Saccades, Perception, and Shmups

During a recent episode of Mark_MSX’s podcast — the Electric Underground — I spoke about how saccades may interfere with our ability to play shmups at a high level. You can listen to that here on Mark’s podcast.

I’d like to add more to the discussion of how vision works, with a focus on saccades and perception. Our eyes process a significant amount of information at any given time while playing a shmup. If we learn more about how that takes place, perhaps we can compensate and play our games faster and with more accuracy.

Buckle up for a biology lesson.

A saccade is a rapid-eye movement that reorients the center of your vision to a new target. Our vision is not a stream of visual data akin to a webcam. Rather, it is a collage of still images mixed with snippets of motion and depth information. This unsorted data is crammed into our brain-meat and translated into an approximation of the outside world.

Saccades are an essential part of how humans visualize the world. Our eyes are not passive cameras or windows that the brain looks through. Quite the opposite: the brain is constantly readjusting our eyes and snapping to new targets in order to best understand the physical world surrounding us. This is especially true when we are attempting to perceive an object in motion. Our brain is an active player in how we see things. We move our eyes involuntarily due to these underlying biological mechanics at play.

This section offers a brief overview on the four types of eye movements, but it is the below piece on saccades that relates directly to our topic:

After the onset of a target for a saccade (in this example, the stimulus was the movement of an already fixated target), it takes about 200 ms for eye movement to begin. During this delay, the position of the target with respect to the fovea is computed (that is, how far the eye has to move), and the difference between the initial and intended position, or “motor error” (see Chapter 19), is converted into a motor command that activates the extraocular muscles to move the eyes the correct distance in the appropriate direction.

Saccadic eye movements are said to be ballistic because the saccade-generating system cannot respond to subsequent changes in the position of the target during the course of the eye movement. If the target moves again during this time (which is on the order of 15–100 ms), the saccade will miss the target, and a second saccade must be made to correct the error.

An (approximated) 200ms delay between noticing movement and the start of a saccade seems rather important. If an error occurs (as in, your brain miscalculated the final position of the visual target) or if the target changes trajectory, this causes an additional 15ms – 100ms delay to make secondary adjustments. These smaller adjustments are ‘corrective saccades’.

We need more information before reaching a conclusion. I’ll take several excerpts from the succinct article here:

Saccades direct the fovea onto an object or region of interest which enables subsequent high-acuity detailed visual analysis at that location. In normal viewing, several saccades are made each second and their destinations are selected by cognitive brain process without any awareness being involved.

“High-acuity detailed visual analysis.” Huh, that seems to match other research indicating that foveal vision is responsible for symbol recognition. Quite important for navigating dense bullet patterns. The next part is even more important:

Vision is dependent upon the information taken in during fixation pauses between saccades: no useful visual information is taken in while the eyes are making a saccadic movement.

In other words, your eyes do not “see” during a saccade. Considering what we know about the delay in saccadic eye movement and the 15-100ms penalty for misjudging a target, this seems important. More saccades = more time spent with no useful visual information taken in.

Move your eyes more and you see less.

This is fundamental.

After all, your screen is outputting a fixed amount of frames. So if your eyes are blanking during all those saccades as you dart your eye around the TV screen, you are cutting out valuable visual information, replacing it instead with assumptions (discussed later).

Each frame in a 60-frames-per-second shmup takes 16.67ms. Do the math (or bust out the Texas Instruments if that’s too challenging) on how many frames have gone by during your 200ms response delay prior to a saccade.

The Remote Distractor Effect also appears to hinder the shmup player:

The remote distractor effect is a related automatic effect on saccadic latencies found when a visual onset occurs elsewhere in the visual field simultaneously with the appearance of a saccade target (Walker, Deubel, Schneider, & Findlay, 1997 Figure 4). Such an occurrence results in a prolongation of saccadic latency whether or not the location of the target is completely predictable. The timing of the distractor onset has been shown to modulate the magnitude of the RDE with distractors presented within ±50ms of the target producing the greatest effect.

So if there are other items that appear in your field of view while attempting to track a target during a saccade, there is an increase in delay. Interesting.

What about memorization? Surely if you’ve memorized a bullet pattern it will be easier to perceive its details.

The memory-guided saccade is similar but in this case the target is only flashed briefly so that saccades are directed to a remembered location. Such saccades tend to show a decrease in accuracy in normal individuals[…]

So when relying on memory of where to orient your eyes, your accuracy goes down. I wonder if that is to blame for all those times I could’ve sworn I was moving to a safe area, only to be snagged by a previously-unnoticed bullet.

Our current body of scientific research indicates that our vision is highly fallible when it comes to perceiving discrete details, especially during eye-movement. But if my eyes are constantly “shutting off” during saccades, why don’t I see flashes of darkness?

Good question. That brings us to the other half of the matter: perception.

That’s what your brain does with the raw visual information delivered via the optic nerve from your eyes. It perceives. The data is translated, in a manner of speaking. We all learned in school about how the image in our retinas is flipped, right? The brain must translate the visual data before we actually “perceive” it.

Sounds to me like some input lag is hiding inside our own skull.

Unfortunately, there are even more problems introduced by human perception. Our perception, it turns out, is not at all like a videocamera recording visual information. Instead, our brain cheats.

