Endless High-Speed Running

This is gonna be one hell of a party.

So to date, my involvement in the M2K2/SDA community has lasted about seven and a half years, and although the time that I started really moving away from the hobby (which I almost completely glossed over in the previous post) was nearly three years ago, the sea was already shifting by that point. As it turned out, the speedrunning world was moving in a direction that I think is overall a lot more interesting and exciting than during my original experiences.

When I first entered the community, it was pretty small, and I felt this was simply how it was going to be. How many people are actually interested in seeing “expert” play? How many would even recognize it? The brutal realization if you go back and watch many runs that were on the site in 2005 or 2006 is that even most self-discovering members of the community didn’t really know what they were dealing with at first. (Unsurprisingly, this took me longer than most to realize.) SDA has always used a community verification process to determine what runs are suitable for publishing: volunteers watch the run to ensure that it meets expectations for video (so that you can see everything that’s going on acceptably) and play quality. In those days, the “finished” video was often the only product of a runner’s efforts; even popular games didn’t have enough players to rigorously search for techniques, and there was generally little if any indication of how much blood, sweat, and tears had gone into the recording.

Even near the end of 2006, it seemed to me that the majority of performances on the site had been completed by a very small number of players, maybe less than ten, often working in specific categories. One prolific runner in the early days almost exclusively played bad (wait, is there another kind?) N64 games, a couple had a large number of NES titles under their belt each, and one player (who was, much later, discovered to have cheated in multiple cases by splicing together different attempts to make a sort of “best possible” run) had records on all of the major entries in the Zelda series.

Their definition of major, not mine.

And the admins had other worries on their plates. In retrospect, these seem like silly growing pains, but there were perceived rivalries with two other websites: Twin Galaxies, and TASVideos (then called “NESVideos”). TG had long been a leader in classic arcade scorekeeping, and as the site expanded to track best times in console games as well, it seemed as if the “official” nature could hinder SDA’s growth. And TG still required video recordings of the playthrough, but these videos were never released by the site, leading to a small number of players who used the site’s scoreboards exclusively in a “save that shit for nationals” mentality, in fighting game terms. This was, of course, their prerogative, but I (and others) felt that it was petty and counterproductive.

The TAS community presented quite a different threat, with many players feeling that the demonstrations of inhumanly “perfect” play presented by its members would cheapen the impact of their own efforts. M2K2’s nate, driven partly by the effects on some of the best Super Metroid players, hoped to make a pre-emptive strike by trying to brand their work with negatively-loaded names. They never caught on, and while at first he was frustrated by the compromise “Tool-Assisted Speedruns” (feeling that “speedruns” should refer only to human performances), he eventually relented. By now, the knowledge base and standards of TAS recordings have risen comparably to SDA’s, to the point where once again the idea that anyone could confuse the two is usually patently absurd, if not for the same reasons as before.

But the steady growth of SDA through the years put all these issues at ease, and a large number of new members, inspired by TSA’s videos, created the first sort of “clique” in non-Quake SDA: the Ocarina of Time community. Which I know nothing about! Still, these became more and more common, and with the increased competitiveness and ability to find tricks, came much higher standards across the board. This had very little to do with my surrender, though: for me, the move from VHS recordings (which nate abhorred due to awful quality and compression artifacts) to DVD was the biggest factor. I decided I’d rather spend the money on new games than invest in, again, hobby equipment. And SDA was almost completely focused on the finished product, still. “Here’s a nice video! The best anyone has ever made, just for you!” The quality was rising, in all aspects, but the core of the site stayed the same. That was fine, but maybe…it just wasn’t right for me?

Then my good friend and then backend site guy Enhasa changed the game. Inspired by high-score boards on similar community websites (shmups, general arcade games, etc.), he presented a new “Casual speedrunning” forum on the site, along with fun “speedrunning tournaments” in which entrants would compete on games selected by him, that hadn’t been run before. He hoped that it would get people playing new games, more games, not just to get The Run (gotta use all this new slang I guess) but to mess around and have a good time. Well-intentioned as it was, it never really ended up working out the way he seemed to intend, but in my mind, it’s a clear point on the line between SDA and Speed Runs Live.

That one! Right there!

You know what?

I love Speed Runs Live.

At least, I do in theory; I don’t race much. Check out that race list and I bet you can figure out some of the reasons why! Point is, it’s a fresh and competitive venue for speedruns, where you’re not trying to beat some video a guy got once out of ten thousand tries. You’re trying to beat that guy right now. I’m also a fighting game guy and just love live performance in general, so really, it’s not that hard to see the connection.

