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What Is Speedrunning? A Detailed Guide On Gaming's Most Competitive Subculture

Speedrunning can either be a sprint or a marathon, depending on the game. It basically means finishing the game in the shortest time possible, whether it is done in minutes or multiple days. This is the complete opposite of a completionist run, where players chase everything that can be acquired and/or ace their ratings after completing a level regardless of time spent. Today, a completionist run is highly encouraged with the advent of the Achievements system, where players are playing attempt to acquire Platinum trophies. However, a completionist run is actually a category of speedrunning too (i.e. who can complete everything the fastest).

Speedrunning nowadays is the same way too, with it being bigger than it ever was. eSports had grown exponentially the past few years. In many ways competitive gaming evolved from speedrunning and whatever form eSports competition has nowadays is could be considered the natural evolution of single-player competitive activity.

This guide will introduce you to the world of speedrunning, its history, and game/platform recommendations.

Brief History

Kee Games' Drag Race started the Speedrunning engine

Speedrunning’s roots can be traced to the late 1970s. Arcade cabinets were able to record high scores and people would crowd these cabinets trying to beat the highest score recorded. There was no other objective measurement on how good a person was in a game, but the high score recorded by the game.

In 1977, Kee Games released an arcade game Drag Race, a two-player arcade cabinet with steering wheels and shifters. This was a drag racing game that featured an in-game timer and recorded how fast players performed. The same game was ported by Activision as Dragster to the Atari 2600. While it was true that gamers back then compete in games like Tetris by chasing each other's high scores, Drag Race / Dragster actively reinforced the need for speed, making it the first game to have in its core gameplay a significant characteristic of speedrunning.

Early Positive Reinforcement of Speedrunning in Video Game Design

The original Super Mario Bros. was the first video game to have a positive reinforcement of speedrunning games. The game added the remaining time to the player’s total score at the end of the level. This subtly established that finishing the game in the quickest time possible was part of how the game should be played.

Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog had undeniably forced the players to play the game as fast as possible, breaking the common characteristic of platforming games of just surviving an entire level. From this point on, speed was linked to player skill. Hence, players were repeating games in order to master them, improving their performance in completing levels for high scores, and not just to finish the game.

Since only a select few had internet in the 90s, speedrunning competitions were improvised. DOOM players would record their gameplay footage and send the photographic evidence to gaming magazines. In turn, the magazines will print such records for their readers to see. If anyone had the better run with the featured player, they would have to send a record of their run through snail mail. DOOM and Quake were popular among speedrunners in the 90s because they allow players to record demo files. Demo files record all of the button presses made and they could be replayed back to act as a recording of a run.

Nicholas Piccholas hosted YTV’s Video & Arcade Top 10 that made speedrunning a TV competition

Speedrunning In Mainstream Media

Gaming’s subculture of speedrunning caught the attention of mainstream media. In North America, YTV’s Video & Arcade Top 10 hosted by Nicholas Picholas from 1991 to 2006 had children play games competitively against each other to win prizes.

In Japan, the speedrunning subculture was kicking off in 1992 with the popular Japanese gaming magazine Famitsu. Famitsu began hosting a weekly gaming challenge where players send in recorded videos in VHS format of them completing challenges completed. Winners were featured in the magazine. It became common for the magazine to cover speedrunning.

You would have though that very nature of speedrunning would have limited it to a few genres. However, RPGs became a subject of speedruns. While today it is pretty normal to do an RPG speedrun, it was unthinkable in the 90s.

In 1998 Famitsu featured a speedrun of Parasite Eve, an innovative RPG from peak SquareSoft. A player was able to complete a New Game+ of Parasite Eve within two hours, eight minutes, and fifteen seconds based on in-game timers. This is how RPGs are used as speedrun games, by looking at their in-game timers how much time the player took in finishing the game.

Real Time Attack  Versus Time Attack

By now speedrunning was serious business. The reliance on in-game timers was easily manipulated since it didn't record a reset. Players would just replay a certain section of the game without losing any overall time. This was commonly known as a time attack speedrun.

Real Time Attack (RTA) was the more popular type of speedrun. This type of speedrun used an external timer like a stopwatch or any piece of software that records time. Unfortunately, loading screens, transitions, and other pauses in-game timers would have not counted otherwise were also added to the overall time.

