For Many Speedrunners, It's Not About The World Records

Speedrunning is all about going fast, which can mean shattering world records or performing wild feats. But for many players, speedrunning is less about spectacle and more about self-improvement.

From Any%, which seeks to beat a game as fast as possible to the daunting 100% runs that collect every little knick knack, there's all sorts of ways to speedrun a game. Players have raced to destroy all of Mario Kart 64's trees, played for days to fully complete Breath of the Wild, and even tried to see how fast they can get banned from online games. It's all about setting a goal and achieving it.

GrandPOOBear, a speedrunner who focuses on a difficult Super Mario World hack, took up the hobby after a major snowboarding accident.

"I broke my knee," GrandPOOBear told Kotaku over a Discord call. "I broke my back. I had a ton of injuries." Left in extensive recovery, he filled his time with video games. The hobby eventually ballooned into a full-time job as a streamer. "I just decided that I wanted to get really good at one thing," GrandPOOBear said.

For GrandPOOBear, speedrunning isn't just a job, or a way to make new friends. Every new run is a chance for self-improvement: there's always a way to go faster. For GrandPOOBear, the appeal of speedrunning isn't just about getting great times, but also from watching growth over time.

He notes that he recently spent nine hours trying to learn a trick that saves one and a half seconds. Specifically, he wanted to find a way to consistently reach maximum speed in Super Mario Bros. 3's world 4-1. It requires finding the best path through the level while maintaining a breakneck pace.

It's a lot of work for a small improvement long run but it is improvement nonetheless. The repetitive process of practicing doesn't always make for great stream viewing in the moment but can lead to faster runs down the line.

Long periods of practice can eventually lead to stunning results.

"You can set a goal and see immediate results. If you practice, you can see the result and watch yourself getting better. It's a fact," GrandPOOBear said. "In the end, I think the viewers and streamer want the same thing: to see some really great gameplay. That doesn't come without practice, and sometimes that practice has happen during a stream."

Improving times demands a high level of play where players break games, blast through difficult levels, and leap to the top of the leaderboards. The competitive drive can become intoxicating, and the allure of a world record is strong. It can be easy to get lost in the race to become number one. A dazzling world record doesn't just mean bragging rights; it can lead to media coverage and increased viewers or subscribers.

"In the speedrun community there's two kinds of people, those who run for fun and those who run for competition," said Orcastraw, a Breath of the Wild speedrunner. "I think that some people place a little too much emphasis on world records."

Streaming applies social pressure on speedrunners who broadcast on Twitch and YouTube. Players have to juggle their own expectations with those of their viewers. When the legendary "Barrier Skip" was found in The Wind Waker HD runners like gymnast86 sat down for nearly four hours to find a consistent method for performing the trick. It meant slowly positioning Link at the right coordinates and watching him slip, slide, and run in place for hours until he broke through the barrier.

Viewers were eager for a world record run with a Holy Grail glitch but had to wait through hours of testing. Meanwhile, runners were content to experiment with the game. For many runners, the records are exciting but it is the process itself that holds the most appeal.

Runners, like gymnast86, will spend hours learning new secrets.

"I'm looking to enter into my own zone while getting better at the game," Narcissa Wright, one of the world's best known runners, told Kotaku. "I do, however, feel pressure when I stream. I'm really hard on myself in some ways and self judge constantly."

Wright notes that the pressure to remain social while focusing on a run can be stressful when aiming to improve personal bests or perform well.

"Sometimes I have difficulty talking [to chat.] Those moments feel the worst to me," Wright said.

"So much of speedrunning is a mental thing," Orcastraw said. "Managing your distractions and mentality is key for those high performance attempts. Some runners do speedruns offline to avoid distractions."

Orcastraw focuses on expanding her stream's community while chasing personal bests.

GrandPOOBear noted that sometimes, pressure from viewers can spark sessions of "over playing," a phenomenon where streamers crank out runs regardless of enthusiasm or focus. It can lead to burnout and sloppier performance. "Some of us deal with it better than others. At the end of the day, I remember that it's just playing video games fast. There's no real world consequences. This is what I do because it's fun."

The disconnect between a runner's desire to improve and viewers' hopes for the next big run is unfortunate. Speedrunning is full of human stories even when records aren't on the line: last minute taunting against bosses, sudden, run ending glitches, and massive displays of charity.

In spite of this pressure, runners are doubling down to focus on their own self improvement, whether that's faster times or personal growth as an individual.

"It is a source of stability in my life and I am thankful for it," Wright said. "An important thing for me is to be live [on stream] and working towards improvement every day."

"Every time I run, I want to get a personal best," GrandPOOBear said. He recently completed a run in Super Dram World that garnered two world records. "I'm still not done because it's not a perfect run. I know I can do better."


Comments

    Speedrunning is weird.