And that leads into the current dominating form of speedruns: live streaming. Like a DVD recorder, I still really haven’t picked up on this facet of everything yet, but streaming has really changed speedrunning more than everything else combined. From the overwhelming popularity of Mario 64 superstar Siglemic, to the charity marathons and connections with other competitive communities (like Josh Ballard‘s ambitious fighting/mystery game tournament+speedrunning marathon Kings of Poverty, streamed by none other than the man Spooky himself), streaming has vastly increased the spectating audience and done some real good in the world at the same time. But from an inside perspective, the thing I find most magical is how it drives home the reality of speedrunning: there is a lot of fucking hard work, dedication, practice and perseverance. Siglemic’s stream monsters get as hype for a “reset” as anything else, which is something I never would have expected. It makes sense, though, if for no other reason than that people love watching it, and a reset means there’s going to be more.

The fact that marathon runs also often run into these randomly unavoidable disasters doesn’t have the same effect, since players just don’t start over to get it right, but there is the same sort of competitive undercurrent that you see in versus events. You’ve got one shot to do your thing, so are you gonna pull it off, or not? The great thing is that it’s still hype either way. Pull off that impossible trick as if it was nothing, and it becomes a legendary moment. Encounter bad RNG or some crazy scenario you’ve never seen before? People love trainwrecks even more!

But what I love most about the marathons is, once again, the “hobby” aspect. Even SRL has some of the cynicism and drama that creep in at times, with players who want to raise their rating scores more than their actual proficiency, for example. But people go to the marathons to share their stuff, play for a good cause, have fun, and most importantly, hang out with some friends. And those are the factors that drive me in anything. Not recognition, popularity, or winnings, but the opportunity to share the results of my hard work, something I’m hopefully proud of, with people I care about and just have a good time. And that’s the same reason I’m wary of “esports” in the fighting game scene. I’m just not that interested in dealing with people who think of these fun and cool things as chores. I’m not saying that there’s a lot of people like that, but it becomes more likely the more ulterior motives there are.

But for a lot of people, SDA is still the heart of the speedrunning scene, despite its slow upload pace. Insanely skilled players like Kryssstal (who has the Link to the Past record) who have streamed amazing runs over and over always get asked, “So when are you submitting to SDA?” And if you just want to watch the single best run, it makes sense. Especially with SRL and events filling the live and competitive niches in various permutations, SDA holding its spot as the record-keeper is only natural.

I don’t mind that it holds the most prestigious spot, and a lot of my best friends in the community are still most closely associated with SDA. But for me, and judging by my conversations with some other people, I’m not the only one who feels this way, these other aspects and having a community interface are worth a lot more. Josh, for example, doesn’t necessarily view himself as especially attached to any community. He once gave me a sports metaphor comparing the two communities, saying that record times are like individual season statistics (which are popular to compare but more “random”) and live events and performances more like full careers (which in many cases say more about who’s better overall). He may have lots of runs up on SDA, but he’s also excited to build interest in the community and events and especially to further the cause of live streaming. The most excitement I see from him is when he’s on his stream, doing marathon/session style practice (where you don’t reset and just go for it) and really interacting with his stream chat. It helps a lot that he plays fairly popular games and has an outstanding personality compared to a lot of speedrun streamers, but to me it just reinforces once again what I think he and I both love most about doing this.

I told you this wasn’t gonna end.

My future aspirations in speedrunning are not to become another “funkdoc,” although I respect and admire what he’s done quite a lot and consider him one of my best friends in the community. (I hope that’s obvious by now.) For starters, I really don’t have the ability to work with people’s nostalgia nearly as much. Like I mentioned, I didn’t grow up with many games (until I was about 13, all we really had was an Atari and Lemmings 1 and 2, which are awesome games but not really that great for speedrunning), and while I’ve certainly developed a soft spot for a lot of old games, particularly Genesis titles, I don’t see any reason to try and ape him other than sheer competition.

Instead, I see myself as much more of a marathon and semi-causal stream type of player if anything. That’s not nearly as simple as it might sound either, but a lot of the potential I see in speedrunning still draws back straight from the younger days of SDA, when every game was fresh and unexplored. It’s not that I want to completely shy away from competition, but I can’t find a whole lot of drive to “catch up” with players who I know love a given game much, much more than I do, whether it’s speedrunning, score-attacking, or fighting.

And my interest in playing semi-poverty doesn’t make the marathons any easier. PJ has made his name in the scene largely by becoming way better at stupefyingly bad games than they have ever deserved, but my alley is more underloved games that I genuinely adore. His strategy is better, not just because pure shock factor plays well in modest doses at marathons, but also because you always run the risk of coming to hate whatever you’re trying to master…unless you already do hate it! As less of a retro gamer, I can’t even really slip in obscure stuff that’s short enough to justify time slots; the shortest runs I’ve ever worked on to any extent were in the vicinity of an hour. ~1% of the time budget doesn’t sound like much, but the competition is just too stiff.

