AGDQ 2020 INTERVIEW: Matt Merkle (Part Two)

Monday, January 27th, 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 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 find Part One of my interview with Matt Merkle at AGDQ 2020 here.

You can check out AGDQ 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 can 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: I’ve been watching Games Done Quick for the past few years in its various forms, and I have yet to see one where the initial schedule of games to be run doesn’t become more of a ‘suggestion’ at times than a hard and fast rule. How do you arrange the schedule for games initially, and how do you compensate for when things inevitably fall off track?

Matt Merkle: So game scheduling- again, there’s something of an art to it, but it also is often defined by runner availability. A lot of them cannot make it for the full event, so it is determined when we can place those runner’s run in the schedule. We try to work with them as much as possible to make sure that that’s workable. So oftentimes, we hear ‘why don’t you just put them all in a block and have just one giant Mario block and one giant Mega Man block’, and it’s because, well, a lot of the times the runners cannot all make it. So we have to have some spread out.

But also, it’s useful because we will have people that will want to watch a Mega Man run but are working that entire period. So if you spread it out more across the event, there’s a greater chance that people who are interested in this specific category of games will actually get to see some of it live.

So there’s some of that, and of course, we factor in ‘how popular do we think this game is?’ ‘what kind of incentives does it have attached to it?’- that will affect [if] this deserves more of a “prime time” for the United States time-period. Also, we even look at ‘Okay, this time just tends to have more viewers from Europe, so let’s schedule it at a time more beneficial to the European crowd.’ And things like that.


“And we will continue to look at other things to do too [at AGDQ].

But overall, we want to make sure we keep the relaxed nature of the convention, because that is how it has been since the beginning. We don’t want to have huge lines and all these things going on.”


OR: One of the favorite blocks, including my own, is the Awful Block. Where did the concept of making a bunch of terrible games a block come from?

MM: Honestly, I think Mike Uyama would have a much better answer for that one, because he is the one that came up with the block. I don’t actually pick individual games myself. I just kind of sit on the committee, and if there are any serious questions or problems with the management-side of things, I will dive in. But they handle the smaller details. And Mike Uyama- I know he is one of the lead people on the Awful Block.

So I would defer to him on that one.

Mega Man 3 for MS-DOS was a cornerstone for this year’s Awful Block

OR: Speedrunning is something that can take people hundreds or thousands of hours to perfect, and yet it can still go wrong on the big stage.

One such instance, which turned out to be both one of my absolute favorite runs so far this year, was tvgBadger’s Terraria (Moonlord Normal Seeded) run. Even though it went sideways very early on and ended up not being completed, it pulled in a massive amount of money for the Prevent Cancer Foundation and stayed extremely positive throughout no matter how bad things got.

How is the decision made to pull a run when it is clear that it is not going to be completed? What factors go into that decision?

MM: The most obvious is, of course, how close are they to finishing the game. If they’re like right at the final boss, and it’s clear that they will beat the game in the next couple minutes, then we’re not going to bother the runner.

Beyond that, it kind of depends on a bunch of factors: ‘How does the runner look like he is doing? Is he stressed out and he or she doesn’t feel like they’re going to beat the game anytime soon?’ Then we might say ‘It’s time to cut it’ or ‘Pick a time when we’re going to cut it.’

Usually we notify the runner that if they can’t do it in the next three to five minutes or something, then we’re going to cut the run. Also, things like- sometimes, runners get stuck in a ‘loop’ and they keep trying the same trick and the same thing, and if they can’t break out of that cycle to beat the game, then we’ll just cut it then as well.

And then, of course, sometimes the game makes the decision for us. So when games crash themselves or when they get stuck in game logic [that] the runners and nobody thought would really happen. So in that case, the decision is made for us.

But oftentimes, it is a mix of how the runner is doing, how far the run is from finishing- we can go anywhere from five to fifteen minutes and it won’t be a huge impact to the event since we can make that time up over time, but beyond like fifteen minutes, it gets very, very difficult to justify.

OR: If you’re just watching a stream at home or on your phone, you see interviews, you see speedrunning, and you see the audience. Yet when you come to AGDQ in person, there’s a lot more going on. There are pinball games, there’s casual game tournaments, there’s a practice room, and more.

What thought goes into these rooms, and how are they planned out for the event?

MM: So these kind of naturally evolved over time, just as the event grew. Early on, there was basically just the stream room and there was a practice room where everyone else was doing whatever they wanted to do all day. So there was casual gaming, practicing, having fun, partying, eating- everything was going on in the other room. So that was how it went for a couple of years. And then [we] went ‘okay, we need a more proper practice room and casual area.’ And that, pretty early on, became an obvious need because the casual people get too loud and the practice people are trying to concentrate.

But then, as even that grew, and the practice room grew, it kind of became a ‘speedrunner hangout’ [in] the practice room, where they are speedrunning and a couple might even be practicing their run, but they’re not necessarily being quiet about it and are hanging out with their friends, so we decided ‘okay, now we need a proper private practice room where runners who really need silence and sound isolation for some sound cues or team games where they need to work together’. Like, Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out! Two-player co-op would be a great example of that.

