There are only a few times that I can recall when I have made explosive and enormous strides in improvement with DDR. Maintaining steady progress is extremely difficult and it's especially discouraging when I notice myself sitting on a plateau. While I'm currently at the best that I've ever been, progress is slower than I want it to be. To address my issues, it's useful to take the time to look back and take note of what has worked well before and what hasn't.
Let's go all the way back to sometime in 2003 when I first played DDR. I was in high school, and my childhood friend Craig wanted me to try a game at his house. He pulled out two soft mats and a copy of DDRMAX2 US CS. I honestly thought it looked like the stupidest thing in the world, but I gave it a try anyway. If you can think of every rookie mistake that any beginner who has never played the game before can do, like bringing my feet back to the center, hitting arrows before they're anywhere near the targets, not listening for the beat of the music, you name it and I've done them all. I eventually got the hang of it, but I didn't really play it all that much. Even with having my own copy of the game and a soft pad, I was still sitting on Light mode and barely grazing Standard with two years of on-and-off playing.
My first arcade DDR experience was on a DDR EXTREME machine at Big Top Playland in the Hanover Mall in Hanover, MA. To say I was intimidated would be an understatement. There were other people playing at various skill levels while my friend and I were still stumbling around on Light, so I was a bit self-conscious about playing with other people around. Nevertheless, I still continued to make more trips to the arcade to play. During my first visit to Las Vegas on a family trip, I stayed at MGM Grand and they had an arcade with two DDR machines running 4thMIX and EXTREME. I think I played every day that I stayed there while also playing on every machine that I happened to find. Fond memories include being totally winded after failing Healing Vision ~Angelic Mix~ Standard, playing 桜 Standard multiple times, and trying to pass そばかす FRECKLES (KCP Re-Edit) and GHOSTS(VINCENT DE MOOR REMIX) Heavy when I found a DDRMAX machine.
I can't exactly recall what made me want to move up into Heavy mode. I didn't think it was necessary or even worth my time. Though I believe it did help to have some friends who were around to play DDR with me. We didn't have any set goals or anything; we just played a bunch of songs to see if we could pass them. I didn't really think much about proper technique. Heck, I didn't even know much about using speed mods or the bar because I never saw anybody use them! We just took every opportunity to get together and play until we couldn't anymore. I vividly remember playing at my friend Corey's house trying to grind out Holic Heavy because I wanted to pass it, but I couldn't make it past the first few measures. I played it over and over again until I was lying dead on the floor, desperately gasping for breath.
It wasn't until I met my friend Mike that I caught a glimpse of what it was like to really be good at the game. Mike had posted an open invitation on a DDR Facebook group page for my school to go out to Boston Bowl to play DDR. Normally I'm hesitant to reply to these things, but it was the first week of starting my freshman year of college so I thought, "Why not? (You should)" and did it anyway. Thinking about it now, I am so glad that I did. Watching Mike play for the first time was unlike anything I had ever seen before. He used both speed mods and the bar, and was able to consistently AA every song he played. That was completely mind-blowing to me at the time since I could barely scrape by with A's on 7-footers. I thought I was good, but not at that level. He had me try out some 10-footers, but I couldn't come close to passing them yet. That was also the first time I tried In The Groove since the arcade had an ITG2 dedicab; the first ITG song I played was Oasis Hard! I didn't really think much about my first time playing ITG, just that it was sort of a DDR clone. Although that didn't stop me from continuing to play it. I really believe that this was the day I realized that I really wanted to become better at DDR.
The MIT Game Room
In an effort to find more people that played DDR, I scoured social media, school clubs, forums, and even brought it up in casual conversation (I still cringe thinking about this). I took every opportunity I could find to play and find people to play with. This search eventually led me to MIT, where the student center had a game room with both a DDR EXTREME and 4thMIX machine. I went there with a couple of friends that I met in school to check it out. The players there were good. Really good. Watching AAAs happen in person, something I didn't think I could possibly achieve, was awe inspiring. I never thought I could become that good. At least I didn't let that discourage me. It was also through some MIT players that I discovered DDRecall, an online DDR score tracker. I saw some players carrying around sheets of paper with them that had their scores for each song in the game. Any time they got a better score, they would write down their new score; they usually wrote down their Great count unless it was a AAA. If I wanted to bring myself up to the next level, using DDRecall to keep track of my scores was the way to do it.
I printed out an empty score sheet and brought it with me every time I knew I was going to play DDR. Completely guessing here, but within about a few months at most, I played through every Heavy/Challenge chart in DDR EXTREME to just fill in a score. From there, I was able to find out which songs gave me trouble. My starting goal was to AA every song that wasn't a 10-footer. AFRONOVA and TRIP MACHINE CLIMAX gave me the most trouble and were my last two AAs to close it out; it took a little over a year to accomplish this goal. Then I looked for songs that needed the most work, setting goals to chip down my Great count. Depending on the song, the goals were something like "Get a single digit Great count" or "Get under 20 Greats" or "AA this 10-footer". Repeating this process eventually led to achieving my first AAA.
