AGDQ 2020 INTERVIEW: Matt Merkle (Part One)

Friday, January 24th, 2020

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Awesome Games Done Quick | AGDQ 2020 Logo

Awesome Games Done Quick (also known as AGDQ) is a charity event put on by Games Done Quick to raise money for The Prevent Cancer Foundation by having speedrunners from all over the world playing their chosen game one after another, twenty-four hours a day, for a week while it being streamed non-stop on Twitch. There are games from all PC/mobile/console generations and genres being played, from 2019’s Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice to 1988’s Super Mario Bros. 2 and quite literally everything in between.

I caught up with the Games Done Quick Director of Operations, Matt Merkle, during AGDQ 2020 to talk not only about this year’s event and what it is like raising money for the Prevent Cancer Foundation, but to also talk about some of what goes on behind-the-scenes to pull off such a large event successfully and more.

You can check out Awesome Games Done Quick at their official website, on Twitter, on Facebook, on Instagram, and on Twitch. You can also follow Matt Merkle on Twitter or on Reddit.

 You can check out my own thoughts on why you should go to a Games Done Quick event in person, after my experiences at AGDQ 2020, here or you read my interview with World 9 Gaming, who helps GDQ put on this event, here.

Finally, you can find out more about the Prevent Cancer Foundation at their official website, on Facebook, on Twitter, on linkedin, on Pinterest, on Instagram, and on YouTube. And you should definitely go donate now.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Operation Rainfall: My name is Quentin H. with Operation Rainfall at AGDQ 2020, and you are?

Matt Merkle: Matt Merkle, Director of Operations at Games Done Quick.

OR: What is Games Done Quick?

MM: Games Done Quick is a charity fundraising organization that benefits charities via telethon-style marathons streamed online. And we collect donations online that go directly to the charities.

OR: AGDQ 2020 -because you run three marathons a year- is being run to raise money for the Prevent Cancer Foundation. What is that charity, and how did you decide to sponsor them for this AGDQ, and several prior AGDQs?

MM: So The Prevent Cancer Foundation is a great charity that focuses not on the cure for cancer, but on ways to prevent it in the first place or to detect it very early. So they have done a lot of great work for that. They have helped fund tests for people to have checks done as well as research into new tests and methodologies to find cancer early on before it can actually take hold.

So that actually was one of the key reasons that Mike Uyama, way back in 2011, went with them. Because everyone in the community was kind of interested in a cancer charity, but they wanted something different. And Prevent Cancer Foundation was doing something different than most of the charities at the time. So that was the core value that we really connected with. And everyone has really responded well to them, and of course, they have been a great partner to us over the years and we haven’t had any need to change it.

“Orlando is a very unique location in that it’s got a good price of course, but also it’s very friendly to international travel.”

OR: About how much over the years -including this year, which was 1.1 million dollars so far- have you raised for this charity?

MM: For this specific charity, I don’t know off the top of my head. I would have to pull the donation tracker. But it’s at least ten million, I think, by this point.

OR: There are also a lot of sponsors for this year, including SQUARE ENIX for FINAL FANTASY XIV: Shadowbringers, Red Bull, and the Yeti. How do they contribute to make an event like AGDQ 2020 successful, and what is it like working with these companies?

MM: The sponsors provide services for the event or they donate directly to the charity. So you can see pretty easily how this would benefit the charity or the cost for us. And we’ve partnered with various sponsors over the years. And every one of them has been a pleasure to work with.

It really helps to also offset things that the front-end people don’t get to see. Like viewers don’t get to see PayPal transaction fees and things like that. It kind of helps to balance the sheet, so it is much closer to the total that people see on the screen.

AGDQ | Pokemon

The AGDQ 2020 stream took place in a giant room with the game being played, the host at a table on the left, and the game being shown on twin large screens for the attendees to watch. (Image taken by me).

OR: There have been ten years of Games Done Quick, now with three events a year: Awesome Games Done Quick, Summer Games Done Quick, and Games Done Quick Express. How many events are you personally working on at a time to plan and coordinate? How far in advance was this AGDQ 2020 planned?

