Explaining Good Game Design With Super Mario 64

aa2“It takes a village to raise a child,” the old adage goes. It’s no different in today’s society, except the internet is the village, and we are the children.

But sometimes the village has more than one idiot, making it difficult to navigate the murky waters of the web–especially if you’re trying to learn anything (like, let’s say… game design). There are just too many awful videos, dead ends, and useless “How To” articles that few of us have the time for.

Thankfully, there are people who can cogently detail the complexities of our world, and more to the point, explain exactly what game design even is. There are people with extensive development backgrounds, and people with years of experience as educators. In short, there are people like Erin Robinson.

“I started by teaching a two-week long course called the ‘Indie Game Sprint’ at Columbia College in Chicago,” she says, explaining how she came to be a part-time educator. “The challenge was for a bunch of beginning programmers, designers, and artists (one of each, or three to a team) to make a completed game in two weeks.”

Robinson continues, “My friend Eric Zimmerman had heard about my course, and suggested my name to a school in Sweden that was looking for a developer to come and teach a short prototyping course.”

A central theme of most of her classes is the design of games. The design is simply about the rules and systems of a game, and how they all work together to create the experience; good design is about elegance and mellifluousness, and most of the times it simply works best when you don’t notice it at all.

What initially attracted me to her thoughts on the subject was an interview conducted at PAX by Pixel or Death’s own Caitlin Oram, wherein Robinson details the perfection of coin collection in Super Mario 64.

“My classic game design example that I use is the collection of coins in Super Mario 64,” she says. “What do the coins do? Well, they give you health, and if you get 100 of them they give you a 1-Up. They also give you oxygen underwater. That’s the reason it always feels good to get coins—because they’re tied into these systems that include the other things you want to do with the game.

“There are other games from the same time that have collecting a bunch of stuff as a mechanic, but it’s not fun because collecting 100 things is not fun in itself.”

She also cites examples from her own teaching. From a blog post she wrote in 2012, Robinson notes that the noun/verb flowchart is something she shares with all of her classes. “Everything in the game should have a reason to exist,” she wrote, leveraging the ubiquity of Pac-Man to show how:


“I use that trick to navigate complicated systems in my own life,” she adds, “including the American healthcare system.”

Game design is a frequently misunderstood element of the art of video games, but many like Erin Robinson are attempting to make a difference. Development blogs and artist’s sites are the most under-utilized resources available, but anyone who wants to learn more about game design, mechanics, and art have a rapidly growing base of information available at any time.