Cosmo Wright is one of the few people in the world who can make a living playing video games. But unlike the professional gamers who battle against other humans in DOTA 2 and StarCraft 2, Wright's renown comes from capitalizing on the glitches of childhood classics.
Wright is one of the most popular video game speed runners. He tries to defeat games like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Castlevania 64 and Super Monkey Ball as quickly as possible. Aside from having impeccable mechanical skill, Wright's knowledge of a game's coding flaws — and how to exploit them — means that he can do things that seem impossible. In Zelda games, the hero Link can blast across mountains by standing near bombs, come back from the dead and teleport across space and time. These newfound skills allow Wright to finish games in a fraction of the intended time.
Wright's role is half athlete, half hacker. He streams for hours at a time, sometimes trying the same run dozens of times, abruptly restarting after any big mistake. His Ocarina of Time runs are also the climax of nearly a decade of research that has uncovered various glitches and sequence breaks, which allow players to skip entire dungeons in the 1998 game.
In the age of corporate sponsorships for eSports and the ubiquity of DLC and microtransactions, speed running remains almost defiantly uncommercial. Runners play for the love of the game, and perhaps some internet glory. But the pursuit of perfection for its own sake is perhaps what makes running so compelling — and has given the very best runners like Wright new full-time jobs.
Last August, Wright stared down Gohma, the spider-like monster in the Deku Tree, the first dungeon of Ocarina of Time.
Instead of charging Gohma, Wright's fingers danced across his controller and he ran into the corner of the room before turning to face the beast, which slashed down on Link's shield. The green-capped hero passed through an invisible crack in the wall and with a few blind slashes, killed Gohma.
"That was good," Wright said to the thousands of people watching his stream on Twitch. "All right, depending on how the void warp happens, this will be world-record pace."
Wright went back into Gohma room and used Link's bottle to dump some bugs onto the floor. After touching the blue portal in the middle of the room and executing a series of seemingly arbitrary hops, he exited. The next room was full of flames, Ganondorf was dead, and Wright was suddenly near the end of the game, which normally takes dozens of hours to finish. He had been playing for just 13 minutes and 27 seconds.
His time: 19 minutes and 15 seconds, a new world record.
The hard part came next: Wright spawned at the top of Ganon's castle. Instead of running down the stairs, he positioned himself so a falling rock smashed him into the edge of the wall. He paused the game twice, waiting for the right frame, and fell through another seemingly solid barrier to the bottom floor. The void warp was a success.
Now, he faced down Ganon, the final form of Link's nemesis. Using the "infinite sword glitch," he turned Link's weapon into a constant blur of damage and walked under Ganon, sending off sparks. A misstep cost him a few seconds, but soon Ganon crumpled. Wright clicked off his timer as the credits rolled.
"Damn, that Ganon fight was not good," Wright says, but then grins. "That void warp though ..."
His time: 19 minutes and 15 seconds, a new world record.
In the early days, recording such runs was challenging, and some records turned out to be illegitimate.
Wright, 24, grew up in Wisconsin. His first console was the Sega Genesis, but his love of gaming really took off when he received a Nintendo 64 and Ocarina of Time from his parents for Christmas. He later played Super Smash Bros. competitively and even won a tournament in Minnesota.
As Wright was battling Gohma for the first time as a kid, a movement was gathering momentum. The iconic first-person shooter Quake was released in June 1996, and a community of speed runners began playing through the game as quickly as possible. The website Nightmare Speed Demos was founded in April 1997 as a way to organize and archive the fastest times and became Speed Demos Archive a year later after merging with another site.
Speed Demos Archive later expanded to include Nintendo's Metroid Prime in November 2003 and then all games a year later. The space adventure game gave rise to the concept of a "sequence break," in which players got advanced weapons earlier than intended and blasted through the levels.
The site now has over 900 titles and tens of thousands of videos. In the early days, recording such runs was challenging, and some records turned out to be illegitimate. "People were still using VCRs to record stuff," says Mike Uyama, who joined Speed Demos Archive as an administrator in 2006.
Not every game is suitable for speed runs. A single-player option that has a definitive beginning and end point is necessary for an organized run. Runs are typically divided between "Any%," which requires just finishing the game as quickly as possible, and "100%," which involves completing all levels or tasks before ending the game. The only acceptable runs are done on official consoles and no emulators or cheats are allowed. (Wright set the Ocarina of Time record on the Chinese iQue Player and used Japanese text, which moves slightly faster than English.)
A good speed running game also needs to have a measurable amount of player control, whether through controller-based acrobatic feats in Mario or the tactics of move selection in Pokémon. Excess randomness is also the enemy, although small doses can make a game more exciting.
Newer games generally aren't used in speed runs because the optimal path hasn't been figured out yet. And many of the AAA titles, which require millions of dollars and hundreds of developers, focus more on eye-catching graphics or multiplayer modes. "A lot of games that are really big today ... are based about guiding a player through some set pieces and telling a story," says Wright.
