Bagdadsoftware: Please introduce yourself to our readers. Who are you and what’s your association with the Speed Demos Archive?
Alastair Campbell: My name is Alastair Campbell, I am from England, and I was a site administrator at SDA from October 2006 until January 2008.
Bagdadsoftware: What prompted you to join the site and why did they take you?
Alastair Campbell: I joined the site at a time when it was being administered by nate (Nathan Jahnke) and Radix (Nolan Pflug, its original founder). SDA had started to become successful to the point where the existing staff were unable to keep up with the flow of runs. Mike Uyama had already been helping Radix with tasks like run verification, writing text for game pages, and so on. Meanwhile, I had been active amongst the Metroid speed running / sequence breaking community from which SDA grew in its early days, so I had known nate and Radix for a while through Metroid. I had a background in programming, I knew Linux well, and I had some experience with video processing and encoding, and also a little publishing experience. It made sense for Mike Uyama to take on the community-facing role (dealing with people) while I handled the technical side of things (dealing with computers), and so that was how we split the responsibilities when Mike and I offered to help nate and Radix in 2006.
Bagdadsoftware: So what were your exact duties in the end?
Alastair Campbell: My main duty was to update the site. If SDA were a newspaper, I would have been its editor. I was responsible for preparing each update, which would typically involve receiving information about the run from Mike, and a set of video files from nate. I would then have to upload the video files to our mirrors, prepare the updated run pages, write the news, create BitTorrents, update the RSS feeds, and so on. The most time-consuming part of the job was having to check everything thoroughly for errors. Some of this work could be partly automated, so I also wrote various pieces of software to make some of these tasks easier and quicker. Enhasa (Kevin Juang) now handles most of my old duties.
Bagdadsoftware: That does sound like a lot of work. Still you say "main" duty. What else does the job of an SDA-administrator include?
Alastair Campbell: SDA administrators also have other duties that go beyond posting runs. The staff constantly needs to review the rules - both global site rules and, occasionally, rules that apply to specific games. Gaming, speed running and SDA are all evolving together. It is a constant struggle to try to keep the rules fair, both to speed runners themselves and to SDA's audience. The rules also need to enable the staff to process runs quickly while being simple enough to be easily understood. In the end the rules are usually a compromise; but the SDA staff needs to ensure that this compromise is a good one.
Bagdadsoftware: Is the community part of defining the rules or is everything in the hands of the admins? Or do the suggestions mostly come from the community in the first place?
Alastair Campbell: One slightly strange thing about SDA is that the runners who create the content are often a different group of people to the audience that consumes the content. Of course, speed runners love to watch other runners' videos, but many people who download SDA videos are just ordinary gamers. The staff needs to try to balance the preferences of these two groups (runners and their fans). Ultimately, the site needs both producers and consumers to be able to survive, so the rules must never be allowed to go too far in either direction. There have been several site rules that have changed fairly recently, and these changes have generally occurred due to pressure from the runner community. The site's audience is also always evolving as speed running becomes more widespread and better understood, and the rules may change to reflect that, too.
Bagdadsoftware: Do you know the most debated rule currently in place and why it was so highly debated?
Alastair Campbell: There have been a few rules over the years that have proved to be controversial. At the moment, one of the big debates is over the use of scripts in PC games to automate actions. Most PC games allow the player to define a sequence of commands as a macro and bind it to a key on the keyboard, and this ability has been used in a limited way by PC speed runners since the days of Quake. However, it is also possible to abuse this feature by stringing together chains of commands with precise timing that could not be achieved by a human player. This may not fit with the public's perception of a speed run as an exhibition of skill, so this is again a case of trying to balance the needs of runners against those of the site's audience. As far as I know, the rule has recently been revised to ban new runs that use scripts. I personally feel that this is the correct decision, although I know that there are people who disagree.
Bagdadsoftware: Before a run is published on SDA it goes through a verification process. Could you describe how that works?
Alastair Campbell: Before a runner is allowed to submit, their run is added to the list of unverified runs which is kept in a topic on the forum. Community members will then secretly volunteer to verify the run. Once a run has enough verifiers, the site will accept the run for submission. Verifiers are usually trusted members who have been around the site for a while and are known to the administration; ideally they would also have speedrunning experience on the game in question, although this is not always required. SDA will provide the verifiers with private copies of the run videos. The verifiers must watch these and judge whether the run is legal, decide whether it meets SDA's quality standards, and check the video and audio to ensure that there are no problems with it. If they have any questions, they can submit them and they will be passed on to the runner. Verifiers then write and submit a short report on what they have seen and whether they feel the run should be accepted or rejected. These reports are published anonymously on the forum so that they may then be read by others. If the verifiers vote to accept the run, then it is moved into the next stage of the run queue.
Bagdadsoftware: The verification process can take a long time. Sir VG told us his Dawn of Mana run was in the queue for around two years before publishing. Do you think that’s a necessary evil to assure a high quality or do you sometimes wish there was an easier way?
Alastair Campbell: It is true that some runs take a long time to find enough verifiers; sometimes, runs have to be rejected because not enough trustworthy verifiers can be found. Everyone regrets this, but I think everyone also understands that verification is necessary to give credibility to SDA's content. I think it is better that the site should have a small number of high quality runs than a large number of low quality ones. There is nothing to stop a runner from uploading an unverified run to a video-sharing website such as YouTube, so an audience can still be found for unverified content.
