I’m eager to document the observations made over the last year since my previous post, Territory, Go, and Shmups. That was published a few days after Christmas, 2018.
During 2019, it seemed like a good idea to focus my time on applying these ideas instead of just writing down conjecture. This particular article will focus on what I’ve learned about practicing during that time.
Bigbrain comment incoming: practicing must be fun. This is true whether you’re learning to dribble a basketball or learning to weave through a complex bullet pattern. Humans can learn any motor skill but there needs to be an incentive. This incentive must also remain strong over a long-enough period of time so that the practitioner gains the necessary skill to pull off the feat. Whether it’s a state championship basketball game or a 1-credit run, the end-goal for practice is for the performance. In any hobby where skill and practice are rewarded, the process takes months if not years. As an aside, it sure is an inexpensive way to enjoy the hobby. Instead of chasing after the new hotness year after year, one might simply keep playing and practicing the games already found in the collection. The payoff is no longer experiencing new storylines and glitzy graphics. Rather, the feeling of personal growth and accomplishment is the player’s reward. Musicians and athletes know this all too well. Yes, it is thrilling to win the game or put on a crowd-pleasing performance, but this is only possible after investing many hours into study and practice.
So, challenge #1 for the fledgling shmup player is “how do I make practicing fun?” Unless you enjoy banging your head against the game (which I suppose is a form of practice, just highly inefficient…) it is worth considering how you’re going to tackle this massive real-time puzzle rhythm game (a.k.a, a shmup) that you’ve tangled yourself into. Practice may evoke memories of piano lessons or sports drills and therefore put one off from the idea.
Videogames live within a strange realm between sport and entertainment. Surely, videogames dazzle us and capture our attention, but there is an added skill-based element causing videogames to diverge from passive entertainment like movies or literature. There is fun to be found in the challenge of overcoming a videogame, not merely consuming it. This attitude was far more prevalent in the 80s and 90s. The desire to overcome faded away as consoles created a new kind of videogame consumer: the gamer who expects to beat the game that they bought with their hard-earned money. Now that arcade experiences were coming home to the living-room TV, locking players out of content via difficulty was no longer acceptable. This same attitude prevails today, by the way, which is why predatory DLC practices are not embraced by most videogame hobbyists.
The shift in attitude resulted in a shift in design. Old designs that were fine-tuned to extract money out of arcade players suddenly became antithetical to the new “living-room videogamer” of the 80s and 90s. Difficulty in videogames would cost you customers, or so the thinking went. During this same boom, videogame rentals and PC piracy — i.e. the ability to try before you buy — exploded, incentivizing players to grab games that could be rented and beaten over a weekend or over a Christmas break from school.
The pleasure of slowly chipping away at a game stopped making sense. Practicing is now viewed as a chore instead of an ordinary part of mastering a title. And since beating a game is no longer challenging, the hobby lost much of its deference and awe for those who can manage to complete a difficult title. Respect toward skilled players is trickling back into the hobby a bit (git gud Dark Souls, fighting games, eSports), but only just a bit.
I still enjoy sitting down and getting the crap kicked out of me immediately instead of slogging through easy content that consumes my time but not my full attention. I want to grapple with high-level gameplay immediately, if possible. I enjoy overcoming a difficult area and basking in the glow of my accomplishment. I enjoy the process of puzzling out a route and seeing the payoff in my score.
Shmups are wonderful time-savers due to their sharp difficulty. Not only do I find practicing a shmup fun, it is also a judicious use of my limited gaming time. A 30-minute session in an RPG earns you a few experience points and some loot, but a 30-minute session is long enough to complete most shmups in their entirety.
What do we do to make practice “fun”? How do we practice in the first place? I think setting a goal is a good start.
The term ‘Goal orientation’ has been used for decades to describe an approach emphasizing the goal one hopes to reach instead of the specific tasks and behaviors needed to reach that goal.
The earliest conceptualizations of goal orientation were proposed in the 1970s by the educational psychologist J.A. Eison. Eison argued that students who approached college as an opportunity to acquire new skills and knowledge possessed a learning orientation while students who approached college with the goal to exclusively obtain high grades possessed a grade orientation. Eison originally believed that these two orientations were two ends of the same continuum and developed the Learning Orientation-Grade Orientation Scale to measure the continuum.
At about the same time, J.G. Nicholls was developing a related theory that achievement motivation would lead grade school children to set high task related goals. Nicholls found that when some high-ability children encountered difficult tasks, they would use maladaptive strategies, leading to eventual feelings of helplessness, while others would use more productive coping strategies. Nicholls later conceptualized these differences as two types of achievement goals: (a) task involvement: where individuals seek to develop their competence relative to their own abilities and (b) ego involvement: where individuals seek to develop their competence relative to the abilities of others.
Nicholls’s early work set up Dweck’s proposition of two types of goal orientation: learning orientation and performance orientation.
Source at Wikipedia.
The comment about ‘ego involvement’ sure plays a role in our own feelings of discouragement when practicing. Comparing oneself to superplayers is sure to demotivate. Faithfully practicing and then comparing your new skill level to your performance from several months ago, however, is sure to please. How can a player accurately judge their own progress in shmups? Via score, another topic in its own right.
I learned the proper attitude for learning shmups from a different genre, fighting games. Specifically, Guilty Gear. I had friends who played too, so I had a strong incentive to improve. I hadn’t truly practiced fundamentals or combos prior to Guilty Gear as I was content to learn some moves and button-mash my way through matches. However, that isn’t how I wanted to play. I wanted to stop my bad habits as well as pick up stronger fundamentals, and the day-to-day practice was itself very enjoyable because I watched myself improve. The self-improvement was my biggest payoff.
