weeks ago with the same enthusiasm you had when you presented it for the first time.

A lot of game developers are excellent at their craft, but are terrible at selling themselves. A few even consider marketing their games an unnecessary distraction as they believe their games can sell themselves based just on their gameplay experience. There may be some outliers, but the vast majority of people who don't market their game well don't breakeven.

I only got better at presentations and selling my ideas better through practice. That is one of the main lessons I learned from all my years making ads.

 

It was a hard decision for me to shift careers, 6 years after I worked in advertising. But looking back, the lessons I've learnt, the people I worked with, and the experiences I've had have shaped me into the person I am today.

If you shifted careers to make games, do tell me about how your work experience helped you become a better game maker by writing a comment below.

The Best Game Design Talks by Abhay Ramakrishnan

GDCVault is one of the best learning resources for those who want to make games. Each GDCVault video session is between 30 minutes to 1 hour long. The speakers are game development industry leaders who've most probably worked on a game that you love. In these sessions, they share fascinating insights into why they made their games the way they did, the mistakes they made, how you can avoid making them too and advice for aspiring game makers.

GDCVault Homepage

GDCVault Homepage

But this treasure trove of knowledge is kind of useless, unless you commit to keeping time aside to absorb the information packed into each talk. That's why I started the 'GDCVault Game Design Screening' sessions in Zynga Studio-I. Every Monday, at 6 PM sharp I screen one or two talks. During and after each talk all the attending designers and PMs have a discussion as to how we can incorporate the learnings from each session into the design of our games.

My interests are inclined towards the ‘Design’ track. This includes primarily Narrative, Design, Game Design, System Design, Indie Development and Free to Play talks.

Some talks are free, while others are ‘Members Only’. To access ‘Members Only’ sessions, you need to purchase a one year subscription to the GDCVault. Though the “Members Only’ videos are behind a paywall, all sessions' presentations are always free on the GDCVault website. Use the search field on the top right to find a 'Members Only' session link's presentation link.

Recently, they’ve also been uploading popular talks directly onto their YouTube channel. Do subscribe to that too - https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC0JB7TSe49lg56u6qH8y_MQ/featured

Here are my tips for getting the most out of these talks –

  1. Schedule and keep time aside for watching these talks
  2. Always bring a notepad and keep taking notes
  3. Try watching with a group and discuss
  4. After a few months, go back and review the notes you took during a past session

Here are the links of the 31 video sessions I recommend Game Designers see -

  1. Session Name - AI-driven Dynamic Dialog through Fuzzy Pattern Matching. Empower Your Writers!
    Speaker - Elan Ruskin
    Company Name - Valve Corporation
    http://gdcvault.com/play/1015528/AI-driven-Dynamic-Dialog-through
     
  2. Session Name - Darkest Dungeon: A Design Postmortem
    Speaker - Tyler Sigman
    Company Name - Red Hook Studios
    http://gdcvault.com/play/1023435/Darkest-Dungeon-A-Design
     
  3. Session Name - Skill, Matchmaking, and Ranking Systems Design
    Speaker - Josh Menke
    Company Name - Activision Publishing
    http://gdcvault.com/play/1023325/Skill-Matchmaking-and-Ranking-Systems
     
  4. Session Name - Twenty Years, Twenty Lessons
    Speaker - Mark Rosewater
    Company Name - Wizards of the Coast
    http://gdcvault.com/play/1023186/Twenty-Years-Twenty
     
  5. Session Name - Rami Ismail to indie startups: You Don't Stand a Chance
    Speaker - Rami Ismail
    Company Name – Vlambeer
    https://youtu.be/PZn9a9-Gyc0
     
  6. Session Name - "Luck in Games" talk at ITU Copenhagen
    Speaker - Richard Garfield
    https://youtu.be/av5Hf7uOu-o
     
  7. Session Name - Storytime with Jonathan Blow at PAX East 2016
    Speaker - Jonathan Blow
    https://youtu.be/UwBl7Rnkt78
     
  8. Session Name - Idle Chatter: What We Can Learn From Self-Playing Games
    Speaker - Anthony Pecorella
    Company Name - Kongregate
    http://gdcvault.com/play/1023208/Idle-Chatter-What-We-Can
     
  9. Session Name - Conference Keynote: Shigeru Miyamoto
    Speaker - Shigeru Miyamoto
    Company Name - Nintendo Co. Ltd.
    http://www.gdcvault.com/play/1014846/Conference-Keynote-Shigeru
     
  10. Session Name - “Method”: Mark Cerny
    Speaker – Mark Cerny
    https://youtu.be/QOAW9ioWAvE
     
  11. Session Name - Overwatch - The Elusive Goal: Play by Sound
    Speakers - Scott Lawlor, Tomas Neumann
    Company Name - Blizzard Entertainment
    http://www.gdcvault.com/play/1023317/Overwatch-The-Elusive-Goal-Play
     