Modern times, however, had a solution to this problem. Modern speedrun timer software can now detect loading screens and other interruptions that will pause the timer and halt adding additional time from the actual game time.

RTA was not so common back in the 90s  and the early 2000s the term did originate back then and in Japan specifically at the University of Tokyo. In 1999, a group of speedrunners at the University called the Extreme Game Research Group. This group primarily played RPG games like Dragon Quest and researched these games to find the best strategies. The group then created comic books to document their strategies and speed runtimes in fact they even performed speedruns at live events like the University of Tokyo's yearly May Festival. During these live events, they time their speedruns with real-time and coined the phrase “real-time” attack to describe these runs in fact this group is still active today

In 2001, the group opened a site on the internet to spread work further, documenting Dragon Quest for strategies and speedruns. It was also in 2001 that ultimategarden.net was opened, another Japanese speedrun site which would be the main hub for Japanese speedruns for years to come. This website features many speedruns from various players and in three different categories low-level clear, Time Attack, and RTA.

A low-level clear speedrun or commonly known as Low% implies that the player was basically ignoring progress or leveling in order to complete the game. This kind of speedrun was applied differently in games but this was most common with RPGs. Low% speedrun meant completing the game with the lowest level possible and this was accomplished by fighting only the required battles.

Speedruning In the West

Speedrun internet communities in the West started exploding in the early 2000s.  A popular site called the-elite.net hosts players' performance and rankings for GoldenEye and Perfect Dark on the Nintendo 64. Both of these wildly popular console shooters featured an in-game timer for each individual player. This made players race for the fastest completion times in each level. Every member of this site is given a times page in which they can fill their best times. These best times have equivalent points and when added up, sum up the overall point score.

Doom is the most popular game for speedrunning for a long time

Modern Forms Of Speedrun

With streaming sites today and games collecting data on every player move, none of the manual labor is necessary anymore in sharing Speedruns. Video documentation of Speedruns made this activity explode in popularity.

Speedrunning is an extremely competitive subculture owing to the fact that it requires near-perfect execution in in-game performance. Speedrun metrics are so unforgiving a single mistake will cost a player the entire run, with no chance of recovering.

Tool Assisted Speedruns (TAS) is the relatively new category of speedrunning. In a TAS, a player is allowed to utilize any tool provided by emulators. This will include slowing, rewinding, save, and load states, among others. In the purist's eyes, this is considered heresy, but the speedrunning community is known to venture into new heights and TAS is no exception. In TAS, execution is not the focal point, but rather the optimal way in completing the game.

Portal is a popular game for Tool Assisted Speedruns

New Speedrun Communities

In 2010, the Speed Demos Archive, a website dedicated to video game speedruns, decided to come together and stream a charity marathon for CARE organization. Classic Games Done Quick would raise over $10,000 and give the streamers their first taste of internet fame. A decision was made to host two charity marathons annually, one in the summer and one in the winter. Awesome Games Done Quick and Summer Games Done Quick would grow in popularity with every iteration; in the winter of 2014, Awesome Games Done Quick raised over a million dollars, and speed-running was officially mainstream.

All games can be a subject of speedrun even if these games do not have any scoring that will reflect how much time the player spent in traversing the game. A player just needs goals and rules. A game with an online player could be speedrun. However, there is something to be said about speedrunning in multiplayer games. It is difficult to implement speedrun rules in games like DOTA 2 or even Fortnite though - the random behavior of human competitors cannot be catered for.

The Basics Of Speedrunning

Speedrunning is actually the heart of gaming. Forget all the narratives and ignore terms like ray tracing, you play the game to finish the game. One can only finish a game as quickly as possible through practice and obsessive planning. Bugs and glitches are even exploited in order to help the player in finishing the game quickly. Once a speedrun is completed, the video and time are posted on an online leaderboard, provided that the game does not in itself have a leaderboard. The completion time and its scores, if any, are then compared to everyone else's times.

Bugs And Glitches Are Not "Cheating"

Exploiting software bugs and glitches are not cheating. The overwhelming majority of the speedrunning community agrees with this.

However, using Gameshark or Cheat Engine is cheating. Glitches do not require any extra hardware or software. If there is a glitch in the game, it is part of the game even if it is not intentional. Glitches and bugs anyway are hard to exploit than playing the game "normally."

