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.

Setting aside our fairy tale references, 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.