  12. Session Name - Forget Protagonists: Writing NPCs with Agency for '80 Days' and Beyond
    Speaker - Meg Jayanth
    http://www.gdcvault.com/play/1023393/Forget-Protagonists-Writing-NPCs-with
     
  13. Session Name - FRAMED: A Recipe for Critical Success
    Speaker - Joshua Boggs
    Company Name - Loveshack
    http://www.gdcvault.com/play/1023449/FRAMED-A-Recipe-for-Critical
     
  14. Session Name - Design by Constraints: Hitman GO Design Postmortem
    Speaker - Daniel Lutz
    Company Name - Square Enix Montreal
    http://www.gdcvault.com/play/1021907/Design-by-Constraints-Hitman-GO
     
  15. Session Name - A Course About Game Balance
    Speaker - Ian Schreiber
    Company Name - Rochester Institute of Technology
    http://www.gdcvault.com/play/1023349/A-Course-About-Game
     
  16. Session Name - King of Thieves': Designing a F2P Game that's Different
    Speaker - Eugene Yailenko
    Company Name - ZeptoLab
    http://www.gdcvault.com/play/1023364/-King-of-Thieves-Designing
     
  17. Session Name - Balancing Your Game: A Formula-Driven Approach
    Speaker - Brian Davis
    Company Name - Wooga GmbH
    http://www.gdcvault.com/play/1023865/Balancing-Your-Game-A-Formula
     
  18. Session Name - Be Spiky: A Decade of New Ideas
    Speaker - Jamie Cheng
    Company Name - Klei Entertainment
    http://gdcvault.com/play/1023536/Be-Spiky-A-Decade-of
     
  19. Session Name - Narrative Legos
    Speaker - Ken Levine
    Company Name - Irrational Games
    http://www.gdcvault.com/play/1020434/Narrative
     
  20. Session Name - Choice, Consequence and Complicity
    Speaker - Alexis Kennedy
    Company Name - Failbetter Games
    http://gdcvault.com/play/1023346/Choice-Consequence-
     
  21. Session Name - Dynamic Stories for Dynamic Games: Six Ways to Give Each Player a Unique Narrative
    Speaker - Richard Rouse III
    Company Name - Paranoid Productions
    http://gdcvault.com/play/1023753/Dynamic-Stories-for-Dynamic-Games
     
  22. Session Name - Making Moves: Designing Spartan Abilities for 'Halo 5: Guardians'
    Speaker - Ryan Darcey
    Company Name - 343 Industries
    http://gdcvault.com/play/1023190/Making-Moves-Designing-Spartan-Abilities
     
  23. Session Name    Change and Constant: Breaking Conventions with 'The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild'
    Speakers - Takuhiro Dohta, Hidemaro Fujibayashi, Satoru Takizawa
    Company Name – Nintendo
    http://gdcvault.com/play/1024562/Change-and-Constant-Breaking-Conventions
     
  24. Session Name Quest for the Healthy Metagame: Balancing Cards in 'Clash Royale'
    Speaker - Stefan Engblom
    Company Name - Supercell
    http://www.gdcvault.com/play/1024272/Quest-for-the-Healthy-Metagame
     
  25. Session Name Classic Game Postmortem: 'Sid Meier's Civilization'
    Speakers - Sid Meier, Bruce Shelley
    Company Name - Firaxis Games, Independent
    http://gdcvault.com/play/1024294/Classic-Game-Postmortem-Sid-Meier
     
  26. Session Name Playtesting: Avoiding Evil Data
    Speaker - Adriaan de Jongh
    http://www.gdcvault.com/play/1024132/Playtesting-Avoiding-Evil
     
  27. Session Name - 'Mini Metro': When Less is More
    Speaker - Jamie Churchman
    http://www.gdcvault.com/play/1024250/-Mini-Metro-When-Less
     
  28. Session Name - Rewards in Video Games
    Speaker - Travis Day
    Company Name - Blizzard Entertainment
    http://gdcvault.com/play/1023948/Rewards-in-Video
     
  29. Session Name - Absolutely No Pressure: Continuing a Successful Game Series with 'Civilization VI'
    Speaker - Ed Beach
    Company Name - Firaxis Games
    http://gdcvault.com/play/1024249/Absolutely-No-Pressure-Continuing-a
     
  30. Session Name - Systems Make Statements: Simulations and Intentional Design
    Speaker - Elizabeth Sampat
    Company Name - PopCap Games
    http://gdcvault.com/play/1023994/Systems-Make-Statements-Simulations-and
     
  31. Session Name Interviewing for Game Design
    Speaker - Richard Carrillo
    Company Name - Ubisoft Toronto
    http://gdcvault.com/play/1024073/Interviewing-for-Game
     

I also post which talks we will be watching in Zynga on Twitter. So, if you want to find stay up to date with which sessions we are seeing, just follow me @abhayram!

A few months later, I will be following up on this post with a part 2.

Happy learning!

