UX Lessons From Super Mario Odyssey

Lessons for designing joyful experiences taken from one of the best games out there.

Spoiler Alert: Go play Super Mario Odyssey until you’re done. Or not.

“Daddy, I’m going to stack a house on top of a giraffe on top of an autonomous freeway,” said my four-year old daughter with a big smile. These kinds of things are common for my daughter to say (And yes, she’s says “autonomous”. We live in San Francisco so…). To my daughter this makes perfect sense. She’s making sense of the world and mixing and remixing these not-yet-disparate concepts. But to many of us, this sentence sounds ridiculous. Yet, let’s take a sentence like this:

“I’m going to throw my autonomous hat on top of a dinosaur and bounce on a trampoline.”

Something my daughter would also say. And yet, this is very much part of the concept for Super Mario Odyssey, one of the best Nintendo Switch games available. A game made by adults, played by people of all ages, by a very successful world-renowned company.

What Nintendo has mastered is the ability to take the joyous and playful soul of a child and inject it into the lifeblood of its games. Most recently, no game best exemplifies the spirit of Nintendo better than Super Mario Odyssey, a game that I’m currently in the process of “completing”. I’ve reached 600 power moons and conquered all the levels, most recently the Darker Side of the Moon. Now I’m going back trying to find every Power Moon in each level. I love this game. I also happen to lead a team of interaction designers at Punchcut where we help companies design incredible products.

As a UX designer, there are so many takeaways from Super Mario Odyssey that we can apply to our everyday work. I want to dissect the game and explore the elements of Odyssey designers that we who work on everyday products can learn from.

1. Saturate with play

Odyssey isn’t just a game. It’s a game excessively overflowing with play every single moment. Of course not every product should feel like this. But almost every product could certainly use moments that feel like this. We use the terms “surprise and delight” or “minimum loveable product” a lot but how many times does a product actually surprise or delight you? We use products that we like, but how many products do we actually love? They’re out there, but they’re the minority.

I believe that to create a product that embodies the qualities of Odyssey — a product that people genuinely love to use — you need a process and a team that embodies these qualities. There’s a lot of good solid thinking in our design process, but dare I say not enough joy in it. What would it look like if you saturate your process with play? What kind of product would come out of a team that liberally makes jokes and laughs together and thinks of crazy ideas together free of judgement?

If you work in a team like this, treasure it. If not, be the catalyst to turn your team like this. Put your crazy ideas out there and ack a fool like Leroy Jenkins. Allow others to judge you and don’t give a crap. Smile and laugh a lot. I’m not going to pretend life doesn’t get in the way and you’re not going to have crappy days. That’s OK but do what you need to do to get your mind right. It helps to stop reading the news for a while when you’re in the ideation phase of a project. It’s not gonna kill you to not know everything that’s going on in the world. And if there’s something that actually might kill you, like a missile is coming, then others around you will let you know.

What kind of design process gives people the freedom to be like “Hey, what if Mario can possess a dinosaur that just crushes everything in its path. And can bounce on trampolines?”

Also, a word of caution about user testing. I’m a big believer in user research and the insights from it that drive design (we do it a lot at Punchcut!). But when you have a truly innovative idea in your hands, it’s a very precious thing that can easily be killed. Testing done wrong can be one of those killers. At this point in the process, testing is only helpful if you have buy in from stakeholders that success isn’t about whether people love the concept. It’s about whether people love or hate the concept. Polarizing reactions are signals of a great idea. Ideas with lukewarm, somewhat favorable reactions are not.

2. Design around ONE single concept

Odyssey is all about hats. Mario’s hat is named Cappy and has its own life. Enemies also wear hats. Princess Peach has a hat. Bowser has a hat. It’s ridiculous and amazing. Mario’s signature move is his hat throw. You can throw Cappy to knock out enemies. You can throw Cappy up, on the floor, have it spin around Mario, and it can hone in on enemies. You can throw Cappy and jump on it to jump farther. Taking this even further, you can throw Cappy at enemies and possess them.

“Hey everyone,” said a Nintendo designer, “wouldn’t it be cool if you could throw your hat at an enemy, take over its body, have it wear Mario’s hat, and start controlling it?”

Odyssey has taken a single concept and gone big with it. Hats are constantly reinforced from beginning to end. Some challenges even take away the use of Cappy making you really feel how dependent you are on him.

Enemies wear hats
Princess wears a hat
Bowser wears a hat

How does this apply to UX design for your product? Start with one single concept and write a single, clear, and concise vision of the experience based on it. Then it’s a matter of designing the experience to be ruthlessly in-line with the vision and ruthlessly filtering out ideas and features that are not. Weave everything in your UX around this single vision. Constantly reinforce it throughout the experience like Odyssey’s hats. When it’s an appropriate time to put your product in front of users, ask them to describe the experience. Their answers should be more or less in-line with your vision statement.

3. Take full advantage of the hardware

The idea of throwing Cappy was the result of Nintendo asking themselves “what can we do with this JoyCon?” The designers wanted to take advantage of the fact that you could play untethered and use the JoyCon as motion controllers. They started with the possibilities that the hardware affords and worked from there. Odyssey does a masterful job at taking full advantage of the Switch’s hardware. You can play tethered. You can play untethered and use motion to perform moves differently, like throw Cappy, or unlock new moves altogether. You can play with two players and have a second player independently control Cappy. This multi-mode operation is the genius of the Switch and Odyssey takes full advantage.

