The Parable of the Upside Down Question Mark

Hey folks,

I’m brownbear. Today’s piece covers the skill floor and skill ceiling design approaches in Mario Kart 64 and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe.

2017-06-08_titleCard.png

Introduction

The Mario Kart franchise evolved substantially from its first 3D iteration on the Nintendo 64 to its most recent release on the Nintendo Switch. The series’ core vision – a casual take on racing, a strong emphasis on multiplayer, and some deeper interactions thrown in for replayability and hardcore fans – didn’t really change, to the point where “kart racer” is now its own genre. By contrast, the practical details were significantly refurbished. New systems were added, features got cut, and virtually every mechanic was rebalanced or outright designed.

Recently, I decided to pick up and 100% the Switch version since I had skipped the last two iterations. Afterward – feeling a bit of Mario Kart withdrawal – I decided to revisit the Nintendo 64 version. The nostalgia goggles were pretty strong, so with the modern game fresh in my memory I wanted to see whether the original held up.

One feature, more than any other, stuck out to me: the upside down question mark.

2017-06-08_upsideDownQuestionMarkBase_cropped.png

 

A Skill-Based Franchise

The upside down question mark – or Fake Item Box, if you read the manual – was a pretty simple item. It looked similar to a normal item box, except the inner question mark was turned upside down. When a racer ran into it, they crashed. There wasn’t anything more to it than that, and a player only had to see it three or four times before they could automatically tell the difference with no fuss.

The Fake Item Box was removed after Mario Kart Wii.

Before we can dive into a discussion of why this matters for a skill-based franchise, it’s worth discussing whether Mario Kart actually is skill-based to begin with. Items are randomly distributed depending on a player’s current place (or distance from the leader in later entries). Because items are very powerful, many players write off Mario Kart as a mere luck-based party racer.

I disagree with this assessment. In fact, I’d argue that most of Mario Kart’s mechanics (for all iterations, from N64 to today) are skill-based. “Skill-based” means that a player’s actions lead to predictable outcomes, and that better outcomes are a result of better play, like strong mechanical control or strategy. Mario Kart fits the bill – optimal item usage, correctly timed slides, map understanding and awareness of other players all have a significant impact on a player’s placement. It’s possible to consistently place top two or three in any Grand Prix at any speed in any console iteration of the franchise (at least the ones I played). This bears out online, too. Play with the same Mario Kart 8 group for awhile and you’ll see the same few people at the top of the scoreboard every time.

If you think about skill as a rating – say, between 1 and 10, where 10 is “playing the game perfectly” – luck (or “RNG“) is a fuzz factor. A rating-10 player will consistently place higher than a rating-8 player, but if the “fuzz factor” is plus/minus two points, the rating-8 player will occasionally get a 10-result and the rating-10 player will occasionally get an 8-result. This won’t happen all or even most of the time, but it will happen enough such that players will notice.

There are two inputs into how often this happens. One is the size of the “fuzz factor”, in other words how much RNG can affect your final placements. I’d argue that Mario Kart’s RNG “fuzz factor” is not as big as players make it out to be. The large number of items given per race means everyone is affected roughly equally, while the prevalence of defensive items makes any given item interaction defensible (modulo the blue shell).

The other input is the degree of player differentiation. If it’s straight-forward for everyone to be a rating-10 player, then the only differentiating factor in most cases would be RNG.

Player differentiation is a much more important factor. The evolution of the franchise from Mario Kart 64 to Mario Kart 8 Deluxe increases the RNG component significantly: blue shells are more common, aggressive items feature stronger AI and a plethora of shortcuts give big advantages to those who happen to get a boost. Despite all this, I’d argue that the franchise has become more skill-based and less random thanks to a change in design approach toward player differentiation.

Skill in Mario Kart 64

Mario Kart 64 arguably took a conservative approach toward adding skill-based components. It was the first 3D iteration of the series, designed as a party-game for an offline era. Shortcuts are almost exclusively based on boosts, proper slide timings can be worked around by spamming jump and kart-to-kart interactions come across as pretty random. At a high-level there just aren’t that many mechanics to differentiate players: the designers kept it simple.

2017-06-08_rainbowRoadKeepingThingsSimple.png

The upside down question mark epitomizes this design philosophy. In theory it’s a skill-based differentiator between players, but in practice it’s a very simple interaction. New players are substantially affected: crashing is always painful, plus they’ll feel discouraged from picking up item boxes at all, further hurting their lap times. Meanwhile, veterans are unaffected because they can differentiate fake and normal item boxes with ease, making the upside down question mark little more than a re-skin of the banana with a bigger crash animation.

