May 25

Album Review- Yes: Time and a Word

Album: Time and a Word
Year: 1970
The Lineup:
Jon Anderson- Vocals
Peter Banks- Guitar
Bill Bruford- Drums
Tony Kaye- Keyboards
Chris Squire- Bass

Have I Heard It Before: Except for the title track, no, though with a caveat: A few songs from this album appear on “The Word Is Live”, meaning I’ve technically heard them, but I couldn’t remember any of them on listening to their studio versions here for the first time.

Love them or hate them, one thing that can’t be denied about Yes is that they’re unafraid to swing big in the service of what they’re going for. It’s a high-risk, high-reward proposition, and when they swing and connect, it’s brilliant.

When they swing and miss, though…look out. In that case, Yes wind up looking like one of those baseball cartoons where the guy swings and misses so hard that the bat, and his arms, wrap around his body (Or the variant where he tornados himself into the ground).

Time and a Word is Yes’s first truly big swing, and the end result…well, remember how I wrote that most Yes fans will tell you to start with The Yes Album, the one after Time and a Word? There’s a reason.

This isn’t to say that the album is wholly without merit. As with the first album, there are two cover songs–“No Opportunity Required, No Experience Needed” by Richie Valens, and Buffalo Springfield’s “Everydays”. As with “Every Little Thing” from the first album, “No Opportunity…” is one of the best things on this album, being a good deal faster and more upbeat than the original. As for “Everydays”, the first two and a half minutes (Like “Every Little Thing”, Yes roughly double the length of the original song) evoke a smoky jazz lounge, which isn’t a bad thing, even if it’s not the first image that jumps to mind when you hear “Yes”.

Yes’s love of stereo effects is also evident on pretty much every song on the album, with instruments either alternating from ear-to-ear (As with the backing instrumentation on “No Opportunity…”), or simply being hard-panned to one side of the other. It’s an album that should be experienced with a decent pair of headphones to get the full effect.

Like the first album, there are signs of where they would end up. The ending of “Then”, with its sparse instrumentation and quiet vocals, seems to be an embryonic form of the type of interlude they would perfect with “I Get Up, I Get Down” from Close to the Edge.

This time around, Yes thought a good idea for adding more flavor to their songs would be incorporating an orchestra. This is the main flaw of the album–the enthusiasm and ambition behind this outweighed their ability to actually write compositions for it. It’s not a total flop–in “Then”, the orchestral accents between vocal lines give the track a James Bond feel, and as a whole tends to work when it’s in the background–but it’s jarring when in the foreground, taking you out of the music rather than adding anything to it. I can see people in 1970 listening to “No Opportunity…” for the first time, thinking “Sweet, another album of psychedelic-influenced rock!”, then hearing the orchestra come in and wondering “What the hell is going on?” It wouldn’t be the last time a Yes album would raise that question.

Sometimes to move forward, you have a take a step back. Time and a Word is a step back from the first album. But it’s less an outright bad album than a frustrating one. A lot of it either evokes things they would later do better–the interlude of “Everydays” calls to mind the barely-contained anarchy of “The Solid Time of Change” but less-developed, besides the already-mentioned “Then” reminding me of another portion of “Close to the Edge”–or reminds me of things from the first album–“Sweet Dreams” is a not-as-good version of “Looking Around”, while the tempo of “Astral Traveler” answers the question of “What if Yes decided to put lyrics to that mid-tempo instrumental section of ‘Harold Land’ before the actual vocals start?” And given that, I would rather listen to those instead.

You can listen to the entire album on Youtube here.

-EE

May 11

Ace of Space

So about a month ago, Radioactive Rat, a streamer who, among other things, runs the SNES game Space Ace on a pretty snazzy cart, was doing a 12-hour stream. Thinking myself clever, I told her that, according to Motörhead, “For a 12-hour stream, the only game you need is the Ace of Space.”

I then wondered if I could expand this goofy parody of a couple lyrics out to the entire song “Ace of Spades”. The below is a minor revision of what I came up with and sent to Radioactive Rat.

If you like good SNES games
You’ve gotta watch the Rat
Running, jumping
Shooting cosmic things
It’s fun to watch her play
Retro stuff all night and day
For a twelve hour stream
The only game she needs
is the Ace of Space
The Ace of Space

Jumping for the high ground
Dodging all the lasers
Going with the scroll
The skill amazes me
Flying through the maze
Disorienting speed
Maze hub takes all your lives
Great old-school game design
The Ace of Space
The Ace of Space

If you play it you lose
Like many other fools
And that’s how Don Bluth likes it baby
All that you’ll see is Game Over
But at least then you can practice!

Grunting as he jumps down
Dies with a “Whoa, far out!”
It makes you weep
‘Cause you moved wrong again
The game stops in your eyes
Then you energize
Though Dexter is a dork
He’ll transform and beat Borf
The Ace of Space
The Ace of Space

I have some ideas for other speedrun/Twitch-related parodies too. Who knows if anything will ever come of them, though.