Some recent exceptions include Dark Souls and Super Meat Boy, but the mass-market titles of the 1990s and early 2000s remain the most popular, both for their familiarity and potential for glitches. And Ocarina of Time is one of the most intricate and well-documented games for speed running.
Around 2006, Wright began browsing Speed Demos Archive's forums, as more exploits were being discovered in Link's sprawling, heroic adventure. It turned out that the game was filled with unexpected glitches and exploits that would allow players to get items earlier than intended and skip entire dungeons. The innovations spread through forums and instant messaging. Some contributors didn't do speed runs at all, but rather tested and experimented with glitches. It was a collaborative environment, akin to a research laboratory.
The ideal run kept morphing as more secrets were discovered. The Door of Time skip, one of the most famous sequence breaks in gaming, involved a series of hops and backflips that allowed Link to pass through a wall and skip many of the game's levels. In other areas, Link can use bombs to levitate or other camera tricks to bypass barriers, breaking the linear adventure into a dizzying romp.Wright playing for the Awesome Games Done Quick charity event
Wright began as a lurker in the Speed Demos forum, merely reading the discussions, but he became enthralled in the game and spent hours learning techniques that were never intended by the designers. In April 2012, 14 years after Ocarina of Time was released, the "wrong warp" was discovered, and speed running the game would never be the same.
As Wright explains, the game is coded in a way that every zone has an assigned number and an additional notation when a cutscene is supposed to play. Normally, Link can travel to the next area using blue warps, and the player loses control of Link. In the wrong warp run, Link obtains a bottle early and uses "Ocarina items," a glitch that allows the player to maintain control of Link as he is warping. By performing a series of jumps as the warp is counting down, the player confuses the game and it tries to load a cutscene. In the worst cases, the game will simply crash. But in a few specific areas, the player will appear in a totally different area. "The game's following code," says Wright. "It's happening for a reason."
In a fortunate coincidence for speed runners, glitching the Gohma warp area makes the game load Ganon's castle, creating a quick path from the game's first dungeon to its last. Thus, the game can now be finished in less than 20 minutes.
Forums and instant messages were the key mediums for speed running theory to spread through the mid-2000s, but it remained a niche hobby. Live video streaming, which took off at the beginning of this decade, has since made it a medium for mass consumption.
In late 2011, speed running's popularity began growing. Viewers soared from less than 100 to over 8,000 for top streams, says Jared Rea, community manager at Twitch, the top video game streaming website.
"Not every run is a world record or even a personal best. You're there for everything from the triumphs to the struggles," says Rea. "You get to know the speed runner on a more personal basis."
In the same year, Wright co-founded Speed Runs Live, a website that compiles Twitch streams and runs live races that anyone can join and stream. The site also features streaming and video software recommendations. A subgame is "bingo" for games like Zelda, Mario and Pokémon, which is a more open-ended running style that requires the viewer to select five adjacent goals in a five-by-five bingo-style grid, and then complete them as quickly as possible.
After studying graphic design at Columbia College Chicago, Wright did various freelance art and website design projects. But at the beginning of 2013, he quit and began streaming full time. Wright doesn't play for a monetary prize, but thousands of viewers watch him alongside advertisements or pay $5 to subscribe to his channel, which gives him some revenue. Fans also donate money directly through PayPal to supplement Wright's pizza fund.
Wright declined to disclose the number of paid subscribers, citing confidentiality agreements, but he has over 100,000 Twitch followers and over 24,000 Twitter followers. He says that he makes a decent living, streaming about four days a week for upward of seven hours per session. He has the luxury of picking when to stream, and he'll change games if he feels burned out. "I kind of make it my mission not to have a schedule," he says.
Wright's parents have been supportive, which he credits to their confidence in him. "My parents think I'm going to be a millionaire," he says with a laugh.
But Wright's streaming marathons can be draining. "There are definitely moments where I'm like, 'Shit, I don't want to do it anymore,'" says Wright, but he sustains his interest by switching titles to avoid burnout.
Mike Treanor, an assistant professor of computer science at American University, does his own speed runs of Super Mario Bros. (His best time is around five minutes and 15 seconds, about 20 seconds off the world record.)
"Obsessing is not healthy," says Treanor of speed running to the point of exhaustion. But he says having the support of a community, even if it's online, can be a positive thing. He counters critics who say speed runners are wasting their time: "Is listening to the same song a waste of time?"
Treanor characterizes the pursuit of speed running as a mental exercise. He describes good speed running as learning the "contours" of gameplay, like the physics engine in a platformer, and mastering the rules of gameplay until they become second nature.
"What I'm really interested in doing is pushing the game to its limits and to achieve mastery, which is not that different than people who do sports," says Treanor. "I think there's a pleasure from running these rules in your head like there is pleasure in music or pleasure in looking at a picture."
Frank Lantz, director of the NYU Game Center, says that speed running epitomizes some of the main features that distinguish games from other forms of entertainment.
"What makes something a game?" Lantz says. "They're about problem solving. They're about trying to solve a goal when you're being constrained by the rules."
