F5 Games blog

Potty Training and Game Design

This is a post that has been rattling around in my head for the last week or so. Recently I ran across an article on Significant Bits that dissected the level design of Super Mario Bros 3 to show how Nintendo was able to convey so much instruction to the player without ever making it explicit. It’s really a great read and you should check it out.

The Potty Training

While thinking about the game design cues from Super Mario 3 I noticed an interesting parallel in my own home. My wife and I have been working to potty train our almost 2 year old son for the last few months and so far things have switched back and forth from great to not so good. Recently things have been working much better however, and one of the main reasons is because my wife had the brilliant idea to let my son put a sticker on the calendar at the end of any day in which he didn’t have an accident.

This may seem like a standard reward system but it’s new in that it is a more long term goal than any of the previous rewards we have tried. When our son makes it to the potty on time we congratulate him, give him a small sticker to place on the bathroom door, and sometimes give him M&Ms. Each of these small rewards has started out working really well but the novelty soon wears off and things begin to degrade again. However, with the new ‘end of the day’ reward it has given my son another reason to really work at not having accidents that goes beyond just right now, and it seems to be working.

The Game Design

Super Mario Bros 3 Coins

Collecting coins has both immediate and long term rewards.

So how do potty training habits pertain to game design? In my mind it really laid out the need for multiple levels of rewards for players, something that you’ll see implemented in plenty of great games, including Super Mario Bros 3. Think about some of the immediate rewards in a Mario game.

  • You stomp on an enemy and he flattens out, you get points, and a cool sound effect plays.
  • You collect a coin and you hear a cool sound effect, get points, and the coin counter increases.
  • In later Mario games you collect other types of coins as well as star bits, etc. and they all offer similar immediate rewards through sound, graphical flourish, and counters increasing.
  • Collecting a Star results in the end of a level in Super Mario Galaxy 1 and 2 as well as celebration music and a cool Mario pose.

That’s all well and good but the immediate rewards quickly begin to lose their luster. When you collect your first coin or smash your first Goomba it might put a grin on your face but before too long you’re flying through the levels and grabbing things so quickly that you don’t even notice anymore. That is why each of these immediate rewards also feeds into a longer term goal/reward that keeps you working even after the initial shine has worn off. Let’s list some of the long term rewards that flow from the immediate ones.

  • Bouncing from one enemy head to another begins to alter the sound effect and give you more points each time, pushing you to try and line up more enemies. This culminates in the coveted 1UP.
  • Collecting coins continues to push the coin counter higher and higher until you reach 100 coins, at which time you receive a 1UP and the count starts over.
  • Blue Coins and Red Coins are newer medium-term rewards that ask you to collect a set number of coins in a contained area for a special reward.
  • In New Super Mario Bros Wii each level contains 3 Star Coins that are ultimately used to unlock an entire new World at the end of the game.
  • Mario Galaxy 1 and 2 have you collect multiple stars in each level so that you can unlock later levels. Each world culminates in the collection of a Grand Star that is even larger and more exciting to get.

From Stars back to Potty

All of this points to the clever use of layered rewards as a way to keep the player engaged in exploring and collecting new things in your game. This has made me realize that just having a high score probably isn’t enough, but by layering other rewards into the high score process, like granting a free life at 100,000 points or after 10 kills without taking damage, you can encourage the player to continue exploring your game mechanics to discover new rewards and hopefully keep them interested in completing your game. You also may find a great system for Potty Training a 2 year old.

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