-EE

May 06

Ninja Gaiden II Speedrun Tournament Thoughts

Putting this here instead of a PasteBin because, what the heck, I’m paying for a website, I might as well use it.

Some thoughts on the Swiss rounds of the recent Ninja Gaiden II speedrunning tourney:

(A brief note that when I say “the tournament”, I mean “The Swiss portion of the tournament”. I’m aware we still have Top 8 to go as of this post, but this feedback concerns the Swiss portion)

tl;dr version: Swiss can definitely work for speedrun tournaments, even for longer games with some massaging. It would have to be done carefully, though. This one was pretty darn great, despite some issues.

First of all, I’m familiar with how Swiss works from my days playing the WWE Raw Deal card game. That said, I didn’t pop in on this particular tournament until midway through the Swiss rounds (So round 3 or 4).

On Swiss in general:

  • It’s great for separating the cream of the crop from everyone else (This also works on the opposite end). It’s less good at reliably separating out the middle–you wind up with a bunch of people with roughly .500 records, due to the design of Swiss.
  • It ensures the tournament more-or-less always remains exciting for the competitors, at least in theory. Besides the mish-mash in the middle where you typically have multiple people fighting for the final few “playoff” spots, the idea behind Swiss is that everyone continually gets matched up with people of roughly their skill level, as indicated by their records to that point. This works for the audience as well, as the matches should always be close (Sinister noted that they only had to switch featured races due to a blowout in one round).
  • It does require a bit of time investment on the part of the competitors, especially if you want to try and get it all out of the way in a single day. As a side effect of how Swiss works, the tournament is effectively halted until an entire round completes. Contrast with a single or double-elimination tournament, where one “straggler” doesn’t slam the entire tournament to a halt, at least at first.

Now, some thoughts on this specific tournament, and whether Swiss can work for speedrunning tournaments in general:

  • I think, as Sinister previously said, the answer to the question “Can Swiss work for speedrunning tournaments?” is a resounding “yes”. However, that doesn’t make it the automatic best choice across the board, as he notes.
  • The main thing to consider is “Are you trying to get the entire Swiss round out of the way in a single day?” While the NGII tournament answered that question with “Yes”, I don’t think that has to be the answer. If the answer is “yes”, though, you’ve restricted yourself to games in the neighborhood of a half hour long, max. Doing a Swiss tournament over multiple days would be more difficult (Someone not getting their match done in a timely fashion/being removed mid-tournament has more of an effect than it would in a more “traditional” tournament, where you just remove the person and anyone in that person’s “path” effectively gets a bye. In Swiss, a removal kind of screws everyone who played the removed person due to how tiebreakers work, through no fault of the people who got matched up with the “straggler”), but not impossible if you have participants who are truly committed to getting games played–just run it like the Mystery Tournaments do, where you have a specific range of days to complete your match.
  • Having your Swiss round spread out over multiple days would also help mitigate what is probably the biggest challenge for commentators–striking a balance between helping people unfamiliar with the game without being repetitive for those who tune in from the start. The shorter the game, and the more rounds your tournament is, the bigger this issue. I think Sinister and Duckfist did a fine job of handling this in this tournament specifically, by telling some of the “stories” of the featured racers.
  • Sinister noted that the event lasted longer than he would have liked due to various issues. The main thing, to me, was actually that the tournament went 1 round too long. In most Swiss tournaments, the general rule is 2^x = N, where N is the number of participants rounded up to the next power of 2, and x is your number of rounds. So with 30 people, there should have been five rounds, not 6 (The idea being at the end, you’ll have one person with an X-0 record).
  • Another potential reason that the event ran long from what I saw was the desire for multiple featured races in a round, which meant that some races didn’t start until after others were finished. While I don’t necessarily agree with the “Too many featured races” critique, if the primary goal of a future tournament is simply “End it as quickly as possible” as opposed to “Showcase as many runners of varying skills as possible”, having everyone start a round at the same time would be preferable, and doable.
  • Going back to my point about Swiss separating the cream of the crop from everyone else, I’ll note that 7 of the top 8 seeds advanced to the Top 8, and the 8th person was still firmly in the upper echelon of entrants, seeded 11th out of about 30 people. I think this shows that the system does work–people claim to love a Cinderella story, but they generally get pretty annoyed with anyone but “their” Cinderella story making a deep run. In that sense, I think this portion of the tournament is a definite success.
  • I’m a bit confused about the comment regarding seeding in subsequent rounds. A brief note on Swiss: Round 1 is seed-based. Round 2 then consists of 1-0 v. 1-0 matches, and 0-1 v. 0-1 matches. Round 3 continues in this pattern as reasonably as possible without repeating past matches (So 2-0s play 2-0s, 1-1s play 1-1s, 0-2s play 0-2s). This pattern continues for the remaining rounds. What I’m guessing is that within that framework, Sinister and the other organizers had the highest-seeded 1-0 play the lowest-seeded 1-0, and so on. I’m not sure how big of an issue this really is, particularly in light of the previous point.