Super Mario Run by Abhay Ramakrishnan

Super Mario Run Launch GIF

Super Mario Run is one of the most delightful paid games I’ve ever played on mobile. The gameplay is juicy, the session lengths are short, the level design is delightful and the asynchronous multiplayer mode ‘Toad Rally’ had me hooked for over 1 month.

Even 4 months after officially launching exclusively on iOS, the game still makes news. Unfortunately, most of the news is about how much less money Super Mario Run made in comparison to the other Nintendo gatcha driven game, Fire Emblem: Heroes app. During their shareholder’s meeting, Nintendo also revealed that they haven’t hit their internal payer conversion goal of 10%. That means out of the 150 million downloads on iOS and Android, less than 15 million have chosen to pay the one time in-app purchase to unlock everything in the game.

Analysis of how well the game performed from a financial standpoint is all over the internet. This deconstruct’s focus is not on that aspect of the game. I will be primarily focusing on the gameplay.


Key Facts

Name: Super Mario Run

Genre: Side-scrolling, auto-running platformer

Platforms: Touch-based iOS and Android

Game Engine: Unity

Type of Monetization: Free Demo unlocked with onetime IAP of $10

Release:

                iOS: December 15th, 2016

                Android: March 22nd, 2017

Studio: Nintendo EPD and DeNA

Publisher: Nintendo

Producer: Shigeru Miyamoto

Director: Takashi Tezuka

Device I played on: Moto G4 Plus


Gameplay Basics

Shigeru Miyamoto, the game’s producer had noticed that speedrunners of previous Mario games never let go of the forward direction control, effectively making Mario run all the time. The idea for Super Mario Run come from a desire to allow all players to have that speedrunner experience.

With the constraints of mobile input, Super Mario run relies on one finger taps and holds for all of its gameplay. The variety of gameplay mechanics produced out of this input constraint is one of Super Mario Run’s crowning accomplishments.

Here is the meaning for a list of terms I will be using from the game –

  1. World Tour – One of the 3 modes in the game. It consists of 24 levels, with a beginning and an end. In demo version, the three levels are free.
  2. Toad Rally – One of the 3 modes in the game. It is an asynchronous multiplayer mode which uses a soft currency called Toad Rally Tickets to play.
  3. Kingdom Builder – One of the 3 modes of the game. In this mode, you can place, move, put away and shop for decorations. There are 3 categories of decorations for your Kingdom – Decorations, Buildings and Special Buildings.
  4. Friendly Runs – A friend’s only Toad Rally, players can do 5 Friendly Runs in a day. Though coins, toads or the number of enemies defeated will not be recorded.
  5. Coins – The main soft currency in the game. Earned primarily by playing World Tour levels and Toad Rallies. Most decoration and special items can be purchased with coins.
  6. Toad Rally Tickets – One of the soft currencies in the game, Toad Rally Tickets are earned by from ‘?’ blocks and bonus mini-games.
  7. Bubbles – This Mario game’s version of ‘Lives’, a Bubble is automatically activated if the player character dies or can also be manually triggered by the player by tapping on the Bubble button.
  8. Toads – One of the soft currencies of the game. The citizens of Princess Peach’s Kingdom, Toads are the multiplayer points in the game. Earned from successfully beating another player in Toad Rally mode. The better the player plays the game, the more toads will join the player’s kingdom. There are 5 colors of Toads – Red, Blue, Green, Yellow and Purple. Most special building have specific toad requirement amounts which need to be satisfied before they get unlocked.
  9. ‘?’ block – One of the essential pillar of a Mario game. Always contains one of the following, according to the level and mode the player is playing – Coins, Mushrooms, Super Stars or Special Coins.

Tutorial

Let’s check out the FTUE (First Time User Experience) aka, the tutorial of Super Mario Run. Here’s a video I captured from my phone.

So, in the tutorial, the game teaches you the following –

  1. Mario auto runs from left to right
  2. Colliding into coins picks up coins
  3. Mario will automatically vault over some enemies without dying or killing enemies
  4. Small and medium gaps will be automatically jumped
  5. Long gaps need player intervention or will result in death
  6. Death results in Mario losing power-up and being put into a Bubble (acts like lives)
  7. Death results in loss of 5 coins
  8. Bubble always floats backwards
  9. Tap to burst the Bubble to release Mario and start running again
  10. Taps mean short, default height jump
  11. Tap and hold means longer height jump
  12. Collect Special Coins to challenge your platforming skills
  13. Tapping while vaulting kills enemy
  14. Tapping while vaulting over enemy causes higher jumps
  15. Tap when touching a wall to wall kick and jump in opposite direction

For the tutorial, a lot of exceptions have been made too –

  1. The 1st half of the tutorial (till player falls into gap and dies) is completely non-interactive
  2. There is no Coin Counter UI
  3. There is no Timer UI
  4. There is no Bubble counter UI

I think removing the above 4 was a good idea as it lets players focus on learning the rules. So, as a tutorial, I think it is almost perfect.

Core loop

super mario run core loop

Game Modes

World Tour

This is the single player mode of the game. The demo version has only the first 3 levels of World 1 available.

