Is It Too Late? Are We Currently in a Shmup Viewership Black Hole?

 

I apologize if this blog post comes across as negative or as a downer, but this topic is something that has been on my mind for a long time and today I feel like writing about it. Maybe this is a good idea to get the doubts off my chest, or maybe this will come across as me being pessimistic, I guess that is for you all to decide. Anyway, the reason why I am writing this article is that this is a topic that I’ve spent the last year having a firsthand experience with and now feel like I have some personal insight that might be interesting to hear. I might also record a podcast episode about this topic, depending on if people want to hear more about it or not.

So, for the past few months, my motivation for creating the content that I do has started to shift. At this point, my change in motivation  will probably continue to the degree where my original motivations are no longer having much of an influence on what I do with the podcast or what topics I cover on the show. For the original listeners of the show, or the people curious enough to go back and listen to my early episodes, my mission statement for creating the podcast was to interact with the community, have an outlet where I can geek out about shmups, and do my best to promote the genre to a wider audience. Thirty or so episodes into the podcast (at the time I write this post), and it’s starting to feel like I’m reaching some sort of sense of completion. My show isn’t a popular smashing success, or anything like that, but I have completed 2 of my 3 goals now. I have had a lot of interaction with the shmup community (much more than I ever expected – in an awesome way) and I have geeked out on the genre as much as I could have ever wanted. Something about myself that I don’t think is well known (or maybe it is, I have no idea) is that, before creating my podcast, I had no online presence at all. I did not participate in social media, online gaming communities, or anything like that. So this past year has been a pretty new and sometimes overwhelming experience for me in that regard.

When I included that 3rd goal of my podcast, helping promote the genre to a wider audience, I think it’s fair to say that I was naïve as to how difficult that goal would be. I’ve taken and explored this issue a lot deeper than most people would probably expect, and it’s hard to communicate just how many barriers the shmup community has in front of it right now. Day by day, episode by episode, project by project, wider appeal is feeling less and less achievable at this current time. Let me stress the latter portion of that sentence again: at this current time. This is not something I say lightly, and I am not writing about this to feel sorry for myself or anything like that. I’m writing about this because I feel like I’m finally creating a picture of what the wider landscape of shmup content is right now, and I think it’s important to pass this impression onto other people to think about and take into consideration.

Looking at the data, from YouTube views of the more popular Shmup channels (STG Weekly, Studio Mudprints, Jaimers, Iconoclast, Icarus, and other super players), to the general content and attention for the genre, I definitely feel like there was a boom of interest during the Xbox 360 days and a little bit after. Roughly around 2011 – 2015, I would say, maybe up to 2016. This is when these channels pulled in the highest view counts and were getting a lot of general interest. Fast forward to 2018 – 2019, the year I wondered out of the mountains and onto the System 11 forum and you’ll see that everyone’s numbers are down. All shmup content creators, at least that I know of, are experiencing drastically reduced view counts. Some are less reduced than others, but breaking 1k is not guaranteed and getting above 2k seems like a “successful” episode – and this is regarding the popular established YouTube channels. In regards to my own content, I’ve just started putting some effort into my YouTube channel, so we’ll see how that shakes out (probably around a 700 play cap, at the end of the day), but my podcast numbers are scarily easy to predict. An average podcast ep is around 350 plays. A bombed crossover episode (all of which have bombed, btw, for one reason or another) is 250 plays, and a successful episode is 400+. Finally, I have my one relatively popular (in shmup numbers) ZeroRanger episode that finally broke the 1k barrier not too long ago. I’m very proud of that episode so I’m happy it has stood out, it just bums me out that my other content can’t have similar numbers as well.

No matter how you rotate the picture or squint your eyes, I think it’s pretty undeniable that we are in a shmup content black hole. Only a tiny group of people are actively watching shmup content. You need further convincing, you say? Just look at how My Life In Gaming’s interview with the M2 ShotTriggers team stacks up compared to their other content. The M2 documentary has 81k views. The ShotTriggers interview has … 7.3k views, one of the lowest viewed videos on their channel ever.

