Speedrunners And Developers Should Make Peace

What happens when the people who build something beautiful have to watch it break?

Speedrunning is a newer fascination for me. YouTube speedruns have always held my fascination, because everyone wants to see Mario 3 beat in under three minutes, but the larger world of live speedrunning caught my attention while I watched annual speedrun charities like Games Done Quick, on Twitch. Realizing the majesty and the camaraderie of such an experience really put my fervor over the top. But that’s my love of games and how it’s shaped. I wonder, what is it like to be the person who designed and programmed a game, watching as their creation is torn apart, piece by piece? Well, that’s more complicated.

This week, the director of the games Dark Souls reacted to a “no hit” speedrun by calling it an elaborate rumor. He did believe someone had beat the game using a Guitar Hero controller or using crowdsourced commands, but getting to the end of Dark Souls without taking damage was just too silly for Hidetaka Miyazaki to believe.

If you’re a doubter like Miyazaki, the very long Livestream of the event is available to watch.

Why would Miyazaki be inclined to reject the speedrun? Conceptually, after all, it is a little ridiculous. Who has the time and attention span to memorize and disassemble a complex game at this pure level? If you aren’t familiar with speedrunning, the very idea of this type of person seems improbable, especially to a game designer whose livelihood depends on building an unbreakable labyrinth. When you’re tasked with building one of the cruelest contraptions in the history of mankind — the complex and difficult video game — you’re going to take some offense when a player makes your magnum opus look like child’s play.

Not everyone in game design is personally affronted to watch players crack the code. For example, Double Fine and Tim Schaffer brought in the Psychonauts development team to watch speedrunner Stephen “SMK” Kiazyk dismantle their obsessively crafted, and cult-beloved, work.

In the video, speedrunner Stephen “SMK” Kiazyk commends the development team for designing a forward speed-roll, and one of the designers answers happily, “it took us a week to design that!”

That amicable relationship is so great, because the team is clearly hoping to learn from SMK. They actually seem to love watching their project get broken. They are genuinely invested in watching SMK hack their systems and tinker around with the controls they clearly put years of work into. They hand him a number of explanations for why certain elements weren’t programmed into the game, and he appears equally enthused about their connection.

You really want everyone in the games world to react to player exploration like this, but once again, we can’t all be Tim Schaffer.

There are also business-related reasons to take up sides against streamers. Artistic discussions about the concept and strategies are beginning to come from the world of indie games, where projects like That Dragon, Cancer and Undertale casually ask people not to stream the game because it may ruin the narrative and emotional experience for others. And that’s a valid concern, if your game’s appeal is rooted in sensation or a unique experience.

I cannot imagine how much joy would’ve been robbed from me by seeing other people speedrun games I discovered on my own, but on the other hand, speedrunners create a product that is almost impossible to understand, so their strategies and solutions tend to be difficult to observe. This is to say that if I watched a speedrun of Portal, it probably wouldn’t have given me any usable solutions to the puzzles of Portal, though it would have looked cool.

The much bigger speedrun issue runs into the modern nonsense surrounding announcing the “length” of a video game. Amount of playtime is a sticky wicket. Obviously, games will take a different amount of time for each player, but you can gauge approximations — even if that says nothing of the (ugh) “replayability” or how a different play-style may impact this.

No one knows the cost of this better than the team behind The Order: 1886. The game, which probably should have been a launch title for the Playstation 4 instead of a second year release, got absolutely destroyed by a single speedrunner. YouTube gamer PlayMeThrough, whose account was permanently shut down for this, posted a speedrun of the game before its official release.

The plot and gameplay weren’t spoiled, but the game’s possible play time: a dismal five total hours, was. Again, this was a speedrun, but the immediate takeaway for every Twitter account was “How can you charge full retail price for a five hour game?” And with that… The Order was doomed to fail. And truly, that wasn’t fair.

This is a shame. The Order isn’t a great game, but it was a fun launch to a franchise that could’ve been the next Assassins Creed. Since release, people have tried to speedrun it in the nearly-impossible five hours and gamers are starting to re-discover the title as a non-piece of crap.

Maybe it becomes easier to appreciate the internet destroying your artistic baby depending on how long your game has been out. Psychonauts glitching probably wouldn’t have been fun to watch in 2005 when the game was selling poorly, but returning to it as a cult phenomenon is enjoyable for both gamers and developers. The Order was last year, but Dark Souls is five years old at this point, and the first entry in a multi-headed franchise.

Maybe it is time for folks like Hidetaka Miyazaki to ease up a little bit, and make peace with the fact their creation belongs to the ‘net now.