Still, overall, I’d say it was a big success from a viewer standpoint. Basically every race was exciting, and I enjoyed the interviews too. I’d definitely like to see more tournaments use the format.

-EE

(EDITED to fix typos 5/6/16)

Jan 30

Speedrun HOT TAKES! Post-AGDQ2016 Edition

Disclaimers: This will jump from subject to subject. Also, a confession: The organization leading up to AGDQ 2016 rubbed me the wrong way to the point I watched a total of probably one minute of the actual marathon “live”. From what others have said, the event itself went very well despite the terrible organization leading up to it, and I’ll take their word for it, not knowing enough to say differently. Finally, I’ve e-mailed some of these thoughts to GDQ staff already; the parts I’m comfortable making public will re-appear here.

Most of my frustration concerned the lead-in to the event. While I like all of the GDQ staff as people, the person who said “GDQ LLC isn’t a corporation, it’s a bunch of people playing at being a corporation” was right on. And to be honest, while I hope he does make a full recovery, I lay an at-least-equal share of the blame for that at Mike’s feet for failing to come up with a proper contingency plan. The proper move here was, after AGDQ 2015, for Mike and a few people he trusted to sit down, and for him to say “Okay. Let’s all hope I’m back before too long, but for now, we need to assume the worst: that I’m out of action for the long-term. Here’s what needs to get done, here’s how to do those things, and here are the people I want to do them.” Instead, what happened was that the plan put into place was “Wait for Mike to get better”, and this plan was followed right up until it became clear doing so would result in there not being an AGDQ 2016. Then Cool Matty became the leader basically by default. Similarly, making Sumichu the “messenger” for the selection committee when she had no actual power to influence the decisions (1) was fair to no one–this led to a situation where she was forced to deal with everyone being upset over their game being cut, but couldn’t do anything about it other than say “Sorry, I feel for you”. No one was surprised when the staff missed their deadlines for setting the schedule–compressing the process and starting it way later than usual (For context, AGDQ 2015’s submission process began in August 2014. AGDQ2016’s process? Started in October.) was inviting disaster, and their track record to that point with Mike leading was not great–but the lack of preparation showed when the staff tried to blame the delay on “Unforeseeable circumstances”. I’m sorry, but “The guy who has been sick for months and months is still sick” is the exact opposite of “unforeseeable”.

The good news is that things seem to be getting better on this front. Now that Matty knows “Okay, looks like I’m the leader for the long-term”, he seems to actually be stepping up and making changes. And I like a lot of the changes being made. Some of these include:

  • Not publicizing decisions about accept/reject until the submission process is over. I hope this extends to actually not making decisions about the games until said process is over, and ideally randomizing the order the decisions are made in (A big problem I have with the process is possible subconscious bias, especially in light of the staff claiming early submissions won’t help your chances. They parrot this, but I’m not sure if they know whether it’s actually true or not, and they seem resistant to finding out for whatever reason), but this is a big step.
  • Getting rid of the Salt-o-Meter on the website. It was a cute joke in 2013, when the community (2) was smaller than it is now. It’s needlessly antagonistic in 2016. Or, put another way, how are you not supposed to take a rejection personally when the Games Done Quick website itself all but demands that you do by naming its progress meter after being needlessly/excessively upset about something?
  • Publicizing a few members of the committee, and as importantly, removing “Final say” powers from Mike. Even pre-the existence of the committee (And speaking as, I guess, an “oldboi”–do I still count as one even though I haven’t had a game accepted in three years?), Mike tended to say of a lot of potential submissions, “I’ve never played this. It looks like it’s boring and a bad marathon game”, as though the first influenced the second. More recently, at least one person has been discouraged from re-submitting their game after it was rejected once, feeling that Mike and his “final say” was just going to reject it anyway no matter how much the rest of the committee loved it. Removing Mike’s disproportionate influence on the process also prevents it from being a bottleneck in the future. Similarly, publicizing a few members of the committee is a much-needed step toward transparency, which has been an issue in the past.
  • Actually having a contingency plan besides “Pray the leader doesn’t get sick or otherwise incapacitated, because we’re screwed if s/he does”. From my understanding, this is a work in progress, but progress is being made, and that’s good. The changes to the selection committee will help that process continue to run smoothly in the future, and similar measures should be taken on the rest of the GDQ-related functions–liaising with sponsors, the hotel, etc.

I realize I’m bashing Mike quite a bit here, which isn’t my intention. I like him, and I hope he makes a full recovery and gets back to leading GDQs soon, as they are his “baby” after all. But he has strengths and weaknesses, like anyone does, and taking one of these weaknesses away from him would allow him to better focus on his strengths. Also, while it’s a day hopefully far in the future, if he wants GDQ LLC to truly thrive, he needs to envision the day “GDQ LLC Minus Mike Uyama” comes to be.

