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Passing the Baton: How Indie Games Became Popular Speedrunning Titles

When most of us play games, we’re probably taking our time enjoying the scenery. Many successful titles use a “show, don’t tell” approach to world-building and detailed level design, and someone who breaks speed limits flying through a game is likely to miss that.

However, taking a leisurely stroll through a game is only one of many ways to enjoy a game, and that’s where speedrunning comes in. As you would expect, speedrunning means getting to the end of the game as fast as possible. That’s where you get runs like this one, in which a Half-Life player exploited errors in the GoldSrc engine to skip large chunks of the game.

Many of the popular speedrunning titles are older games. It’s easy to see why favorites like the first-person shooter classics Duke Nukem 3D and Doom or memorable console franchises like the Legend of Zelda series became well-loved for this type of gameplay: there’s a nostalgia aspect to them. In the case of the former category, many shooters of that era showed the player an in-game timer, almost like an encouragement.

18 seconds is about as low as I can go in “Hangar.” (Source: The Ultimate Doom; id Software, 1995)

But there is more to the speedrunning community than just shaving off extra seconds. A visit to the list of games tracked on Speedrun.com shows quite a few indie titles. Out of all the games on the site, Celeste is second-most popular, with 110 active players. There’s also Katana Zero, Cuphead, Refunct, and so on. Aside from this year’s Resident Evil 2 remake, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice and some Nintendo titles — most of the company’s major releases are there — most of the recent games from large studios are absent.

When it comes to indie games, speedrunning can be an integral part of a small studio’s marketing plan.

“I’m not sure if catering is the right word, but it’s certainly like they’ve realized how popular speedrunning is,” said TGH, referring to the developers of Celeste. He currently holds one of the highest records for his 27m 50s 301ms Any% Celeste playthrough and was bested only a few days ago by the German runner Marlin, who shaved off 16 seconds. The “Any%” is a competitive category of speedrunning, meaning the player is only concerned with completing game-winning requirements.

TGH sees indie titles as being popular among speedrunners because indie developers often see speedrunners as a niche but enthusiastic market to cater to, perfect for a business strategy based on that very concept.

“Honestly, you could make any game perfectly speedrunnable by just putting a good in-game timer in your game,” TGH said. “With Celeste, you can choose to display either no time, your chapter time or the full game time. And, in my opinion, they’re all pretty well implemented for speedrunning.”

Source: Celeste Press Kit, Matt Makes Games, Inc., 2018.
Source: Celeste Press Kit, Matt Makes Games, Inc., 2018

TGH discovered speedrunning in an unexpected way. He was briefly a professional golfer, but found the lifestyle of professional golf was not what he had expected, and went searching for something else to scratch that competitive itch. He is now part of Noble Esports’ Official Stream Team, and travels to charitable speedrunning competitions across the globe, like the European Speedrunner Assembly, where he ran Celeste and A Link to the Past at their summer 2019 event in Sweden; ESA Summer 2019 raised over $80,000 for the Swedish Alzheimer’s Foundation, according to the ESA website’s landing page.

“When I did pick up speedrunning, I noticed…there are a lot of similarities between the two activities,” TGH explained. “In golf, I had a pretty strict training regimen. I just sort of carried that over to my practice, and was able to achieve similar results like that.”

Celeste’s connection to speedrunning runs deeper than just a simple chase for profits, however. TGH said both Matt Thorson and Noel Berry, the developers of Celeste, are huge fans of speedrunning. He thinks this might be why all the speedrunning tricks he and other fans of the game have found are movement-based, as opposed to tricking the game by exploiting glitches, like in Super Mario World.

O_Circles, on the other hand, has dedicated his speedrunning work mostly to classic games like Duke Nukem 3D, holding first place for running episodes one through three in seven minutes and 49 seconds. and Star Wars Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II, where he also holds first place at 24 minutes and 53 seconds. He also has a soft spot for Katana Zero, and his practicing has paid off with him currently holding the world record for running the action platform in 16 minutes and 58 seconds.

O_Circles gained an interest in speedrunning by watching Siglemic and Runnerguy play their respective games, Super Mario 64 and Ocarina of Time. Once he started his own Any% Ocarina of Time runs, he was hooked. He started playing Katana Zero after seeing ads for it during an Awesome Games Done Quick Marathon earlier this year.

Katana Zero’s developer, Askiisoft, saw the writing on the wall and unveiled a Speedrun Mode as part of the game’s first post-release update. It was a good call, especially since Katana Zero is a little on the short side, clocking in at about seven total hours of content, which much of that time consumed by cutscenes. Among other options, Speedrun Mode allows the player to skip the cutscenes.

However, even though the developers are intentionally building these games with speedrunning in mind, that does not mean all of the runners are missing out on content. O_Circles said that he always plays a game normally first, as Speedrun Mode actually requires beating the game in order to be unlocked. TGH said he only plays each game casually once.

“It’s really hard for any game to play it as a speed run, and then go back. Once you commit to speedrunning, then it’s almost impossible to go back. It doesn’t feel good.”

With indie games like Rocket League becoming a big hit in the esports scene, it’s no wonder other indie games are following esports-adjacent competitions like speedrunning. For Celeste and Katana Zero in particular, it seems to be working.

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