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(Breaking) The Shmup Dogma

"Shoot'em ups should be one of the most exciting genres to experiment with, precisly because they are one of the most formative of the language of games."

[This text is a remake of a similar one written on the In Extremis devlog almost a year ago; I thought it would be amusing to update it to reflect the change in the sensibilities of the game design in this period of time]


The shoot'em up genre has yet to see a revival in the mainstream attention, as other previously niche game genres, such as roguelikes and adventures had. Despite that, it remains a point of contemporary curiosity in terms of its design possibilities (such as these recent articles right in Gamasutra), due to its apparent simplicity that can hide a goldmine of mechanical depth.


In Extremis is a project that I have been developing solo for the past 3 years, and it's an experiment in many things (such as expressing ideas through gameplay, and the interplay between conflicting audiovisual aesthetics), but mainly, it is about updating the overall experience of playing a shoot'em up to a contemporary audience (it is also currently on Greenlight, so I would be immeasurably happy if you could take a minute to cast a vote).


Part of the niche nature of the genre resides in its hardcore-ness, but is not due to the difficulty of the gameplay, but how it is overall structured to mimic the arcade experience, and not how is the current player experience and expectations. What I am attempting to do is to preserve the conquests and challenge that are integral to shumpping in a way that is not only coherent to modern sensibilities, but also original in a design sense.

So, let's look at some of those rules and how to subvert them:

Precise movement:

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See? Zoomed in, Touhou is simpler than it looks

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 an uncomplicated, x+1, y+1 affair, as using physical simulation elements such as acceleration and friction can change its dynamics entirely. A mistake some designer do is to include elements of inertia (such as wind and gravity) as an added challenge in some sections; which ends up being more annoying than tricky.


Despite that, different situations require different approaches; in bullet hells, fine dodging is more important than the the quick movement required in a more old-school shooter. Movement is a complex beast, one 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 screen width, instead of using all of the horizontal screen space, something most vertical shooters usually do.


Another solution that I stuck with a controllable speed setting; holding Shift or the right trigger slow the ship to 3/4 of the base speed. A lot of shmups use this, normally  when employing two different firing mode for the player, but since INX has series of different weapons that can be mixed and match, doing that wasn't really working out.This simple allowed for a greater variety of challenges, and a simplified experience overall, especially for beginners.


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Crimzon Clover, while being excellent overall, can be a bit overwhelming for starting players

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 (and God forbid you use something such as a life bar - one hit kills, while apparently cruel for the uninitiated, provide a much better game flow).


There must be a clear visual communication of obstacles to the player; to an outsider’s eye, a specially devious bullet pattern may look unbreachable, because he is looking at the entire screen but to a player, he only has to deal with an small area around his hitbox. That said, such communication relies strongly 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 powerups in the game, most destruction effects are simplified and brief, and most non-harmful, touchable objects are inviting, either through color or transparency.

Rhythm and Dead Air:

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Sine Mora is an excellent game, but overall, a poor shoot’em up, thanks to morose level design that makes replays a chore

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 old 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 an actor flubbing and forgetting his lines; it's that moment when suddenly there is nothing to shoot 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 trial-and-error task (the unglamorous side of game developing). As for its 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; a slower stage accompanied by a piano ballad has slow, but dense bullet patterns, while one guided by 70’s funk has a very unbroken, smooth flow of enemies.

Smartbombing and Chaos-Managing:

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One of the coolest things about classic shooter Raiden is that positioning is crucial to using bombs, making it a more active device

A lot of shoot'em ups use the mechanic of the smartbomb as a crutch; when the situation becomes too 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 system works, but regular players usually see past that necessity to the needs of the moment (also, not dying is usually quite important to good score).


This mechanic always bothered me, because it sorts of engineers cowardice in the player; 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 it's simultaneously aggressive and defensive characteristics make it useful for all kinds of players.

Strategy and Critical Thinking:

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The variety of the offensive options available in Bastion (both in utility and types of inputs) were an unusual inspiration for the weapons of INX

Most people my think that shumupping is all about getting in the zone and spur-of-the-moment acting, without need for a lot of strategic consideration. while this is almost never true for players chasing a high-score (which is where the best of a shmup design often comes to surface), for a casual player, they may be an impression of mindlessness.


For INX, I tried playing around that perception, by giving players a large arsenal of twelve weapons (which can be matched in pair without any restrictions), as well a structure that rewards experimentation. In order to unlock a new weapon, players need to finish one of the game stages without using a continue; but stages can be played individually as long as players managed to beat them once in the main game. That pushes players towards practicing that individual stage with a tangible rewards for getting better at it, as well as testing combinations that may work well in a future full run.


Each weapon was designed not only to express a different kind of virtual sensation, but also to work in a very distinct way from each other. Also, some are better paired than other,some being short-range while some other are long-ranged, and some having more defensive qualities (such as reflecting or slowing enemy bullets), as well as surprising side effect (a particular weapon can actually destroy the player, if it is hold on for too long!).


There is also the matter of balance, which has been a constant challenge in these three years of development. Since each weapon work quite idiosyncratically, just comparing damage outputs rarely works; overall, I believe that good design is just presenting interesting strategies for the player, not just the optimal ones. Of course, level design was also planned to have as much variety as possible, so that every weapon is useful, but there is not a moment in which a weapon is required over others; that would censor player's agency, and affect the overall quality of the game.

(Fair) Difficulty:

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Mushihime-sama, everyone

It’s practically a given that a shmup will 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.


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).


This was one of the most sensible issues for, as I seeked out for making, above all, and accessible game. The first solution I tried was to have a adaptive difficulty system,which scaled up and down according to player performance. But that did not work, since it made the difficulty float wildly, and harm the learning curve of the player.


To alleviate this, the game now has a more traditional Easy, Normal and Hard options (which allow for a more consistent experience), but also loads of options of customization, such as regenerating lives after a level, and the number of points needed for an extra life. Also, all game elements, such as enemy placement, life and score value, are constant in different difficulties; the only changing element is the presence of additional shot patterns (not to mention, faster and denser bullet structure), and slightly different enemy behavior.


This desire for accessibility also manifested itself in the game design quite often; for instance, in more traditional bullet hells, patterns often have two or three distinct types of bullets(often a big pattern that occupies most of the screen, together with smaller projectiles, with either aimed or random directions, to keep players on their toes); in INX, bullet patterns are almost always composed of a single type of bullet behavior, which makes visually understanding challenges a bit easier, even on though difficulties.

Stage Progression and Structure:

INX main hub is also it’s stage selection screen; because the overall game is simple, the interface should also follow on that

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 of engagement, 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, 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 (though that was, looking back, perhaps was not the most cost-effective of choices). 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,  it will play different , serving as a good warm-up, and also a training ground of sorts to new weapon combinations. The final level is also fixed, but it does have some some changing elements, in regards of what choice of route and loadout players have chosen.


Beyond the stage structure, the whole game experience is structured to be approachable in multiple manners. As mentioned, finishing a stage unlocks it on stage selection, and finishing that stage without losing a continue unlocks a new weapons. Stages can be played individually, and have their weapons gained without the need of playing from the very first stage, which should stimulate practice and a gain of mastery. But, in order to truly finish the game, players must play the game from the first stage onwards; that being the only way to face the (real) final boss. 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.


Finally, 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 console ports of Treasure shooters, such as Radiant Silvergun and Ikaruga).The requirements for each level-up also increase considerably with each level, which should push players to pursuing longer runs, rather than grinding for points.




You can follow In Extremis development through its weblog, Facebook and Twitter

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