On Threats And Enforcement

I’ll readily admit I go back and forth on this (Or, less kindly, I flip-flop on this issue). Awhile back, I wrote a pastebin opining Kollin shouldn’t have been banned for making a stupid joke (Just in case I didn’t say it enough times in the Pastebin, I’m not defending what he said at all, nor do I think it was in the slightest bit funny. I just don’t think the punishment for “making an unfunny joke” should be “banned from GDQs”.), which I stand by. On a personal level, I’m not a fan of “security theater” where people go about banning this and that to make people feel safe without making them actually safer (Applying it to a “threat” such as I discuss above: If the threat isn’t serious, the person wasn’t going to do anything, so banning the person really accomplishes nothing except, maybe, teaching them not to make unfunny jokes. If the threat is serious, I doubt banning them from the event is going to stop them without additional measures.).

And yet. Naegleria asked about a week back on Twitter if every single threat, even sarcastic ones, should be grounds for being banned from GDQs. And while I think the answer is “no” (See above Pastebin), on an intellectual level, I understand why most threats end with banning, even if it’s not the decision I would have made. The consequences of taking someone seriously when they were joking are “You ban that person and annoy them, and maybe some of their friends.” The consequences of deciding someone was joking when they were actually serious are, well, potential loss of life.

The issue here is striking a balance between “Protecting the GDQs” and “Policing the Internet”. A complicating factor here is what I believe to be a new trolling strategy this year. The strategy can be summed up as “Trolls bait someone into saying something stupid. Trolls then report that to GDQ staff, not out of genuine concern for the event’s safety, but to continue trolling, getting their victim banned because they’re aware GDQ takes a hard-line approach to threats.” And yes, people will argue “Then the victim shouldn’t have taken the bait.” But I’m hugely uncomfortable with any kind of strategy that amounts to “The victim should shut up and take it” as opposed to putting the onus on assholes to not be assholes. It’s a difficult balance, and one I’m glad I don’t have to strike (Lost in the Pastebin was that, while I don’t think Kollin should have been banned, I do think the decision to do so was defensible [My instinct was actually to agree with the banning, until I took a step back and asked myself “Wait, what does the ban actually accomplish?”], and that was pretty far down on my list of “WTF” moments in terms of GDQ leadership leading up to the event).

On The Game Selection Process In General

If I had to sum up the game selection process as I see it, it would be “While GDQ selections are not a straight popularity contest, you do have a leg up if you and/or your game are popular.” I also think that the committee privately weights popularity higher than they’re comfortable admitting in public, though I of course have no way of proving that. And I’m okay with this–I think of the GDQs nowadays as being “A charity event that happens to primarily use speedrunning as its moneyraising vehicle” as opposed to “A speedrunning event that also happens to be for charity”.

I think, as much as I love it and hope it comes back every GDQ, the transition point for this was Tetris the Grandmaster at AGDQ2015. While there is a speed component to the game, I didn’t get the impression that the players were psuhing the time to its absolute limit (Especially during some of the demonstrations like the Doubles Mode) like you’d see in a more traditional speedrun. Granting, part of this is the extreme difficulty of the game itself, but just “trying to beat a time limit”, while “speedrunning” in the technical sense (By which I’ve been “speedrunning” since about 1992, when I tried to get the best ending in Metroid II…segmented), but not in the sense that you think of when you think “GDQs”.

An observation: The biggest speedrunning “stars” also tend to be the ones who burn out the fastest. As such, it makes sense to constantly seek out and cycle “new talent” into the GDQ pool, because you don’t know if your mega-star from one year will even still be speedrunning the next year.

Overall though, I have hope for the future of GDQs. Cool Matty acknowledged that him, or someone, taking the reigns sooner than he did leading up to this past AGDQ would have alleviated a lot of the issues we saw. Now that he’s actually going to be the leader from the start, I can see the steps actually being taken to improve the event. Actually getting the charity topic up when he said it would be (Late in “the next week”, admittedly, but still in the next week–last year, or a year and a half ago, Friday would likely have brought “Sorry, due to unforeseen circumstances, we’re delaying the charity topic by another two weeks”) is a small but important step in showing that the staff are serious about walking the walk, and not just talking the talk.

(1) The question of whether Sumi should have influence in the process is a separate one. For my money, while I’d want the majority of the committee to have experience speedrunning games of various genres, I do think one person or two with a non-speedrunning/”outsider’s” perspective is valuable in cases like these, to prevent the selections from becoming too insular, or keep the whole thing from being too much of an insiders’ cool-kids-only club. Similarly to how a non-speedrunner watching your stream will sometimes point out obvious things that you, in your speedrunning mentality, glossed over, a non-speedrunner having selection influence can bring a new angle that everyone else misses, but which turns out to be really good idea. One example: I would never have guessed Dr. Mario would have been a good speedrun game, yet Essentia’s run of that was one of my personal highlights of Classic Games Done Quick.

