Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Save the Frames, Kill the Animals

The tabletop game industry is experiencing a surge of popularity.  We specialty retailers live on the forefront of it, for better and for worse: sold-out pre-releases contrast against endless Amazon dumping.  We work with vendors who sometimes still require paper checks, and then set up elaborate inventory cloud deployments so our customers can shop for Magic singles on their smartphones.

And then we look at where the video game world has advanced in the past ten years, and we learn that the cutting edge of tabletop is a delusional kiddie pool.  While we pout and splash in the shallows, the plugged-in generation revels in its collective scuba-dive into the open ocean.

Once the province of quirky Koreans and Wintel grognards insisting that watching people play StarCraft or League of Legends is somehow entertaining, the emergence of Twitch ubiquity and the skyrocketing of production values have combined to make video games something that even "real" sports struggle to be: as entertaining a spectator sport as they are a participation sport.  Hasbro, Asmodee, et al. have pegged this apex as their forward-facing grail, and I think it's safe to say almost everything being done on the branding and organizational side of Magic: the Gathering, among other games, is laying the groundwork for a big move in this direction.
This year's Evolution (EVO) video game championship tournament finals were broadcast live on ESPN from the arena at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, where a who's-who of amazing worldwide players faced off in perhaps competitive video gaming's purest category: fighting games.  EVO culminated in Infiltration's highlight-studded championship victory over Fuudo in the first ever title year for the Cadillac of the genre, Capcom's Street Fighter V.  Much respect for Nash.

More than just the fights, which were brilliant, from Long Island Joe's exciting run to Yukadon's dominant semifinal against GO-1, the breathtaking scope of EVO 2016 utterly dwarfed what came before.  Every Street Fighter fan on the planet has seen Daigo's legendary parry in Street Fighter III: Third Strike at EVO 2004 by now, and that took place in a cramped hotel convention meeting room full of spectators on folding chairs.  Two guys sat at a banquet table facing a console and a CRT and incubated a fandom that has flourished to the point that players 12 years later paraded into a sporting arena, controllers clutched in one arm and fists pumping from the other, to throngs of cheering fans.  It was like a UFC pay-per-view, but with sponsorship by Razer instead of Reebok, and fewer back tattoos.

Fighting games not your style?  Perhaps you like something more "retro" and with a more worldly focus.  Speed Demos Archive's twice-annual Games Done Quick marathon finished its Summer 2016 installment the week before EVO, and it featured a seven-day roster of the finest video game speed-runners in the world raising well over a million dollars for charity playing games from throughout all of console history.  Tech demos, glitch showcases, challenge category runs, and thrilling "races" drew hundreds of thousands of viewers over the course of the event, from the Sunday morning opening Super Mario Sunshine completion run to the penultimate show-stopping four-way Super Metroid race on Saturday night.

If you didn't watch SGDQ 2016, you didn't miss anything, because in this new era of streaming video you can just watch the whole thing afterward on demand at gamesdonequick.com.  But here are the highlights you are going to want to check out:

  • All five Elder Scrolls run back-to-back;
  • JustinDM running sub-60 in game time on Metroid Prime despite missing every RNG;
  • Romscout speed-running Castlevania: Symphony of the Night blindfolded;
  • Zelda II raced by Simpol and JN with the best commentary I've heard for a Z2 run thus far;
  • A "Small Mario Only" speed run of Super Mario World by Rezephos;
  • The traditional Tetris Grand Master showdown that will melt your eyeballs;
  • Darkwing Duck losing a race, on NES Goonies II;
  • Darkwing Duck winning a race, on NES Rygar;
  • A sub-20-minute Aladdin race on the SNES, complete with group song for A Whole New World;
  • Delightful long-form runs of Super Mario RPG and Ocarina of Time by LackAttack and dannyb; and
  • A fantastic encore 70-star race of Super Mario 64, showing just how competitive the Nintendo 64 launch title has become for speedrunning.

And then there was the Super Metroid race, from whence comes the title of this article.  The biggest donation incentive of the marathon, raising at least a quarter-million dollars by itself every time, allows donors to choose whether the speedrunners must take the easter-egg detour at the end of the game into the Crateria Cave to rescue the "helpful animals" Dachora and Etecoons.  There is no real game effect from doing so, other than seeing a tiny animal-piloted spaceship zoom away from Zebes in the distance after Samus blasts off in her gunship.  Nevertheless, donors desperately sent money to Doctors Without Borders until the cutoff moment of Mother Brain's death, competing to impose their wills on the runners, and this year, Kill the Animals prevailed over Save the Animals, and Samus passed them by on her way off the doomed world.  But that wasn't nearly what made this race as exciting as it was.