Sometime in February 2007, I had walked out of an interview for a co-op position because it wasn't the right role for me. MIT was nearby the place I was interviewing, so I thought I'd play a few rounds. I took out my DDRecall sheet and went through all the songs that I had less than 10 Greats on to see what I can go for as a possible AAA. Something slow and fairly easy to time. Not long after, I achieved my first AAA with After The Game Of Love Heavy. I could barely contain my excitement! I had to at least calm down a bit so that I could snap a photo on my Motorola flip phone. I'm not certain, but I think I stopped playing more that day just because I wanted to leave on a high note. Finally, my first AAA, a taste of victory. And that was only the beginning.
My collection of AAAs slowly grew as I played more at MIT and Tokyo Game Action. TGA had both EXTREME and SuperNOVA 2 so I went through as much of SN2 as I could to get some new PFCs (Perfect Full Combo). This is about the start of when I began experiencing a sudden explosion in improvement. I had just secured a co-op position at MIT, and of course, that meant I had easy access to their DDR machine. Almost every day after work, I would walk over to the student center with a change of clothes, a protein bar, and a fresh copy of my DDRecall sheet. Something felt like it just clicked. I was tearing through the game, getting multiple new AAAs after each session. It felt amazing to see myself producing results at such a rapid pace. I used that momentum to see how far I could ride that wave.
Sometime in December 2008, I got a text from a friend who was going to MIT to play DDR that read something along the lines of "The game room is gone". I thought he was pulling my leg, so I went over there after work to confirm that it was indeed gone. The entire room was empty. No DDR machine, no air hockey table, no pinball, no Capcom vs SNK 2; it was all gone. It was an especially devastating day because I was only two weeks out from preparing for a big DDR EXTREME tournament in Rhode Island. By this time, TGA had suffered its unfortunate flooding incident and had to close, so there were no longer any machines for the core players of the region to practice on. My momentum and rapid progress had stopped dead in its tracks.
To give some perspective on how much progress I made, I only had about 20 or so AAAs before the co-op and came out with over 200 AAAs by the time MIT's game room closed. Among my last AAAs that I got there that were noteworthy were TRIP MACHINE CLIMAX (Remember when I had so much trouble with this song?), 祭 JAPAN, and Healing Vision ~Angelic Mix~, which I had to do twice because my phone camera crashed and I wanted to get a photo.
In The Groove
When I first played In The Groove, it was at Boston Bowl and I only ever played it a handful of times when I went there. During my search for machine locations in my area, I found Lazer Zone near my house, which had an In The Groove 2 dedicated cabinet, and it became my home spot for playing ITG. Though I didn't start playing it a lot until after Anime Boston 2006, when they had an ITG2 dedicab in their 24-hour game room. I played it all night until about 5am Saturday night/Sunday morning. And since then, I started going to Lazer Zone almost every weekend to play more ITG.
There was so much about ITG that was more appealing than DDR at the time: brand new cabinets with very sensitive pads, very sleek interface, more speed mods and options, catchy and edgy music, and the much higher difficulty ceiling. I think what attracted me to this game the most was the general difficulty being much higher than DDR's. The idea I had was that maybe if I played the more difficult charts that the game had to offer, then I could get better quickly. Whether or not it actually did is questionable.
Much like DDRecall, I started a GrooveStats account to track my scores. At this time, it was much easier to track my scores because I could use a USB flash drive to store my data and upload my scores to the website. This is actually when I first had the idea of going through every song to fill out scores like I did with DDR. My goal at the time was simply to pass every song. For my skill level at the time, I was able to pass most songs up to level 12s. Throughout that summer, I continued to play and pass more songs, but for one reason or another the charts that got in the way were Bloodrush, Summer ~Speedy Mix~, Pandemonium, and VerTex². That was a pretty hard wall that I hit. I wasn't sure what to do at this point, because it felt like no matter how much I tried, I couldn't pass those songs.
I spent a ton of time browsing forums, resources, watching videos, anything for tips on how to play better. The biggest forums of the time were DDRFreak, ITGFreak/Rhythmatic, and Aaron in Japan. While I was reading through posts online, I saw what many of the other players were capable of doing. Even though I was nowhere near capable of doing anything they could do, it was very inspiring to see. They sort of gave me some hope that I could get to their level someday. A few players I kept my eyes on for videos back then were Kevbo, admstyles, Bluemystic, and Dukamok. Seeing how they moved and how accurate and crisp their steps were, I did my best to mimic that sort of minimal movement. I had some sloppy technique and timing, so having some frame of reference was especially helpful. Videos were also great for studying charts and learning how to move for certain patterns. Keeping up with forum activity every day, I saw that Dukamok had written up a Dance Game "Stamina/Technique Guide". It was a guide that became very important to me as not only did it change the way I had approached DDR and ITG, it went over key ideas that I still keep in mind to help me today.