(2) To the extent that there was just “the speedrunning community” and not “A bunch of smaller speedrunning communities that gather together a couple times a year for GDQs” even in 2013. Note that I still regard AGDQ2013 as “The Identity Crisis GDQ”, where we collectively tried to hold on to “The CGDQ Feeling” one marathon longer than was feasible in hindsight.

-EE

(Edited to correct some typos/take out some redundant words at about 11:55PM EST 1/30/16. Nothing about the substance of what I said before was changed)

Jan 14

Album Review- Yes

Album: Yes
Year: 1969
The Lineup:
“John” Anderson- Vocals
Peter Banks- Guitar
Bill Bruford- Drums
Tony Kaye- Keyboards
Chris Squire- Bass

Have I Heard It Before: No

Ask a more “casual” Yes fan where to start with their catalog chronologically, and most will point you to 1971’s The Yes Album, their third. Reviewers tend to agree–Pitchfork Media isn’t a Yes-friendly outfit in the best of times, but they wrote “Feel free to forgo the band’s first two albums with guitarist Peter Banks (we did) […]” when reviewing the 2004 Rhino Remasters of their catalog. That sentiment seems to extend, somewhat, to even the band themselves. Tellingly, the US edition of The Ultimate Yes 35th Anniversary Collection has the title track to their second album, “Time and a Word”, as the sole representative of their pre-Yes Album output.

This hindsight look at the band’s earliest days–a sentiment that tends to be common among any long-running band (Rush’s Neil Peart once remarked that if you wanted to consider 1981’s Moving Pictures–Rush’s eighth studio album–to be their first, he’d be fine with it. Def Leppard and the Red Hot Chili Peppers also disown their respective first albums)–makes the liner notes of their debut, 1969’s self-titled album (Not to be confused with The Yes Album that I mentioned above), funny to read nowadays. Those notes are essentially a hype job by Tony Wilson, then a writer for the British magazine Melody Maker. In them,he discusses how Yes were one of his two picks (The other being Led Zeppelin) for bands that would “make it” in 1969. He notes how they put on superior live shows, and states that “it all shows on this, their first album”. But does it really?

With the benefit of hindsight, the answer is “Kind of.”

Unlike some other bands’ debuts (Rush’s first album is essentially Led Zeppelin-Lite, and gives very little indication that they would become what they did), the signs of where Yes would end up a few years later are there. The vocal harmonies are there from the start, although they sound a bit different than what I was used to. This is probably due to the presence of guitarist Peter Banks; the backing vocals of Chris Squire and Steve Howe (Who would join the band between Time and a Word and The Yes Album) are a vastly underrated component of “Yes vocals” as a whole. Similarly, some songs, notably “Harold Land” and “Survival”, show hints of where the band would travel musically, with intros that have little to do with the meat of the songs themselves. And a line like “Survival’s “An egg too proud to rape the beginning of a shape of things to come That start the run, life has begun, fly fast the gun” is so obviously a Jon Anderson lyric (Credited in the liner notes as “John” Anderson, as he hadn’t yet adopted the “Jon” spelling) even at this early stage that it’s funny.

At the same time, though, this is a band still finding its footing and figuring it out. The album features two covers of songs from Yes contemporaries–“I See You” by The Byrds, and “Every Little Thing” by the Beatles. It’s telling that, for my money, these are also the two best songs on the album. “I See You” becomes a more jazz-rock number, while “Every Little Thing” is transformed into something altogether different from the Beatles original. It also features the band trying too hard to be clever, as they insert a few measures of “Day Tripper” before getting into the lyrics of “Every Little Thing” (Trying too hard to be clever is something I can appreciate). The album as a whole is also covered in that 1960s organ sound that I most strongly associate with The Doors. In short, it’s an album of its time, moreso than some later Yes releases.

Of the original tracks, “Harold Land” is probably my favorite. It starts out upbeat, in stark contrast to when the main portion of the song, which is about a man who goes off to war and is forever changed by it, kicks in. “Looking Around” is another fun track that shows off Yes’s burgeoning vocal harmonies.

In all, the first Yes album isn’t bad, by any means. But unless you’re a Yes completionist, it’s also not essential on its own (Though I will note that the price of the box set works out to about $4 an album, which is a steal). If you like 60s organ, or bands with obvious potential that haven’t yet realized said potential, then go ahead and grab it, but otherwise, you aren’t missing out.

Dec 29

Yes! Yes!

One of the items I received for Christmas was the Yes Studio Albums 1969-1987 Box Set. While I would say my musical taste was more-or-less fully-formed by the time I really “discovered” Yes in college, I do like a lot of the Yes that I’ve heard, and they were an important, if indirect, influence on my bass playing via Rush’s Geddy Lee being heavily influenced by Chris Squire of Yes.

So I figure this will be a great way to A. Get into the Yes albums I haven’t heard, and B. Find some time to sneak in some writing as well. Periodically, I’ll be writing up a kind of album review of each of the albums. I haven’t decided the schedule for this yet, but I figure with twelve albums, one for each month of 2016 seems like a good target to aim for.

