It was a few days after Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart had launched on PS5, and Insomniac Games had a problem. Using a glitch known as the swingboost to gain phenomenal amounts of forward momentum, a small group of players had found a method of tearing this carefully-crafted experience apart, skipping large portions of the game to reach the credits in under 2 hours. While this was great news for speedrunners, it was a problem for the wider player base who were dying after activating the glitch by mistake, and something had to be done.
However, rather than simply patching the issue and moving on, Insomniac took a different route. Before releasing the patch, they reached out to the community over Discord to inform them of their solution.
Listen I dont mean to leak or put this where it shouldn't but having a developer talk to us directly about patches that will effect the speedrun is the coolest thing ever. This was posted in our speedrun discord and yes its real. Insomniac is on a another level. pic.twitter.com/oYBZqe7Mg6
— Mantodea (@MisterMantodea) June 30, 2021
As opposed to fixing the bug, they accommodated speedrunners by adjusting how the trick worked. It was the best of both worlds, turning the issue into an unintentional feature that removed any potential friction for general audiences while continuing to allow speedrunners to exploit the trick in their runs. They even addressed other community complaints, introducing the ability for speedrunners to map cutscene skips to the d-pad and fixing roadblocks for Wrench-Only speedruns.
At first, game developers and speedrunners may seem like odd bedfellows. After all, you have one group that dedicates years of their lives to building a game, while the other is dedicated to breaking that game apart as fast as possible. Yet as streaming has grown to dominate the modern gaming landscape, speedrunning has blossomed from a niche hobby to a massive online community known most notably for the phenomenally-successful Games Done Quick marathons that regularly raise millions of dollars for charity.
Beyond the appeal for developers at seeing the creative ways players have found to enjoy their work in new and exciting ways, social media and streaming have made community outreach for marketing and feedback a crucial component of modern games development. Fans have more direct communication with developers than ever before, thanks to social media. Plus, managing and addressing the expectations of the various dedicated communities that blossom around a game can help generate positive word-of-mouth online and maintain long-term interest in a title beyond its initial launch. But how do you balance a game for a fanbase determined to break it?
“As our QA team would find exploits, we had to ask ourselves what is something we want to fix and what can we leave alone,” explained Grant Parker, a Game Designer on Rift Apart. It’s impossible to address every issue, and leaving a bug intact can sometimes be the better option if it creates more exciting speedrun opportunities.
“We didn’t want a player to accidentally use it and have their playthrough ruined, but we also didn’t want to rain on the parade of speedrunners, so we made it slightly more complicated to pull off. We knew complex inputs and timing aren’t going to stop speedrunners who have much higher input literacy, but it would also prevent general audiences from hitting it. Big shout out to environment artist Matt Graczyk for pushing for an alternate solution, and senior gameplay programmer John Yednock for finding one.”
This effort doesn’t go unnoticed by the community either. This update for Rift Apart was the result of years of dialogue between Insomniac and the Ratchet & Clank speedrunning community stretching as far back as 2016. “A major skip on the Deplanetiser section [of Ratchet & Clank (PS4)] was patched out soon after release,” explained mobius, a long-time Ratchet & Clank speedrunner with world records and top times in Rift Apart, Into the Nexus and more. ‘A few runners at the time reached out to Insomniac via email and Twitter asking whether that patch could be reversed. To the community’s surprise we were able to get noticed by the developers, which eventually led to that skip getting patched back in a few days later.”
Over the years, this rapport between the two groups has only deepened. Many runners noted how developers would often chat and hang out in speedrunning streams, Insomniac would promote marathon events and pool internal donations for charity events like Games Done Quick on social media, all while maintaining a community presence in the speedrunning Discord group. Prior to Rift Apart’s release, Insomniac supported a community-led marathon of the franchise put together to celebrate the game’s release.
“I think our community’s understanding with Insomniac is great,” said Synn, another Ratchet & Clank speedrunner and world record holder in four of the five main categories in Rift Apart. “They love making the games and we love breaking them, and we share a mutual respect for what each other does.”
This isn’t to say that the growing interest of developers in speedrunning is without controversy. The accommodations offered by some studios and creators have put pressure on those who are less supportive, with runners of titles like A Hat in Time expressing frustration when speedrunning-specific tricks have been patched. Then there are the ways in which these developers support their community: where is the line between supporting speedrunners and actively amending your game for a niche audience?
A speedrun is much more than a world record: a completed run is the result of many hours of theorizing and routing by a community of runners with a single goal. As a former runner, part of the appeal of speedrunning was this glitch-hunting and experimentation process, and once developers intervene, their involvement has the potential to take away from the work of a community.
You can see this difficult balancing act manifest itself with Celeste. The game’s success as a speedrun has allowed it to make headlines and remain relevant long after its initial release, and this is partially due to the active involvement of developers in the community. The team has openly discussed how levels and tools were specifically designed with the community in mind, while patches have actively changed how mechanics like demodashes function, making them easier to execute without resorting to external tools. It’s a move some runners have embraced, yet similar patches have also helped to canonise controversial tricks like pause-buffering.
However, particularly for indie developers, embracing speedrunning can broaden a game’s appeal. Hyper Light Drifter developer Heart Machine made headlines for an interview conducted with PLAY Magazine about their latest high-speed 3D platforming game Solar Ash where they called for speedrunners to “break the fuck out of it.”
Explained Alx Preston, Creative and Design Director on the game, “Solar Ash is not explicitly a speedrunning game, but we talked internally about speedrunners at various points, who would want to push the limits of the game. Especially with some of the physics, for instance, we left some small windows and doors open for them.”
They also learned lessons from the Hyper Light Drifter community. “Speedrunning has been a big part of what we discuss. Sometimes just a statement of ‘I liked that movement. Let’s not remove it,’ is enough to influence how the game plays. With Hyper Light Drifter, there were some exploits that were hilariously broken that we never patched. The way we set up going through doors, you could exploit it and bypass huge swaths of levels. We don’t have a lot of doors in Solar Ash, but the ones that are there, I’m sure someone will find a way to break them!”
At the end of the day, refined mechanics and strong game design that’s fun to play (and exploit) will appeal to everyone, speedrunners included. “It seems inevitable that people who are oriented toward speedrunning will take away different things than those that don’t,” concluded Alx. “In Solar Ash, there are enough ambient worldbuilding and story elements that you’ll still get the essence of things even if you’re speedrunning. On the other end, there will be people that care almost exclusively about the story.
“As long as the game has a lasting impact on folks and means something to them, any way of engaging is completely valid.”