Remember, our brain-meat is interested in identifying patterns as quickly as possible. So, it will often cheat to get to an answer faster at the cost of accuracy. That’s why things can end up looking different in poor visual conditions (fog, darkness), because your brain is leaping to conclusions.

More specifically, it is filling in blank spots with false data. The visual information you “see” during a saccade isn’t actually there. It’s a predictive image made by your brain. This avoids any sort of stutter in your stream of vision. It also isn’t exactly accurate. It’s a good guess (based on the last fixed image) but it is only a guess.

Have you ever been surprised by a bullet that you just didn’t see? Of course. There’s a chance you were tricked by your own brain as it filled in information based on assumptions.

There’s also the matter of how perception can be involuntarily altered if you are fixed on a certain goal.

See how you do on the challenge below:

Levin and Simons (and later Simons, Franconeri, and Reimer) conducted a series of tests to illustrate how our perception can be easily tricked. If you are interested in learning more about lapses in perception, follow the links below:

The Door Study

Movie Perception Test

Spot the Change

To sum: the biological and psychological characteristics of human vision impact our ability to play shmups at high levels of skill. An understanding of the characteristics of human vision and perception allows one to adjust accordingly, resulting in improved response times, awareness, and acuity.

Can we do anything about this? Possibly.

Heartbeat has been tied to the rate of saccades. Heartbeat goes up and saccades go up, too. An increase in saccade latency has been linked to elevated stress. It seems the practical advice here would be to keep calm and keep staring forward.

In some of our earlier documentation, there is reference to another facet of our perception, the smooth pursuit system.

Smooth pursuit movements are much slower tracking movements of the eyes designed to keep a moving stimulus on the fovea. Such movements are under voluntary control in the sense that the observer can choose whether or not to track a moving stimulus (Figure 20.5). (Saccades can also be voluntary, but are also made unconsciously.) Surprisingly, however, only highly trained observers can make a smooth pursuit movement in the absence of a moving target. Most people who try to move their eyes in a smooth fashion without a moving target simply make a saccade.

The next section offers more insight. Replace “stripes in a rotating cylinder” with “pink bullet” and you can see why this matters:

The smooth pursuit system can be tested by placing a subject inside a rotating cylinder with vertical stripes. (In practice, the subject is more often seated in front of a screen on which a series of horizontally moving vertical bars is presented to conduct this “optokinetic test.”) The eyes automatically follow a stripe until they reach the end of their excursion. There is then a quick saccade in the direction opposite to the movement, followed once again by smooth pursuit of a stripe. This alternating slow and fast movement of the eyes in response to such stimuli is called optokinetic nystagmus. Optokinetic nystagmus is a normal reflexive response of the eyes in response to large-scale movements of the visual scene.

Perhaps, based on this information, it is possible to train the eye to follow a moving object without saccades. More experimentation to follow.

Shmups: the next dead videogame genre

What defines a dead genre?

When a genre has fully explored the potential limit of its game mechanics, it is functionally dead. Titles of such exceptional quality saturate the genre, guaranteeing that the average player will never master more than a handful out of many worthwhile titles. The number of must-play games is too high for any one player to play, in other words. It is not dead because it lacks games. There is typically an abundance of games, strangely enough. Rather, the genre died because it reached the creative limit of its mechanics. Future titles must appeal to the existing fanbase in order to pull in any money. Innovation is no longer a driving factor as to which games sell well and which do not in a dead genre.

For the player, this is a wonderful problem to have (though it does have its consequences, discussed below).

For developers, these kind of market forces toll the death of a genre.

Developers must appeal to an ever-increasingly niche player base, a shrinking market. From where else can they get their profit? This downward spiral has been travelled before by text adventures, MUDs, roguelikes, and various rhythm-music franchises (ya still got those plastic drums?). It is the spiral of a genre leaving the world of commercial profitability and laying to rest in the grave, where devoted fans can enjoy it omne aeternum, or maybe a slightly more pleasant example would be Snow White sleeping in the glass coffin, waiting to be kissed by Activision with his greasy money-beard.

Wait. Gross.

Disney references aside, it is evident that shmups are on such a downward spiral.

A shrinking, spiraling market does end up catering to its remaining customers. In this sense, it’s quite nice to be a shmup fan right now. However, there’s an obvious downside for the community: players scatter themselves across too many excellent games. If the goal is competition, there often aren’t enough players focusing on one particular game to make it worthwhile. Shmup-of-the-month clubs can help alleviate that a bit, but it cannot be a genuine answer to the overall problem. If it was, the problem would’ve been solved, so we must look elsewhere.

A shrinking, spiraling, scattered market puts most dedicated players into one of two camps. You’re either a shmup tourist or you’re someone who focuses on a small handful of games to achieve top scores.

Quick aside: I did say “most dedicated players”, not “all”. There are some exceptional players who seem to have played a bit of everything and yet can also place extremely high scores. In this case, however, I am talking about the rest of us mere peasants.

Naturally, both camps will try an assortment of games, but they aren’t likely to find much common ground with many other players. The community is small and scattered. Players either pass like ships in the night — “Oh! Yes, I played that shmup too. Yes, I did 1CC it. What a fun game. Goodbye!” — or they are lucky enough to find a friend, rival, or mentor playing the same game and who will help them improve. This latter example is where playing for score becomes thrilling, that rare event when you can pit yourself against another human.