If we visualize the resulting spectrum of player skill, we end up with something like this:

2017-06-08_marioKart64SkillFloorCeiling

Players spend the first few initial races learning a large number of one-off interactions (don’t crash into heavy carts, don’t take item boxes with upside down question marks, use the jump / slide button). Afterward, they discover that the skill ceiling is relatively low because these mechanics lack depth. The majority of players then settle in a fairly narrow skill spectrum, magnifying the importance of RNG in race outcomes.

Skill in Mario Kart 8

As discussed, Mario Kart 8 adds a bunch of RNG features, reaching its pinnacle in the new double item box mechanic. But to think about this fact in isolation is to misunderstand this game’s design. It’s better to focus on the much more impactful changes to substantially lower its skill floor and raise its skill ceiling. This allows players to drive their way out of bad RNG, giving the designers flexibility to include more and more RNG interactions.

2017-06-08_marioKart8DoubleItemBox.png

On the skill floor side, Mario Kart 8 is highly accessible. Automatic steering makes it possible for just about anyone to complete a race in reasonable time. Items like the Bullet Bill literally drive for you, while most tracks also feature pretty substantial boost-based shortcuts. Even the simplistic kart ratings shown as you pick your loadout give you a feel for how you’ll drive and prevent newer players from picking overly difficult configurations.

More important, with respect to a franchise title, are the mechanics that have changed relative to Mario Kart 64. Purely skill floor acting mechanics like the upside down question mark have been removed completely. The punishing kart-to-kart collisions have been flipped on their head in the new anti-gravity mode. Sliding is easier than ever, especially with auto-steering. Automatic item notifications mean players no longer need to hold defensive items behind them in perpetuity.

It would be a gross misunderstanding to see these changes as reducing the skill-based nature of Mario Kart 8 (as some salty commenters like to claim as they struggle to get three-stars in every cup). Just the opposite: Mario Kart 8’s skill ceiling is higher than ever. Most tracks contain smaller shortcuts accessible to anyone with sufficient driving ability, ramp boost opportunities are almost everywhere, there’s an extra tier of slide boost for players who forgo automatic steering, and keeping a high coin count reduces lap times non-trivially.

2017-06-08_rampBoost.png
Princess Peach getting a ramp boost.

We can visualize Mario Kart 8’s skill spectrum as follows:

2017-06-08_marioKart8SkillFloorCeiling.png

The game is more accessible than ever before, yet it’s also more skill-based. The RNG “fuzz factor” covers a small percentage of the overall range of skill, even though it’s absolutely larger than previous iterations. Traversing to the top of the skill ceiling is genuinely difficult.

I spent over twenty five hours 3-starring every cup at every speed, salty as ever at various points. Yet by the time I finished, I was shocked to discover how repeatable it was. Some RNG “WTF” moments are inevitable, but on the whole they’re a surprisingly small consideration relative to individual skill.

One of the takeaways from this was an automatic asterisk anytime I came across the “it’s just a party racer” comments on social media. There is an RNG factor, and it is non-trivial: this isn’t StarCraft. Nonetheless, it’s remarkable how often you can drive your way out of bad situations. I think many players dramatically overestimate their own ability, a problem exacerbated by the title’s lack of explanations around its deeper mechanics like sliding and ramp boosting.

Merits of Differentiation

If we can agree that Mario Kart 8 stretches out the overall skill spectrum, it’s worth asking whether this is a good thing. After all, if this is really a casual racer intended for offline play between friends, do we really want good players to get far better outcomes than their friends?

I’d argue that this is really a question of target audience. Different modes in Mario Kart appeal to different people. For instance, the time trial rule set is far more hardcore and punishing than the battle mode, which is characterized by its chaos and randomness. The “core” Mario Kart experience targets the “core” Mario Kart audience, meaning that it makes sense to enable a high degree of player differentiation. Retaining its identity as a casual kart racer is better handled through different game modes that equalize players rather than watering down the core experience. Mario Kart 8 handles this brilliantly through a deep and varied battle mode and a somewhat customizable versus mode.

Final Thoughts

RNG plays an outsized role in Mario Kart 64 thanks to a lack of other differentiating factors. Mario Kart 8 creates a more skill based environment by broadening the skill spectrum in both directions, giving its designers the freedom to simultaneously add more RNG interactions and reduce overall randomness in player outcomes.

Mario Kart is one of my favorite franchises, and it’s great to see its design moving in a positive direction. The evolution in philosophy toward skill floor and skill ceiling has improved the experience for both veterans and casual players alike. This was definitely the longest I ever took 100%’ing a Mario Kart game, but it was also easily the most satisfying.

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this piece, I’d love it if you followed me on Twitter and Facebook and checked out my game-design focused YouTube and Twitch channels. Thank you and all the best!

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s