Published on May 3rd, 2011 | by Mustafa Unal0
On Skill and Memory in Videogames
ix months ago I started getting into the shoot’em up genre with the intention of having a better understanding of its core mechanics. It’s not that I didn’t know how to play shmups, but I wanted to understand how to play them well. I registered on a few forums and began asking questions to gain the wisdom of veteran players, but the more I learned, the less it seemed like my cup of tea.
What disheartened me was the heavy focus on memorisation required to survive on higher difficulty levels, particularly on bullet hell shooters. This sub-genre is fairly self explanatory as there tends to be a fuck-ton of enemy bullets to dodge or absorb, and at higher difficulty settings it’s a requirement to learn the safest areas to be in during what sometimes feels like an endless wave of bullets.
I asked these vets if they could suggest some quality shmups which randomly generate enemy attack patterns. I liked the idea of being rewarded primarily for quick thinking instead of depending on how many hours I had put into learning predefined patterns. Some great freeware games were suggested, but someone made a point I hadn’t actually considered; how can you measure skill accurately when the game is randomly generating enemies?
Damn your logic, anonymous guy!
I’m not sure how I didn’t consider this before but it’s a damn good point. Randomly generated attack patterns would mean I could never accurately compare my performance with a fellow player, we simply wouldn’t face the same challenges. It felt as though I had to accept this if I wanted to play shmups at a high level, it would only make sense to play the ones with preset enemy patterns so that each player experiences the same challenge. However, accepting this fact also meant I no longer had the drive to follow through with my goal, the shoot’em up genre doesn’t interest me to a point where I’m willing to dedicate that many hours into learning enemy ship and bullet patterns for each stage, so I cut my losses early by continuing to just play shoot’em ups casually.
Sometimes I wonder if starting out with competitive first person shooters was unlucky for me. It feels as though I’ve picked up some bad expectations from the genre, and if they don’t feel compatible in other genres I lose the will to keep playing them competitively. It’s not like FPS games don’t require memorisation, but when it comes down to it there are so many moments where you just improvise. I can learn the hotspots, camping spots and rush routes in every map, I can learn the range and accuracy of my weapon to reduce giving my position away without getting the kill, but it’s just a small part of the battle.
When you’re playing Counter-Strike or Call of Duty and you rush from your spawn via the optimum path to reach your destination, throwing grenades as you rush because you’ve nailed the timing so well that you know the enemy will just about start entering that room by the time it detonates, you’ll maybe get one or two kills during this rush or get shot down by an enemy player who was also rushing via an optimum route. If you survive and get a couple of kills for the sake of developing this example, you are now in improvise mode.
You’re not sure if the rest of your enemies have taken a different route, are camping nearby on the route you just rushed after seeing their comrades killed by you, or for all you know they’re still back at their spawn ready to ambush you and your curious allies one by one. You have to make decisions based on the choices your enemy will make, and although you may have created scenarios to counter everything your opponent will do, the fact still remains you have to wait and see what the fuck it is they are actually doing.
I can’t get this situation in a shoot’em up game because I know exactly how the enemies will attack and where they will attack, my only goal is to remember these details and exploit them. The only time you improvise is when you’re a casual player who has yet to memorise the ship and bullet patterns of the game.
But hey, I can still dream
There’s still hope for my desire of a randomly generated competitive shoot ‘em up where both players experience the same challenge but the challenge is random each time. This game may already exist, in fact if I’ve come up with it then I’m sure dozens of others have a long, long time ago.
It’s possible to have a game where you can invite an opponent to play the same randomly generated level as you to compare scores, but the game only lets you play each stage once before generating a new one so if you screw up, there are no retries. It’s even possible to make it feel more competitive by having both players on the same screen, playing the same stage at the same time. Maybe even spice things up by allowing these players to sabotage each other’s progress with a gameplay mechanic.
Let’s say we’re playing a vertical shoot ‘em up where each enemy shot down by Player 1 leaves a bullet or, depending on the enemy, multiple bullets in varying patterns behind which can collide with Player 2 but have no effect on P1. Naturally, P2 can do the same thing, but this mechanic will add depth and also encourage both players to shoot down more ships than their opponent as this equals more pressure to the guy who has more bullets to dodge.
We can even go a step further and have a mechanic which rewards P1 if they’re skilfully avoiding P2′s pressure tactics by dodging the bullets left by the ships he or she is destroying. This would balance things out as the first player to lose the lead will have a very hard time getting it back, so if they can survive the added bullet pressure, temporary invincibility or a smart bomb could be rewarded for potential comebacks.
I could just stick to the FPS genre but the shoot’em up genre also provides the euphoria I often experience when playing Call of Duty or Counter-Strike. When you’re playing a bullet hell shmup and you see a huge wave of bullets incoming, time slows down and it feels like you have hours to decide where to position yourself to dodge the projectiles as you return fire. During this moment as you weave past this wave whilst continuing to return fire and every second you’re still alive adds to the euphoria… I love that shit. I want to experience it again and again in a competitive environment, because doing this against a real player will no doubt feel infinitely more rewarding.
Like I said, I’m sure there’s a game out there which is very similar (or identical) to what I just came up with and it might even be freeware. If the idea I described rings any bells, or if you see a flaw in this concept, let me know in the comments section. By the way, I’m at work right now and wrote this on my iPad without proof reading so apologies in advance for any typos you notice — I’ll clean it up when I get home.