Bagdadsoftware: What do you think about the speedrunning-community at SDA? Is it big and do you have to deal with many idiots, or does everyone know everyone and the atmosphere is generally friendly and helpful?
Alastair Campbell: I think that it is probably the same as most online communities – there is a core group of dedicated regulars who know one another quite well, and then there are other people who come and go less frequently. Some runners specialize in a particular game or series of games, and will only be present when there is work to be done on those games. Sometimes people register to ask questions about a particular run, or to request a run of a particular game, and those sorts of queries are always very welcome.
We sometimes see an increase in new members if a big, popular new game is released, and yes, often this does include people who have nothing useful to say. The discussion on SDA's forums is focused on speed running, though, so it is fairly easy to spot the timewasters.
Bagdadsoftware: Posting the runs and publishing a news on the site is one thing but what about outside of SDA? Do you have a PR-department?
Alastair Campbell: All SDA administrators are partially responsible for promotion, both of the site itself and of speed running as a concept. From time to time there is interest from journalists, or someone will ask about showing speed runs at gaming exhibitions. I myself spent many months working on a SDA DVD that was shown at the Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) in 2007, and there have been various other promotional videos created in SDA's lifetime, going all the way back to SDA's early days as a Quake site. Promotion is hard work, but for the site, for the runners who provide the site's content, and for speed running in general it is important that SDA deals with requests from the media, and does so in a professional way.
Bagdadsoftware: And the staff certainly does a good job. Is the DVD available for sale/download or for that matter any of the other promotional videos?
Alastair Campbell: We uploaded an ISO image of that video DVD to archive.org after PAX 2007 was finished. There are also some MP4 and AVI versions: http://www.archive.org/details/PAX-SDA_Speed_Run_Showcase_2007 There was also a video shown at MagFest, although I wasn't involved in this one: http://www.archive.org/details/MAGFest-SDA_Speed_Run_Showcase_2009
SDA did try selling video DVDs of runs for a while, but the revenue from this was not enough to justify the cost, unfortunately.
Bagdadsoftware: Speaking of DVD – how did the development of video technology influence how SDA operates?
Alastair Campbell: In the early days, submissions were sent in on VHS tape and the runs would be distributed as MPEG-4 ASP AVI (also known as DivX) at 512 kbps. Now, submissions are only accepted on recordable DVD, the site uses the vastly superior and increasingly popular MPEG-4 AVC MP4 standard (also known as H.264) and SDA makes a range of different video qualities available, from 256 kbps to 5000 kbps or more. Full-framerate games (those that run at 50 or 60 frames per second rather than 25 or 30) are carefully deinterlaced using motion compensating algorithms so that the action remains as smooth as possible, and so the higher quality versions of SDA videos are very often full framerate and full resolution. An increasing number of runs now have audio commentary available on a second audio track. And many 2D games that have been re-released on modern consoles require special processing that we call "anti-deflickering".
Bagdadsoftware: Sounds like a lot more work than just filming something, put it together in MovieMaker and upload it to YouTube.
Alastair Campbell: Encoding game video well is more complicated than some people realize, and video quality has always been very important to the site. There is always research taking place in this area. One important development was the release of a free software collection written partially by the SDA community that runners can use to encode runs from DVD or other source files on their own PCs automatically, which makes life much easier both for speed runners and for the site's administrators.
Bagdadsoftware: And all that for "just" a speedrun that in some cases only a handful of people really watch. Or is the community really that big to justify all that work in your spare time?
Alastair Campbell: Runs on popular games always attract more interest than runs on less well known games, but the site tries to treat all runs fairly and equally. Even if a run is only downloaded by a few people, it is still worth the work of processing it.
Bagdadsoftware: In contrast to pages like GameSpy or even the normal WordPress-based blog, SDA not only looks somewhat dated, to find a specific run can also be rather difficult at times. With all the effort going into the videos themselves – is there no time to improve the website as well?
Alastair Campbell: There has been discussion for a long time about completely reworking the site, but there are two difficulties with this. Firstly, there is a lot of existing information on SDA that would need to be moved across to the new site, and this would be a very big job. The second problem is that there are always new runs coming in that must be processed, and keeping the queue moving is always the highest priority. There have been various attempts at developing prototype versions of a new website, and I did some work on this myself in late 2007 / early 2008. I am sure it will happen sometime.
Bagdadsoftware: What do you think will SDA look like on its twentieth birthday in 2018?
Alastair Campbell: I am sure that the site itself will have been improved and will look and function better, and I am sure that there will be new technologies that SDA can use to get video to people in new and exciting ways. However, I hope that the manner in which runs are verified and processed will remain basically the same. I also hope that the site remains an independent, community-funded project administered by speed runners and ex-speed runners.
Bagdadsoftware: As a speedrunner yourself: Where do you personally want to see speedrunning in general in 2018?
Alastair Campbell: I hope that speed running will come to be seen as the purest form of performance gaming. Speed running as an organized activity has definitely become better known and more widespread amongst gamers over the last ten years. Credit must go to Radix and to SDA's administrators for playing an important role in that process – I am certainly very proud to have been involved in it. I think there is a need to continue with the process of introducing gamers to speed running as a demonstration of skill, and to encourage gamers to try it for themselves.[CH]
(Veröffentlicht am 05.07.2010)