Accessibility Matters: A Case Study of Ketsui DeathTiny and M2 ShotTriggers
The Best Shmup Port that Nobody Plays
*Note* The contents of this article are not a journalistic endeavor. The viewpoint that I express and the information I speculate on is based on only observation, extrapolation, inference, and anecdotal data. This is an article of opinion written for the purposes of discussion, not as a statement of fact. Please do not misconstrue my musings about M2 ShotTriggers as factual statements, because they are not.
I think enough time as passed where I can write this article with a level of confidence. Last year, when M2 ShotTriggers announced that they were working on a port of Ketsui for the PS4, I was both very excited and nervous. The reason for excitement, for any shmup fans not in the know, is because M2 have set the gold standard for shmup ports in terms of both accessibility and accuracy, so the prospect of them releasing an improved port of one of my favorite shmups made me happy. For any of my readers who feel I have been harsh on the lacking ZeroDiv Psikyo ports in my other articles, the work ShotTriggers has been putting out is a perfect example of what quality ports look like.
On the matter of the previous Ketsui port for PS3 and Xbox360 done by 5pb, I would say that the port isn’t terrible, but is certainly lacking due to accuracy issues (too fast framerate + glitches) and poor accessibility (training mode is barebones and not very useful). Plus, personally speaking, I’ve always felt that, even though the input lag isn’t higher than the other 360 ports, there is something funky about the ship movement and game feel overall. So, in this regard, I felt that even owners of the 5pb port should still look into getting DeathTiny, as it was likely to be a huge improvement.
Up to Ketsui DeathTiny’s release, the ShotTriggers team had not failed to live up to the expectations that the core shmup community had for them. Garegga and Dangun Feveron were both outstanding and DeathTiny, to my relief, did not disappoint either. The sprite work looks upgraded and beautiful, the input lag is solid (3 frames, just like all the 360 shmups), and the accuracy seems right on the money. In fact, as Iconoclast reported in my interview with him about the port, even an obscure freeze glitch is preserved. Then, of course, there is the inclusion of a savestate system, two valuable arrange modes, multiple soundtracks, and a well-implemented online leaderboard and replay system.
All in all, I think it’s safe to say, as a game, DeathTiny is one of the best, if not the best, shmup ports ever made. I have been brimming with enthusiasm for this port ever since it was announced and have pretty much talked about it non-stop since its release. However, as talented and brilliant as the ShotTriggers team was with the concept of accessibility within the game (savestates, Super Easy Mode, those sorts of things), I feel the team fell short when it came to making this game accessible off the console and within the marketplace. However, rather than just blindly criticizing M2 ShotTriggers and some of the decisions that they made regarding the release, I’m going to offer my theory as to why things played out the way they did, and how this situation can be avoided in the future.
As I noted at the top of this article, the perspective I am about to present is based on anecdotal evidence gathered by yours truly, as well as extrapolation and interpretation of other sources of information. Again, do not consider this a journalistic presentation of fact. Based on the interactions I’ve had with a good number of western shmup players about the game, as well as monitoring for any threads or wider discussion about DeathTiny, I feel that the game has slipped under the radar of most core players, and is pretty much unknown to the general gaming audience. When I’ve asked people about why they didn’t buy the game, I also noticed a trend in people’s responses. The following is a summarized list of why people did not buy the game, starting with the most frequent responses:
- “I haven’t heard of it.”
- “I don’t have a PS4, but would buy it on PC.”
- “I’m planning on getting it (but still haven’t).”
- “It’s too expensive; I can’t afford it right now.”
These responses, in my mind, can then be translated to the following decisions behind the release of the game:
- Very little marketing and almost zero press coverage.
- No PC release.
- Inconvenient/obscure stores to buy from (PlayAsia, Japanese PSN).
- Nothing can really be done about price (other than not making the extra ost DLC), but the importing costs don’t help.
Yes, there are other reasons why people wouldn’t buy DeathTiny, maybe they’re just not into Ketsui in the first place, but keep in mind the people I’ve talked to are core shmup players and the target audience for the game. For fun, I also asked some of my friends in the FGC if they heard of the game or were interested in it, and of course they had no idea what I was even talking about.
In case some of the readers of this article are not aware, unlike the previous PS4 ShotTriggers ports, Ketsui Deathtiny never received an international release. It was never localized to English and it’s not even listed on the North American PSN store. The only way to play this game is to (1) own a PS4; (2) pay $70 to import the physical disc; or (3) buy Japanese PSN money from somewhere and then use that money to purchase DeathTiny on the Japanese PSN. After that, you then need to setup a Japanese PSN account on your PS4 (which is a pain in the ass, by the way). As a result, when you look at what DeathTiny could have been – a massive shmup release, the talk of the year, as far as shmups go – compared to what we got – an uneventful launch that seemed to have come and gone without note – it’s really sad how things played out. Rather than just lamenting this turn of events, I also want to do my best to present what I think happened, and how it can be avoided in future M2 releases (hopefully they continue after Esp.Ra.De).
Ok, so now the juicy part of this article, my interpretation of what’s going on with the ShotTriggers team and why they probably made the decisions that they did. One last time, I could be completely wrong about what I am going to say, but I am doing my best to present a thought-out perspective.
Since these ports began life as PS4 exclusives, a common topic of conversation has been why they did not choose to create PC releases. On paper, and especially from a western perspective, the PC seems like a perfect fit for the ShotTrigger ports. PC is the home of the shmup, it has the largest player-base that houses the Touhou players, the indie/dojin players, the people who play shmups on Steam, and the arcade players (like myself) who use PC to emulate. The Sony Playstation 4, while a popular system among many gamers, isn’t really a powerhouse for shmup players. Again, not to offend die-hard PS4 fans, but there’s no arguing that the PC is king of the shmups. For that reason, among a few others (like how you can use different monitors and control methods), it seems narrow-sighted to only release on PS4.