And can we talk about the incredible use of haptics for moment? The JoyCon controllers have a robust haptic engine built in. It’s common for games to take advantage of haptics during obvious gameplay moments, like when an explosion happens. Odyssey does that but of course doesn’t stop there. “How might we use this in a way that feels playful and creative?” Odyssey’s designers asked. Odyssey uses haptics as a way to hone in on hidden Power Moons. By walking around an area, haptics on both controllers guide you to the Power Moon. Go away from it and the respective controller vibrates less. Go closer and the vibrations become stronger. Genius.

Each JoyCon has built in haptics used as a honing mechanism for Power Moons
When both controllers are vibrating, you know where Power Moon is

We’re way past designing for point and click. Designers have so many modalities at our disposal now like touch, gestures, voice, haptics, sound. And that’s just on one of the many devices your users might be using your product on. Take full advantage of all of these modes because you have the ability to create a remarkably more immersive experience than you did only a few years ago.

4. Let people choose their own difficulty

Odyssey can be a very long and difficult game. It can also be a shorter and less challenging one. The difference is not what difficulty mode you select. There’s no easy, hard, expert or grounded mode (shout out to Last of Us). Instead, how difficult the game is is entirely up to you the player. If you’re a completionist like me, the game is more difficult because of all the Power Moons that need to be collected in each world. More levels get progressively revealed as you collect more Power Moons. But you don’t have to play that way to finish the game. You can go through each level, beat Bowser, still enjoy the game and have a sense of accomplishment.

This level is hella hard.

What would it look like for your product to be accessible to the widest range of people? How can you design an experience in which a novice can have a full experience of your product while also tapping into an expert’s need for mastery and allowing them to also have a full experience? And how can you achieve this while not inflating your product and straying from the singular concept that you’ve defined?

5. Enable ninja mastery (it sneaks up on you)

With all the ways you can control Mario, Odyssey can be overwhelming to a newbie. But Odyssey has a way that invites newbies in and before they know it, they’ve become one with the controls doing ninja level moves. This is a game that does a masterful job of teaching. As common in games, the levels are designed so that players progressively learn in context. For example, new obstacles are progressively presented that require you to use a new move to complete it. Once you’ve done that a few times, another obstacle is presented that requires you to do a new move. Then to validate that you’ve learned the new moves, you have to beat a boss that requires the use of these moves. Not only that, but tutorials are integrated into the actual world as signs “travel tips”. Looking at these “travel tips” would teach a new move. This way of progressively and contextually integrating learning moments causes players to get better without them even knowing it. This is the way great teachers teach.

Teaching moments are integrated in each world via signs that show you how to do a new move.

There are also products that require users to go to a Help section, completely separate from the core experience. There are products that help their users onboard in the beginning. These are not the best ways to teach. People don’t want to read stuff to learn how to use your experience. They want to use your experience. Help people just use your experience and teach them along the way and in a way that helps them become masters without them even knowing it.

6. Design a robust system, but with variability

On the surface, the worlds, characters, and challenges of Odyssey look like a collection of random disparate themes cobbled together. But the cray is actually built on top a very well thought out system. We talked about the game mechanic of throwing Cappy and how it’s thoroughly weaved throughout the game. Then there are Power Moons. Power Moons are the main treasure in Odyssey. They’re hidden throughout the world and when you beat a boss, you get more Power Moons. Each world is filled with challenges to get Power Moons and when you beat Bowser, go back to a world and smash the moon stone in it, more challenges unlock. This series of variable challenges are the main thrust that keeps the game moving forward. Every one of them feels different, fresh, often ridiculous and random. However, when you take a step back, you’ll see the same pattern. Here’s a small handful of challenges you’ll find repeated in most levels:

  • Racing Koopa’s
  • Finding Toad
  • Collecting music notes
  • Timed challenges
  • Leading a dog to a Power Moon
  • 2D Mario (amazing btw)
  • Solving a puzzle
  • Stacking Goomba to woo girl Goomba
  • Hiding and finding balloons hidden by others with Luigi
  • Entering a pipe to encounter a mini challenge with one Power Moon at the end and another hidden in the middle
  • Herding sheep

To name a few. It’s also important to note that the types of challenges span from challenges that require hand-eye coordination to those that require memory and problem solving. But they’re repeated over and over with a different execution each time. It’s this well-designed system that allows each level to have a wildly different look and feel. Metro Kingdom for example, is based on New York City and features taxis and normally proportioned humans (of course in hats) walking around. What? But when you first encounter Metro Kingdom, you more or less know what to do. It’s a veneer on top of an established system.

This level is hella hard.

This type of wide variability embedded in a thoroughly well designed system is what makes the game an experience that you keep wanting to come back to. It’s a form of variable rewards in the Hook Model. UX designers are amazing at thinking through systems. We build complex architectures, spatial models, and flows across multiple devices. We create design systems with reusable components. But how do we not stop there? Design variability into your experience that keeps users anticipating what’s next, but grounded in a system so that they’re not anxious about what’s next.

Designing Joy

If you surveyed people and asked them to rank their life on a spectrum from downhill cruisin’ to uphill battling, I bet most people would rank themselves closer to the latter. Everybody is fighting their own personal battles. It seems like more people are anxious and stressed out. Design is not the cure all for people’s problems. However, we do design products that people use and depend on every single day. The habits and routines people form with their products are because we designed them. Because of this, we have this amazing opportunity to give people a little bit of joy through our work. Certainly I believe great design can make a large scale impact that helps to shift societies towards a more positive direction. But it can also help in the little moments of interaction that people have with their products. This is essentially what games do and why people play games. That’s why I highly encourage any designer to play games and pay close attention to the design patterns so that they can apply in their own work. Nintendo is a master at this and I’ve only scratched the surface on some takeaways from one of Nintendo’s best games.

What UX takeaways do you have for Super Mario Odyssey or gaming in general?