Searching for the time

Pause for a moment and name a specific game — not a whole franchise or a developer’s catalogue — in the shmup genre that has a large community surrounding it. One specific game. Daioujou? Raiden Fighters? Ikaruga? I can only name a handful and even in those cases the community boasts only a few ten-thousand potential players worldwide, no more. After all, a shrinking, spiraling, scattered market is not going to have a lot of players to buy these games. If they’re not buying them, they’re not playing them. If they’re not playing them, there’s no community. I’m not ignorant to the usage of emulators, but this is not enough to skew too far beyond the sales numbers for these titles. The total number of potential players is small, that’s my point.

I can name plenty of specific Fighting games with mobs of loyal fans and well-known players. Guilty Gear, Tekken, King of Fighters, Darkstalkers, and even smaller, forgotten titles like Melty Blood, Samurai Shodown, and Waku Waku 7 each have their separate fandoms because there are enough concurrent players interested in the game. A single Street Fighter game likely has more active players than the entire shmup community.

How do these communities differ? For one, there is an explicit understanding that serious Fighting game players will enjoy their time if they focus on a few games and only a few characters. Top players — the ones known in the game’s community by name — almost always stick to one or two characters. While hopping between various fighting games (akin to shmup tourism?) is not anathema to the community, it certainly isn’t lauded as the most enjoyable way to engage with the genre. You will not master all the Fighting games and that is okay. No one expects you to. Pull up a seat and get your head kicked in, scrub. The focus of a player entering this genre is not to play all there is to play but to become skilled at a few favorites so that you can compete. We will return to the issue of competition later.

The Puzzle genre — nearest and dearest to my heart, second only to shmups — has patiently trudged forward, rarely skyrocketing to success but never falling away entirely. Like shmups, many puzzle games are single-player affairs. Yet, the competitive nature of Vs. Puzzle titles (think Puyo, Puzzle Fighter, or Puzzle League. That’s a lot of Ps!) is a source of fuel, allowing this genre to thrive in the modern age of Twitch streamers and tournaments. SEGA is tailoring their next Puyo release for the eSports crowd, going so far as to name it “Puyo Puyo eSports”. Once again, there is an explicit understanding in the community that serious Puzzle game players will enjoy their time if they focus on mastering a few puzzle games. No one is tuning in to watch competitive Tetris played by amateurs. Skill is celebrated, but there must be people to celebrate it. Putting on an excellent performance for an audience of zero is hardly worth the effort for most people, no matter how loyal you may be to a franchise or genre.

You can look to the graveyard of FPSs — that vast Père Lachaise — and witness how losing the online player base of a First Person Shooter pushes it into obscurity. Shmups are no different. A shrinking player base will be powerless to prevent the game from fading. Since these titles take so much skill to master, why risk putting all your time into a newfangled game that might vanish after a year (in terms of popularity)? You might as well stick to the well-known shmups, the time-honored classics, right?

Traditional subscription-based MMOs collided with this problem in the late 90s: in order to compete, you must steal players from other MMOs. Otherwise, your MMO would die off as competing MMOs sapped players from your community. The high time investment excludes the option of playing a bunch of different MMOs concurrently. You stick to one or two. There isn’t enough time in a day for more. Within each MMO there lives a community, but this community can only thrive if other communities diminish. This manifests a bit differently in the shmup market but is essentially a mirror-image of the same problem faced by subscription MMOs: players congregate around entire developer catalogues because there isn’t a large enough active community for each game. Completing a title on one credit takes an inexperienced player weeks if not months. Playing for score takes exponentially more investment. Such a cost is beyond most players.

The lack of depth is certainly not to blame: I’ll reference the well-known example of Daioujou’s Death Label mode going undefeated for 7 years since release. I’m preaching to the choir when I say that shmups boast a significant amount of depth especially when played for score. This is a hardly a controversial statement to those in the community. Players are forced to either ignore this depth or embrace it fully at the cost of missing out on other excellent shmups available to the player. As with MMOs, there isn’t enough time in a day for more.

If the downward spiral is not due to a lack of depth, then what can be to blame? I would argue that the abundance of depth has ended up giving us the same result as too little depth, ironically: too much depth forces players to either ignore the depth or to focus on it entirely to the exclusion of many other games in the genre.

Fractalization of the community’s talent means finding common ground between players is a rare event, with each game only boasting a few dozen top-tier players. The thrill of competition becomes scarce, further eroding the foundations of the community.

Future development

Circling back to the issue of developing games in a dead genre, a developer has two choices. They can either build their titles according to well-known expectations and standards codified by the shmup community (essentially resorting to imitation and remixing of old classics), or they can stretch the definition of a shmup in the hope that catching the attention of non-shmup players will lead to greater sales. This latter option usually fails as it depends both on the willingness of the shmup community to go along with the new twist on the genre and the interest of the non-shmup players to buy it. Developers who dutifully port old titles will enjoy reliable sales from the existing fanbase but are less likely to grab sales from outside of this loyal community. Existing shmup communities may circle their wagons around a canon of best games, a Top 10 list, or whatever, but this does little to invigorate the genre.