Each level has 3 sub modes where special coins are placed. Pink coins are easiest to get. Purple are challenging to get. Black coins are the hardest to get. You are also given a ‘Course Ranking’. The more coins you collect in a course, the higher your course ranking amongst your friends you shall earn.

If the player dies frequently in a level, they can choose to use the ‘Easy’ mode option. In this mode, players get unlimited bubbles and no time limit. However, the special coins collected aren’t recorded by the game.

Easy Mode Pop-up which comes after you fail in any World Tour level.

Easy Mode Pop-up which comes after you fail in any World Tour level.

I just finished the World Tour just to get more levels unlocked in the Toad Rally mode. It works well as a way to get players comfortable with the game’s concepts. I especially liked the level where you had to combine the tile which lets you jump backward and high jump in order to jump over ghosts. This is the only way you can kill ghosts and the game didn’t have any pop-up informing me that that’s how you can kill ghosts.

Special Courses

If the player successfully collects all 120 special coins of any of the 3 colors, then they get a Special Building that takes them to a unique course. 120 pink coins gives you ‘Chase the Snaking Coins’ level. 120 Purple coins gives you ‘Piranha Plant Field’ level. 120 Black coins gives you ‘Make the cut!’ level.

I’ve only unlocked the ‘Chase the Snaking Coins’ level, just to see what it’s all about. The same mechanic has been used in other levels and I didn’t find the level design particularly different. So, I didn't bother trying to get all the 120 Purple and Black coins.

Toad Rally

The asynchronous multiplayer mode of the game, this is what got me hooked to this game. The objective of each Toad Rally session is to earn more coins than your opponent so that you get more Toads into your Kingdom.

To participate in Toad Rallies, you need the Rally Tickets soft currency. Each Toad Rally race costs 1 Rally Ticket. You are given 5 opponents whenever you launch the Toad Rally. The UI shows what sort of level the Toad Rally will occur on, the other Player’s current Toad count, the other Player’s Mii Avatar (if they have one) and also which of the 5 types of Toads can be won by playing that Toad Rally.

You have to play Toad Rally to unlock most of the content in the game. Each session is 60 seconds long and the other player’s Character is represented in the level as a translucent sticker that moves in real-time.

If you win a Toad Rally, you get to keep the Toads you earned as well as your opponent’s Toads. If you lose a Toad Rally, you lose some of your Toads to the opponent’s Kingdom. This however isn’t a zero-sum game, like Clash of Clan’s ‘Trophy’ system. Toads gained and lost are generated by the game and not actually taken from another player’s Toad count. Implementing a zero-sum game would have radically changed the tone and feel of each Toad Rally as a lot of progress can be reversed if the player is matched with opponents who are far superior to the player.

Kingdom Builder

This is the mode where you can put building in your Mushroom Kingdom. The player early on is given the task of rebuilding and returning the Kingdom to its glory days after Bowser comes and destroys it.

In total, there are 6 pieces of land (also called gameboards) that a player can decorate in their Mushroom Kingdom. The player starts off with 1 piece of land. To get more pieces of land, the player needs to build Rainbow Bridges. Each Rainbow Bridge just like other Special Buildings have a specific Toad and Coin requirement.

If you have unlocked a special building, then Toad helpfully tells you how to get it.

If you have unlocked a special building, then Toad helpfully tells you how to get it.

But even after a player unlocks a piece of land with a Rainbow Bridge, there are often Thwomps blocking parts of land. These large blocks of spikey rocks can only be removed with Hammers, which are earned by completing all the levels in the World Tour mode. There are 10 Thwomps and 10 Hammers in total.

Players can’t place decorations and building wherever they want on their gameboards. There are specific areas which the game highlights on the gameboard for specific types of decorations and buildings. A player will run out of space before they manage to put every single decoration on to their Kingdom.

One of the nice touches in the game is the way all the UI disappears if you tap on the ground when viewing your Kingdom. Here's how I chose to decorate my Kingdom.

My Level 20 Kingdom Screen

My Level 20 Kingdom Screen


Characters

One of the primary aspirations the player to unlock all the characters in the game. Characters other than Mario get unlocked after specific Special Buildings have been purchased or acquired in-game.

6 out of 10 characters from the game. 1st row - Mario, Luigi and Princess Peach. 2nd row - Toad, Toadette and Yoshi.

6 out of 10 characters from the game. 1st row - Mario, Luigi and Princess Peach. 2nd row - Toad, Toadette and Yoshi.