Speed running can transform even a mediocre game into something more skill intensive, thought provoking and perhaps most importantly, fun, says Lantz. A speed run can also flip the focus of the game from the designer's intent to the skill of the player. Playing Zelda normally is "really about admiring [designer] Shigeru Miyamoto," says Lantz. "You turn it into something that's about admiring how smart and clever Cosmo is. It's like watching Derek Jeter or Bobby Orr or Muhammad Ali."
"Speed runs show you what's happening under the surface," says Lantz. "There's a whole new dimension of beauty that you get to enjoy."
Speed running can also subvert obvious design intentions. A shooter like Half-Life seems to be all about shooting people, but the best way to complete the game quickly is to not shoot anyone. "Avoiding combat — that is a wonderful lesson," says Lantz.
But in a case of Ocarina of Time, Cosmo's skills and glitches turn the fantastical game into something that really defies expectations. "That's real magic," says Lantz.
What I'm really interested in doing is pushing the game to its limits and to achieve mastery.
Efforts to directly commercialize speed running have failed.
Running for charity
Despite being a part of the massive video game industry and attracting numerous stream viewers, speed running has remained almost defiantly noncommercial.
Mike Uyama of Speed Demos Archive attributes this to a few factors: The average speed runner is young, probably early 20s, he says, and making money isn't their primary goal. And in contrast to eSports, where there are computer supply companies and corporate sponsors looking to step forward, most speed run games are played on older consoles that aren't being marketed. The game makers themselves are generally not reliant on promoting speed running to grow their games, compared to multiplayer games made by companies like Activision, Blizzard or Valve. And there's such a variety of different games that are run, from Grand Theft Auto to Super Meat Boy, that it's difficult to come up with a consensus.
Although Wright and a few other runners are able to monetize their personal streams through Twitch advertising partnerships, efforts to directly commercialize speed running have failed. Wright says that Machinima, the popular video game production company, offered $2,400 for 12 episodes of a speed running show, which would award prizes through competitive races. But the community responded negatively and rejected the plan. A Machinima spokesman had no comment.
Although the speed running community has been wary when it comes to commercializing the movement, there has been one key way that the group has made a financial impact.
Mike Uyama of Speed Demos Archive first got into speed running with Mega Man X4. It isn't his favorite game (he prefers Metal Slug), but he saw a video when he was growing up and thought he could do better. He was right, and at one point had the world record.
In 2009, as video game streaming and charity events like Child's Play took off, Uyama had a similar idea, fueled by a similar confidence that made him a Mega Man champ. "We thought, 'Oh, we can do that better,'" he says.
In January 2010, Uyama invited top speed runners to participate in a speed running marathon that showcased various titles and personalities. The event was supposed to take place at MAGFest, the music and gaming festival in Washington, D.C., but internet problems forced a relocation to Uyama's mom's basement, about 10 minutes away.
The event raised $11,000 in 15 hours for Care, a disaster and poverty relief group, about twice what Uyama had expected. He was on to something.
The events have since grown to become some of the top gaming charity events in history. Awesome Games Done Quick 2013 raised over $448,000 for the Prevent Cancer Foundation in January 2013, and Summer Games Done Quick 2013 raised over $257,000 for Doctors Without Borders. A separate group, the European Speedster Assembly, also ran a weeklong charity stream in Sweden for Doctors Without Borders in July.
"In just three years, it's grown so much," says Uyama, who now works full time organizing the events.
To encourage more donations, the marathons offer various prizes and incentives. On the popular Super Metroid run, viewers can donate in favor of saving or killing the in-game animals. Prizes like video game crafts, figurines and even a replica of Zelda's Master Sword are raffled off to people who donate, with minimum buy-ins that range from $5 to over $40.
The success of the events is a testament to the gamers' skill and the attraction to supporting a positive cause, says Uyama. The personality of the runners is also highlighted by a split screen display that has gameplay on the left and a shot of the runner and enthusiastic crowd on the right. And the runs give the runners an opportunity to detail the mechanics and techniques behind what's happening on screen.
Wright is one of the main attractions of the speed running marathons. His Ocarina of Time run from January 2013's event, which includes commentary on speed running history, has nearly a million views on YouTube.
For runners like Wright, the charity events are a way to dazzle the crowd. They're also intense, pressure-filled experiences that aren't always positive. During his sub-four-hour run of The Wind Waker at the same 2013 event, Wright had a co-commentator with the nickname Mirrored, who dissected and criticized Wright's play, dominating the commentary. About two hours into the run, Wright spoke up.
"I feel like I'm being swamped by other people commentating ... I'm just getting kind of flustered," he said.
Wright will get a shot at a new record on January 11 when he plays Wind Waker HD, the Wii U remake of the game, which patched some of the previous glitches. Wright will be one of the last runners at Speed Demos Archive's Awesome Games Done Quick 2014, which is on track to be the biggest charity event to date.
"Even if games are a tiny slice of the universe, they're still almost infinitely mysterious," says Lantz of NYU. "It's ridiculous that people do this, but that makes it beautiful."
And in December, Wright's rival Pydoyks posted a new record for Ocarina of Time: 19 minutes and five seconds. The race is on again.