Competition is a recourse. Competition begets passion, and passion begets excellence, a prerequisite for quality content-creation. The shmup community is traveling a route akin to the days of Geocities pages and passionate fansites buried deep within the internet. To the individual, this level of detail and nuance is thrilling. I can approach nearly any shmup with a veritable feast of information at my fingertips. And this is all but necessary: new shmup players face a steep learning curve as they endeavor to catch up to the average level of knowledge found in the community. They have no choice but to dig into this information if they hope to join rank with existing shmup players. This obscurity and fractalization of talent is poisonous to the health of the community, as pleasing as it may be for the individual player. Francis Bacon describes:

He that seeketh to be eminent amongst able men hath a great task; but that is ever good for the public: but he that plots to be the only figure amongst ciphers is the decay of an whole age.

“The only figure amongst ciphers” refers to the individual who rises to such an obscure proficiency that though he may be a master, the lack of peer and community renders it all meaningless. The current trajectory means even the best of shmups will only be heralded by one or two of these masters, fulfilling Bacon’s warning. Even now, there are obscure tricks and exploits known only by a handful of top-scoring players. These tricks, in a manner of speaking, are mysterious ciphers to the rest of the community. Perhaps we have already fulfilled the warning.

Whether a corpse or a comatose princess in a glass coffin, the cure for the genre’s mortal condition is the same: competition.

Conversation with myself on 1CC hunters versus Score Chasers

Though the pursuit of score and 1 credit clearing are on the mind of any serious player, there is a preponderance of 1CC-hunters in the shmup community. 1CCs are worn like a badge of honor. Moreover, 1CCs serve as currency, a sort of recognizable credibility to use while we exchange our opinions and compile our Top 10 lists.

By 1CC-hunter, we shall consult my own arbitrary dictionary to understand what that means:

1CC-hunter

wən sē sē ˈhən(t)ər
Noun
An individual who learns a shmup well enough to 1 Credit Clear, then migrates to a new shmup, repeating the process ad nauseam. Their tendency to ignore scoring strategies sadly excludes them from the most thrilling aspect of the genre.

What? I can’t believe they would dare print that in a dictionary.

There isn’t anything wrong with being a 1CC-hunter, is there? Inherently, no, of course not. We are all free spirits able to pursue our hobbies as we choose.

But is being a 1CC hunter anything special?

That’s what I would like to examine.

It appears that our focus on 1CCs has neutered the competitive spirit of shmups. We hone our competency for a particular shmup 80% of the way and then throw it in the trash bin after clearing the game. Let us explore the strange synthesis of clearing a shmup in one go and of pursuing a high score. Perhaps I can convince you to set aside your lonely clear-hunting and to instead keep your eye on that combo gauge before moving on to the next conquest.

Conflicting information

Shmups are unique in our videogame hobby. At the easiest difficulty levels, a shmup takes an afternoon. At the highest skill levels, the same shmup might take years to master. They can be beaten in about 30 minutes by credit-feeding until the end, but this is really no different than cranking down the difficulty of a fighting game to Easy and button-mashing your way through arcade mode. Sure, you “beat” the game but no one really cares. Would anyone concede that credit-feeding is truly beating the game? For that matter, beating the game through save-states (save-scumming) is no different than playing it straight on one credit, right? Wrong. No one really cares. Were someone to submit a stitched-together run for a record, it would be considered cheating.

The community doesn’t backslap one another for credit-feeding or save-scumming, so we clearly have a metric for what is and isn’t a notable accomplishment in the shmup genre. We would say that “anyone can do that”. Truthfully, though, not everyone can do that. There’s still a basic level of skill required to piece together a full run via save-states. It’s not impressive, but it’s also not something that anyone can do.

Begrudgingly, we acknowledge that save-scumming is “hard” from a certain perspective, yet we choose not to praise it. This makes sense. There must be some standard for what is and isn’t “hard”. Just because some people cannot do something — even if a very large number of people cannot do it — that doesn’t make the task itself inherently difficult.

Why are credit-feeding and save-scumming any different than getting a 1CC? The limitation of one credit, of course. The limitation frames the challenge and makes it exciting. Most players cannot win with only 1 credit. To do so is to definitely an accomplishment. We discussed above that not everyone can save-scum through a shmup, but an even smaller number of players can successfully 1CC a shmup. I would point out that 1CCing is harder than save-scumming and therefore deserves more praise in comparison.

However, I do not understand how a 1CC is different compared to beating any other difficult videogame from any other genre. I have beaten plenty of games in my life. Why is beating a shmup so special?

“These games are super challenging, that’s why. A 1CC is hard enough without worrying about score. It’s worthy of being celebrated.”.

Yes, these games are challenging.

That’s why I play them, but I cannot have it both ways: if I play them for the challenge, why boast about overcoming the least-challenging facet of the genre?

This is why Dark Souls Let’s Play videos aren’t much of a thing anymore: no one cares if you beat the game. People hardly care if you beat it naked, minimum level, on New Game ++++. Beating the game is a fine accomplishment, but if Dark Souls internet message boards were full of nothing but “I did it!” posts, the community would crumple under the weight of its own superficial glee.

There seems to be a missing element to the equation of what makes shmups interesting. Can it be the challenge of a shmup — and nothing more? — that intrigues us?

“Think about how long it takes to gain enough skill to 1CC a shmup”. 

It takes about as long as the average-sized Japanese RPG. I wouldn’t puff out my chest if I happened beat Chrono Trigger.

“But that’s different because these games take skill“.

