Supple Think: The Speed Runner's School of Game Design -- Preamble

The Speed Runner's School of Game Design -- Preamble

by Zen

Posted on Monday, July 23, 2007
Labels: , , , , ,

I've been into speed runs for a while now. There's a lot to say about speed runs in general, but for me the best cross-section of the history and awesomeness of the practice is found when you look at the Metroid series.

Every Metroid game included a timer that changed the ending of the game depending on how quickly you beat it. This was actually pretty common practice in the NES days, but Metroid stands out because not only did it tell you what your time was after the credits rolled, but if you were extra speedy the reward was irresistible to my peurile fourth-grade mind: Samus would take off her power suit and reveal her hotness in her underwear. This was honestly better than any porn.

At any rate, speed running of Metroid really took off, especially with Super Metroid. The game was one of the most elegantly made in history, with a world that opened up as possibilities in an intricate environment rather than arbitrary barriers to linear progress. Even better than this, though, is that the developers included a few secret abilities that the player could use to bypass a lot of the game's "intended" progression. These abilities were intuitive yet difficult, and were not at all obvious; most players got through the game without learning them. On top of this, people learned to abuse the physics of the game in useful and consistent ways. These abuses seemed so natural they felt like intended moves, and terms like "spike jumping" and "mockballing" became part of the lexicon not just for speed runners but fans of the game in general.

When the series went 3D with Metroid Prime, it remained surprisingly easy to speed run. While most or all of the exploits seemed clearly unintended, the way players manipulated physics in the game still felt like it was "playing fair" with the game engine. Speed runs were just as interesting as ever, and continue to this day.

However, with the game's sequel the party ended. The developers of Metroid Prime 2 actually built the game deliberately so that sequence breaking, the way speed runners bypass chunks of the game to beat it in impressively minimalistic ways, would be impossible. When a game allows players to accidentally fall out of the sequence and get stuck or confused, it makes sense for the developers to program around it, but in this case it was simply that their vision of the game was completely linear. It was like a direct affront to the speed running community. The challenge was met, and the game was broken just the same, but it wasn't the same as before.

The main difference was that while Super Metroid and Metroid Prime placed certain areas legitimately out of reach to the player, it was possible to get there through arcane and inventive means without the intended ability or item. In Metroid Prime 2, they put invisible walls in place to make it completely impossible for anybody to get there who "wasn't supposed to". This sort of thing is now common practice, and raises the question: how much should game designers build their games with speed running in mind?

Older games were packed with glitches and abusable oversights that made speed running interesting, much like with the first Metroid. Nowadays, though, the idea of a game's design being elegantly open is generally forgotten, and games are "open" in very controlled ways. Developers don't seem to realize that a game can be conducive to speed running without being glitchy. When discussion comes up of whether a game is going to be interesting for speed runs, recent games are usually wrapped in duct tape, holding the player on set paths through brute force. This is usually to keep the game from being confusingly open, but it seems like developers have forgotten how to make a game open while still making objectives clear and progress rewarding.

Not every game has to be open and nonlinear, but this phenomenon got me thinking about how all games could benefit from being made with speed runs in mind, and as someone who's watched basically every speed run ever made I've got a few observations about how design decisions that get in the way of speed running can get in the way of the game's fun even in an ordinary play context.
Article Permalink



Decide Weapons

[Supple Think]

...and luck

© Supple Think. Powered by Blogger.