There are 10 characters –

  1. Mario – Can eat Mushroom to grow bigger. In bigger state, he effectively has an extra life because any death only results in loss of 5 coins and 3 seconds of blinking invincibility frames.
  2. Luigi – Earn 150 Green Toads, 150 Purple Toads and then buy Luigi’s house for 1000 coins to acquire Luigi as a character. Exactly like Mario’s abilities, except can jump higher than Mario. Luigi is the character I’ve used for almost all of my Toad Rallies.
  3. Princess Peach – Earned by finishing all 24 levels in the game’s World Tour Mode. Has the Flutter Jump ability which allows her to use her parasol to float diagonally for longer.
  4. Toad – Earned by connecting to My Nintendo account. Runs much faster than other characters.
  5. Toadette – Earn 200 of each Toad color and then buy Toadette’s house for 1000 coins to acquire Toadette as a character. During Toad Rally results screen, she steals some of the other Player’s Coins and Toads for the Player.
  6. Yoshi – Earn 30 Red Toads, 30 Yellow Toads and then buy Yoshi’s house for 1000 coins to acquire Yoshi as a character. Can flutter jump and can run over spikes. Also increases number of Green Toads won in a Toad Rally.
  7. Red Yoshi - Earn 1000 Yellow Toads, 9999 total Toads and then buy Red Yoshi’s house for 50,000 coins to acquire Red Yoshi’s as a character. Can flutter jump and can run over spikes. Also increases number of Red Toads won in a Toad Rally. Hardest to unlock.
  8. Blue Yoshi - Earn 50 Red Toads, 50 Blue Toads and then buy Blue Yoshi’s house for 800 coins to acquire Blue Yoshi’s as a character. Can flutter jump and can run over spikes. Also increases number of Blue Toads won in a Toad Rally.
  9. Yellow Yoshi - Earn 300 Blue Toads, 300 Green Toads, 200 Purple Toads and then buy Yellow Yoshi’s house for 5000 coins to acquire Yellow Yoshi’s as a character. Can flutter jump and can run over spikes. Also increases number of Yellow Toads won in a Toad Rally.
  10. Purple Yoshi - Earn 150 Blue Toads, 150 Green Toads, 100 Purple Toads and then buy Purple Yoshi’s house for 3000 coins to acquire Purple Yoshi’s as a character. Can flutter jump and can run over spikes. Also increases number of Purple Toads won in a Toad Rally.

Enemies

The game has 24 kinds of enemies. Most players who’ve player previous Mario games will be able to recognize these enemies and their behavior instantly.

Each enemy also has a leveling up system. The more enemies you kill across multiple games, the more coin bonuses they will give later on when they level up. The max level for all enemies is currently Level 3, with a max bonus of +3 coins.

The simplest ones are the Goombas, Green Koopa Troopers, Koopa Paratrooper, Dry Bones, Red Koopa Trooper, Ninji, Buzzy Beetle, Swoop, and Bob-omb. All these enemies can be stomped easily and have predictable movements. These enemies also don’t throw projectiles at the Player Character.

The next category of enemies harder to stomp. Enemies like Piranha Plants, Lava Bubbles, Stretch ghost, Boo ghost, Bullet Bill, Spiny, Bull’s Eye Bill, Fuzzy and Pokey often kill just by touching them. Best to avoid them are kill them in the Super Star mode.

Then there are the enemies who throw projectiles at the player or on the player’s path. Cannon Ball, Lakitu, Spike and Rocky Wrench are of this category.

Finally, there are the bosses. Boom Boom and Bowser himself. These enemies only appear in the World Tour Mode, of every world’s 4th level. These enemies aren’t mechanically complex and unlike other video game bosses can be easily defeated.

There are also environmental dangers like Burners, Fire Bars, Grinders and Munchers that can kill a Player Character.


Gameplay Nuances

As mentioned before Super Mario Run does a lot with very little player input. It’s all about how well you time your jumps. Here are some of the techniques players need to master the game’s systems. I was using most of these techniques in every 60 seconds Toad Rally session by the 5th day of playing this game.

Recording all the techniques is very, very hard. So, I've written down a list of all of them that I could remember. Some are from the in game guide called the Notebook. Some, I've described from my experiences.

Don't let the following wall of text deter you!