In what way? The controls and mechanics are simpler than a Super Mario Bros game: 8 cardinal/inter-cardinal directions and one to three buttons. There is nothing complicated about playing a shmup.

“I didn’t meant the control scheme took a lot of skill. I meant…”

Memorization? Twitch reflex? I think there’s something more fundamental at play here beyond the mere mechanics of the genre.

The missing element

In all endeavors, quality is relative. I can cobble together a birdhouse, but my quality wouldn’t justify paying even $5.00 for it, let alone $100s. How do we know what is best? How can I go to sleep at night wondering whether my birdhouse is good or garbage?

Thankfully, humans use a time-honored method to answer these questions.

We compete.

If I take my birdhouse to the birdhouse fair and try to sell it, I am opening myself up to comparison. If my birdhouse sells for much more than the other birdhouses, that says something about my birdhouse compared to the others. I could say — in the context of that birdhouse fair — mine was higher quality.

Perhaps it tickles some corner of our limbic system to gain an advantage over another creature. Competition is an exciting venture. We are hard-wired to enjoy victory and we are hard-wired to regret defeat.

Both Dopamine and Endorphins are released when playing videogames. Even without the meta-accomplishment of beating a game, our brains enjoy the constant feedback and positive-reinforcement of videogames and will react by cranking up our pleasure hormones. This biological response has often been cited by politicians and medical academics hoping to warn the public about “video game addiction”.

Economics and brain chemistry are fine topics, but we must return our focus to shmups and to the matter of skill.

If quality is relative, it follows that skill is also relative. Any shmup must offer us a way to gauge who has more skill. Otherwise, there’s no way to determine relative skill levels. Each is designed with an internal measurement, a running counter, a score. And since score is a blind deity — interested only in the final number — we know it is a fair way to judge mastery of a game.

Solo

Since the mid-80s, shmups have offered ways to prove your skill above and beyond just clearing the title on one credit. These scoring systems are myriad. Consider them your New Game Plus, the next layer up, the true final form of the shmup in question. Completion (even a difficult completion, like a 1CC) is not mastery. Completion is — at best — merely a prerequisite to something far more compelling.

In modern times, shmups are a solo pursuit, something for basement-dwellers. When did this transition occur?

Earlier, I said that we throw all our hard work into the trash bin when we 1CC a game and then move on. Beating arcade mode in a fighting game but never playing against another human is considered wasteful as well. It’s like carrying around a massive keychain full of keys that match no locks.

At least it jangles loudly when you wear it on your belt.

Why should I practice for a 1CC when it is a superficial demonstration of the game’s mechanics?

“Well, because that’s how I love to play shmups. It is what I enjoy.”

That’s valid. But then why do I do this over and over again, making a huge list of all the times I superficially explored a shmup? I cannot come up with an answer.

Each score run is a declaration, an unambiguous pissing on your territory for said game. No need for platitudes or excuses. Your score is better than everyone below you and inferior to everyone above you.

Beating a game is personal and rewarding but it contributes nothing to the community at large. Posting a score does. Entering a tournament does. Competing with other shmup players does.

Not everyone wishes to pursue high-level play and I see no problem with that. Our current problem emerges when we elevate the bog-standard way of completing a game above the mastery of a game.

When we hold up a high number of completions as some kind of accomplishment and we dominate the conversation with the jangling of our keychains, we water down our definition of accomplishment in the hardest game genre on the planet. Yes, yes, let’s praise one another for 1CCs, but why is it the predominant sign of skill in the community?

I made the comparison to Japanese RPGs which I will return to now: many RPG fans also hold up their total number of RPGs completed as a badge of honor. Within that community, it is a sign that you are well-travelled in the world of RPGs and can offer a more educated opinion. But it is not taken as a sign of skill. All players know that completion is merely a matter of investing hours.

If I have a tally of 1CCs to my name, what have I done differently compared to the RPG player? Like them, I am bragging about time invested, not mastery demonstrated. I merely join the ranks of the hundreds of others who’ve invested the hours. Yes, yes, a 1CC is a challenge and I freely admit that. But after your first few 1CCs, you attain an underlying competency to the point that subsequent 1CCs are no real test of your skills. Investing your time is nice. But is it skillful? Is it brag-worthy?

Shmups have become like single-player MMOs, complete with our own warped interpretation of the loot grind. We explore a long list of titles instead of exploiting the mechanics of each. We play tourist instead of pushing ourselves to accomplish something more substantial.

Outwardly, to a viewer who plays Madden and Call of Duty, our 1CCs are impressive. But impressing an audience in that context is nothing more than putting on a magic show at a child’s birthday party.

“Impressed, are you? Wait until you see me beat Ikaruga!”

*Audience claps because they hear the title of a game they recognize.*

We are bragging about nothing. Yes, yes, a 1CC is a lot of hard work, but that is part and parcel of our genre. Imagine if we spoke this way about other genres:

“Heh, I just beat all the Guitar Hero songs on Hard. Yeah, I’m pretty much amazing at this game”.

“Heh, I just beat Super Mario World. I had, like, 20 extra lives after I beat Bowser. Pretty much a normal day for an expert like me.”

“Heh, I just hit max level in Diablo. Not sure if you knew that was even possible but I totally did it.”

If you want to show off, show off your scores.

