I wasn’t going to say anything about Super RMN Bros. 3 on my blog, because the game sucks and their response to criticism has not changed since Super RMN Bros. 2, but I recieved an interesting new perspective on the situation that I feel is worth mentioning. So here I am mentioning it.
Really, this post is about Super Talking Time Bros. 2, more than anything. Putting these two community-driven Mario fangames up against each other in a sort of nerdhole internet grudge match actually makes a lot of sense to me, because one is a fine example of what can be achieved when a community with a clear goal can really accomplish, while the other, uh, isn’t. STTB2 is worthy of every ounce of praise you could possibly give it. People are not exaggerating when they say it’s better than some of Nintendo’s own work. Miyamoto would play this game and nod appreciatively that, yes, these guys really do get it. If the TT guys were Nintendo employees, and they sold you this game for $50, you would not begrudge them a penny.
Let’s start with this premise: a single person cannot make a really good game. Now we know that obviously isn’t universally true, or else the world wouldn’t have gems like Cave Story in it, but the trick is so rare I think it’s fair we can discount it as a fluke of genius. So okay, if you’re a genius you can maybe make a good game all by yourself, but most of us aren’t geniuses. I certainly know I’m not, and I know neither the TT nor RMN project leaders are, nor are any of the dudes who submitted levels. Basically we’re all just gibbering ape-creatures who like Mario a lot, and can maybe tie our shoes by ourselves on a good day, and need to have the crust cut off of our sandwiches, etc.
So with that in mind, we turn to the goals of the two competing internet communities, these congregations of ape-creatures who have come together in the conceit that they could pretend to make a Mario game. And this is the new perspective: Talking Time is a community of gamers, whereas RMN is a community of hackers.
I’ve put about five-ish years into Talking Time so far, and what I like about the community there as opposed to other gaming communities I’ve tried out is that the people like to talk about games. You would think that’s obvious (I mean, it’s in the forum title and all) but it’s really not. The dudes there don’t just talk about what they’re playing and what’s coming out and what new system will have the most chips or whatever. What they talk about is why they play games. You very nearly never have a dude just roll up all, “This fucking game sucks!” If a fucking game sucks, that dude is going to tell you why that fucking game sucks, and usually support his position with examples of games that did what that fucking game was trying to do better. Or ideas on how the fucking sucky parts could have been improved. And then a second dude will come along and disagree; he’ll make a case for why the game doesn’t fucking suck, and support that argument with generally sound reasoning about why he thinks that. And these two guys, even though there is no common ground re: fucking-sucking, are actually engaging in a real discussion about game design.
I have about ten years’ worth of experience in the various RPGMaker communities, of which RMN is just the most recent example, and I say with confidence that it is a totally different style of discourse. The community isn’t centered around playing games, but rather making them, and so everyone has an individual agenda. Everyone is making something, and they all want you to play it. And yes, that means playing the stuff other people make too. And yes, you can actually get a lot of enjoyment from that angle. What happens, though, when you have a hundred guys all using the same game engine to do things, is the conversation becomes skewed. When everyone knows what an engine can and can’t do, the level of expectation gets lowered. Mistakes are forgiven if everyone agrees it’s just a quirk of the engine, and truly novel things nobody has seen an editor do before are praised even if they are bad ideas.
(Indeed, one of the most explosive conversations I had about RMN Bros. 2 occured because I asked a level designer to add a checkpoint to a level, and I was rebuffed because it was impossible to do so. “Make the level shorter, then” was not even considered as a solution to the problem.)
Now when you get these groups together, as a community, to design a Mario game, it’s actually pretty clear why one consistently succeeds and the other consistently fails. Both communities are just doing what comes naturally to them. The TT guys get together and engross themselves in discussion about every level, discussions which sometimes blow up and hurt feelings. If a guy’s level doesn’t work, he’s forced to read lots of comments about why it doesn’t work and, in extreme cases, why it won’t be included in the project. Bad levels get weeded out and bugs get squashed at nearly every point in the process because these are guys who like to talk about games. They just happen to be talking about their own game, this time.
