January 21, 2010

Collaboration with New Super Mario

I've been playing Mario for a long, long time (i.e., decades). I've been playing it on Wii with my daughters (now 5 and 10) for a year, and until last month, it was always an exercise in patience. Only one person played at a time, and you we spent more time watching than actually playing. Actually, this is how video game playing has been for 30 years.

So, while collaborative game playing is not new, and I don't even think there is anything in particular here that is new, I was stunned by just how good Nintendo put it all together with New Super Mario. It isn't just that we are all playing at the same time, but that the designers have put together so many modes of game play in a seamless way that is equally attractive to a 5 year old and a 45 year old. It supports exploration, goals, collecting points, collaboration, and competition equally. But the killer thing is that it supports these 5 modes at the same time in the same interface. There aren't 5 different ways to launch the game. There is one, and you just choose how to play. In fact, at any given moment, we are often playing several modes simultaneously, or dynamically switching between modes, or one person is doing one thing and the others are doing another.

Aside from the sheer number of hours we have played (and continue to play), I judge its success based on our volume. The three of us end a game-playing session exhausted, excited, and a bit hoarse - because we have been yelling so much.

There are too many details to go into just why this all works so well, but here are a few examples from the 5 modes:
  • Exploration: Wander around, poke at things and see what happens.
  • Goal-driven: Complete as many worlds as possible.
  • Collecting points: Get as many points, big gold coins, or powers saved up as possible.
  • Collaboration: Bounce on each others head to bounce higher, do a super ground pound (a synchronous maneuver), or wait for someone to finish before moving forward.
  • Competition: Push each other off the edge, grab a power rather than share it.
They also nailed the screen sharing issue. The essential problem in collaborative games is that everyone looks at the same screen. The traditional solution is a split screen - where one player sees where they are in the world on one side of the screen and the other players sees something else. This isn't really collaboration - this is competitive, simultaneous separate play.

New Super Mario, on the other hand, places everyone (up to 4 characters) in a single world. You all move and bounce around in the same space. If the characters wander apart from each other, the world automatically zooms out so everyone is still visible - up to a point. There is a maximum zoom out level after which the lead player (right-most player since this is a left-right side scrolling game) implicitly owns the visible area. The last player (left-most character) gets dragged along. If they get dragged into a hole or something else bad, they die.

Actually, they don't die - when someone does something that would normally result in dying, they go in a bubble (i.e. "ahhhh - daddy, I'm in a bubble"). After a few seconds the character floats around the screen in a bubble and they can be revived by one of the other characters bumping into them - up to 5 lives, after which you really die and you have to wait for everyone to die (or bubble), at which point that world starts over. Again, a combination of approaches that brilliantly encourages collaboration without requiring it.

There is a lot of verbal communication going on to support all of these modes - which is part of the reason it is so fun. I'm looking forward to finishing dinner tonight just so we can go play. I haven't heard enjoyed a game this much since Asteroids in 1980 - when we played one at a time, but the social element was in going to a gaming parlor.


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