Typically, games must be played with the official controller and not its "turbo" flavors. Turbo controllers give advantages to the player not intended during the development of the games.

Games That Can Be Speedrun

All games can be speedrun, with the exception of certain multiplayer games, since it would be difficult to impose your rules and goals with other people. Some will say that The Sims or Civilizations VI cannot be Speedrun, but you can do it if you impose some rules and goals. MMORPGs can also be speedrun if you blast to the end game, provided of course that these MMORPGs do not impose party composition in questing, which of course is rare.

For example, in The Sims 4 challenges you can spice things up by completing them in a limited time. In 30 Sims sleeps you should have completed the entire challenge. That is how you make your own speedrun rules.

Speedrun On Emulators

Most communities mandate that you use the actual hardware in speedrunning. However, practicing in emulators is not prohibited. In fact, it is encouraged in order not to repeat the entire level if you just want to practice a certain part of the level, all thanks to Save States. There are other communities that officially sanction the use of emulators but they are the exception and not the rule.

Super Mario 64 running on an emulator

Speedrun Categories

While it is allowed to exploit bugs and glitches, this exploitation is usually for a certain category of speedrun. There are two main sets of categories in speedrunning: single-segment and segmented. Most runs will be either single-segment or segmented and have a completion percentage.

Single-Segment Versus Segmented Speedruns

Single-Segment is speedruns that beat a game in one session without loading save files or quitting. On the other hand, if the player saves and then retries multiple parts of the games individually, the run is considered segmented.

Loading a save file is only permitted in single-segment runs for games or categories, such as NG+, that require doing so to progress. Segmented runs are expected to be faster than single-segment runs in return for the ability to retry parts of the run multiple times; if a single-segment run is faster than a segmented run, the single-segment run will obsolete the segmented run (but not vice versa). For some level or track-based games, such as racers, segmented runs are replaced by an Individual Level table where the time for each track or level is displayed separately. If an individual level table does not exist for a game, the first submission of individual-level runs must complete every race or level in that table's category.

Any% Versus Low% Versus 100%

While we already had a brief discussion on Low% speedruns, we will now thoroughly discuss this completion percentage category together with Any% and 100%.

  1. Any% speedrun is when you do whatever it takes to get to the end of the game as quickly as possible. This is how most people, especially those who are not familiar with speedrunning, speedrunning--just blitz yourself into the finish line.
  2. Low% is when you collect the minimum number of items and upgrades necessary to complete the game.
  3. In 100% speedrun, this is the completionist run as you collect everything in the game.

Any% is the default category of almost any game. The Low% category is entirely subjective and it rests upon the community what is considered the "minimum" number of items, upgrades, or levels.

One thing is for sure though, the use of items that players are awarded in the natural course of the game is not prohibited. Hence, in Low% competitive speedrunning, a run that picks up fewer collectibles will obsolete a run that collects more, even if the new run is slower as a result.

Lastly, the 100% category forces players to collect everything that can be found in the game. Like Low% before it, the 100% is completely subjective unless the game itself tracks percentage. If the game tracks percentage, it shall be followed on what comprises a 100% completion. For every community, there are concise and reasonable definitions of what a 100% speedrun is for every game.

There are games that are designed in a manner that multiple completion percentage categories may apply to the same run. For instance, skipping all optional items may be the fastest way through some games, while other games might require you to fulfill 100% conditions to beat them. In these cases, the overlapping categories are identical and such runs are treated as any% runs for simplicity. Some games like Link to the Past have a major game-breaking glitch that warrants making a new category. This is known as "skip glitches" or warp.

Speedrun Glossary Of Terms

Below is table that lists the common terms used in speedrunning.