Techniques and tools at the player’s disposal –

  1. Mid Air Spin – Tap the screen to make your character spin. It reduces how fast the player character falls.
  2. Spin Strike – Tap the screen in the air near an enemy to spin and take it out. One of the few times the game cheats but auto-snapping the Player Character to the upper half of the enemy they killed. So, even if the Player Character was on an upwards arc, upon tapping they will immediately stomp downwards, if above an enemy.
  3. High Jump – Shown in tutorial. The character called Luigi can jump higher than all characters. I was using this technique with Luigi constantly.
  4. Low jump – Barely tapping the screen causes Player avatar to jump a very short distance.
  5. Flutter Jump – When the player chooses any of the ‘Yoshi’ characters, this ability is active. If the player jumps and holds, Yoshi will flutter and go higher before falling down faster to the ground.
  6. Floaty Jump – An ability only a character called Peach can use. Similar to Mid air spin, except Peach can float for a longer distance.
  7. Wall Jump – Covered in tutorial. Wall kick in opposite side. Consecutive wall jumps earn more toads in Toad Rally.
  8. Vaulting – Covered in tutorial. Jump over enemies without killing them.
  9. Vaulting Jump – Covered in tutorial. Jump higher when vaulting over an enemy. Kills enemy and give more toads.
  10. Landing Roll – Automatically roll after a long fall. Rolling kills some types of enemies in player character’s path.
  11. Rolling Jump – An extension of Landing Roll, tapping the screen when rolling causes player character to jump quite high. Gives extra toads.
  12. Climbing Jump – Tap when player character is climbing an edge to jump higher. Gives extra toads.
  13. Slope slide – Jumping onto a slope cause Player Character to slide down and kill some types of enemies on the slope.
  14. Consecutive Stomps – During a slop slide, if the player character kills multiple enemies, then they earn more coins for each consecutive kill. Gives extra toads.
  15. Treading the Ring – In some levels, there are fire rings floating in the air. If the player jumps through them without touching the ring and dying, then it gives extra toads.
  16. Enter Bubble – Players can also tap on the bubble icon to immediately be put into a bubble which takes the Player Character backwards through the level. Especially useful when trying to get all the Purple and Black Coins.
  17. Pause block – Stepping on a Pause Block immediately stops player character movement. Time however doesn’t pause. The weird thing is that most of the levels have been designed to discourage using pause blocks. If you blaze through the level, then it feels like you’re playing to the rhythm of the level design.
  18. Press a Switch –Jumping on a switch triggers limited time objectives in different levels. There are two types of switches. In the first one called ‘P’ switch causes a row of 18 blue coins appear, which the player character needs to collect within 5 seconds. The other type called ‘!’ switches cause dotted line blocks to become traversable red brick blocks for a limited time. ‘!’ switches drastically altering the level’s design.
  19. Add Bubble – Some ‘?’ mark tiles upon headbutting with the player character gives an extra Bubble to the player.
  20. Time Block – Special blocks which when the player character headbutts, adds +10 seconds to the clock. Primarily appears in the non-side scrolling levels of the game, where the objective is to traverse the level vertically.
  21. Super Star – Appears during World Tour and Toad Rally. In World Tour mode, works like Coin Rush where players need to gather certain number of coins before the Super Star mode gets activated. However, in Toad Rally mode, it is only available from some hard to reach ‘?’ blocks. Headbutting these releases a golden star. If the player touching the star, the Player Character immediately becomes Golden in color. The effect of the Star is the same in both World Tour and Toad Rally. The player becomes invincible, they run really fast and also magnetically attracts coins to themselves. This mode lasts for 8 seconds and is almost always exhilarating to play in.
  22. Coin Rush – Appears only during Toad Rally. A translucent bar gets filled up as you collect coins in a level. If you collect approximately 50+ coins, you will get into a Coin Rush mode where the level will start spewing coins. Also, ‘?’ blocks and enemy kills give lots more coins. This Coin Rush lasts around 8 seconds. Player movement speed also increases slightly. Unlike Super Star mode, Player Character isn’t invincible during Coin Rush mode.
  23. Extra Block Rewards – When in Coin Rush mode, the player can hit a ‘?’ mark block to get 3 times the value of whatever was inside the ‘?’ mark block. This means you could theoretically get into Coin Rush mode, hit a ‘?’ block, get 3 ‘Super Stars’, be invincible till the next ‘?’ block which might give you 3 more ‘Super Stars’. Using this technique, I was able to stay in the Super Star mode for 50 seconds out of a 60 second Toad Rally and earned 1050 coins.
  24. Enemy Leveling – A progression system for enemies. The more you defeat, the more coins you’ll get the next time you defeat that enemy. All enemies currently max out at level 3, with usually +3 coins per kill at level 3.
  25. Coin Types – As the chart shows, each coin type has its own value.
  26. Red Circle – Upon jumping through a Red Circle, players need to collect 5 Red Coins. If the player collects all 5 Red Coins, then they get a Super Star.
  27. Checkpoint – Only in Toad Rally mode. The player who touches the Checkpoint flag first gets +10 coins.
  28. Koopa Kick – Shell based enemies like Green Koopa Troopa,  Koopa Paratroopa and Red Koopa Troopa can kicked off towards enemies in the player’s path after they have been stomped on. A useful technique to build coin multipliers, cut down Pokey enemies and hit some ‘?’ mark blocks. But beware! If you stand in its way when it rebound off a wall, you will get hurt too!
  29. Ghost Kill – One of the techniques that the game lets players figure out by themselves is how to kill ghosts. The only way to do so is to tap the screen when the Player Character is running across tiles with back arrows on them. This causes the Player Character to do a backflip. If any ghosts are under the player’s backflip arc, then the ghost is killed.

Events

Live games need to add variety to their game so that players don't get bored. Doing limited time events is how Super Mario Run tries to get players back into the game.

When I was playing the game, 3 events occurred –

1)      Golden Goomba event – In the World Tour mode, 3 randomly selected levels have varying levels of Golden Goombas (a simple enemy type) walking around somewhere in the levels. Stomp on lots of Golden Goombas within the event's running time and earn special decorations. More Golden Goombas mean more rewards.

