Gaming Editor Louis Wright explores the importance of rule introduction in game design through a case study of the Super Mario Bros. series

Gaming Editor | ( ̶T̶e̶m̶p̶) Lead Developer | MA Film & Television Research & Production | BSc Computer Science | BurnFM Deputy Station Manager | Generally Epic

Every game has its own set of rules that must be abided by. With board games these rules are flexible, every house has their own unique rules for Monopoly. With video games however, these rules are controlled by the computer and therefore rigid. The question this raises is how do you introduce a game’s rules and mechanics to a player?

Super Mario Bros. released on the NES in 1985

Super Mario Bros. is an example of a game that introduces its gameplay mechanics phenomenally. The game’s first level (World 1-1) introduces all of the elements the player needs to know without ever telling them what they are. 

Super Mario Bros. is an example of a game that introduces its gameplay mechanics phenomenally

The first ‘? Block’ encountered is suspended high enough off of the ground that the player is encouraged to jump to reach it, therefore intuitively teaching them the game’s most integral mechanic. This is followed by having a row of ‘brick blocks’ and ‘? Blocks’ with the most common enemy, a ‘Goomba’, underneath. As the player now knows about jumping, when they attempt to hit the blocks here in the same way they will likely land on the ‘Goomba’. This action teaches them the second most important mechanic of the game, jumping onto enemies defeats them. 

From this incredibly short segment of gameplay the player is immediately taught the main actions Mario can use as well as their main method of defeating enemies. By forcing the player into positions in gameplay where they have to utilise the mechanics of the game that they may not necessarily know about, they are taught the extent of their abilities without ever having their hand held by the game.

This introduction of rules and mechanics has been a part of the Mario franchise since this point, and has evolved and adapted to accommodate the increasingly complex level of the games. Super Mario 3D World demonstrates this incredibly well.

Super Mario 3D World was regarded as one of the best games on the Wii U

Many levels throughout the game utilise unique gimmicks and mechanics to keep the game distinct. However, this produces an increasing number of rules that must be explained to the player to ensure the level remains fair. The design of each level follows a similar structure that allows the player to learn and reinforce any new rules.

The Mario series has always been a testament to excellent game design

If a level has a unique gimmick this will first be introduced to the player in a safe manner that does not result in punishment (losing a life) if the player fails the challenges the mechanic provides. This allows the player to experiment with and learn the mechanic before progressing throughout the level.

The mechanic is then expanded with some risks incorporated into it. This can include pits that the player can fall down if they fail, or enemies that must be avoided in conjunction with dealing with the new mechanic. This takes what the player has learnt in the previous section and expands on it to provide more challenge and push the player.

This culminates in the final challenge of the level that utilises the levels main gimmick in, usually, an unexpected manner that the player has to adapt to based on what they know about it. Moreover, this section may add in other mechanics that the player has encountered in other levels as well as hazards. This makes for a complex challenge that is still fair to the player as they have had time to learn and understand what they are encountering.

The Mario series has always been a testament to excellent game design and their approach to building and constructing levels is no exception. Levels must be judiciously designed to not only teach the player at a rate that is fair, but also provide a challenge and avoid repetitiveness.

Read more articles on game development here:

Behind the Mask: Producing a Game’s Visual Identity

Building a Game’s Foundations

What Defines a Game?