(Breaking) The Shmup Dogma
One of the reasons I think that the genre of the shoot’em ups haven’t seen a revival in the past few years has to do with an adherence to tradition. Most attempts at modern shmup-making veers on the side of homages, sometimes sticking too close at the established rules of the genre, without producing something truly new.
Now, for most people, shmups are simple affairs; usually, every starting coder first project is usually a space blaster of some kind. But the simplicity of implementation does not mean simplicity of design. When researching the origins of the genre in the beggining of development (shmups.com forums were incredibly useful at that time) , I was found out a series of unwritten rules most (good) shooters often apply. Since my goal was to make a shmup that was truly for contemporary audiences, i’ll try to look over what those rules are, and what I am trying to make different in this project.
Shmups require precision, as being one millimeter in the wrong side can usually mean the difference between life or death. Because of that, movement is usually a uncomplicated, x+1 affair, as using acceleration and friction can change its dynamics entirely. Despite that, different situations require different approaches. In a bullet hell, fine dodging is more important than the the quick movement required in a more old-school shooter.
Movement is a complex beast, that has to do more with its perception than its technical execution. A larger field of movement means that your base speed has to be higher, in order to cover all screen, but can’t be too high or else risk precision; which is why INX has a narrower width, instead of using all of the screen.
Also, I stuck with a controllable speed setting; holding Shift or the right trigger slow the ship to 3/4 of the base speed. This allowed for a greater variety of challenges, and a simplified experience overall.
Shmups should, at best, be unconvoluted as possible; that means, the player mindset should be focused on the situation, not on extraneous information. So, systems that make things needlessly complex, such as resource-managing and excess of functions and modes, should be thinned as much as possible.
Also, there must be a clear visual communication of obstacles to the player. To and outsider’s eye, a bullet-pattern may look unbreachable, but to a player, he only has to deal with an small area around his hitbox. That said, such communication relies on the designer; visible projectiles with strong colors and shapes, good contrast with the backgrounds, and a clear point of origin, as being hit by a “ninja” bullet coming out of nowhere is quite frustrating.
Since In Extremis uses a variety of visual styles, one thing I did was to simplify as much as possible the player’s tactile interaction with the gameworld. So, there are no collectable items or power-ups in the game, and most non-harmful, touchable objects are inviting, either through color or transparency.
Rhythm and Dead Air:
This is probably where a lot of shmups fail, and, to be honest, I don’t even know yet if INX passes. As I mentioned in a previous article , there is something inherently musical in shmup stage structure, its verses and stanzas being enemy formations and bullet patterns; good shmups often present their challenges in coherent crescendos, putting variations of those previously established gameplay moments, and surprising the player with “rhymes” – unexpected combinations of those moments.
(For a game that executes this “poetry-as-game-design” rather excellently, check out Ikaruga, if you haven’t yet)
Similarly, but more concretely speaking, dead air in a shmup would equal an unplanned pause, like and actor forgetting his lines; its that moment when suddenly there is nothing to shot at or to dodge, despite no clear change in the mood. And since these kinds of games are meant to be player several times, flaws like these can get grating fast.
Since INX has a rather rigid code structure regarding its stages, killing dead air has been more a trail-and-error task (the unglamorous side of game developing). As for it’s rhythms, understanding this particularity is what led the game to have a soundtrack of different musical styles. The “heavy metal” stage has very methodical, mathematical variations, while the psychedelic rock one has plenty of sudden gameplay breaks.
Smartbombing and Chaos-Managing:
This is another element which I mentioned before; a lot of shmup uses the smartbomb as a crutch; when the situation becomes to unbearable for players, they are push to using the smartbomb, which clears the screen of bullets and enemies. Oftentimes, judicious use of smartbombing also is crucial to good scoring, depending on how the game score system works, but regular players usually see past it (also, just to mention, not dying also is crucial to good score).
This mechanic always bothered me, because it sorts of engineers cowardice; instead of braving an impossible bullet maze, players are stimulated to play safe and blow their problems away. For me, shmups are all about acts of personal daring, so that sort of mechanic, a unfair relic of the arcade age, should go away quickly.
Instead, In extremis uses the Drive system, which acts on two ways; it gives players a supercharged version of whatever weapons they are using, making facing down enemies a simpler deal (and giving that much needed jolt of catharsis), and also, giving players a temporary shield, that nullifies all bullets on screen should the player be hit. But if that happens, players also go out of Drive.
The scarcity of this mechanic (you need to fill the Drive bar by destroying enemies to use it) gives it an strategic edge, as it can only be used in intervals, while its simultaneously aggressive and defensive characteristics should make it useful for all kinds of players.
a perennial internet classic
Oh, difficulty. It’s pratically a given that a shmup wil be crushingly hard, but that’s something that has its roots on the arcade origins of the genre, it’s also it’s raison d’être. After all, part of the appeal of shmups is that everything can kill you in an instant, which is why gameplay can be a thrilling loop of pressure and release (and also why healthbars in shmups are a big no-no).
But this also can make the genre pretty unapproachable for beginners; what most console and PC shmups do is to provide multiple difficulties, but oftentimes, easy modes are terribly dull, while the harder ones are an excuse for the designer to go full psycho, using cheap tricks that break the balance (like plenty of suicide bullets and toughed-up enemies).
In order to avoid this In Extremis has a adaptable difficulty system, which scales up and down according to player performance. Because of that, the challenges must remain coherent through the game. Also, extends, which are extra lifes you gain when reaching a certain score, are more plentiful, and have a clear signalization on the interface.
Stage Progression and Structure:
This is probably where most shmups have been failing in the past few years. A lot of contemporary shmup seem to ignore the PC and console dynamics, instead offering the same approach of the arcade; a long play-session of linear, repeated stages, with little to no incentive beyond high-score and getting one credit completion. Since those goals are oftentimes reserved to the hardest of the hardcore, and involve a lot of repetition, this alienates all other possible players.
There are plenty of possible suggestions to change that. In INX, first of all, in order to diversify player experiences, and lengthen the game, instead of a single route, players can choose between three stages three times during play sessions. This sums a total of eleven stages, while most shmups have five or six (this perhaps was not the most cos-effetive of choices in retrospect). Also, the first stage is procedurally-generated, assembling a distinct stage of pre-coded waves every time you play; since in every run you will have to play the first stage, at least, it will play (and look!) different. The final level is also constant, but it also have some some changing elements, which I will leave you guys to discover…
Beyond the stage structure, the whole game experience is though to be approachable in multiple manners. For instance, beating a stage unlocks it on stage selection, and beating a specific score called “threshold” unlocks a new weapons. Stages can be played individually, and have their thresholds surpassed without the need of playing from the top, which should stimulate pratice and a gain of mastery. But, in order to truly finish the game, players must play the game from the first stage onwards. With the twelve weapons to unlock and combine, and all possible stage routes, there should be enough replayability to keep most players entertained for a long time.
But it’s not all; there is also a levelling system, which counts your scoring every time you play the game (even if you quit mid-session), and add to an experience bar; getting a level up gives you an extra continue, in order to make longer runs more feasible to more players (a cue taken from Treasure shooters console ports). This, along with the extend system, helps making scoring more relevant to regular players
The requirements for each level-up also increase considerably with level, which should push players to pursuing longer runs, rather then grinding for points. I also wanted to make new, extra modes to also be unlocked with player progression, but as of now, I’m focusing on the core game first.
(Also, those structural decisions are also quite important for narrative reasons, for their symbolic implications and the metanarrative of the player’s own journey – but this is a subject for another post, for this one is already too long! So, see you next time, space spelunkers!)