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? We should tell new players that the depth of a shmup can only be uncovered when you spend some time learning 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 to hop from game to game, to ignore the nuance, to blissfully ram 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 90s child approaching a cabinet of 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.

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