Applying this attitude toward shmups made sense: I could either play tourist and fail to master any shmup in particular, or I could focus all my time on a very narrow range of shmups and attempt to get really good at those. I picked the latter, and so far I am enjoying my decision.
Do I play shmups because I want to snag that 1CC, because I want to post my score on the forums, because I want to feel like I’ve accomplished something? No, I have fallen victim to ‘performance orientation’ if that is my attitude. Instead, I should fix my eyes on the distant goal and enjoy the process. Overcoming my own ineptitude is a part of the journey, not a roadblock, and cruising through areas that were formerly impossible is my roadside tourist attraction. In a sense, I am both the pilot of my journey and I am a passenger to the ride.
The goal of mastering the shmup becomes the game. Methodical practice becomes the gameplay. I am no longer just playing a shmup, I am also fine-tuning my own capabilities and growing as a player. This shouldn’t sound grandiose, so I apologize if it does. This sort of attitude was perfectly normal when pinball machines and arcades ruled the roost. Pursuing mastery and putting up high-scores sounds unusual to our modern hobbyist ears because we still operate on the paradigm that game ownership equals the right to access all content.
Such a paradigm is very profitable for game developers. Year after year, old games are discarded for new ones. Yet imagine if players stuck with the same old games and didn’t buy the new ones until they finished the old ones. Imagine if players judged new games on their longevity and their replayability instead of their total number of cutscenes and voice actors and weapon skins. A customer base that holds on to its old games and mines their depth is not compatible with modern AAA gaming.
My own stumbling block is to practice faithfully, month after month. There’s no logical reason for me to lapse — I sit down and enjoy my sessions each and every time — yet I indeed lapse. On a few occasions I’ve gone several weeks without playing a single session. Thoughts begin to cloud my judgment:
Y’know, I’m just not getting further. I might as well try a different one.
I still can’t master that stage. Maybe I’ve set my bar too high. I’ll just go for the easier route instead of the higher-scoring one.
Here’s the twist: it doesn’t take much at all to dispel these thoughts. I don’t need to psyche myself up or grit my teeth or endure a painful reintroduction to the game.
I simply sit down and play.
Returning to a shmup feels much like sliding a foot into a pair of well-worn leather boots. Practice isn’t a complicated topic even though much can be said about it. Whether the fixture of your attention is a sport or a shmup or a subject of professional interest, practice is pretty much the same. You, the practitioner, must find pleasure in the methodical drive toward improvement. You must find payoff even when you fail constantly. Like that pair of boots, they were at some point brand-new and unfamiliar and slightly uncomfortable. “Breaking them in” requires time.
There is another half to the practicing paradigm. If you do not know toward what goal you are working, then you cannot practice with any efficiency. Feelings of inadequacy and confusion will creep into your practice sessions if you cannot identify where you are going wrong. Many players, myself included, suffer from uncertainty when attempting to improve skills. It is only natural.
Practicing faithfully — meaning, keeping the habit even when the outcome isn’t what you expect — sidesteps uncertainty. One must trust that faithfulness will lead to a payoff even if you cannot see the payoff in the immediate future. Like a religious adherent, you must believe there is true enlightenment for those who stick with it. The game itself won’t hold your hand. The shmup community — largely evaporated — isn’t going to cheer you on. There isn’t a massive YouTube or Reddit community behind shmups.
It’s pretty much just you, little ol’ you attempting to conquer your Goliath. Get cozy with that realization.
Practice becomes an opportunity to improve but also to self-reflect. I don’t know about you, but my brain isn’t fast enough to process all the incoming bullets and determine the perfect route. I will usually die to bullets that caught me off guard and enemies that behaved in an unexpected way. Dying is a lecture. Practice is the homework. My next run is the pop-quiz. The process cycles. I improve.
Regular practice is my only tool for addressing uncertainty. At the end of the day, you’ve either sunk in the time or you haven’t. Shmups don’t really have shortcuts, which is perhaps why so many players bounce off the genre. Can you tolerate the idea of playing a shmup for months or even years before you actually achieve your high-score? If you can, practice for that goal.
I don’t want to leave any readers in the lurch, so if you still aren’t sure what goal to work toward, I will give you one: transfer your knowledge into muscle memory, which is only possible through faithful practice. I can spend hours reading forums, watching superplay videos, learning about routes, about scoring, about how to dodge tricky patterns. This is useful, but humans can only spin so many plates at once. Take your shmup one bite at a time. Commit your knowledge to muscle memory and you will begin to see the sort of payoff you desire. If you die in the same section in a similar way as the last five attempts, don’t give up! You are on the edge of a breakthrough. If you must repeat a difficult boss fifty times before you master it, keep going! Crushing the boss without breaking a sweat is your payoff. You will have to invent these little goals as you go along, playing the role of student and teacher at the same time.
The problem with recommending a specific method is that it might not work for you, or it might be outside of your means. For instance, I can’t use save-states on my PS2 version of Daioujou, so I practice around that limitation. Be aware of all your limitations and puzzle out the way to work around them. Two other posts on the site may provide more insight:
It is most important to dive into the game and invest the time. Believe me, even if you spend 10 minutes a day playing and then reflecting upon where you went wrong, you will steadily improve over time. This isn’t a profound statement. That’s how humans learn anything in life. There are specific ways to save time when it comes to practicing, but the biggest hurdle is your own lack of muscle-memory and your lack of knowledge of the game’s nuances. Don’t obsess over having the perfect setup.
As one last thought, watching superplay videos over the past few years of learning Daioujou helped me figure out small pieces of a route, but ultimately it was be my time invested into playing the game that paid off the most. Do your best to practice faithfully and your persistence will be rewarded.
Perhaps in 2020 I will more faithfully write articles.