2024-01-23: Rambling About AGDQ 2024 and Speedrunning

My Relationship with Speedrunning in 2023

I don't think I kept it a secret that I've been slowly falling out of the speedrunning world. I left Best of NES for various reasons, I felt like Speedgaming kind of packed up and moved on to bigger things without me, my interactions with Edge Case Collective kind of fizzled out, I never really felt comfortable in Power Up With Pride, Handheld Heroes stopped running, and I kind of came to the conclusion that I wanted to chase new and different experiences and deepen my knowledge of the world of game design and writing rather than experience the same game over and over again. Then on top of all of that I had my growing concern that GamesDoneQuick was going somewhere I would not be able to follow.

I've had a weird arm's length relationship for GDQ for years. It's the kind of relationship where people tell you "We're an event for the community and we also do charity" and you believe what they're saying, but in the back of your mind you remember a system is what it does, not what it says. GDQ's system for the past five or six events has been to pump as much cash in the direction of the charity as is possible and sometimes, perceivably, at the expense of the event's presentation and execution. I don't have a problem with this; the charities they support are both super important and hit close to home to me for multiple reasons. However when it comes to places where I feel like I have a community, GDQ isn't it.

I've come out of events seeing the very tiny marks I made on the speedrunning world and saying "Part of that massive charity drive was my doing" and been proud of that. That's kind of the limits of my involvement here. However through the last few events I didn't even feel that. Those events were marred by some major signaling issues including making decisions that amounted to sacrificing a runner's entire run on the marathon in favor of pushing a donation incentive harder. That said, the reality of it is apparently more complex and backroom conversations were had, but the net result is that. I didn't want to be a part of that.

I did, however, participate in a GDQ Hotfix show where I co-commentated a run of The Bouncer last year. So I can't say I was uninvolved in GDQ entirely.

On GDQ and AGDQ 2024

My feedback for SGDQ 2023 was pretty scathing, as was a lot of people's. It felt like the core of the community was being betrayed in the drive to keep those donation numbers up in the face of a declining economy and, frankly, GDQ simply moving out of a phase of rampant growth and expansion and into the next step of its lifecycle. I have a ton of economic and business and marketing and psychology theories here but they're all armchair show-running and not that productive. What I can say for certain is when a business, an organization, or even a concept reaches the end of its growth phase it really has two options on how to proceed: it can graciously accept this, pivot to a long-term sustainability plan, and coast; or it can dig in, try to squeeze out one more good event, then another, then another, and eventually wear itself ragged.

Pushing for every dollar you can to go to the charity is a just goal. It's definitely not something I'd denounce or complain about. There is, however, an issue of short term versus long term goal. As donation take started declining after AGDQ 2022, GDQ staff seemed to double down on trying to get back to the $3m+ figures by pushing even harder on incentives and this had a very visible impact on the quality of the show.

I'd surmised that AGDQ 2024 would be the time GDQ was forced to choose one or the other. GDQ's donation take had peaked, at least for now. The economy wouldn't allow more growth. Where to go from here was a question on the tip of my brain. I think they made the right choice.

It's clear from AGDQ 2024 that they went in with a different idea in mind. They made three major changes that completely renovated the vibe of the event:

  1. They significantly backed away from gating entire runs behind donations. Full run incentives were mostly added categories for games already in the event, declared up front, limited to I think four, and had very accessible goals.
  2. With the "surprise, a bonus run is up but you have to donate for it" ambush gone, tech setup blocks returned to being setup blocks. If the marathon was ahead of schedule, filler content and bonus runs were inserted in them without a donation incentive attached. This kept the marathon on schedule the entire way through; they even had more bonus runs as a result!
  3. They moved to a setup system with two full hardware sets, allowing runs to be set up on stage B while a run was finishing on stage A. This massively slashed setup times. There were technical barriers to doing this before, according to tech staff. They got worked around, so now we have it.

With a lot of the pressure of meeting daily secret bonus run incentives off, hosts relaxed on pushing urgency. Recent GDQs had every daily setup block on the schedule secretly calibrated to hold a bonus run but only if donation goals were met. This resulted in the hours before each bonus run being crowded with the host trying to push the incentive and, in the most dire cases, the marathon being left in the horrible position of missing an incentive for a two hour bonus run they scheduled into the marathon. These incentives were also big, so a lot of hype was needed to push them.

This worked when people could ask each other "Has GDQ ever missed an incentive?" but once that seal was broken, it felt like they began to miss more and more, losing control over their schedule in the process. AGDQ 2024 didn't do any of this.

