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Super Mario Maker teaches you the anguish of being an indie developer

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"Making good levels is hard," they told me. "Getting them noticed is even harder."

I was discussing Super Mario Maker with another writer who had early access to the game. They were lamenting that many other folks out there had the same basic idea for a level, so it came down to who did it best and was the most effective at selling the level to the audience through the meager means available through the game. It all came down to the title and ranking system, more or less.

If you had a good title and a few people starting to like your level, you would rise up the charts. Once a level had a big advantage it was hard to fight; momentum is important. The charts were king; why go digging for something that may or may not be good when the best stuff is right there at the top?

The quickest way to get noticed, by people in the community or the press? Create a level based on a property everyone already knew. Use its notoriety to your advantage. Clone something. Hey, it works.

Super Mario Maker, at its heart, is a very effective way to feel the dread and desperation of being an indie development.

The problems are obvious and immediate

Let's pretend your Mario level is your product, and your success is based on how many people play it and like it. If you're competitive, this is likely how you'll design levels anyway, and if you care enough to spend the hours it takes to create something, you obviously want people to play it. Why release it otherwise?

The fact is your idea is worthless until you execute on it. I've written about how important iterative design is when making a Mario level, but if someone has the same idea for a level and does it better? You're sunk. Ideas are cheap; I could write down 20 good ideas for Mario levels right now. The challenge is using the available tools to actually do them well. A mediocre idea done with skill will almost always trump an amazing idea executed poorly.

Game designers and developers have been saying this for years. Blizzard has made a huge business of taking the basic ideas from other big games and executing them with an intimidating amount of polish and care.

So you've come up with a good idea and executed it well. It probably took hours, if not days. You poured everything into your level and ... everyone is ignoring it for that Zelda clone. Recreating the familiar and known is such a popular strategy because it works. People remake games because they sell. Clones bring in the cash. Your brand new level with all those neat twists and ideas are likely to get stomped on by Flappy Mario and Mariotroid.

What's the point of trying to do something new and interesting when the market just wants the same thing over and over?

How do you even sell your level to the audience in a way that makes them download it? What's the title that's strong enough to get someone's attention? Forget an elevator pitch, the only weapons at your disposal here are a title and the level's thumbnail.

If you're not working with something people know — such as the level "Turtle Soup," which mirrors the design of the infamous underwater sections of the NES Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game — you have to figure out a good way to get someone's attention long enough them to download, play and rate your level.

Again, this is all indie development 101. It's hard to survive with a new idea, and the ability to create interest with your title and pitch is key. Here are some great titles of levels from the featured list of Super Mario Maker:

  • Don't touch that controller!
  • The 6 Trials of the Plumber
  • Between the Buried and the Yoshi
  • Destructive Infiltration

Don't you want to play those? Each title hints at a story, or a gimmick, and immediately grabs your attention. These are people who know how to market and, even if the levels aren't as good as some of the other offerings, they're going to do well. It's a sad truth, but first impressions are important, and in many circumstances good marketing will trump great design.

Yeah, game development can be a shitty way to make a buck.

So what does this all mean?

For most people, nothing. Super Mario Maker is a fun way to try your hand at level design and to see what other people can do.

For anyone with knowledge of what it takes to make it in the indie world, the rhythms and problems of getting your level notices are going to be bitterly familiar. Fail to get attention with something interesting and fresh? Maybe you're more interested in trying something a bit more familiar and "mainstream" for your next level.

Create something amazing, only to see it flounder while cruddy levels with better names climb up the charts? Yep. The moment when you realize your marketing and flair in the title and thumbnail may be more important than creating a truly great level? You may want to drink.

Super Mario Maker creates a tiny version of the software market, and you begin to see the same frustrations and limitations very quickly. It may not mean much to you, and game development has never been an easy way to make a living, but the lessons about what works and what doesn't are enough to make one a bit jaded ... right before trying to create a Kirby-alike.

Polygon Video: One of our favorite Super Mario Maker levels so far