First though, a little bit about the set itself. The set contains 13 CDs spanning 12 albums (Tales From Topographic Oceans is a double album), from 1969’s self-titled debut through 1987’s Big Generator. These are included in sleeves that contain miniature versions of the original album artwork. Also included are the bonus tracks included on the remasters of the albums Rhino Records did in the early 2000s–this actually marks the first time the Big Generator bonus tracks are available in the US. Unfortunately, the cool expanded retrospective liner notes from those remasters didn’t make the jump to this set. The box artwork is by Roger Dean, the artist most associated with Yes, and there’s also a small poster included with the set with art by Roger.

Given that I already have about half the albums in the set (The ones I owned prior to this: Fragile, Close to the Edge, Tales From Topographic Oceans, Going For the One, and Drama), I think noting whether or not I’m listening to the album for the first time would be a good idea. I’ll also note if there are any particular bonus tracks that catch my ear (I’m a sucker for behind-the-scenes anything, and a lot of the bonus tracks fall into that early version/studio walkthrough/rehearsal kind of space), but I won’t factor them into the reviews of the albums themselves.

So this should be fun!

-EE

Aug 16

On Super Meat Boy as a Get Yourself Speedrunning Game

This past Saturday was the second SGDQ Get Yourself Speedrunning race. The game was Super Meat Boy, and this was only the second GYS race I’ve entered overall (The first was the post-AGDQ Link to the Past Master Sword race, which was also the largest Speed Runs Live race ever).

I finished pretty solidly in the middle of the pack in this race, which was actually an improvement, percentage-wise, over my ALttP finish. This was probably due to the fact that I actually practiced Super Meat Boy before the race, as opposed to the ALttP race, where I opted to play Streets of Rage instead. I even ended up on the featured stream for a time!

After I finished, I headed over to the featured stream, where SpikeVegeta mentioned that some people had questioned the wisdom of having Super Meat Boy as a GYS game.

I would just like to say that I loved Super Meat Boy as a choice.

First off, I just really like Super Meat Boy in general. It’s incredibly difficult, but it never feels unfair or cheap in the way that, say, I Wanna Be the Guy and its ilk are. You can see everything that’s going to kill you before it does so, and you’ll die a bunch anyway (In my first 106% [The maximum percentage in the game] playthrough, I died over 9000 times according to the Statistics screen). The levels are punishing, especially later on, but they’re also short, which is a perfect combination for addictive, “just gotta beat one more level” type marathon sessions.

That isn’t the reason I loved the game as a GYS choice, though. I love it because speedrunning can seem intimidating to the outside world. Indeed, it’s essentially an entirely different way of playing a lot of games (I’ve mentioned that I don’t think I could ever speedrun Earthbound, because in doing so, I’d skip right over a lot of the charm and thought the developers obviously put into it). The purpose of Get Yourself Speedrunning is to remove this intimidation factor as much as possible, and to show people that you’re invited to speedrun/race regardless of your skill level (Part of the fun of GYS races is, as Spike said sometime during the featured stream, that it humanizes some well-known speedrunners and shows that they didn’t just instantly acquire world-record level skill). Indeed, in the race results, you can see the progression from the absolute top-tier runners, to the people who clearly ran the game, down to the people who obviously had previous experience with it even if they had never done “speedruns” of it before (I did a couple runs the night before the race, and had beaten the game 106%, though not quickly, before that), and finally to the people who were playing the game for the first time. Of the 85 racers, 79 completed the game.

And that, to me, is why Super Meat Boy was an excellent GYS choice. Super Meat Boy has a reputation as being incredibly difficult (One that is earned, I’d say). But including it as part of a series designed to get more people into speedrunning is a genius move precisely because of it’s reputation. Effectively, what’s being said with the choice is “Look! Speedrunning is fun! Even games you would think would be way too hard to speedrun are totally doable!” The game has been featured at numerous Games Done Quick events, and the fact that the PC version (The faster version) is incredibly finicky to get working is a part of why it hasn’t been featured even more. But there was a time when people would have laughed if you had suggested it for an GDQ, because it was thought to be too marathon unsafe. Only six forfeits in this race shows that even difficult games are very runable.

-EE

Jul 04

Why Do Speedrunners Say RNG Instead Of Luck? A Theory

On the speedrun subreddit, someone began constructing an “SGDQ Bingo” website, and asked for suggestions. There were two in particular I found amusing:

  1. A speedrunner says “RNG” instead of “luck”.
  2. That speedrunner then has to explain what “RNG” is, because they couldn’t just say “luck”.

I’ll admit to being as guilty of this as any speedrunner. Indeed, I’m aware of the absurdity of it–my spiel when I say “RNG” while running Metroid II is along the lines of “If you don’t know, ‘RNG’ stands for ‘Random Number Generator’, it’s basically what determines luck in your speedrun. But we’re speedrunners, so we can’t just say ‘luck’.” And yet I still say RNG.