Scoring well requires a mastery of mechanics above and beyond what is needed to clear the game. Most scoring mechanics are ignored or used clumsily since a 1CC doesn’t usually require you to understand them. Should I brag if I play Street Fighter III without bothering to ever use parries? Should I brag about my chess accomplishments when I take no advantage of en passant and castling?

Why then would I brag about beating a shmup if I am not also leveraging the score system? What does my 1CC contribute to the community at large? 1CCing a game is not competition. It is a binary “beaten” or “not beaten”. It lacks nuance. It is unable to compel me to reach for higher accomplishments.

On the other hand, if I outscore you then I have accomplished two things: I have shown myself to be better than you while also reaching down my hand and offering you a chance to prove me wrong. By doing so, I add to the community spirit. I create a new challenge out of thin air. I create a chance for you to prove your skill. A 1CC is monolithic, unchanging, uninteresting. But a score? That can be improved upon.

From this spirit of competition, shmups reveal their most interesting facets.

 

Two methods to bring new players into the shmup genre.

I propose — for those hoping to act as ambassadors and loudspeakers for the shmup community — that the correct way to attract a healthy influx of new community members is to emphasize high-level play when someone enters the genre. Throw them into the deep end. Make them walk over the hot coals. Take the plunge.

Currently, we do not welcome players in this way, instead pushing for wholesale tourism of the genre as their de facto introduction. Is this proper? I do not believe so. Not only is it improper, but this approach is to blame for many of the issues currently stifling the community’s growth.

Are you a shmup tourist or a score chaser?

There are two prevailing schools of thought when it comes to welcoming new players. The community does both. This is not a matter of either/or but a matter of prioritizing where to invest effort. I’ll use the following terminology for the sake of argument: “shmup tourists” and “score-chasers”.

The first school of thought takes a doting, maternal approach. New players should be eased into the genre. We don’t want them to be scared off. New players should watch a lot of superplays, try out as many different shmups as they can, credit-feed to see what you like, and watch Top 10 lists so that they can learn about the genre. Maybe they’ll try for a 1CC.

Maybe not.

Probably not.

Maybe they’ll watch my Twitch stream.

These players are tourists. They are not interested in settling down and engaging with the genre at a higher level, and that’s okay. They are still fans and are a welcome part of the community. However, their behavior deserves no encouragement or emphasis.

New players are incapable of comprehending high-level play. That’s our underlying assumption when we adopt this approach. We resign ourselves to the trickle of shmup tourists who wander by. “This is just how the genre is, nowadays. People just don’t like hard games”, we tell ourselves.

Some of this attitude and approach is by necessity. You won’t have a thriving sub-community for each shmup when the overall community is so small. It makes sense that we’d lump ourselves together for the sake of some sort of community, some sort of opportunity for conversation. But we presume a separation between the core of the shmup genre and the community at large when we shelter players from the deeper facets of this genre.

Actually, I can take that further: our underlying assumption is that shmups are too intimidating. We act as though shmup tourists are the norm and score chasers are the outliers. We see the window shoppers walking by outside of the genre, occasionally glancing in during Steam sales or notable releases, and we do our best to hide the Gareggas, Black Labels, and 2-ALLs in the back room. We keep the easy, flashy stuff up front.

“Come in! Come in!” We beckon this new player like a nervous salesperson paid on commission, hoping that they will check out the back room. But we know in our hearts they’ll only drop 1 or 2 quarters and then move down the street to the “FPS store” or “RPG store”. We force a smile as they casually check out the Raidens, the Dariuses, and then they leave. Hardly a word is exchanged.

“Oh well,” we moan. “Better luck next time.”

We consign ourselves to the belief that the genre is dying, even though the current avalanche of shmup releases on consoles and PC rivals the days of SEGA Genesis, TG-16, and arcades.

How can this be? How can such a dead genre be surging forward? Perhaps we are not as insightful as we like to believe.

In contrast, the second school of thought expects the new player to engage in high-level play immediately. The player must not be sheltered from the challenge ahead. New players should try out a small handful of games — playing them, watching/reading/listening to reviews, watching superplays, and engaging with the community — and then pick a game to 1-credit-clear. Shortening the length of time between getting into the genre and accomplishing their first 1CC must be prioritized. After all, isn’t that “the fun part” of shmups according to the community? Why, then, would we divert the attention of new players into unrelated directions?

This principle is flexible since the game in question is entirely up to the player and their skill level. It is their choice.

This isn’t to say the community fails to push high-level play. We definitely use the second approach but it only takes one form: elitism. It is only natural for an insular community to be neutral or even hostile toward newcomers, but this chases away new players, obviously. Skilled players in the community often insist on the “proper” ways of playing shmups. There is nothing inherently wrong with this. Excellent play should be celebrated. 

Highlighting excellence and mocking mediocrity are two different things, though. In the community, a great deal of hot air is invested into blathering about what the “proper” way to play a game is or how to get new players into the genre (you’re reading such an article right now). When that bores us, we groan about how a new shmup port is “garbage” because it doesn’t offer the same flexibility as MAME. These opinions aren’t exactly false, but imagine being a new player who has eagerly purchased a copy of a shmup only to be told it’s terrible or to see thread after thread lamenting “the slow-motion death of STGs”. Would you stick around if that’s what you saw when you entered the genre?

A Public Relations problem.