2)      Coin Multiplier event – Upon winning a Toad Rally duel, the player will get a 1.5 multiplier applied to their final coin earnings.

3)      Mario Kart 8 Deluxe event – A global community event, if all players played 50,000,000 Toad Rallies during the event's running time, then everybody earns decorations.

Out of the 3 events, I benefited most from the Coin Multiplier event as it turbo charged my decoration purchases. Even though the Mario Kart 8 Deluxe event was supposed to go on for 11 days, the community achieved the maximum goal within 7 days. Around 7 million Toad Rallies are played on average every day, globally.


Social Features

While I am very impressed with the gameplay of Super Mario Run, Nintendo is still not able to leverage social as a retention system because of terrible User Experience decisions. Right now, you can use Facebook, Twitter and My Nintendo to connect to other players.

Social - Suggested Friends in Super Mario Run

My Nintendo involves you going and doing the entire sign-up process for a new Nintendo ID account. I also installed and created my own Mii in a separate Nintendo app called the Miiverse, which you can see in any Toad Rally video. A Mii is basically a Nintendo styled animated avatar.

Finishing missions like playing the Toad Rally everyday gives you 'My Nintendo' points, which you can redeem for to get the special character Toad, a whole bunch of decorations and even some of the game's soft currencies like Rally Tickets and Coins.

my Nintendo Points

Also, it is 2017 and Nintendo still uses Player ID! Expecting somebody to copy and paste a code into the app is highly unlikely in this day and age.

You can also link to your Facebook and Twitter so that you can connect to others who have chosen to do the same. Here’s the Authorization screen for Twitter.

The Twitter authorization page itself looks a bit daunting. After authorizing, there were only 2 other Super Mario Run players that the app could find.

The Twitter authorization page itself looks a bit daunting. After authorizing, there were only 2 other Super Mario Run players that the app could find.

In the Friendly Run section, the game basically gives you zero incentive to play as winning or losing the Friendly Run doesn’t give any in-game reward. There is no incentive to acquire more friends other than to see how well you did against your friends in the World Tour levels.

Friendly Run Results in Super Mario Run

Thankfully, anonymized multiplayer through Toad Rally is great. The ability to import a Mii into the game is also a nice touch. But since Miis can only be made in the Miiverse app, I saw very few people who actually chose to create and import their own Mii avatars into Super Mario Run.


Game Analytics

Super Mario Run was a phenomenon on iOS when it launched, smashing the previous record for fastest to 50 million downloads record. In the 1st week on the iOS store, Super Mario Run also made most of its revenue.

I feel if Super Mario Run was a purely Premium title, then the metrics below would have been far, far worse. People got to actually try the game and then buy it, unlike most premium titles. Most players on mobile are so used to micro-transitions that seeing a single large micro-transaction so early in their game experience put them off. This perception problem is what Nintendo needs to address in their next game.

Source: Sensor Tower

Start Date: December 1st, 2016

End Date: April 31st, 2017

Total Downloads: 109,752,949

Total Revenue: $46,478,154

Total Downloads

Total Revenue ($)


Gripes

  • Late game content is basically non-existent – The designers did not think of Super Mario Run’s content for players who have gathered more than 5000+ toads. Each decoration after 5000 toads has huge toad and coin requirements. Players are left to grind for toads and coins over and over again. If the game just had a hard ending, then I would have been OK with it. Right now, the only option left for me is to grind and earn 50,000 coins so that I can buy Red Yoshi’s house, even though I’ve earned 9999+ toads.
Red Yoshi is the only character I've not unlocked because the grind to get 50,000 coins is too much.

Red Yoshi is the only character I've not unlocked because the grind to get 50,000 coins is too much.

  • 2.1.0 update increased max cap of toads from 9,999 to 99,999 – Who is going to play this game till they earn 99,999 toads?! There is literally no incentive to play Toad Rally a few thousand times just to make your total Toad count 99,999, other than to make your total Toad count 99,999.
I personally don't see the design intention behind increasing the total toad count 10 times, other than just to give player who've already got 9,999 toads a bigger number to achieve.

I personally don't see the design intention behind increasing the total toad count 10 times, other than just to give player who've already got 9,999 toads a bigger number to achieve.

  • Vertical levels were a chore to play – Ghost levels where the players need to traverse a level vertically are interesting levels that completely take away the momentum of the gameplay. I even avoid doing the ghost levels in Toad Rally on purpose because of how frustrating the entire experience is.
  • No achievements – The 2.1.0 lists ‘Achievements’ as an addition to the game. However, I couldn’t find any in the game.
  • Removal of opponent sticker in Toad Rally during Coin Multiplier event – I don’t know whether I was experiment gated or whether Nintendo intentionally did it, but I couldn’t see the opponent’s sticker move in real time on the level for some time. Toad Rally works because it is a competitive race where you can see how another player traversed a level. It makes the game exciting because it feels like I’m actually playing with another player. Removing it was a weird decision because adding a sense of mystery about where the Player Character is doesn’t make a multiplayer session more fun. Thankfully, the feature is back in the game, in its original form.
  • Always online – If you don’t have a steady internet connection or are roaming, then this game is unforgiving. Unfortunately, I was suffered from both the issues when I first started the game. I was traveling by train in the UK and half the time the game would give a ‘Connection Error’ pop-up. Press ‘Reconnect’ enough time and the game will just hard crash, wiping away any progress you made after the data connection got severed. A bit frustrating, but not a deal breaker for me.

