There are things in the world that should never happen. Game designer Ethan Levy's "evil" Candy Crush-ised remake of Super Mario Bros. 3 is one of them. He was just kidding when he explained how he'd re-make it. Hopefully.
This story was originally published in August 2013.
Levy was one of three game designers who was recently challenged to create an "evil" version of the 1990 Nintendo Entertainment System classic and to present their results late last month at a San Francisco gaming summit called Casual Connect:
Contestants will take Super Mario Brothers 3, arguably the most-beloved video game of all-time, and turn it into a successfully engaging and monetizing free-to-play game experience…
Game creator/consultant/influencer Scott Foe organised the affair and allowed Levy to present his horrifying vision. This was, as Foe put it, an Evil Game Design Challenge.
Poor Super Mario Bros. 3.
Let's remember it for a second before it was mangled into an imaginary free-to-play monstrosity.
Levy spends much of his days making a game called Enhanced Wars, but said he spends about 20 per cent of his time as a "game monetization consultant" on free-to-play games.
"I did what I think was a fairly straight take on how I would apply my job as a monetisation consultant on Super Mario 3," he said during the start of his presentation.
Ready? This is what he came up with to turn Super Mario Bros. 3 into a mobile free-to-play game...
At first, free-to-play, made-for-a-smartphone Super Mario Bros. 3 didn't sound too bad. Levy's an experienced gamer. He knows what a good game should feel like, and he was aware of the problem of bringing Super Mario Bros. 3 -- a game made for a game controller's d-pad and buttons -- to a button-free smartphone.
"I hate virtual stick controls on the iPhone," he said. "They are terrible. I routinely buy Sonic games. I just bought Shining Force. Classic games... I love [them], but with a virtual stick, I hate it."
He therefore recommended swipe-based controls.
"Super Mario Bros. 3 has a lot of precision jumping, a lot of air-guiding of your jumping."
So he proposed this control scheme:
Not too bad...
He then decided to apply his free-to-play "secret formula" to the game. Uh-oh.
"You have a lot of resources inside Super Mario Bros. 3 that make it perfect for a free-to-play game," Levy said. This is where things were getting evil.
"You have lives, you have time, you have score and you have coins," Levy noted, rattling off things that could be charged for, gated away or otherwise presented in a way to pressure players to pay for them. "In addition to that at the end of every level, there's a special mechanic where you hit this thing and you get a little slot machine thing and after you get three slot machine things, it turns into an item in your inventory. You have an overworld, which has slightly linear gameplay content. You have mini-boss castles, boss castles, hammerheads. You have these mini-games that you can play for items in your inventory. Or you can just go to Toad and pick a chest and get a straight item that goes into your consumable-based inventory. This game has everything we need to make a free-to-play game on a modern mobile phone. Everything's already there. All we need to change is a couple of tweaks here and there."
It was all there, all of it ready to be sold for 99 cents a pop.
Levy had his core gameplay loop of going from the overworld into various levels and getting stopped along the way to be asked to pay for stuff.
"Now I need to figure out what emotions I want to monetise," he said.
"I always speak about emotions," Levy explained, during his presentation. (He does!)
"Purchasing in free-to-play games is completely irrational. There is no reason for a logical person to spend money on a game that you get for free. Alright? So in order to make someone open up their wallet, you have to tap into some emotional feeling within them. I feel like this is a great framework for game designers to work in and not feel like they're evil arseholes but actually that they're creating an emotional experience and charging appropriately for their time and effort put into making a great product."
He picked these two emotions to exploit to part potential SMB3 players with their money:
Levy's statements about monetising the manipulation of emotions sure make free-to-play game designers seem more like advertisers, but at the end of the day, sure, game developers should be paid for their work somehow. Just... like this?
Levy said he wanted to steal the structure of Candy Crush Saga or any similar game, thus reshaping Super Mario Bros. 3 as follows:
There's no more getting a free life for every 100 coins you collect. Nope. If Mario dies, you wait 30 minutes (!) for a new life. Or can buy a new life.
You can spend coins on Tanooki suits and fire flowers.
"Plays can grind for coins," Levy said. "They can earn a couple of hundred coins every game session. But if you're really impatient and want to buy the really big things right away, you have to buy the big package."
Toad is turned into a blacksmith who can craft rare items, such as....
Each unlockable new character would have new game abilities. You'd want this stuff. You'd pay. "Crafting would be the major coin-sink in the game."
This "evil" version of Super Mario Bros. 3 would be designed to notify you about opportunities to pay, to constantly give you opportunities to spend more money. The game would be programmed to remind you ever three, five or seven days to come back and play more. The game would get new, randomly-generated levels each week to keep people playing.
That's it. That's how the beautifully-designedSuper Mario Bros. 3 would transform from a game you pay for once to a game that keeps asking you to pay more every time you play.
That's how you'd make Super Mario Bros. 3 free and, if I do say so myself, awful.
Three years ago, game designer Zach Hiwiller horrified right-minded gamers with his nightmare vision of a Super Mario Bros. made with then-modern sensibilities. Three years later, that's a fairy tale compared to designer Ethan Levy's vision of a Super Mario Bros. 3 mangled into the model of Candy Crush Saga.
You can watch Levy's presentation in the video below. He starts at the 21:00 mark.
His slides are online here.
Nintendo, if you're reading this... he was kidding.
And in other news... EA announced that the free-to-play Plants Vs. Zombies 2 was downloaded 16 million times in its first week of release.