The arcade evolved because we started to have larger and larger audiences and they needed more things to do. It’s the same reason we brought World 9 Gaming in. Because instead of just bringing our own equipment and all the runners bringing their own TVs and consoles and everything, it made sense at that point that ‘okay, we should actually get some equipment in.’ And they had the consoles, and that also helped casual play as well, since they can rent out to anybody who wants to play.

And so from there, that’s when the arcade and the World 9 Gaming station came up. And then pinball was also there early on with the arcade. Just to add things for people to do while they are here. Because you’re going to be here for seven days and you need something else to do besides speedrun.

And we will continue to look at other things to do too. We’ve even had an outdoor ‘yard sports games’ for the summer and stuff like that. And we will continue to experiment with different things. But overall, we want to make sure we keep the relaxed nature of the convention, because that is how it has been since the beginning. We don’t want to have huge lines and all these things going on.

The panels are something that are relatively new, which are doing well. But we still don’t have a massive hour-by-hour schedule of panels and they aren’t running all night long. And that’s all because we very carefully control the growth of the event.

AGDQ | Punch Out Blindfolded

While a flawless blindfolded single-controller co-op run of Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out! may seem easy on screen, it requires a lot of practice and concentration to achieve. Hence, the need for the quiet Practice Room at AGDQ 2020. (Image courtesy of Games Done Quick).

OR: You mentioned panels as a new addition. Can you tell us a bit more about them?

MM: So, again, it was another thing that was brought up by the community to give them something to do at the event. And a lot of people were ‘hey, I want to talk about how you get into speedrunning.’ So there was a tutorial about speedrunning. And how do you set up a capture system [or] hardware. Or how does the committee work. And then we have game shows and stuff that they do for fun, so it’s just not all serious content.

It was just something that happened naturally. People were like ‘okay, we’re probably big enough that it’s time. We have the space, we can make it happen. Let’s do some panels.’ And they’ve done really well. And not everyone’s going to be a smash hit, but I think a lot are doing really great. And we continue to experiment with that and we continue to add panels as we feel the community can support them. Because they are all community submitted, almost all of them I should say. And I think that’s a really great addition.

OR: For you personally, what’s been your favorite run of any GDQ?

MM: Favorite run. I was really excited for the Myst Block this year. Because I remember watching Myst for, I think, SGDQ 2011 when they had all kinds of technical problems and stuff like that. And being so frustrated, it’s like ‘agh, come on you guys, get it going, I want to see this run.’ It’s kind of like ‘okay, almost ten years later, we’re finally getting a real solid run again.’

So that’s a personal favorite of mine. But [also] a lot of stuff like the Sonic Spinball runs, because that was something I loved as a kid. And I feel partially responsible for dragging people into speedrunning that. And also, of course, the Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out! and stuff like that is great to see, I love to see those technical and skill insanity. It is wonderful to see.

The recorded run for the first game in AGDQ 2020’s Myst Block.

OR: Just a few more questions. After this event, you have Summer Games Done Quick. When is that, where is it at, and what can we expect from that event?

MM: For Summer Games Done Quick, I don’t know the dates off hand. But I can give you the dates. And we’ll be announcing the location at the end of the event. [OR Note: SGDQ 2020 will be held in Bloomington, Minnesota from June 21 to June 28, 2020.]

OR: You have a lot of volunteers here on site. How can people who want to volunteer for [a] future event do so?

MM: So the usual timeline for that is that we usually post dates for SGDQ by February and so they will be on the website saying ‘okay, this is when everything will be going to start and one of those things will be volunteer submissions.’ So volunteer submissions, you will go online and find a button on your profile Games Done Quick account. And from there, you will fill out what department you’re interested in working in, what your experience is, and over the next couple of months we will whittle everything down and let you know if you’re accepted for Summer Games [Done Quick].

AGDQ 2020 concluded with a Super Metroid ROMhack, Super Metroid Impossible, that is supposed to be near impossible to clear.

OR: Final question- we’re closing out this run with a Super Metroid Impossible. Save or Kill the animals?

MM: Well personally, even though it’s not an option, I’ve always been in favor to ‘taunt the animals’. But unfortunately, it was never a very popular option, so they just pulled it out. But I would have picked that every time. But otherwise, I usually vote for ‘Kill the Animals’ since I like to see the speedrunners, especially in a race format, get the best time and be really competitive about it. If it’s just a single player, then I would say ‘Save the Animals’ and have some fun.

OR: Thank you very much.

[OR Note: Since this article was first published, one of the videos linked was made private. That video has since been substituted with another video showing the Mega Man 3 MS-DOS run during the Awful Block.]



What did you like best about this year’s AGDQ 2020?

Are you planning on visiting SGDQ 2020 in person? What games do you hope to see there or at AGDQ 2021?

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 interviews@oprainfall.com