The REMA Model part 6: The Mario Conundrum

Where does Super Mario Bros. go?

Let me tell you, in the REMA work Mario and similar games have been the biggest challenge so far for me.  Because REMA is based on a learning model and not a game design model, the categories aren’t defined by the games themselves.  It’s an interesting outcome that games seemed to have evolved to match these categories (likely a side effect of players being focused on only one mode at a time).  And it’s useful that these games have evolved unique traits that can help focus the design.

But Mario doesn’t fit.  Mario might be dismissable, because it was released well before most of the REMA traits had evolved.  But it’s an all-time favorite.  And there are plenty of other recent games that don’t fit well either.  Like Super Meat Boy.  And what about the Ninja Gaidens?  or Demon Souls?  The main design difference here from Rollercoaster games is just the difficulty.  But that difficulty forces the player to use Mastery-type play to proceed.  And player’s love it.

For any game, REMA classification is based on what is the primary focus of the player.  And the focus of the player’s play in these games 90% of the time is on perfecting a skill – Mastery play.  For the REMA model to be coherent, these are Mastery games.

But these games don’t share the traits I described for Mastery games.  They don’t have one room, they are a journey.  The structure is content driven and external.  They’ll often introduce new tools along the way that force you to restart the REMA learning process.  What gives?

I think there must be 2 kinds of Mastery games, each with a different lineage.  Mario is the kind of single-player Mastery game where designers create a series of difficult tests for players to beat.  By amping the difficulty, video game designers discovered they could create a different kind of Mastery experience from the historical, competitive Mastery game.  These games have very different traits from the historical games, from different evolutionary pressures:

  1. One Time Through Yes, you might play the levels over and over, and you might come back to 100% something, but these are linear games.
  2. Long:  And, like Rollercoaster games, to justify their value, they have lots of puzzles/levels.
  3. High Challenge:  Challenge promotes quick mastery.  These are often difficult cognitive (puzzles) or physical challenges.
  4. Punishment:  As does punishment.  These 2 are the key traits that separate these games from Rollercoaster games.
  5. Little Randomness:  A trait Mastery and Rollercoaster games share.
  6. Scripted:  The “beat it once” mentality encourages one-time construction techniques.
  7. Skill Driven: Progress is defined by tests of whether a player has mastered a particular skill or concept.  Unlike other Mastery games, the same test isn’t repeated twice.
  8. Direction:  These games are not one room games.  They are a journey, the player beating one test at a time.
  9. Content Driven:  The tests are a form of content.  Development is usually centered on content creation.
  10. Content Defined Stopping Point:  And when you run out of tests, you’re usually done.
  11. Varied, External Success:  The designer crafts the tests and the player overcomes them.
  12. Narrative:  Story serves as an excellent reward and frame outside the tests.
  13. Contextual:  The scenes and narrative often assist in the tests and slightly modify the systems, in order to vary and explore the scripted system space.

You’ll notice that nearly all of these traits are Rollercoaster traits too, except for the ones about difficulty.  And Rollercoaster designers have realized this too – most Rollercoaster games have an “Insane” difficulty mode that creates Mastery play.  Halo on Legendary is a completely different game then Halo on Normal.  The player’s goals and play are different.

This complicates things.  This makes 2 distinct groups of Mastery games, one of which is fairly close to Rollercoaster games.  And it opens up the possibility that there could be similar evolutionary splits in the other play modes.  We’ll see how it develops.  Do you think this is the right way to take the model?  Are there other groups I’m also missing?

In the meantime, I could use names for these 2 groups of games.  Ideas?


3 thoughts on “The REMA Model part 6: The Mario Conundrum

  1. You’re getting overly specific with the traits you’re ascribing to each class of game. It seems the heart of each classification is the player’s dominant cognitive mode during a period of play time, not any particular trait that happens to be present during that play time.

    There is only one kind of Mastery cognitive mode, and that’s when the player is focused on achieving a challenging goal by optimally using the skills she’s already Experimented with. It’s unimportant whether an explicit narrative is nonexistent or highly present, whether the game’s dev team expended most of their resources on content or gameplay system development or whether the arc of the whole game experience is best described as a journey or an arena — if the player is spending most of her time with the Mastery cognitive mode dominating, then that’s a Mastery game.

    This said, I do think some (just not all) of the traits you listed are necessarily common to all Mastery-dominant games.

    # I don’t think you can get Mastery play without these traits:
    * Deep. Can’t be easy to master. The best mastery games are not just deep, but unsolvable.
    * Balanced. The game can’t have optimum choices that preclude all other choices, or it won’t be worth mastering.
    * Punishing Consequences. The results of player’s choices must be significant to distinguish experts from non-experts. Mistakes are often punished.
    * High Challenge: Challenge promotes quick mastery. These are often difficult cognitive (puzzles) or physical challenges.
    * Little Randomness. Randomness used carelessly can hide skill, so it is only used in strict, analyzable chunks.
    * Skill Driven. Expertise is about demonstrating skill, so Mastery games are full of difficult skill choices.
    * Difficult to Execute Skills. Additionally, skill can be demonstrated in execution, so choices often require difficult to execute skills (such as physical dexterity).
    * System Driven. Choices means systems first, not content first. That makes Mastery development teams similar to Experiment teams, except they are focused on very tight, sharp systems.
    * Specific, External Success. What it takes to win a Mastery game is often very clearly defined, either by the designer or (interestingly) the community. For example specific end states (like Capture The Flag), leaderboards, or other players failing a task.
    * No Cheating. Unlike Experiment games, breaking the rules is strictly forbidden. Winners need to be unambiguous. Referees are common, and cheaters are banned. (One of the big knocks against figure skating as a sport is that the scoring is perceived to be corruptible.)

  2. 1. Great series. Keep it coming, please!
    2. I think you meant “Punishment”, not “No Punishment”.
    3. I agree with Nathan.

  3. Thanks Mikolaj. #2 fixed.

    I agree with Nathan too. In part 6, I think I got caught up in what turned out to be subgenres, and missed the common parent that is truly Mastery games. Cool!

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