AGDQ 2024 sprinkled reasonable goals throughout the entire event. Practically every run had some small incentive or bid war. A difficulty upgrade here, a naming bid war there. If you didn't like it you could really just ignore it and it'd slip into the normal churn of the donation reads. This more relaxed approach carried with it the concern that, without the hosts constantly pushing to meet lofty incentives with a sense of urgency, total take would fall. It didn't. Not really.

Throughout the event, total take kept pretty even with last year's AGDQ. Sometimes it'd dip a couple dozen thousand below, sometimes it'd rise above. The trend stayed the same though. Really though the true judge is the final day in which about half of a GDQ's total donations come in. In the final day we did see a pretty lofty pair of incentives, but they were calibrated on total take; not their own incentives: a bonus run at $2m and bonus content in the finale at $2.5m. Both got met, though barely so. These incentives did drive quite a bit of host chatter about them, but even then it was nothing like the late runs of SGDQ 2023. It was natural, it was exciting, it drove investment in seeing if we'd make it and how high we'd go. It felt like AGDQ 2020.

It was, in my eyes and the eyes of many others, the best GDQ in years; possibly ever. I could say ever I think. GDQ had been polishing their operation all along, but the focus on donations kind of hid the amazing technical achievement they'd made in the form of an incredibly smooth marathon when missed incentives, setup blocks disguising bonus runs, and the like didn't ruin their schedule. It showed this time.

Talking Money and Psychology and Charity

The final total was somewhere in the low $2.5m range, which put it about $100k short of AGDQ 2023 and around $900k short of AGDQ 2022. I'd said their change of focus didn't impact donation totals, despite there being a dip. I have a bunch of theories about this and I think there's a lot of levers at play here:

  1. Twitch's own growth has been stalled for the past three years and there are new styles of stream, new streams, and more content versus the stagnant viewer base. Viewer total has taken a hit in stride
  2. Public opinion of GDQ among at least some people has waned a bit. Among what groups and how many people I'm honestly not even sure; there's a lot of loud voices representing small minorities and blowing things out of proportion in that area. Some though
  3. The economy. It seems every group I'm in had some people lose their jobs in the first week of 2024, and the buying power of the average person isn't faring too well either
  4. Bigger problems. If this was a Doctors Without Borders event, I bet it would have done better

This is a lot of rambling to say I don't think the dip was caused by the change in focus. If you look at donation trends, AGDQ 2024 kept more or less the same trend as any other GDQ. We didn't lose a ton of donation take in the final day like you'd suspect we might if you dropped the big splashy incentives.

GDQ seems to have pivoted. I'm hoping what we saw for this recent event was them moving into a sustaining pattern where they aim for $2.5m each round for the immediate future. There will come a time where they can reach to grow again, but that time isn't right now for an entire array of reasons. A comfortable sustaining pattern is the right choice, and made for the most amazing week that put the spotlight on the runners and the game without sacrificing much, if any, of the total take.

This means that, unless the general economy of the US and the world takes a turn for even worse pastures, I anticipate we'll see an SGDQ 2024 that takes in more charity donations than AGDQ 2024 because of who is benefiting from the event and the good vibes coming off this one.

So Where Does This Leave Me?

I came out of AGDQ 2024 rejuvenated on the idea of streaming, and maybe even speedrunning. Where does that leave me? I'm honestly not sure. I'm not in any speedrun groups any more. I fell out of them one by one as my lack of investment in running met with Discord instance culls, drama departures, and community winnowing. I'd like to find some place to plunk down and talk about the hobby again; where though? That's the issue. I guess part of it is determined by if, and what, I decide to run again.

I've wanted to try to route Bubble Trouble for the Atari Lynx for years, but it's such a big intimidating project of such a difficult unwieldy game that I've been hesitant to start. Maybe I will soon. On top of that, Hachiemon never was polished fully; my WR run has some obvious errors in it. Finally someone discovered a new glitch in Kid Niki 2 that I want to integrate into a new faster time. So there's stuff to do.

If I do or not falls to the whims of the day I guess. I haven't had a plan for streaming in years. I just do whatever feels cool at the time. At the moment that's Bahamut Lagoon. After that who knows. I want to play SaGa: Scarlet Grace in preparation for the new SaGa game dropping. Maybe a hybrid schedule? A speedrun day a week? Who knows.

My years typically start properly after AGDQ because I break my sleep schedule during GDQ time anyway. So looking at the start of 2024, I have a lot of ideas, and maybe some time and motivation to actually do them. That's a first over the past few years, so here's hoping.

tags: speedrunning, gamesdonequick