Engaging with high-level play doesn’t only refer to how we play our games but also the content we view. We want to turn new players  into score chasers, right? So, we should be presenting information related to score. Not only high-level scoring, of course, but rudimentary information on how to start and maintain chains (for instance). These puzzle pieces are already written and filmed. These opinions have already crystalized over the past 30 years.

The problem is not a lack of information or skill in the community. It’s a public relations problem: the puzzle pieces are scattered across the internet and tucked away in obscure places. We expect our new players to find it and then we moan when they give up. Instead of this attitude, we should shine a spotlight on the challenge of shmups — without applying a filter — and then provide information needed to meet that challenge. Some players will be scared off. That is only natural. Blaming them for being scared off — with one hand on our arcade stick and the other clutching our waifu body-pillows — without lifting a finger to clarify or meet them halfway is perhaps related to the issue, I would say.

If the goal is to create score chasers, then our methods and our assumptions must be different: in order for a new player to know if they like shmups or not, they should be exposed to high-level play right away. The sooner this occurs, the sooner they can either move on or choose to spend some more time here among the Gareggas and Black Labels.

Treating new players this way allows them to make the informed decision as to whether or not shmups suit their tastes. Unlike the nervous salesperson, we can act confident in our product, take it or leave it. Watering down the product for the sake of getting a customer is a sales trick. It might get a few more people in the door, but they never stick around. Isn’t that the point, getting them to stick around?

Both approaches are built upon assumptions made about the new player. If the future of the genre is comprised of the window-shoppers and the shmup tourists, then easing players into the genre makes sense and the first approach should work. However, this is already the primary way in which players become aware of the shmup genre. If the approach worked, the community wouldn’t be this tiny.

We are not being clever when we suggest that new players should “check out some games and see what looks good to you”. This already takes place. Is it successful? Doubling down on tactics that have continued to fail since the mid-90s will not suddenly begin working in our favor.

Transforming the shmup tourist into the score chaser 

Unfortunately, the belief that shmup tourists will someday become score chasers is untrue. It is untrue for shmups. It is untrue for other videogame genres. It is untrue across all consumer products. Tourists exist everywhere, and every other product and brand wants to capture them. If shmups have to magically solve this age-old issue in order to survive, we truly are doomed.

We put both approaches — catering to shmup tourists or catering to potential score chasers — on equal pedestals. They are not equal. No other competitive genre places these two approaches on the same level, either. Fighting game collectors (is there such a thing?) are not held at the same level as tournament players, nor is there any praise or acknowledgement given to players who buy up a bunch of fighters across various consoles when they enter the genre. If there’s praise for any sort of consumerism, it would be for arcade sticks. This, clearly, stems from the desire to improve skill, not merely to acquire games. You won’t hear the argument that someone is stupid for buying an arcade stick “because you could’ve bought 5 or 6 more fighting games”.

High-level play deservedly sits on a pedestal. Does shmup tourism deserve a spot on that pedestal? I haven’t yet heard a compelling case as to why this behavior should be praised.

How can we hand out participation trophies to new players and then expect them to pursue bigger challenges? How will they become a score chaser? We’ve pandered them out of the genre, essentially, before they got the chance to engage with a true challenge and form their own opinion. We hope the shmup tourist will maybe-someday-eventually want to explore the genre further. This is not rooted in historical evidence.

An example: Nintendo thought they could take the huge number of new fans who bought the Wii for its motion-control games and turn them into “regular fans”, y’know, the ones who would be willing to buy Super Mario Galaxy and Metroid: Other M and the Wii U system.

“With the Wii, we wanted to bring in as many new users as possible and have them experience the games, but as a consequence, I think a lot of the core gamers felt that it wasn’t for them, and they started moving away. With the new console and the new controller, we definitely want to bring core gamers back and create new gamers as well. So, with the Wii U, we hope that the players who were introduced to gaming for the first time on the Wii will step it up and become core gamers themselves.” –Katsuya Eguchi

Nintendo designed their games — especially following the 2009 mega-success of New Super Mario Bros Wii — with the new player in mind. Handholding was rampant. Super Mario Galaxy even came with a tutorial DVD to ease new players into the game. Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword’s adventure was punctuated with the incessant “advice” from your companion, Fi.

All this was for the sake of converting casual players into devotees, but there is no evidence that occurred. Otherwise, the Wii U would not have become Nintendo’s worst-selling home console.

Our strange blend of skittishness mixed with prideful hostility toward new players — as though we might chase them off, but are too stubborn to offer them a helping hand — is self-defeating and betrays a lack of confidence in the genre. No other videogame genre dumbs down or hides its high-level play when new players are in the room. Celebrating high-level play (like fighting games in a tournament setting like EVO, for instance) is what attracts many new players to a particular game or videogame genre. Better yet, these players are most likely to stick around and engage in that kind of play because it is what caught their attention in the first place. 

Are we embarrassed of our own accomplishments? Are we embarrassed to play some of the hardest games ever made? Clearly that is the case. Why else would we make excuses and shuffle our feet as the community remains small? Other genres have exploded in popularity due to their difficulty. A shmup player should confidently step into that ring to say “surely you could handle this sort of game if you enjoy a challenge.”

Has that gauntlet been dropped?

What about collectors?

Indeed, what about them? They are an growing source of traffic for the genre. Collectors provide an unexpected-but-welcome spotlight from the outside. Your typical game journalists could hardly be bothered to name 10 shmups, let alone cover them with any nuance or expertise. The attention gained from the rarity of many shmups cannot be avoided.