There are probably a number of factors at play as to why I think this is occurring, but in the end I think the biggest problem is viewership burn-out outweighing viewership renewal. This is a concept I have observed in my own behavior, so maybe this extrapolation doesn’t apply to other people, but here’s what I think is going on. As a viewer, I have noticed a trend in myself where there are certain types of content that I binge through and never really return to (just did a ton of that with Guilty Gear stuff last year), and there is content that I consider “staple” content, where I watch it consistently over a long period of time. A notable example of this was, four years ago,  I was a loyal listener of the ATP fighting game podcast and pretty much followed every episode until it was discontinued.

Anyway, I think that for most people, other than the hardcore viewership we have right now, shmup content is generally binge content to most gamers. They find it somehow, go crazy on it for a few weeks, get their fill, and move on. Shmups are a great one night stand. This binging isn’t necessarily a bad thing if we had a healthy cycle of viewers dropping in and out, because for each person leaving there would be a new one taking his place. Obviously, retaining viewers is the goal, but this cycle is just the nature of the beast and really there is nothing that can be done about it other than making really compelling material that hooks people into being staple viewers.

However, what I think has happened is that, over the past years, the wave of people who could be interested in shmups have already gone through and binged on the genre in the 360 era. This is why the viewership numbers are so high during this era. The viewers from this time know about shmups, but the mystique is gone, they’ve moved onto other trendy things to binge on. Again, this happens all the time in other scenes, like the FGC. The big difference, however, is that the FGC has a strong power to resurrect these viewers back into their content because of all the hype that surrounds new FGC releases, tournaments, player drama and all that. The FGC scene also has players and content creators cycling in to replenish the old ones. Shmups have no such power. The cycle has collapsed in on us. We don’t have a wave of excitement around our content because our viewership is small and burned out, and we don’t have new viewers because they have nothing in which to invest themselves. This makes being a new person making shmup content absolutely brutal, because you need to appeal to either the most hardcore battle-tested audience of experts who know the genre very deeply, or you need to appeal to the random bingers who appear and disappear in matter of days. Both routes are really tough, and neither will result in a large viewership.

So where does this leave us and what can be done about this? Obviously, if I had the answer to this question I’d be writing this post to a much wider audience. I have no idea how we can grow the shmup viewership in the long term. My only strategy at this point is to just continue making content that I think could be engaging to a wider audience and cross my fingers at least one video or podcast of mine manages to catch a wave and put new eyes onto my channel and podcast. Of course, this is MUCH easier said than done and really I don’t think people understand how depressing it can be to put a ton of work into something and have it almost completely ignored. Again, do not just read this as me complaining, because this isn’t just about me. Relatively speaking, I am happy with the amount of viewership I have gotten, given the circumstances. I’m talking more about the people who make a video or two, receive no feedback (or only negative feedback), get discouraged and move on. Don’t take this the wrong way, I am not blaming the current shmup viewership for this problem. It’s not like I’m going out and viewing every single piece of shmup content and leaving feedback (though I do try to do more of that these days). A small burned out viewership can only do so much. Really I don’t think there is very much that can be done on a larger scale to combat this issue. I sincerely believe we are in a shmup viewership black hole right now. All we can do at this point is just try to survive until the next wave comes along.

As for myself and my content, this is all a new experience for me and I have no means of predicting my future behavior. I honestly have no clue what I will do. At the moment, I plan on continuing making content because I enjoy the process and like to view my own videos and podcasts – as self-absorbed as it sounds. Hopefully that source of motivation doesn’t wear off anytime soon.

In the end, maybe the takeaway of this post could be that, by recognizing we are in a black hole, we can better prepare ourselves for the challenges ahead. Ironically, in a time where we have very little audience and viewership, this is the time where we need really high quality engaging content. Sadly, there is no way of knowing if that content will ever be appreciated or recognized on a wider level, but here’s to hoping we can inspire a new generation of fans in the future. Maybe we’ll get lucky and shmups will somehow randomly become trendy in a few years, but I wouldn’t count on it.

Again, not trying to complain or be a pessimist (I’m not a pessimistic-type), but I also think it’s important to be honest and realistic about the current viewership landscape.

Cheers (I guess?)

–Mark MSX

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