Term Definition
Autofire / Turbo A third-party controller or emulator function that allows a button being held down to count as being pressed repeatedly as fast as possible. This is usually prohibited.
Blind Speedrunning the game with no knowledge of the game that the player might have utilized in his run.
Buffering Some games allow players to input actions while another action is being executed. An example of this game is Commander Keen IV, where when you shoot and hold jump, the character will jump on the first possible frame after the shooting animation.
Bugs / Glitches Unintentional mistakes on the part of the developers that appears in games and are exploited by players in speedrunning.
Capture Card Device used in capturing TV screens for the purpose of streaming the speedrun or recording the run as proof in the competitive settings.
Category While we have discussed the usual categories in speedrunning, there are other categories unique for particular games or communities like glitchless runs and 120-Star Run for Super Mario 64
Damage Boost Intentionally getting hit in order to gain extra speed/height or to pass through enemies/obstacles quickly.
Death Warp Intentionally dying to save time, usually by avoiding backtracking.
Frame Fractions of seconds when it takes time for the game to update the screen and poll input.
Frame Perfect A technique in a game that you only have a 1 frame window to successfully pull off.
Game Time Time provided by the game itself.
Input Lag The delay between the players’ input and their execution onscreen.
Lag Slowdowns usually due to the game’s unoptimized coding or the system just cannot handle the game in specific parts.
Lag Reduction Techniques and tricks used to avoid lag from occurring.
Luck-based RNG-influenced results make runs wildly different from each other. The term luck-based can also be used on actions done in spite of the low success rate even if there is no RNG to influence the result.
Luck Manipulation A TAS technique to get good luck. This manipulates the RNG by doing things such as waiting for the right frame, attacking certain frames, or moving in certain ways.
Non-TAS Done in real-time without utilizing emulator-specific functions.
Manipulation Sanctioned actions done by players to control an outcome of the game’s events like dropping items and spawning in specific locations.
Mash The common usage of the word – fast repetition of an action.
OoB / Out of Bounds Go out of the intended playing field. This term has different usage depending on a game or community.
Overflow & Underflow An exploitable memory glitch.
Pause Buffer Pausing some games allow buffering.
PR Personal record
RNG Random Number Generator, the function in the game that is responsible for different events and results.
Save State An emulator function that saves the current state of everything in the game. Load State allows this Save State to be reloaded at will. This is banned in most. if not all, competitive speedrun communities.
Save Warp Saving and reloading to save time, typically to avoid backtracking. Similar to Death Warp.
Sequence Break Performing something out of order in the intended sequence of events of a game.
Spawn Location and time where objects or players appear. This may be random, fixed, or can be manipulated by the player.
Sub-Pixel When a game tracks position more accurately than down to the pixel. Sometimes relevant when attempting various sequence breaks/glitches.
TWR / Tied World Record A record in the game that has in-game time tracker that has been tied by two or more persons.
Warp (or Skip Glitch) A secret method of skipping past levels or worlds in a game. This is common in older games.
WR World Record
Zip A 2D game's wall ejection routine sending the player character through the wall rapidly.

General Tips On Speedrunning

Speedrunning is never easy as it requires skill. Skill can only be honed by practice. Here are our tips to help you with your speedrunning journey.

  1. Choose the game you like. It is hard to replay the game again and again if you do not like it in the first place. Start on a positive note since you are going to gradually hate the game latter on.
  2. Learn from your mistakes. Do not restart the game if you commit a mistake early on your run. Finish the entire run in order for you to get familiarized with the entire level and not just that portion where you failed.
  3. Watch other players. There are several communities and personalities on YouTube and Twitch that stream their games. You can learn a lot by watching their videos or streams.
  4. Practice. If you have a bad split, practice again and again until you reach your goal. While it is true that one bad split can ruin an entire run and does not allow you to recover, there are games that allow you to make up lost seconds.
  5. Take a break. Your mental health is more important than your records. Take a break if you have failed runs and gather yourself once again. Games are made for enjoyment and not for punishment.
  6. Talk to the Community. There are communities that will help you. Do not get intimidated by the communities, as no matter how good they are they started as beginners like you.

Speedrun Communities

A screenshot of Speedrunslive.com homepage

Every game has its own community. It is highly recommended that you seek the community of that specific game you are speedrunning since they have specific knowledge and advice for that particular game. Below are the sites that house the best speedrun communities:

  1. Speedrun.com is the most modern speedrun website complete with leaderboards rules and categories.
  2. Speeddemosarchive.com (SDA) is a website dedicated to speedruns. This site has been running for two decades already. They hosted Awesome Games Done Quick and Summer Games Done Quick before the Games Done Quick LLC held the event independently starting 2015.
  3. Speedrunslive.com lists speedrunners that are streaming on Twitch at the moment.

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Written By

JN is a video game enthusiast and has written for various gaming outlets for a decade. His hobby is building small gaming computers.