AGDQ and Adapting to the Pandemic and Online Environment

AGDQ and Adapting to the Pandemic and Online Environment

AGDQ 2021 wasn't the first online GDQ event and it certainly won't be the last, and it's showed how the events are adapting to the Covid era.

The gaming community is full of yearly celebrations. E3 is a celebration of gaming, as is the annual The Game Awards. But whereas these events are self-congratulatory, one series of events instead looks outwards. Games Done Quick, otherwise known as GDQ, is an organization that regularly hosts gaming marathons. Donations are open during the course of these marathons, with every cent going towards one charity or another. But like everything else in today’s world, Games Done Quick events have had to change to fit the Covid-19 era.

Just like major esports events, the once physical nature of events for Games Done Quick had turned from one of its biggest tools, into a hazard for attendees. That’s why this year’s AGDQ, or Awesome Games Done Quick, was completely online. It’s not the first time a GDQ event has shifted to an online-only format, in fact, there have been multiple. However, this has been the first time that the event has kicked off the year for GDQ completely online. It’s a landmark marathon, full of speedrunning, cosplays, and giveaways, and this year the GDQ team had to completely change how it worked.

As with any celebration of gaming, Games Done Quick events have a history of bringing community members together. Audience members and players would be packed into rooms within a large venue, watching games get, well, done quick. This togetherness has spawned its own icons —the caster and player couch, cosplayers, the interview table— that made GDQ events immediately recognizable and memorable. Since beginning in 2010, Games Done Quick events have made themselves a staple for anyone in the gaming community.

If it wasn’t clear, GDQ events are about beating games quickly, and that means speedrunning. Speedrunners are a special kind of gamer — someone more dedicated to a game than your completionist friend with a ton of platinum trophies. They focus down on a game, learning how it works at a base level, even if that means starting to understand the game’s code. This is all in an effort to beat a game as fast as possible. Sometimes that results in players simply using extremely efficient strategies to beat bosses and rush through a game. Other speedrunners actually perform actions in games to manipulate the game’s code, resulting in extremely weird, game-breaking runs.

But, GDQ events aren’t just about watching people play games in a way they usually aren’t played. They’re massive fundraising marathons that, over the course of the past decade, have raised over $31 million for multiple charities. Commonly, donators will be sending money to the Prevent Cancer Foundation, a US health organization dedicated to the early detection and treatment of cancer, or Doctors Without Borders, an international humanitarian organization that sends doctors to countries plagued by war or disease. According to the GDQ website, the organization’s events are currently the lead fundraisers for both of these charities.

AGDQ 2021 Streaming

Photo credit: AGDQ 2021

That record and performance have remained consistent well into the pandemic. AGDQ 2021 was the fourth online-only GDQ event since the beginning of the pandemic last year, with the first being Corona Relief Done Quick. That special event, one of many that GDQ hosts, raised over $400,000 to assist people affected by Covid-19. However, speciality events don’t raise nearly as much as the two main GDQ events each year, AGDQ and SGDQ. Last year’s all-online SGDQ managed to raise $2,345,785 for Doctors Without Borders. AGDQ 2021 raised over $2.7 million for the Prevent Cancer Foundation.

AGDQ 2020 finale

Credit: Games Done Quick

Organizing events like AGDQ before the pandemic is challenging enough as it is, and shifting to online has introduced more challenges. Event organizers have to ensure that everyone is where they need to be and that the stream is running smoothly. Accomplishing the same tasks without physically being around attendees, staff, or speedrunners only exacerbates those difficulties. Still, every event sees some improvement in how they’re run, including those that take place online.

Speaking to Matt Merkle, the director of operations at Games Done Quick, it was clear that things are running smoother now than ever during the pandemic. “Our goal is to make every event an improvement on the last,” he said. “But yes, I do think we took the lessons we learned from SGDQ 2020 Online and improved AGDQ this year.”

AGDQ 2021 Sonic the Hedgehog

Photo Credit: AGDQ 2021

Merkle specifically cited one of the standout additions to this year’s AGDQ stream, the virtual crowd. At any normal GDQ event, one hosted in a large venue filled with spectators, the crowd is an integral part of each event. They’re a constant source of cheers and applause for large donations or impressive tricks during runs. For viewers watching at home, whatever the crowd is doing represents how they feel, even if it’s meeting a bad joke with complete silence. They’re another part of the events that bring viewers tuning in.

For the entirely online events marking the Covid-era, the crowd has been missing. That was until AGDQ 2021. This year, stream viewers were treated to a small digital crowd, seated facing away from them and towards the action. In using the event’s special Twitch emotes in chat, viewers could make members of the virtual crowd perform actions such as clapping or turning to face the viewer. While these may be small things to boost interactivity, they were a reminder to other viewers that they were part of a community of people watching.

Amazing Games Done Quick 2021 stream of donation goal

Credit: Games Done Quick

With all its improvements over previous online events, things still have the potential to go wrong. During AGDQ 2021, there was at least one instance of the stream going down, essentially shutting down the event for thousands of viewers. According to Merkle, problems like these are “simply the internet cutting out” and internally “we just work the problem and figure out what the best solution is.”

Even if they’re quickly resolved, online events are prone to more issues, it’s just in their nature. Instead of having a controlled environment to work in, organizers have to deal with the hardware and set-ups at runners’ homes and hope that everything on their end works as well. In these cases, there’s only one thing the folks at GDQ can do. “The best thing you can do is test, test, test,” Merkle said. To ensure that the event ran as smoothly as possible, Games Done Quick provided each runner and commentator with a prepackaged OBS installer. From there, each person’s stream would be tested one-on-one, and if that wasn’t enough “we even try to adjust their streaming settings based on their computer and internet capabilities,” according to Merkle.

Even with the threat of issues that stem from online-only events, AGDQ 2021 certainly won’t be the last one. Merkle said that these events will be the go-to “for situations that call for a quick response, like [Hurricane] Harvey Relief Done Quick or Corona Relief Done Quick.” Other special GDQ events will also use online-only formats, such as the all-women Frame Fatales events.

Until the pandemic ends, we won’t see GDQ events like the ones we’re used to. For the foreseeable future, everything will be online in order to keep people safe. While these events won’t be able to replace the authentic experience of a live GDQ event, Matt Merkle is confident that the company is getting closer and closer to a perfect online marathon. “It was an incredibly successful event, and we owe that to all the runners, volunteers, and the community itself for their support,” Merkle said. “Despite the limitations, I feel this one came closest to capturing the energy and atmosphere of an in-person event.”