There is more to write about In The Groove that I will save for its own entry.
At the end of 2010, I moved the DDR machine that Mike and I bought from the TGA auction back to my house from his, and into the basement. It had been sitting in his apartment basement for a while and I decided to make use of the machine again. DDR EXTREME was installed already, so I thought I would shift my priorities toward AAAing the rest of the songs that I hadn't AAA'd yet. Songs like Heaven is a '57 metallic gray and ORION.78 ～civilization mix～ come to mind. They're usually the type of songs that end up being close to the end of one's list of songs to AAA in EXTREME. I was on track to getting my 300th AAA, so I wanted it to be a good one. I was fairly consistent on MAX 300 so I decided to gun for that as AAA #300. Who knew that chasing after MAX 300 would be the most physically and emotionally painful experience in all of my years of playing DDR.
It was April 2011 and I had just graduated from Northeastern University. I was still hunting for work, getting occasional interviews, so I had a lot more free time than usual. I took advantage of this by playing DDR almost every day, at least 4-5 times a week for about 2-3 hours a session. MAX 300 was in my sights and I wanted to take all that time I had to focus on getting that AAA.
MAX 300 was a giant stone wall for me. Every swing I took only chipped away at it piece by piece, but left me hurting in the process. My average Great count became consistently less than 4 after about a week of practice. Two more weeks brought it down to 1 or 2. My goal was very specific and focused on one single thing, something I had never really set for myself before. I would usually get sick of playing a song more than two or three times in a row, but it was something I had to live with since I was forcing myself to play only that one song. It was the only song that I played for 2-3 hours for 4-5 times a week. It was absolutely maddening! Hearing it brought impulsive disgust. Staring at the face of what looked like a hopeless challenge, I always found some way to push myself through it.
I had to do more than just aim to AAA MAX 300. With how many times I had played it, I would have theoretically done it already as I had at least gotten all Perfects in every section, but in different plays. The biggest challenge was putting it all together to finally tear down that stone wall. I had to break the goal down into smaller sub-goals: separate the chart into sections, knowing exactly how to perform each part without making a single mistake, and being able to stay both physically and mentally focused (and sane) throughout the whole song. Each attempt got me much closer, but not enough to seal the deal. However, a new problem emerged: the mental block.
Mental blocks are one of the worst things to deal with when it comes to achieving your goal. It's like breaking off a chunk of the stone wall and finding a sheet of steel behind the rocks. No matter how many times or how much I forced myself to perform a certain pattern, my body would simply not move for them. In my case, I couldn't do the ending jacks, the last ten arrows in the chart. That could be attributed to bad muscle memory, and somewhere along the lines of playing the same song over and over again, I was no longer able to nail the ending properly. Get all Perfects in every section consistently, except for the end. It was devastating to my self-esteem. Being so close to achieving my goal only to have it dangling in front of my face, pulling back the moment I got closer and taunting me every step of the way.
I took a break. Maybe for about a week. I couldn't handle it anymore, so I thought perhaps giving it a rest would give me time to figure it all out again. There were a few things that I wanted to try that could possibly help break through the mental block since what I was already doing wasn't getting the result I wanted. My original plan of attack had been to play the chart on normal turn and doing all the jacks at the end with one foot. That wasn't working anymore, so at first I tried playing the chart on Mirror to break that muscle memory. I needed to re-learn the chart, but after a few plays I was able to get back down to 1-2 Greats again. Sadly, that's as far as I got, as I was still having a similar issue with the jacks. I was able to hit them with my left foot, but not my right. My leg froze up whenever the ending jacks came. I knew they were coming and I was ready for them, but when it was time to execute the pattern, everything stopped dead. I needed another plan.
YouTube is a great tool for helping me learn DDR charts. I looked for every MAX 300 AAA video I could find to study footwork. A few players switch their feet for each arrow on the jacks instead of hitting them with one foot. That was something I needed to try. Here came a new challenge though: practicing a brand new technique. It meant that my scores would have to suffer a bit from trying a technique that I couldn't reliably execute; I couldn't reliably do it the original way anyway so it couldn't hurt. Each time I tried foot-switching the ending, I got either a Great or a non-combo somewhere; it was almost always the second-to-last note. Technique was the issue here. Sometimes I could get it, sometimes not. It was difficult to tell how high a foot was off the panel before the other one hit it next. And during the times I got it, I already had a Great somewhere else. While frustrating and even discouraging, I was getting much closer.
