At about the midpoint of last year, a particular game blipped on to my radar with a kind of suave presentation that I could not deny. Schilmaid MX, taken on only a few seconds of gameplay, had the look of my sort of shmup. And it is.
When it dropped back in November I swooped it up immediately and tucked in. What impresses me is not only its gameplay but the thoroughness of its production. While I could spend this discussion sharing its high points as a shooting game (there are many), others are already doing a better job. What I wish to do, then, is discuss Schildmaid MX as an exemplar of design.
Why, though? For starters its presentation is exceptional, if only exceptionally standard. By that I mean there is no real innovation in its menu design or interface or aesthetic, nor does there need to be. What we have is what should be the true standard for all such products. The menu system is done thoughtfully and clearly and with intuitive options. Intuitive is a word I’m going to repeat throughout this little essay because it’s what makes Schildmaid noteworthy as a game and general product. Very little (ironically, the glaring exception is a game mechanic) is left beyond the scope of intuition. And isn’t that what good design entails?
While I have no formal training in art or design, I know enough to understand that all design is communication. At its highest heights that communication happens on an intuitive level. The finest interior design communicates pleasure, ease, soothing comfort, and does so without words: color, contrast, lighting, and arrangement elicit such intuition in the mode of sheer feeling.
This game does not reach to such lofts (few games can or should), but Schildmaid does all it needs to in order to bring us into its world with minimal distraction and maximum intuition and it begins with the beautiful, thoughtful menu system.
As our first interaction with the game, its menu system also prepares us for what’s ahead by hinting at the aesthetic influences and music choices before blasting us into space. But not all at once. For our first taste is an optional, but necessary, tutorial. It isn’t overlong. It communicates with clarity what we are to do in this game and what makes it special among the swarms of games like it.
Then the various modes of play each offer a different experience, not only with their sheer difficulty levels but also in helpful features. For example, the introductory mode (Jaeger) offers checkpoints to go back to at a game over, while the other modes do not. These differences do not have to be coaxed out of the game because the crystal clear menus tell us just what is about to happen. The education does not stop there, as each phase of the game, across all modes, further teaches us what the developers want us to know.
How does each enemy ship behave? How are we to negotiate them? In what ways does our ship click with other mechanics, including scoring? Like all good game design, each phase or stage shows us the answers to these question without telling us, until it needs to. This telling happens with flashing tips that are actually helpful.
The perennial joke is that if you lose a game, the subsequent tooltip says “Try getting better,” and that is not without merit. For many such tips, presented eternally as text near the bottom of the interface, are unnecessary and unhelpful. In Schildmaid the reverse is true. The interesting wrinkles of the game that we may not find on our own are instead spelled out for us. The element of discovery is presented alongside guard rails to help us along as needed, including how to turn the tips off if we don’t want them and how to make the game more accessible.
This is not my final point but it is, perhaps, the most important as many designers, from city planning to visual arts to tabletop and video games, fail to consider it. What Schildmaid does more than most games, certain more than most shmups, is a clear and robust accessibility menu. From distracting particle effects and scrolling backgrounds to seizure-inducing blooms, everything is available for you to make yourself as comfortable as possible. Even for someone like me, with a rather mild if not persistent case of inattention, has options in abundance as I can tweak the visual presentation of the game to mitigate distracting factors like smoke trails and unnecessary background elements.
It’s simply a kind and thoughtful way to treat your audience.
As a final cherry on top, Schildmaid has a preposterous number of achievements to unlock and, so far anyway with many hours of the game now under my belt, all are helpful and appropriate. Achievements should be little pats on the back, little dopamine rushes. They’re the honest version of what mobile and free-to-play games try to do to keep you coming back for more. And they are, when done right, instructive. Thusly after you’ve gotten your little kudo for blasting your ten-thousandth ship, you may notice another achievement pop up offering a banana sticker if you hit a particular score or trigger a certain mechanic. Suddenly you want to make sure you do that thing.
This is a means to teach your audience how to set goals while setting goals for them along the way, something that is often missing in the shmup genre. It’s an odd fact because goals are a central tenet of the scene.
My overview here has been broad and intentionally brief, but the hope is that more game developers, and designers in general, will take cues from a product like Schildmaid MX. It is difficult now as the divide between massive developers that seem to be post-cash and indie developers with literally no dollars seems to be widening, but it is incumbent that have and have-not alike take the time for good design and a fine coat of polish.