Every Super Metroid race at GDQ has been a show-stopper, but 2016 was primed to be the best ever. The four speedrunners were Zoast, Sweetnumb, Behemoth87, and Oatsngoats.  Zoast and Oatsngoats are, in some order, the best two Any Percent players in the world (no item requirements beyond "enough to complete the game"); Sweetnumb is the best 100% run player (must collect everything) not named Zoast; and Behemoth87 is the best European player and erstwhile record-holder in assorted categories.  The only top player not in the race, Straevaras, provided commentary from the couch, after flying solo on an intense Reverse Boss Order run at January's AGDQ marathon this year.

All four runners were screen-for-screen in the early going and weren't missing a move.  All four survived Phantoon, usually one of the first murder scenes on a race because of the fight's difficulty that early on.  The runners made it to Ridley, and Sweetnumb suddenly died, having successfully killed Ridley, because Ridley dragged his tail into Samus's hitbox during his grab death sequence.  Ten minutes later, Zoast, of all people, was a frame or two slow on a shinespark and ran into Draygon's nose for the loss.  A shocked crowd then watched Oats run red-hot and approach world-record pace, an ambitious performance for an exhibition like SGDQ, while Behemoth missed on a few strats and trailed behind.  When Oats nailed the baby metroid skip, the crowd erupted.  Then, less than two minutes from delivering the best Any% run in GDQ history, Oats got hit by a random Mother Brain shot and fell under the minimum health to complete the game.  Just like that, we were down to one runner.  Did Behemoth take it easy and finish safely?  Nope, he ran like his life depended on it, coming within a whisker of death and ultimately prevailing.  Nobody knows what would have happened to the animals if all four runners had died.

It has ever been so.  In 2015, Oats and David Clemens died and left Zoast to beat Straevaras for a 44:00 time complete with saved animals.  In 2014, Ivan beat Zoast by frames to win in less than one second's difference.  Virtually every AGDQ and SGDQ Super Metroid run is memorable in some way, and they mix up the categories from one event to the next.  And the commentary is, especially on the better games, typically intelligent enough to help you follow what is going on even if what the runners are doing seems entirely foreign to your memories of playing the game in your youth.

For many readers of this business blog, the foregoing represents largely new material.  It may appear foreign and opaque at first glance.  Certainly I do not expect anyone to "get it" solely from having read all that.  The marvel of video games as a spectator attraction right now is that it is so much more accessible after only a modicum of immersion, by comparison against the extremely dense and esoteric streaming seen for tabletop games.  After acclimatizing to a few GDQ videos, even a championship Magic match stream seems all but unwatchable.  Slow, stilted, with poor visibility and even the best commentators struggling to illustrate the subtext of the game in progress in many cases.  Some of the cleanest uncommented streaming I've seen, from Corp Draw's broadcasts of Android Netrunner championships, are uncharted territory to anyone not heavily familiar with the game and metagame.  My Facebook feed regularly includes photo progress updates from X-Wing tournaments, and I can decipher only a fraction of what's going on in the match depicted.  By contrast, I watched SGDQ's run of Demon Souls, and I could follow all of it easily, though I've never played any game in the Dark Souls series.

I watched the Super Metroid race on July 9th from the couch at my friend Matt's house during his UFC 200 viewing party.  My friend Steve followed the action with me as we did our best to split attention between the great fight card and the exciting race unfolding on Twitch on my iPhone.  It was engrossing, it was enjoyable, and it was easy.  This is the way the trade winds are blowing.

Games, in whatever form you like, have integrated their way into technology and communication and melded participatory interest with spectator interest.  But the games that were born electronic have an immutable advantage in this.  They are naturally predisposed to the transition.  It was an obvious progression.  I don't know whether tabletop will catch up to that, or simply evolve to become more and more electronic and thus bring the mountain to Mohammed.  What I suspect is that the games that cannot be adapted are the ones that will fade to the margins, along with their respective economic footprint in the entertainment business.  Maybe they will become pristinely retro, tabletop in its purest tactile form.  'Tis a consummation devoutly to be wish'd.

In the meanwhile, if you aren't on record pace, go ahead and save those animals.

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