However, collectors — by their nature — are genre-agnostic. The rarity of a shmup has no bearing on its quality. Myself, I own over 100 shmups, so I say this from the perspective of a collector, after a fashion. Curious collectors are welcome members of the community and valuable advocates for the genre, but the attention gained due to collectibility is incidental. Any “traffic” of that sort should be considered immaterial to the goal of pushing high-level play for a new player. Since we have established that meandering between different shmups and playing tourist is detrimental, encouraging players to chase after rare games and acquire a large collection of shmups is merely a palette-swap of the same issue.

The shmups genre has a lot to offer a videogame collector. Not only are the top games time-tested, they are also unlikely to decrease in value.

Following the example of the FGC

Speaking of fighting games, a comparison will help us understand: if a new player was getting into fighting games, we would not tell them “yeah! Go out and play dozens upon dozens of fighting games, try all the characters, play the arcade modes, and learn combos.” That would set them up for disappointment and frustration.

According to prevailing wisdom in the FGC, new players hoping to “see what fighting games are all about” should do the following (more or less):

  1. Find friends and friendly strangers against whom they can compete and seek advice.
  2. Find a game and stick with it.
  3. Find a character and stick with it.
  4. Embrace the concept of “practice”

We can use the same advice for shmups:

  1. Find friends and friendly strangers against whom they can compete and seek advice. Learning the mechanics is a challenge. There is camaraderie in figuring out these games, and in this regard the shmup community seems very friendly and eager to share its knowledge.
  2. Find a shmup and stick with it. Shmup tourism is going to be a part of the community whether we recommend it or not. Why should we waste energy in talking about it?
  3. Find a route and stick with it (or at least be methodical as you improve your route). This is a fundamental concept in shmups and is often misunderstood as memorizing. While memorization is a piece of the puzzle, a player working toward a 1CC is also building a structure — a scaffolding — of concepts and tricks to help them reach their goal.
  4. Embrace the concept of practice. Practice should be praised. Players need no assistance in feeling discouraged by constant defeat. Offering them insight into how to practice and why practice is valuable may help them overcome the hurdle. High-level play in shmups has less to do with innate skill and more to do with mental discipline and endurance. Reinforcing the idea that high-level play is mainly due to talent — not practice — leaves players with the incorrect belief that if the genre doesn’t click with them immediately then they lack the necessary talent. 

A player can only properly engage with the genre once they’ve made the decision to focus. Credit-feeding is akin to button-mashing your way through a fighting game’s arcade mode on Easy. Sure, you get to see the ending, but is that what the genre is about? Shmup tourism and credit-feeding are natural parts of the genre (and any other genre based on skill). They cannot be eliminated, nor should they be.

However, credit-feeding and shmup tourism should not be given attention or offered as advice. It is on the shoulders of the community to elucidate why these games are enjoyable. Dumbing down that message is self-defeating: we rob new players of the realization that shmups have something more to offer. The notion that they are “simple” and “short” and “lacking in content” is obvious to an outsider and is superficially true. Players do not need anyone to point this out to them. Players do not need encouragement in hopping from game to game, ignoring the nuance, blissfully ramming credits down the throat of their emulator of choice. They will do this by themselves without prompting. 

The way in which players are brought into the genre affects how they will approach the genre moving forward. If we encourage them to skim over games as they search for one they like, then they will tend to skim in the future. If we encourage them to download huge ROMsets and randomly go through them, then they will tend to randomly go through them.

Our protests mean nothing.

No, no that’s not quite the right way,” we say after the fact, after they’ve settled in.

“You’re supposed to stop skimming and start chaining. This isn’t the right way”.

Their natural response would be confusion. How can we say this is not the right way? It is what we instructed them to do when they first decided to try the genre. We cannot tell new players to be shmup tourists and then wring our hands when they remain so.

The comparison to fighting games also provides us a path: each game has its champions and each scene has its commentators delivering hype to the viewers.

A new shmup player, however, would be spun dizzy trying to find the “top player” for a particular shmup, let alone the top players in the genre. Shmups are a much more private challenge compared to fighting games, but we still need our names. We still need champions of the genre to participate in moving it forward.

A proposal

Perhaps this is all merely a call to evangelize.

New players need a guide and skilled players need an audience. In an effort to shelter the small trickle of new players, we have cut ourselves off from the source of the water. The gaming audience at large is ravenous for skillful play. eSports could not exist otherwise. Speedrunning could not exist otherwise.

This audience is unlikely to approach us — hands outstretched — for examples of this skillful play. Like a child approaching Street Fighter II for the first time, they have no context, no paradigm through which they can understand what they are seeing. They only see two warriors duking it out. Cross-up means nothing to them. Frame-data is a foreign concept.

How do newcomers approach shmups? The same way. They see a ship and bullets and exploding stuff, but they have no paradigm through which they can understand what they are seeing. Micro-dodging means nothing to them. Choosing to play with only one credit is a foreign concept.

By brushing aside the needs of our new players, they become stunted. By insisting “we’ll talk about all that hard stuff later. You go ahead and just run around the backyard”, secretly hoping they will come back inside and learn about the real nitty-gritty of shmups,  we can only expect a childish, distracted community as the result.