Tuesday, August 25, 2009

It takes a certain kind of player


I just read a review of Strikers Plus Portable, which is very symptomatic of shmup-reviews in general and the claims stated in those that often leave me confused and frustrated. It just doesn't seem as if the reviewers are getting it, I and other hardcore shmuppers have felt. I don't have the energy to find these 'symptomatic reviews', so just trust me when I say that I've seen many reviews that use the same type of arguments against ports of arcade shmups/shmups in general, but also fail to understand the design logic behind the same games. I believe that it comes down to design philosophy and different ways of playing in general.

These are some of the points the reviewer brings up:

Far and away the biggest issue the reviewer in question has is that the game doesn't penalize you as a player for dying, except for resetting your score. Ok, so this issue would be nonexistent if you had a limited amount of continues, or if the player chose to adhere to a certain rule of not using them, right? Keep this in mind as I will return to it later.

The reviewer also makes a wrongful deduction concerning credits and points, which is based on the observation that the game “adds one point to your starting score every time you continue”. The deduction is that once you die a billion times, “you'd be at the top of the high score list”. This is not the case, since the game stops adding points once you have nine: this is a way of telling the player how many credits ze has used, and also a way of showing on the highscore board if the specific highscore was played from the start of the game. This isn’t common knowledge, of course. A quote:

“There is no sort of intro or anything for the next section. You pretty much just keep going until you see a "The End" message.”

I myself don’t like shmups where there is story between sections (if I cannot turn them off beforehand) simply because I do not play them for that purpose, and seeing the same intro a couple of hundred times is frustrating. Now, there are related exceptions that are really nice, such as regaining control of your ship a second or two before a new level in Dodonpachi, but these have a specific purpose integrated with the mechanics, and they make sense if you play for the same reason as I do. Having chunks of text that lowers the tempo of the game significantly between levels, just because, does not make sense.

”Half-way through you'll start seeing the same environments and the same bosses for a second time.”

Ah, I can agree that reoccurring environments sounds cheap, but reoccurring bosses actually can have a function, if for nothing else than to be able to have your revenge, or to subvert the expectations of the player who is used to a specific type of pattern and suddenly gets a different and harder pattern thrown at hir. Perhaps a pattern of one of the bosses can help you learn how to navigate the pattern of another?

One observation in the review is worth mentioning because it makes perfect sense and should therefore be acknowledged: why is there a time limit on choosing your ship in shmups for consoles? Sure, this trick could be imposed upon the player to sometimes choose a ship by mistake, and therefore learn something new, or even make hir change hirs primary ship, but... no; it doesn't seem effective.

Now, for my analysis and propositions. Let's start out with a generalisation: there is a correlation between people who review shmups in a manner similar to the one I’m responding to, and people for whom gathering achievement points is important. The same type of people, or players, have Obsessive Completionist Disorder, and power game their characters in RPGs to the level of absurdity. (Wanting to have stuff between levels in a shmup should be correlation enough that those some people play RPGs!) My type of gamer, in contrast, don’t give a rats ass about completing games and take on the role of traitor in games such as Shadows Over Camelot when everything goes too well for the knights (and even when I’m not the designated traitor), just to make the game more interesting for the other players. The other type of gamer, in contrast, once again, says things like this

"The fact that I've spent more time writing this review than it took me to beat the game is pretty bad."

My response: you do not beat a game just because you see the end screen! Sure, maybe we have a language problem here, but either way games should be about having fun (sometimes), but certainly not about beating them! That's like beating a dead horse when it's alive! The acknowledgement that the game would be ok if there only were "two modes, one with unlimited continues, and one without" doesn't help the reviewers case, since it only cements hirs confusion concerning hirs own feelings towards game design. Making a suggestion that the game should have a mode with unlimited continues makes the argument that the game could be completed in 45 minutes moot! And, getting back to the far and away the biggest issue the reviewer in question has--isn't choosing 'hard mode', that is the mode with limited continues that the author zirself proposed, a self-imposed limit in the same vein as not pressing the start button to gain new continues? Really, now!

I'm taking a step back and looking at the shmup industry in general now, which leads me to the conclusion that is has a very specific way of seeing things, with a very traditionalist audience which often cannot see outside their own point of view. The comments for the review I'm critizising fits the bill and frames the mind-set of many shmuppers. Most of them makes the argument that the reviewer is simply playing the game wrong, which is an interesting statement. If the reviewer did play wrong, (from the perspective of the designer, I'm assuming), why would the designer include unlimited continues?

I believe that the designers had two kinds of audiences in mind when porting the game, which they categorize into hardcore and casual. I'm not saying it is a good categorisation, but it indeed seems to have its' impact upon game design, marketing, etc, and also resonates within the game communities which makes it an excelent term for self-claimed identity. The labels, as applied on shmups specifically, I'd say that hardcore players will refrain from using certain options that makes the game non-challenging (such as bombs or continues) for the sake of challenge, while the casual player often simply cannot complete the game without continues or bombs, which should lead to some kind of middle-ground of different choices One way of doing it is by doing it the way it was done in Strikers 1945 Plus Portable, and one way of doing it is for example by implementing training mode and only giving the players three continues in order to make it a challenge to "complete" the "whole game".

When starting out, I myself quickly became someone who went for the 1 Credit Clear-goal that is the episteme of the hardcore shmupper, but most causal players simply do not want to or do not realize that they can play a game of their own. Because they don't make the effort of balancing it out themselves, such as the case with Shadows Over Camelot that I mentioned earlier. Some players feel that they shouldn't have to make their own rules in order to enjoy a game, but I do wonder how many of these have anything against making their own house-rules when playing poker or monopoly, and I do wonder what the consequences of putting down a game because of inability to see through the games' claim of monopoly on playing and rule-making are for the whole gaming industry.

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