Meanwhile, at RMN, every contributor is ostensibly a game designer. The game thus becomes a collection of individual projects being plugged into the whole. A guy makes his level off in his own corner, then presents it when he’s done, and then goes off to make the next level. And because a “standard” SMBX level is old hat, each individual is trying to push the engine to do more novel things, without regard to whether those are really the kinds of things that work well inside of a Mario game.
These are two groups of people who have a healthy respect for gaming, just in different directions. Talking Time is interested in gaming as a culture, as a form of history. They would have deep discussions about SMBX whether they were making a game or not. Their project, then, is chock full of references and in-jokes, little nods to Mario history, and every brick has been pored over not just for bugs, but to ensure that fun, playability and “Mario-ness” were adhered to all along the way.
RMN is interested in gaming as more of a hobby, an avenue of creative output. They like to put pieces together to see what happens. To them, the simple act of making their own Mario level is worthwhile without acknowledging any higher goal. That a level isn’t very Mario-like is less of a concern, because they get to make a cool thing and share it with their friends, who are also making cool things.
What I’ve learned during my time at Talking Time, and what these quasi-yearly Mario projects continue to reinforce for me, is that the process of making a good video game begins with a willingness to really dig in and challenge everything you think you know about game design. 99.9% of everyone who has ever enjoyed a Mario level has not thought about why they enjoyed it. Understanding why you like the things you like is a skill you have to learn and develop. It’s something I was not very good at myself for a very long time. By its very nature, the Talking Time forums help develop that skill, whereas RMN bypasses it and goes directly to the technical aspects of using game editing software.
And no, merely playing games isn’t enough to develop this ability. A truly well-designed game is built specifically so you won’t notice the game-y aspects of it. If you don’t believe that’s true, turn on the developer commentary in Portal sometime and prepare to have your mind blown. (Here’s a hint, for you visitors from RMN: a lot of the level design that went into that game was directly influenced by player feedback.)
Homework assignment: write 500 words about why the first level in Super Mario Bros. is so good. Or so bad, if you don’t like it. And no filler; I can spot filler a mile away.
Talking Time is like a nebula of game designers. The guys there who really dig their hands in and really engage in the forum’s mission statement of “talking about television games” are, whether they know it or not, getting a powerful education. Super Talking Time Bros. is the proof. When you spend your free time making a case for the games you love and then defending that case against other dudes who do not love them, you become something more than just another ape-creature. A year or so later, when you sit down to make a Mario level, your first thought is, “Okay. What do I really know about Mario levels? What do I know works? And how can I put a little of myself into one?”
That’s the big difference between “Oh cool, a stopwatch! I should make a stopwatch level!” and “What would a stopwatch level look like, and how would it actually play? If it doesn’t play well, is there a way I can make it worthwhile?”
I can say, sincerely, that I am honored to know the guys who made the TT Mario games. It isn’t just better than RMN Bros., it’s head and shoulders above just about every Mario fangame ever made. And truth be told, I was more than a little disappointed in myself that I didn’t see my own name in the credits. I should have made a ghost house or something.
And to you RMN types, well, not that you’ve ever taken my advice in the past, but… you’re not hopeless. You just need to grasp that one important lesson you haven’t learned yet. Step one is realizing that the dudes at the front of the project — yes, I’m talking specifically about halibabica and kentona here — haven’t learned it either. Listen to criticism, be willing to throw away a week’s worth of work, and pay no attention to any positive thing anyone says about what you’re doing. If the TT guys do another sequel this year, I invite you to get a forum account and test your mettle there. Dart Zaidyer will whip you into shape.
It’ll sting, too. That fucker uses an actual whip.
But your levels will be better, scars and all.
If you’re an impartial observer, but you love Mario games, please download Super Talking Time Bros. 2 and Super RMN Bros. 3 for yourselves and make your own conclusions: