Gamers Are Speedrunning Classic Titles for Charity at Summer Games Done Quick
Understanding what makes perfectionist players go faster than their peers, and all for good causes.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
I've been watching speedrunning charity marathon Games Done Quick for a few years now, and that warm, fuzzy feeling just gets bigger every year as the donation totals continue to rise. The first event raised $10,000, which is no small feat in itself. Five years later, in January this year, Awesome Games Done Quick 2015 managed to collect $1,576,085 for the Prevent Cancer Foundation. That's a truly heartwarming result that everyone in the speedrunning community is hoping to build on at Summer Games Done Quick, which starts on July 26.
Chris Grant of Games Done Quick tells me that it all started as a casual meetup between 20 members of Speed Demos Archive, a website focused on hosting high quality speedrun videos and fostering a tight forum community. It quickly turned into a charity event thanks to Mike Uyama, founder of the GDQ marathons.
Chris says, "This was Classic Games Done Quick, the first GDQ marathon, and it was originally going to take place at MAGFest, The Music and Gaming Festival. But internet issues at the venue eventually placed Classic Games Done Quick in the basement of Mike Uyama's mother's house."
Apparently, Classic Games Done Quick was rife with technical issues—problems that, surely, would only grow as the event did? "We've had a few fire alarms go off," Chris tells me. "A large majority of the staff, including myself, are ready to be on-call at all times. Most GDQs run smoothly, but we have to be ready in case anything happens—tech issues, runner issues, stream issues. Since we're not centralized anywhere, we're essentially building a large temporary streaming space every marathon, and we also use a ridiculous amount of old technology like the NES that doesn't necessarily work well with modern streaming technology. Even getting the marathons started is impressive to me, let alone switching from a Wii U to a Nintendo at a moment's notice. Most nights the staff gets a decent amount of sleep, but some days we end up having to nap or load up on caffeine because of a late-night stream or tech issue."
Games Done Quick has grown massively since those first 20 people got together in 2010. January's Awesome Games Done Quick had over 1,000 attendees, with 150 runners among them. Who are these other 850 people not running, you may ask, and I did. "Some community members only care for finding glitches and exploits, a sort of hobby quality assurance," Chris says, "and there are others who enjoy spectating and talking about speedruns, who aren't necessarily interested in speedrunning themselves."
Summer Games Done Quick promotional trailer.
"I'm amazed at how huge the GDQ events have become in such a short time," Kari "Essentia" Johnson tells me. At Summer Games Done Quick she will be running Half-Minute Hero,and then Chrono Trigger cooperatively for the big finale in the early hours of August 2. I ask about how she got into speedrunning, and what the appeal was. It's a tight community, but a relatively small one still, so clearly it's not for everyone.
"I started speedrunning in late 2006, when I first discovered the community. There is a competitive aspect to speedrunning of course, and when I first started I cared a lot more about being the best than I do now. The main reason I speedrun today is that it gives me a reason to keep playing the games I love, with a goal besides just beating the game."
Is it possible to make a living out of it, in the same way that some standard video game streamers do? "I don't think it's really possible unless you're amazingly popular and stream quite often," Kari says. "I'll certainly never make a living out of it, because I would rather spend time with my family and keep it as a hobby."
Despite her attitude towards speedrunning, Kari has pulled off some impressive feats, and is something of a trailblazer in the scene. "I think one of my greatest achievements was the first time I completed a single-segment speedrun (completing the game in one go without resetting) of Final Fantasy VI in 2007. Back then, people didn't think it was possible to complete a single-segment run of an RPG. But after my run was posted on Speed Demos Archive, people started doing single-segment runs of other RPGs. It's interesting that single-segment runs are now much more popular than segmented runs."
The most impressive moment that I've seen on a GDQ stream was the Tetris: The Grand Master exhibition earlier this year, particularly when the board became invisible during the game credits (from around 1:10:00 into this video). I ask what's most impressed the people who actually put these events together.
"The blindfolded GDQ runs have been spectacular," says Chris. "My favorite moment is when Zallard1 at AGDQ 2014 managed to beat Super Punch-Out!! for the SNES blindfolded. He accidentally performed a frame perfect counter at one point in his run and had to adapt his strategy a bit because it changed up the pattern of that fight."
Zallard1's blindfolded 'Super Punch-Out!!' run in 2014
Looking down the sizable list of games (speed)running at Summer Games Done Quick, it's hard to notice one particular theme that connects the chosen titles. Does something in particular make for a good speedrunning game, or can it be anything?
"Just about any game that has an ending can be speedrun, but what makes one game better to run than another is pretty subjective," says Kari. "Some might say that lots of randomness makes for a bad speedrun. However, I've run longer games that have lots of random elements, and it's kind of a fun challenge to find ways to be prepared for whatever the game might throw at you. So I think it's really up to the runner's preference."
You've probably noticed by now that many games that get speedrun (this is the past tense, I have been reliably informed) are pretty old. Is this a nostalgia thing, or is it that older games are easier to bend to your whims?
"I'd say it's mostly nostalgia," says Kari. "Speedrunners are more likely to run games that they love and have played a lot. Also, older games have had more time for people to develop speedrun routes. In some ways it's easier to run an older game, because a lot of the planning and routing has already been done. If you want to run a new game, you'll most likely be doing a lot of that work yourself."
Doing everything yourself must be a time-consuming ordeal. But people persist, whatever the game, always striving to shave milliseconds off their best times. "Generally, shorter games take less time to learn," Kari says, "but sometimes there will be a lot of technical tricks that can take lots and lots of practice to be able to do consistently. With longer games, like RPGs, there will always be little mistakes, like time spent in menus, that can be done faster."
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You have to have an element of perfectionism to your personality, then? "Yes," confirms Kari, "but you also have to take into account randomness. For example, the most random part of a Chrono Trigger 100 percent run is in the last dungeon, where at one point you can get between zero and six battles. Until someone plays perfectly and gets zero battles in that last dungeon, there will always be possible improvements."
I'd highly recommend watching at least some of Summer Games Done Quick, and if you can donate, even better. Take a look over the schedule, find something that tickles your fancy, and I guarantee you'll be enthralled by what you see. We've discovered that just about anything can be speed run, even Gone Home, so there really is something for everyone. Not that everyone has the skill and patience it takes to be a speedrunner, of course, but I'm glad those that do find the time to entertain the rest of us so often, and for a great cause.
Summer Games Done Quick kicks off on Sunday, July 26 and runs until August 2.
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