MM: So we started planning this particular hotel and location about two years ago. We’ve gone as far as looking three to four years ahead in some cases, depending on the location and how booked out they are. It’s definitely a lot of work, but it’s really rewarding work. It’s mostly focused early on hotel location and contract negotiations for that. But about six months to a year out, that’s when we really start planning out all of the details for the event.

OR: Back on Twitter in March 2019, you were talking about picking out hotels. And you made some compelling points about balancing costs with needing spaces for a full week and not just “one giant echo chamber of space” while also being friendly to international and domestic flight travel plans. What has been the hardest GDQ event to find a hosting place for? Why?

MM: It was probably in DC, and that’s kind of why we left the area. Just because we [had] finally outgrown all the smaller hotels that I felt comfortable with choosing. Especially given the criteria you already mentioned. Rather than going deeper into downtown DC, where the prices go up considerably, we decided to look further out. And we decided ‘well, if we’re going to move out, we might as well move somewhere more palatable to everyone.’

Orlando is a very unique location in that it’s got a good price of course, but also it’s very friendly to international travel. You can get an Orlando flight from almost anywhere that I can think of. So that really helps as well. And, of course, the weather is very nice. You don’t have to worry about being snowed out, which was a concern at previous events. And, of course, the hotel itself- there’s a bunch of very large hotels in Orlando. So it worked out really well.

AGDQ | Tech

In order to put on an event like Awesome Games Done Quick (AGDQ) 2020, there is a lot of technology being used behind the scenes to make sure that not only does the stream stay up 24/7, but that the transitions between gameplay, interviews, prizes, and more all happen as smoothly and professionally as possible. (Images courtesy of Games Done Quick).

AGDQ | Tech

OR: So far, have you had any location turn out to be less than optimal to host a GDQ event? What happened and how did you manage to work around it?

MM: We’ve had hotels work out less ideally than others, so it boils down to layout and things like that- especially when we were less experienced. But I think we have a better hold on the things that we need these days, and we definitely do a thorough tour of the hotel and things [like that] before we sign any contracts. So we have at least a decent idea of what we’re getting into long before we ever get there for the event. And I think, beyond that, it’s pretty simple to pick something good that everyone’s happy with.

OR: Other charity video game events like Desert Bus for Hope and Mario Marathon keep the doors ‘closed’ to only those volunteering, those who are playing, and special guests that appear on camera or at the filming site. Yet GDQ throws their doors open and makes this a ticketed event. Why include an audience for such an event, and where did that decision come from?

MM: So the decision never really happened. It was always that way, kind of. Classic Games Done Quick was the only one that you could truly consider ‘closed door’, because it was just a group of friends. But other than that, once we expanded further, Mike moved to Four-H Center in Maryland and people wanted to come. And that’s why he moved it: ‘Okay, I’m not going to have fifty people in my basement.’

So it made sense to get it out of there. And people came in. And not all of them were really speedrunning. Most of them were, but not everyone. And it just kind of naturally grew from that point. More and more audience would come, but there are only so many runners. So there was never ever a point where we were going ‘we’re going to have an audience now.’ It was just something that naturally became.

“There is certainly more of an art to [setting donation incentive amounts] than a science.”

OR: About how many people do you have this year at AGDQ 2020?

MM: So we have registered about three-thousand people, [and] we should see pretty close that number show up. Usually between twenty-six to twenty-seven hundred show up, depending on flights and things like that and cancellations at the last second. And of course, it’s all transient. So you won’t see them all at one time. But you’ll definitely see the heavier skew to the end of the event because people want to see the final runs. Friday and Saturday are the biggest runs for a lot of people, so that will be the biggest concentration.

OR: I know you aren’t on the Games Committee, but I was hoping you could shed some light onto the game selection process. What is the process that the team goes through behind the scenes to narrow down this year’s 2,809 hours and 36 minutes of submitted content to approximately 294 hours of accepted, bonus, and back-up content?