Why is this? Why do speedrunners insist on using an alternate term when “luck” is perfectly adequate and gets the point across? I think there are two main reasons for this:

  • One reason is that there are numerous cases, especially in RPGs, where the RNG can be manipulated. There’s an obnoxious, but technically correct, copypasta that sometimes floats around that can be summarized as “RNG should really be called PRNG (Pseudo-Random Number Generator), since nothing in computers is truly random.”. Disregarding semantics, if you can manipulate the RNG (Luck), you can eliminate it as a factor. One non-speedrunning example of this is the North American version of Final Fantasy V Advance; by saving and reloading, you reset the list of encounters, which you can use to guarantee the encounter you want.

    But Note that even TASVideos, which can manipulate the RNG of a game to literally inhuman degrees, calls this Luck Manipulation. I think there’s another reason speedrunners don’t just say “luck”, and it relates to a phenomenon that can be applied to sports in general:

  • Speedrunners don’t want to admit how little they’re really in control.

Indeed, in any competitive endeavor, even all-time greats need some luck to achieve their ultimate goal. Most recently in the NBA, the Golden State Warriors, by advanced metrics a historically great team, nonetheless got lucky that A. They didn’t have to play either the Los Angeles Clippers or the San Antonio Spurs, and B. That the Cleveland Cavaliers were reduced to “LeBron James and Eleven Replacement Level Players” after game 1 of the Finals (And the LeBron Show still took two games from the Warriors before he ran out of gas). Moving to American Football, the 2007 New England Patriots were an absurd helmet catch away from completing the greatest season in NFL history; before that, though, they got lucky to remain in a position to make the attempt. If not for a terribly-timed timeout from their opponents in their 12th game, they would have entered the Super Bowl with a 17-1 record instead of an 18-0 one. Going back a ways, the 1985 Chicago Bears, one of the greatest teams in NFL history, were fortunate to avoid the Miami Dolphins (The one team that beat them that year, and did so decisively) in the Super Bowl when the Patriots beat the Dolphins in the AFC title game. They were further lucky that the Patriots coaching staff decided to run the same game plan as the Dolphins did, but neglected the part where the Dolphins had an all-time great quarterback (Dan Marino) with a skillset uniquely suited to taking advantage of the relatively less-awesome parts of the Bears defense.

It’s the same with most speedruns. For better or worse, “World Records” are currency in the speedrun world today. And for many of the most popular/well-optimized games, just being the best at your game in terms of skill isn’t enough (The role of “skill” in a speedrun could be a whole other topic)–if the game doesn’t want to cooperate with you, you’re probably not getting that coveted “WR” (For one example, if Phantoon doesn’t cooperate in Super Metroid, it basically doesn’t matter what happens before or after it–say goodbye to that record run.).

So my thoughts on why speedrunners can’t just say “luck” is that it’s a coping mechanism, a way to deny its power and influence on “the run”. By calling it “RNG”, speedrunners can avoid confronting how big a role luck actually plays in getting a good time.

-EE

Jun 14

The Future of Speedrunning and Streaming

Following up a bit on my previous post.

One thing that’s important to clarify that informs a lot of where people fall in the debate on “What comes next” is “What constitutes ‘Square One’?” I define it as “Those streamers have absolutely no skills that are useful in a non-streaming(1) context”. As such, I obviously disagreed with the position that that’s where big-time streamers would be five to ten years from now, which I mentioned in the previous post. Others define it as simply “The streaming money train has pulled away from the station and it’s not coming back”. I’ll admit that’s a possibility in the next several years, although I think it’s far from a certainty.

I will also note that I intentionally didn’t draw a distinction between speedrunners and other streamers in the previous post–besides the fact that people go fluidly back and forth between speedrunning and not ([nosrl] is a tag for a reason), if a large scale streaming crash happens, everyone, speedrunner or not, is going to feel the effects.

A conversation about the future of speedrunning specifically is a conversation worth having (Maybe an “SDA Roundtable” or something like you’d sometimes see leading into GDQs). So let’s go there.

First, I think that speedrunning is probably, if not at its peak in terms of viewership, approaching it–while part of it was a broken tracker not listing all the donations (Those things tend to snowball), AGDQ2015 “only” raised ~55% more than AGDQ2014, the slowest year-on-year growth to date from a percentage standpoint. I also think that certain pillars of speedrunning–Mario 64, Ocarina of Time, etc.–are nearing their theoretical limit. New discoveries are always possible if not inevitable, of course, but that can only last for so long. Plus, the improvement in popular categories in Mario 64 will be limited by that pesky “Having to grab the stars” thing. For the GDQs, I don’t think that will matter too much–it amuses me how the “outside” attitude of Mario 64 in GDQs has gone from “We are going to rain hatred on anyone Not-Siglemic for playing Mario 64 regardless of the actual quality of their run” to “But how can you possibly not have Mario 64 in a GDQ it’s an institution by now!!”–but it will definitely have implications for the larger speedrunning streaming community and its popularity.