    I've spent countless hours grinding out operations in Trauma Center to work out how to do them optimally. I've spent countless more hours doing speedruns to put that practice to good use. The result is that I can claim two world records in two niche titles that aren't really contested by anyone. Yeah, I'm the best in the world. It's less impressive when you realise only two or three other people have attempted what I've done.

    For those that haven't played them, the Trauma Center is a series of surgery simulator games where you perform operations on patients with increasingly anime nonsense going on inside them. You start off stitching up someone who had their leg bitten by a crocodile. The final operation involves an eye that has taken over someone's heart and failure will result in bioterrorists destroying the world.

    Now I've hit a weird wall. I took a break from speedrunning to get married and now I'm back at square one. There's a new category in Under the Knife 2 that I want to run called All Operations. You have to beat everything on hard (the any% equivalent is played on normal) and beat the seven bonus X missions (a boss rush mode on an even more absurd difficulty tier).

    Going fast in Trauma Center is all about risk management. You want to do the absolute bare minimum to keep the patient alive. There's a delicate, yet fun, balance to strike. Hard mode destroys that balance.

    So I have a choice: keep going with the category that I'm not enjoying or go back to the other categories that I have little room for improvement. Like I said, speedrunning is weird.

      Considering, as you said, several speed running accomplishments are token at best (of the 'I'm the fastest out of the two people who made the attempt' variety), what do you feel you gain from the experience?

      This is something I don't quite understand about some of the arguments in the article. If it's about self-improvement, doesn't that lose much of its value when you consider that the skills that have been improved are in most cases non-transferrable? Is the accomplishment for accomplishment's sake the primary driver for people here?

      I used to do speed runs a while back, most of them in World of Warcraft. It was a great experience for learning the game mechanics inside out and that helped make me one of the top tanks on my server for years afterwards. But that was a tangible long-term benefit that helped my friends and guildmates as much as it did me. I don't get the sense that figuring out how to glitch through Morrowind as quickly as possible gives a comparable benefit.

      Don't get me wrong, if accomplishment for accomplishment's sake is the goal that's cool. I'm just trying to get a feel for whether there's more to it than that for most people. Momentary fame amongst a relatively small community never really appealed to me personally either.

        Competition, self-improvement and fame are the three main incentives I know about.

        Ultimately, we're talking about playing video games. An activity that is meant to be enjoyable in itself. So, for me, most of this is just getting the most out of something I already enjoyed. So just because the skills are non-transferable doesn't mean they aren't fun to develop.

        Edit: It may help to think of running as a hobby like crochet. While the payoff is getting that PB (or a kickass scarf), if the act itself has to be enjoyable too.

        There are other games out there that are highly contested and even being in the top 10 of the leaderboards is quite the achievement. If you're the competitive sort then I see running those games as being much the same as any other form of competition.

        Then there's fame. People have built careers on Twitch out of being speedrunners. Either they run a high-profile game very well, they run a range of in vogue games (such as running new release games like Prey) or they managed to use a platform like Awesome Games Done Quick to get enough attention to build on whatever they were originally doing.

        Last edited 12/05/17 10:33 am

          "For fun" is the reason that makes the most sense to me. Self improvement in this context seems like a smaller part of having fun, rather than an objective in itself - ie. solving the challenge of beating your previous time is fun. I definitely get that.

          I think what confused me is that self improvement can be a goal in itself, though speed running doesn't seem like it would advance that kind of goal in a meaningful way.

          Thanks for the response, Trjn! Always good to see other perspectives.

            I was taking it as assumed that someone taking part in a hobby found it fun. Everything else follows from there. Doing something purely for the sake of getting better at it is something people do all the time without a second thought.

              A lot of people take part in competitions beyond the point where they're fun any more, so I wouldn't say it's assumed, no.

    You know, it really is fine if people just do it for fun. You don't have to defined by your hobby but media kind of wants us to be.

    I've never gotten into speedrunning, but I can still relate to it. I once spent around two years playing DnD: Shadows of Mystara, trying to get so good with the Thief character that I could complete the game on one credit. I never quite managed it, but reached a point where I knew all the strategies and tactics and it was theoretically possible to one-credit it, if I played perfectly. The best I ever managed was, after a couple of years of practice, completing the game with the Thief, solo, with only one continue.

    Arcade operators must have hated that game, because a full game could last close to an hour (if not more), and its players were generally playing this full length without putting much money into the machine.

      Some of those infinite games were like that. They'd get to a point where they just couldnt get any more difficult, and if you could handle that pace, just keep playing until you fell asleep.

      If you good enough, you could sit on the one 20c game for well over an hour. I remember doing that with Bank Panic back in the 80's just milking the arcades practice of paying a cash prize ($5 or $10 usually) if you broke a games record.

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