Early in Super Mario Maker’s development, Nintendo higher ups brought in a stockpile of children’s toys for the staff.
Those in charge, including Producer Takashi Tezuka and Senior Director Yoshikazu Yamashita, spent days watching the team poke and prod at the small pieces of plastic, such as a bird that sits on the rim of a cup and dips down as the cup shakes. They wanted to see which toys bored the team and which held interest over time. Like a focus group without a two-way mirror.
The broad idea, says Yamashita, was to get the team out of its comfort zone and to start thinking of new types of interaction, regardless of whether they happened on a screen or would traditionally make sense in a video game. And then more specifically, to see if any of them would apply to Mario Maker.
By the end of this experiment, Tezuka says the staff had assembled a list of more than 160 forms of play, many of which were things team members hoped might translate to ideas for the game. "Before we knew it, this list had grown and grown and eventually we had to make decisions about what to put in," he says.
In developing Super Mario Maker, Nintendo threw out many of the rules that it had established and used to guide Mario games for 30 years. In letting players make their own levels, it had to decide how much freedom to give them, and how silly to allow them to be with ideas that might not fit in a traditional Mario game.
For Nintendo, this wasn’t something it did with a rulebook. It was something the company felt out over time. At one point, Tezuka, as the long-standing Mario authority of the bunch who played a supervisory role on the game, told Yamashita and the game’s Director Yosuke Oshino not to worry about coloring within the lines.
"He kind of put our minds at ease by telling us, ‘You know, this isn’t your typical Mario game, and you can think that the elements in this game are not actually Mario canon,’" says Yamashita.
"‘So feel free to put in strange things.’"
Mario games have always had a history of pulling in fairly weird ideas — mushrooms that make you grow, Tanooki suits that let you fly — and massaging and sanitizing them to the point that they almost seem normal. For Mario Maker, Tezuka says, the team wasn’t quite as concerned about everything fitting together perfectly, because inevitably it wouldn’t when it got into many players’ hands anyway.
A team member could be inspired by a sound effect from a toy and decide to add it to the game because it’s fun, for instance, without worrying that it didn’t precisely fit the theme of everything else happening around it.
"He kind of put our minds at ease by telling us, ‘You know, this isn’t your typical Mario game.’"
The team wanted to create an alternate take on Mario, and yet make something familiar at the same time. It wanted to let players mix and match features, yet not break the game. In certain cases, Tezuka says, the staff took inspiration from the Super Nintendo game Mario Paint, in which players could do random things like jumping into a fly-swatting minigame.
"We really wanted to create a type of play that would be memorable and that would have kind of a lasting impact on people," says Tezuka. "And I think those stranger elements are one of the ways to do that."
Where to draw the line, then? How weird is too weird, or too ill fitting for a Mario game, even in this Mario alternate universe? Yamashita points to things that felt out of place or weren’t clear on the screen.
He gives an example of a discarded idea that came up during Mario Maker’s development. The team designed a feature where Mario could take the shell from a creature, like a Koopa Troopa or Spiny, and wear it as a helmet. That part made it into the game.
"Well, during development, one of the ideas was, what happens to the creature inside the shell when you put it on?" says Yamashita. "And someone suggested having the creature’s insides basically dribble out when Mario puts the shell on. We thought that would be too gross, so we decided we would have the insides of the shell kind of leak out but we would cover that with a blurred effect."
Yamashita says the team tested this out in the game, but couldn’t nail the look in a way that was easy for players to understand, so it cut the idea. It worked better theoretically than it did within the limitations of the game’s art style.
In general, Tezuka says that one of the main criteria for where to draw the line came with things seeming too complicated. One of the reasons Nintendo chose to develop Mario Maker as a 2D game, he says, is because it’s easy for players to understand.
Another criteria, he says, is the team wanted features that would appeal to players around the world. Early on, Tezuka says the team made the decision that every feature in the game would be available around the world, so the team has been trying to strike a balance between things that appeal locally, but still hold some appeal internationally.
"We’re also interested in considering things that will be popular in the West."
On the fringe of that, he admits that a handful of characters in the game have skewed more towards Japan’s game culture. In the game’s Costume Mario feature, for instance, players can dress up as different characters including gaming culture figures from Japan, such as Shinya Arino, the star of Japanese game show GameCenter CX, and Nekki, the mascot behind long-running Japanese game magazine Weekly Famitsu. Thus far, Nintendo hasn’t added similar characters from the West. Could PewDiePie be next?
Tezuka says there’s nothing inherently Japanese about Mario’s world, and that the team is currently looking at various western-focused costumes it can bring over.
"In the earlier Mario games, we weren’t really considering worldwide culture or international culture when we created them," says Tezuka. "But that has been something that we have had to consider more recently. We want our games to be enjoyed and understood worldwide by as many people as possible."
"The most important thing we considered in selecting things for this is we want to make sure we’re considering what will be popular in America and Europe as well," adds Yamashita. "So while [Arino and Nekki] are more focused on Japan, we’re also interested in considering things that will be popular in the West."
Yamashita adds that there are sometimes business considerations to these cameos as well. "In terms of celebrities, it would be great if we could be able to get people to do it for free, but that’s often not the case," he says.
Yamashita also draws a line at including Nintendo staff in the game, as much as some fans might want popular Nintendo figures like Shigeru Miyamoto or Reggie Fils-Aime to appear.
"People like that would only be appealing or recognizable either within the game industry or to people who follow games," he says. "And we want to make sure the Costume Mario characters we add appeal to a wide audience."
In some ways, the development team is still sorting out where to draw its line. In early November, it released a free update for Super Mario Maker that, amongst other things, allows players to place checkpoints in levels and find "official" levels created by Nintendo staff.
Nothing that significantly changes the game’s tone, the new features show the team responding to player feedback and adding new ideas.
Yamashita says these sorts of updates will continue, and that he views the game as more of an ongoing service than most other recent Nintendo games. He sees this approach as a new sort of challenge for the company, though stops short of committing to a certain number of updates, or a general timespan for them.
For Tezuka, now that his work on the game is mostly complete, he says working on a game with fewer restrictions has been somewhat cathartic. After spending 30 years working on traditional Mario games, Super Mario Maker gave him a chance to get a bit out of his comfort zone.
But, he says, while working on the game felt freeing because there were fewer rules, it also presented new challenges to fill in the gaps where there were no rules before.