 

  • Game hard crashes – Without any warning, the app has hard crashed on me quite a few times. I don’t know whether it is because of a memory leak or if my phone’s hardware limitations, but it’s a bit annoying.
  • Reduction of Toads because of quitting Toad Rally – If you leave the game in middle of a Toad Rally or if the game hard crashes, then the game will surface a pop-up saying that you’ve lost a few toads because you didn’t finish a Toad Rally. I think that is a harsh punishment as most of the time I felt like I didn’t deserve it. What’s more surprising is that I don’t observe any significant change in my Kingdom’s Toad count after getting this message. So, I’m not sure what sort of player behavior this message is trying to drive. My mobile is a communication and internet device first and a game playing device second. Punishing players for forgetting about an incomplete Toad Rally session after they log back into the game sends a negative message.
The game penalizes you for quitting Toad Rallies by deducting some toads from your total Toad count. This feels unfair because the game punishes people don't treat their phones like dedicated consoles. A Toad Rally save system should have been implemented.

The game penalizes you for quitting Toad Rallies by deducting some toads from your total Toad count. This feels unfair because the game punishes people don't treat their phones like dedicated consoles. A Toad Rally save system should have been implemented.


In Conclusion

Super Mario Run is a game that knows how to keep you in the flow. It is elegant design that’s moment to moment gameplay is absolutely delightful. It’s a premium game that badly wants players to keep playing it for months on end, without a solid long-term progression system. I hope Nintendo continues to make mobile games like Super Mario Run for years to come.

 


Further Reading –

Anil Das-Gupta’s Deconstruct - https://bothgunsblazingblog.wordpress.com/2016/12/22/super-mario-run/

Dan Felder’s article about Super Mario Run’s design - http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/DanFelder/20161219/287912/The_Brilliance_of_Super_Mario_Run.php


A note to readers -

Please give feedback!

It took around 1 1/2 months of playing Super Mario Run and 2 weeks of writing and gathering all the content to make this deconstruct. If I have missed something or if you see anything that can be improved in this deconstruct, please do tell me. Your feedback is very important in shaping the content of this blog.

Thank you for reading!

Inaugural Post - An Introduction by Abhay Ramakrishnan

It's been almost 2 and a half years since I started my career in the games industry. Since March of 2015, I've been making games every day! I've met people who love the medium as much as I do, I've won a scholarship to attend GDC'16, I've participated in game jams and I'm learning something new every day.

Honestly, I've never been happier.  For about 6 years right after finishing my Bachelor of Mass Media course in 2009, I was working in advertising agencies of all shapes and sizes. But no matter how much I tried to love the process of making ads, I couldn't fall in love with advertising itself.

So, I started thinking about else I could do with my life. I read up as much as I could about working in games. I watched my fair share of Extra Credits, I read the Rockstar Spouse and EA Spouse blogs, I spoke to industry veterans, both online and in Bangalore. I was told about the long hours, crunch and relatively poor pay. The picture they painted was bleak. So, before I committed to switching from advertising to games, I tried my hand at making some games first.

Level 1-1

I made 2 board games, which looking back were highly derivative. But it was so much fun to make! If I could do this every day and be the best at it AND work with people who also love making games, then that would be my version of heaven.

So, after a few months I joined Zynga Studio-I, based in Bangalore, India. Studio-I is the largest independent studio in India and I got to work on Mafia Wars and Farmville 2. There are some insanely talented people who work in Zynga. The monthly Bangalore Video Game Meetup, Global Game Jams and Nasscom GDC are also amazing places to meet game makers from around the country.

From my first week in Zynga Studio-I.

From my first week in Zynga Studio-I.

Scope of this blog

I think I've spoken enough about me. Now let's talk about what you'll get out of my blog.

The plan is to put up a new post about games every 2 weeks at the minimum. These posts will cover topics like -

  1. General design analysis of games I've played
  2. Detailed deconstructs of a specific game
  3. GDC Vault talk learnings
  4. Personal Game Development self-improvement updates
  5. Personal projects updates
  6. Miscellaneous musings

I'll be constantly adapting and improving the content and format of this blog.

Co-op Blog

I cannot stress how important your feedback is to making my blog posts better. So, if you have any suggestions or improvements you'd like to suggest, you can comment below or email me at abhayram at gmail(dot)com.

Also, if you are just starting out and want some help getting into the games industry, get in touch with me. I'm here to help.