So this is where my theory comes into play. Based on the contents of the MLIG interview with the ShotTriggers team (linked at bottom of article), as well as content from their interviews with Shmup’Em All (also linked) and overall behavior, it is my belief that the ShotTriggers team is on a race against time. Let me explain. It is my theory that, financially, the ShotTriggers ports are unviable, they make little to no business sense (this is stated outright by the team in the MLIG interview) and everyone at M2 knows this. In other words, the ShotTriggers ports are purely projects of passion. Of course, people have said this before about M2, but I mean on a deeper level. I don’t just mean it’s a “passion project,” in that the devs care about what they are making (because it’s obvious that they do). I mean that it’s a passion project in that these ports are not being made with any commercial interest in mind, because it’s understood that the resources being put into these ports make no sense commercially. The goal of the ShotTriggers ports is to preserve as many arcade shmups as possible before M2 is forced to pull the plug on the project.
The ShotTriggers team is the antithesis of the current “games as a service” model of video game development. The reason why there is no marketing for these games is because marketing is expensive and is seen as a waste of resources (again, my theory being these games are more about preservation than commercial performance). The reason why a PC version does not exist is because the devs don’t have the time to support it. As soon as one project is finished they need to immediately start working on the next. It is my theory that the team probably has a hit list of shmups it wants to get done (hopefully Batrider, DOJ, and DDP made the cut), before M2 has to say, “Look, we need your talent for games that will actually make money … we got this Sega Genesis Mini in the works.” Obviously, I’m projecting here, but watching the interview I really got the sense that M2 admires what the ShotTriggers team is doing, but also understands it can only go on for so long.
Another perspective about the PS4 exclusivity that I think could be argued is the angle that shmups are primarily a Japanese genre and the PS4 is more popular than PC among Japanese players. Since Japanese players don’t use PC very much, then a PC port would not be viable. At face value, that makes sense, but I think there are some important factors to consider. The first is that, even among Japanese players, Ketsui Deathtiny does not appear very popular. While gathering anecdotal information for this article, I asked Arasaka, my Japanese STG insider, about their response to the game. He made a “rough estimation” that about 20% of the scene picked up the release. He said that almost all the dedicated Ketsui players bought the game, but that’s not exactly a huge demographic. One thing that I think that’s really important to remind people about the core shmup scene, whether western or Japanese, is that it’s tiny. The amount of casual players who see the game and buy it on a whim or out of curiosity is going to be much larger than the dedicated fanbase. The core shmup audience is not big enough to hold up a dedicated developer for long – just look at what happened to CAVE. In that sense then, taking more time between releases and doing an international PC release would probably be a savvier move (I mean, I’m not an expert, but that would be my line of thinking), but that’s not what ShotTriggers is trying to accomplish. Instead, I think they are trying to get these ports out on a popular convenient platform that requires less support than something as complex as the PC. I’m a PC player, so don’t misunderstand my wording here as me agreeing with the decision to not release on PC (because I still think a PC release should have been a goal), I’m just trying to convey what the team’s perspective might be.
This line of thinking probably carried over to the decision to not have an international release, which I think is a big mistake. I’m not aware of the costs and the time requirements of an international release, but no matter the reasoning, I think this decision has damaged the release’s accessibility greatly. Remaining only in Japan cuts down on the western players who’d be willing to import it or go through all the hoops to download it, obviously, but I also think it hurts the coverage the game could receive. When you compare the amount of articles about the western release of Battle Garegga Rev. 2016, to the single Eurogamer article about Ketsui DeathTiny, it easy to see how the game’s visibility has been reduced. Maybe the budget for the game was just too strained to even make a western release happen, but as of right now I can only speculate.
Whatever the reasoning behind why the DeathTiny release was so DamnTiny (sorry, couldn’t resist), I think this is a good example that shmup developers can learn from. I think we all understand that shmups are a very niche genre and sometimes maybe it is tempting to not take the extra marketing steps and just hope that the audience comes and finds your game. But, if one of the greatest ports of all time of one of the greatest shmups of all time with a ton of cool extra content can slip by its own audience because of accessibility issues, that goes to show how important making your game easy to access really is. Soapbox moment, but I do think this is an idea more shmup developers should consider, you basically need to throw your game into the audience’s laps, quality does not translate to popularity.
Another example that comes to my mind is a shmup that I’ve recently got the hots for, ring^-27. The funny thing about ring is that it is super accessible in a way (you can get it cheap on DLsite with no drm, I’ll throw a link at the bottom), but the damn storefront is so niche nobody is going to find it. I’m seriously considering sending some emails out about this game to see if we can get it to show up on Steam or something, or maybe I need to work on some sort of index for these niche indie games … but that’s a topic for another article 😉
Back on the subject of DeathTiny and M2, I do think there is light at the end of the tunnel. Remember the article I wrote about the Nintendo Switch, where I said it could be leveraged for discoverability? Great minds think alike because that is exactly what ShotTriggers is doing with the upcoming Esp.Ra.De release. I think this is a good compromise and a way to widen the player base. Again, I would love to see a PC release, but you all just watch, when this bad boy shows up on Switch it’s going to receive a lot more attention that Deathtiny did on PS4. It’s funny to think that Esp.Ra.De will likely end up more talked about the Ketsui, but that’s what’s going to happen. Let’s just hope that M2 has learned from the DeathTiny release and are not keeping the Esp.Ra.De release JPN only, because that would be two steps forward, one step back.
I was going to end this article with some kind of corny Esp.Ra.De “milking” the Switch joke, but decided not to.
Thanks for reading!