So where does speedrunning go in the next several years? I see one of two paths:

The first is what would be the result of the inevitable passage of time–a new generation of runners emerges, with different “nostalgia” reference points than those of the current big-name runners. Instead of Nintendo systems, their love is for the Sony/Microsoft consoles, and the next Narcissa/Siglemic/AdamAK/(Insert Other Mega-Popular Speedrunner Here) in terms of celebrity isn’t known for Mario or Zelda, but for, say, Little Big Planet, Ratchet & Clank, Uncharted, Mass Effect, or another franchise from those systems.

The second possibility is that the community(2) begins to move away from its obsession with World Records and toward a more competitive/race-centered mindset. Those iconic speedrunning games retain their status, but the “best” runners are determined by who consistently gets low times in race/no-reset situations, as opposed to who has the “World Record” (To the extent that these are different). I honestly don’t think this would automatically be a bad thing, though I bet that’s a minority opinion. “Playing through games […] skillfully […]” is part of SDA’s slogan, but adapting to non-optimal RNG and recovering from mistakes to still post a good time is, to my mind, a better indication of skill than resetting a million times waiting for the stars to line up for “THE RUN!”, even if “THE RUN!”‘s time is lower. To some degree, with the increase in races at GDQs, we may be seeing this already, although that’s countered by the fact that Speed Runs Live activity, while still plenty healthy, is down compared to last year.

Regardless, I think that popularity-wise, speedrunning is here to stay, but as a bunch of sub-communities focused around specific games–there won’t be a “monoculture” based around SDA, or even SRL. Whether this stays in the streaming/Youtube realm, or moves on to another medium, I can’t say.

I’m curious as to what everyone else thinks about this, though. Feel free to tweet at me or leave a comment here with your thoughts.

-EE

(1)- I say “non-streaming” instead of “non-Twitch” because, while Twitch are currently the dominant player in the video game streaming world, that could change.

(2)- To the extent that “the community” even still exists today in a cohesive form, and not as a bunch of smaller communities that occasionally get together under one banner.

Jun 09

On Life After Streaming Big

First, a disclaimer: I am someone who has tried and failed to Stream Big. This probably colors my thoughts on this issue.

In any event, last night on Twitter, speedrunner Vorpal made a series of Twitter posts expressing concern for people trying to make a living off of streaming. It ended with this tweet. Being me, I have some thoughts on this.

First off, the bigger issue to me is that sites like Stream Big (Which I’m a fan of, despite some of the things I’ll be mentioning here) downplay some aspects of streaming. First off, as I mentioned in reply to Vorpal, streaming is like any other “creative” pursuit (And yes, I’m aware I’m stretching the definition of “creative” here) in that you can do everything “right”, but you still won’t make it to a point where you can make any money at all out of it (Let alone enough to make a living) without a healthy dose of luck. Stream Big and related sites are great, and give a lot of sound advice, but just following them blindly won’t be the automatic path to streaming superstardom that some seem to think.

Another frustrating aspect of streaming is this: Essentially, a person streams so that they can be noticed by other people. While not all streamers want the kind of relative popularity that comes with, say, MAN vs. GAME, a streamer, in the back of their mind (If not the front), wants people to see their stream. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t stream–it’s a lot easier not to buy the equipment, take the time to set up, and so on, if you’re only going to be playing for yourself. Yet admitting this, for a long time, wasn’t allowed in the streaming world–even now, asking “How do I get more viewers?” is likely to get you called a sellout (At worst), or told something to the effect of “Don’t stream for more viewers, stream for the fun of it!” (At best) That’s all well and good…except that “more viewers” is inherently part of the fun of streaming. If nothing else, I’m grateful to Stream Big and its ilk for showing A. a path to get more viewers (Even if it’s far from guaranteed–see the previous paragraph), but also by implication B. the fact that wanting more viewers and/or to make a living off of streaming doesn’t automatically make you the worst streamer ever.

This is all ancillary to my point though, which is as follows:
First, while Vorpal is correct that the Internet is a giant boom-bust cycle–though I think it’s more accurate to say that time moves much faster in the Internet Age in the sense of “What’s hot now is old hat six months from now”–there’s just as much evidence that streaming is here to say as there is that it’s going to die out anytime soon. Recall that video games themselves were thought of as a fad ~30 years ago. Now, they’re healthier than ever, and despite concerns about the age of Twitch’s audience, the average video game player is 34 years old according to ~2010 data from the ESRB. It stands to reason that streaming’s audience age will follow that of the larger game-playing population.

The second aspect of this is that I disagree that, should the streaming wave crest and break, that bigger streamers are “Back at square one.” If they’re entrepreneurial enough, they can leverage the things they learned in streaming into other careers. As some examples, working with mixing/streaming software gives people audio-visual skills they can use elsewhere, and the very act of streaming shows an ability to multitask (A skill basically any workplace would want). There are probably other things I’m missing, but the point is that streamers can leverage what they learn to fit into either the more “traditional” marketplace or whatever video-based technology succeeds streaming.

In short, those people will be fine.

-EE

Older posts «