Top priority was focusing on getting the foot-switch technique down 100%. Instead of playing the entire chart, I would turn fail off and let the chart run until it got to the part I needed to work on. Doing it this way saved a ton of energy so I could focus solely on what I needed to practice. Even when I didn't get to the end yet, I ran through the motions of doing the foot-switches on the pad to be sure that I was doing it correctly. Day after day, I would do the same practice routine and throw in some attempts to play the whole thing, but I'd always choke at the end.
Then came June 24th, 2011. The day it finally happened. After months of agony, sweat and tears, MAX 300 became my 300th AAA!
Even though that nightmare was finally over, the journey didn't stop there. When DDR X2 came out, I was still knee-deep into ITG. However, after seeing how much better the game looked compared to previously ignored mixes like SuperNOVA and SuperNOVA 2, it reinvigorated my drive to play DDR again. With easy access to a game with fresh new content and ton of more challenging charts, I was ready to play through everything DDR X2 had to offer.
While I wasn't aware of the methodology at the time, the process I went through to experience rapid improvement was called deliberate practice. By looking back to the times I made rapid improvements, I picked out the methods that seemed to have worked for me and used them to keep building a solid foundation of practice. By using those methods, I was able to PFC a majority of the DDR X2 song list; and even going as far back as DDR SuperNOVA to PFC the songs I didn't have yet. With enough practice, I was able to PFC more 15s including The legend of MAX, and my first 16, I'm so happy Challenge. Up until about a year ago, I felt like I was at a plateau, so I took some time to find out what I needed to do to keep climbing. Digging for reading material and videos on subjects such as the proper way to practice, expertise and the 10,000 hour rule led me to a video that summarized the core concepts in the book Peak by Anders Ericsson. Everything started making much more sense.
During the times I made drastic improvements, I was actually applying deliberate practice without really knowing it. The core principles that made up deliberate practice lined up with what I was doing before. I made sure that I had very specific goals, played with as much focus as possible, practiced specific songs repeatedly until I met my goal and then moved on to the next goal, and stayed just outside of my comfort zone. As long as I kept all that going and practiced often, I would be on track for steady improvement. For a more elaborate explanation on deliberate practice, I have written an article about it on the DDRCommunity website.
I have just turned 30 this month, have a full time career, my own home, and have to pay attention to a butt-ton of responsibilities. That means less time for me to practice DDR. That all shouldn't stop me. As long as I make DDR a priority in my schedule, practice frequently, and follow deliberate practice principles that have worked for me in the past, then I should see the results that I want.
DDR A was released one year ago. I have played 207 total games, and started breaking into PFCing more level 16s. I ranked 14th in North America and 119th in the world in the 6th KONAMI Arcade Championship preliminaries this year. Even after taking my long break from playing (explained here), I was able to find the time to not only make progress with getting back to where I was before, but surpassing that and becoming the best that I've ever been. Progress is almost never linear. Seeing my ability dip so much during my break was discouraging and any attempts to get back into the swing of things were met with frustration. Even though I was playing more often again, I wasn't seeing myself do any better. I had to re-evaluate my situation and figure out what was wrong. Turns out that I was setting my expectations too high. It came down to moving back my goalposts and strengthening my mental game. Falling short of expectations and letting it get to my head only hindered my progress. When I got past that and put it all together, progress came along much easier.
How do I put this all together? Let's start with time. Time is the most valuable resource that any person has on this Earth. Since I have so little of it to spare, I have to manage my time very carefully. I can comfortably fit a 2 hour DDR session for about 2-3 days in a week; if I can do more, that's gravy! I chose to do short multiple-day per week sessions rather than one several-hour session per week because it's apparently better for post-practice improvement. Improvement happens when you're not playing. Your mind and body will adapt the stress you put on yourself during practice while you're recovering. So when I practice, I want to make each session as efficient as possible. There must be a purpose behind every song pick and each song I play must be played with full effort and focus.
Having a goal coming into each session is essential. It needs to be specific and achievable relative to your current skill level. These are my current goals for this year:
- AAA all 16s (and below)
- FC all 17s
- 900k+ all 18s
- 800k+ clear all 19s
During each session, I aim to meet at least a small piece of those goals. When I start getting tired at the end of my session, I'll finish off strong with an easier song so that my body won't try to adapt to any bad habits as suggested for effective post-practice improvement.
Since I can't play DDR all day (if only I could), I spend some of that downtime watching videos of step-charts and other expert players. By studying charts, I'm familiarizing myself with the song and how to perform the steps in preparation for playing on foot. Watching how other expert players move as they play gives me insight on their technique and posturing. How should I move my body around to perform this pattern? What can I do to optimize my foot placement? I'll try doing what they're doing and see if it works for me.
Having the discipline to keep everything together as I make progress is very challenging. As more things in life try to cut into my time and other interests come along to distract me (looking at you, Persona 5), I shouldn't lose sight of my goals. As long as my motivation stays alive, I will always continue to Go For The Top.