This year, I decided to pick up Devil May Cry 3 for the marathon, but it turns out I wasn’t the only one who realized that despite repeat performances from the first game in the series (and one from its semi-successor Bayonetta, neither of which I like quite as much as DMC3), the title which I assumed to be the most popular in its little sub-genre hadn’t made an appearance yet. We ended up splitting the characters, left to be decided at a donation bidding war, and while I have the good straw in terms of practicing, I’m not sure that I can beat Flicky in a reverse money match. His Bayonetta run and other random commentating went over really well with the crowd last year while my “having never done anything noteworthy in any online community” leaves me as a complete unknown, particularly to spectators.

On the plus side, Vergil is significantly easier to play than Dante, aside from a small number of rooms and situations where his slightly poorer movement really comes back to bite you. And all else failing I can surely get on the bonus stream, where the only real difference is knowing that only 1/5 as many people are watching. But looking towards future marathons, I think if anything my opportunities are going to be in digging up smaller, older games where it’ll be easier to justify time:popularity ratios. It’s true that I’m a bit jaded from knowing Uyama is never going to allow Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter in an AGDQ marathon even though it stands out as a truly stellar, quick and understandable RPG run, but more importantly it’s just exhausting to put in the kind of rigorous practice needed for a marathon on games that take more than an hour to get through all of. And more manageable games also just make better bite-size stream material, like the kind I’m expecting I’d be doing, as I certainly don’t have plans to quit arcade games anytime soon.

Could it really all fit together that nicely? I’m not sure, but I have plenty of time to figure it out. For now, this is a good break point. Next time, I’ll finally actually get around to some of my actual experiences involving speedrunning instead of just talking about related topics!

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2 comments on “Endless High-Speed Running

  1. N64 games #Kappa

    This does really run down, for me, a history of the SDA community very nicely within your experiences. It seems like you are seeking some kind of activity in the gaming community that will light your fires, from what I’m reading. I mean, I guess everyone looks for that through anything, to be fair.

    One thing reading through these posts I’ve realized is that I really don’t know JACK about a lot of games. For one, ABOUT the games at a decent skill level, things I didn’t know existed within the game, etc. Further, games I just don’t KNOW. I’ve only HEARD of Valkyrie Profile and Final Fantasy: Tactics, but never played. In fact, I only heard of Valkyrie Profile when a streamer did it last week. It looked fun, so I… acquired it. Hopefully will make a hefty run through it on Thanksgiving Break. MAYBE I’LL STREAM IT TOO (Lol).

    I think going semi-casual with streaming would be good. I mean, it works plenty fine for others. Get some data about the game out there, show off some stuff, and maybe that’ll drive you to pick up more and learn more about the games you play. Everyone has their niches, and I think you can find yours within that. Give it a try sometime?

    Alternatively, speed run Solitaire. Not the NES version, the Windows version.

  2. spineshark says:

    Yeah, I spent several years during the time period described in this article also just trying to play through as many games as I could. I really felt like I was “behind” some kind of curve, and while I wouldn’t say I’m “caught up” now I’m not nearly as interested in just going through experiences. I know the things I like most and it just makes more sense for me to focus on them than to just emptily consume stuff.

    On that note, hell yes play Valkyrie Profile 1 and 2. 1’s got the awesome anime-norse-mythology-story-about-dead-people and is a totally solid game, while 2 has a pretty bad story, but amazing dungeons and possibly the swaggest combo system of all time. Both games have tons of amazing music and look sweet on their respective systems too. You’re going to want to/have to play 1 more than once, so I recommend starting on Normal and playing naturally, then finding out how to get the “A” ending and playing on Hard. People say that the true ending requirements are really obscure, and I won’t argue that one element would be extremely difficult to figure out alone, but everything you have to do makes complete sense once the plot ties it back together. Really nice game, hope you like it.

    The FFT-looking screens are from the PSP remake of Tactics Ogre, which was originally a Super Famicom game and the predecessor to FFT. I don’t actually know anything about running the game, although I’m pretty sure it would be longer than FFT (which is already like 5 1/2 hours?) since I’m not aware of any real abuses. Archer characters are stupid powerful but can only save so much time. It’s a cool game even if it takes a lot of grinding to get to the juicy secrets (like Deneb as a party member), definitely recommend it if you’re interested in the genre. I just wanted a light, self-explanatory picture to finish the post off with, and the other one was perfect for bookending.

    Pretty sure there’s been Solitaire races on SRL. Especially if you just want to play a silly casual game like that you can almost always find people to race, haha

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