MM: There’s a lot that goes into it, and we have the submission guide on our website that also gives runners the information they need to understand how the committee might decide for or against their run. And I would defer to that for most things- as well as the panel we held at SGDQ 2019, which is on our YouTube channel [and] where we answered more detailed questions about some of the things from runners who were interested in running at future events. And again, I would defer to that for more detailed information.

But in general, it’s boils down to: ‘okay, does this fit one of several criteria. Is the time good?’ It doesn’t need to be the world record necessarily, but it needs to be a very competitive time. So we’ll look at records and see what the runner’s been doing and compared to other runners.

We’ll look to see ‘has this game done well in the past?’, and that can play well or against it. If it has done really poorly in the past, then maybe we will let it kind of sit and see how it develops over time. If it’s very popular, we might bring it back more often. But we try to control that of course, make sure we don’t just literally play SMB1 every single time. We very carefully decide ‘okay, are we wearing this game out?’. So, there’s that factor to it.

And there’s ‘is there any major donation incentives?’. Major donation incentives might be really useful for a game that’s very long, since it can take up a large chunk of the charity [event]. So we can make sure that we maintain donations as well. That’s usually important for things like RPGs. But smaller runs don’t have to worry too much about it.

And from there, ‘can the runner actually make it?’. Which actually comes up sometimes. They think they can make it, but they can’t make it.

‘Is the run interesting to watch?’. Sometimes, auto-scrollers and stuff will not be as interesting to the average viewer. So they will be more difficult to bring it. But we also experiment as well. We’ve had Tetris in the past. And depending on the mode you’re playing, Tetris is not a speedrun. And things like that.

But that’s kind of the general criteria. And it breaks down into much more detailed stuff from there. Sometimes in cases, it just ends up being a flip of the coin because we’ll have three or four games which we could all put into this time block and they’re all great submissions, but we have to just select one and hope they will submit again next time to have another chance at it. And we might just say ‘Okay, if they submit again, we’ll probably take that. But we have to just pick one out of the four.’

One bonus game for AGDQ 2020 was a run of FINAL FANTASY VI (released as FINAL FANTASY III for the SNES in the United States). 

OR: A moment ago you mentioned donation incentives. There are a lot of donation incentives with varying amounts for gameplay objectives and bonus games. For example, the Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out! Bonus Game incentive was as a 75,000 dollar incentive and last night’s FINAL FANTASY VI’s run was a Bonus Game for 100,000 [dollars], and you had Bayonetta 2’s Third Climax as a 15,000 dollar incentive. They vary widely in amounts.

How do you set the donation totals for these incentives to make them both achievable while not making it ‘too easy’ to make?

MM: There is certainly more of an art to it than a science.

But a lot of it has to do with the timing. Incentives earlier in the event will typically not raise as much as ones later in the event, so that alone will factor in considerably into the incentive pricing. But also, things like ‘What is the length addition of that incentive?’ So if it’s a full game, we’re going to charge more because we want to make sure people are aware that this is a big chunk of time that we’re adding to the schedule.

And of course, there’s also a factor of how much people really want to see it. So, if it’s something that we think that people really want to see, we’re going to add a little bit more to that donation total. But overall, it’s primarily the earlier factors [mentioned] that determine it more than anything else. But the Bonus Games will always be- I shouldn’t say always- very often are the highest priced items because of the nature of them.

This flawlessly-executed blind-folded co-op single-controller run by zallard1 and sinister1 is something you absolutely need to watch. 

Please stay tuned early next week for Part Two of my interview with Matt Merkle about Games Done Quick, AGDQ 2020, and more.

Did you catch any of AGDQ 2020? What were your favorite runs, and what do you think of the intense amount of work that it goes on behind-the-scenes to make such an event work?

Let us know in the comments below!

About Quentin H.

I have been a journalist for oprainfall since 2015, and I have loved every moment of it. Do you want to do an interview? You can reach me at