To a certain strata of die-hard old-timers who fondly remember the arcade days of yore, when dimly-lit bars darkened by the constant swirl of smoke housed all the latest and greatest flashing amusements, and drunken arguments were settled by the quarter, the name “Twin Galaxies” exudes a kind of faded authority, a promise of a universal video game scoreboard that was never quite fulfilled, at least in its original conception.
But now, under new management led by industry veteran Jace Hall, the organization has shifted its score dispute process from a single referee to the hordes of arcade enthusiasts, jettisoning suspect records held by the likes of hot-sauce slinging “King of Kong” Billy Mitchell in the process. With that behind them, Twin Galaxies now seeks to establish itself as not only the ur-scoreboard for the dusty cabinets at your local barcade, but the destination for all of competitive gaming, from “Angry Birds” on up. And Hall’s lofty ambitions rise beyond even that, including initiatives such as sports-style “player ratings” and radical anti-toxicity measures that could send shockwaves through the competitive gaming sphere if they can find purchase among the notoriously-fickle gaming community.
The idea of Twin Galaxies first sprung fully-formed in the early ‘80s from the mind of Walter Day, the proprietor of a tiny arcade by that name nestled in the cornfields of Iowa. Like a lot of early arcade operators, Day took an abiding interest in the score-oriented gaming culture of the decade, and he found himself trying to determine the all-time top-scores for some of the era’s most popular games, like “Galaga” and “Donkey Kong,” often by physically visiting different sites. Eventually, he published his findings as a “national scoreboard” that got picked up by several notable gaming magazines, and off of that, he began to promote various ventures with fanciful names, such as cross-state arcade play-offs, and a touring “U.S. National Video Game Team.” As the concept of a unified scoring organization began to take root, the organization found itself awash with hundreds of video cassettes mailed by ambitious gamers hoping to grasp their quarter-hour of glory. That’s when Twin Galaxies realized that they needed a standardized process to staunch the tide, and prevent cheaters from sneaking their way through.
“At the time, the system made a lot of sense,” recalls Jace Hall, a former video game producer and executive at Monolith and Warner Bros. Interactive, who acquired Twin Galaxies in 2014. “A physical referee would watch the person play, and would look at the inside of the machine to make sure it wasn’t being tampered with. Now, of course, we can see that that kind of system doesn’t scale well, and it’s riddled with flaws. The referees would have 500 videotapes they’d need to watch in a week, and they couldn’t get through them all. It could take up to six months to process your score. And, of course, players would be friends with the referees. It’s a single point of failure, so we shouldn’t be surprised that there’s some bad ones on the historic board.”
Though Hall says that he admires Day’s commitment to the cause, to his view, the fact that Twin Galaxy lacked a rigid review process for weeding out illegitimate scores hurt its credibility as a recordkeeping organization, especially considering the extent that Day relied on larger-than-life players like Billy Mitchell to promote the concept of competitive gaming as a serious undertaking. (Mitchell’s public profile has suffered immensely since the release of the highly-regarded 2007 documentary King of Kong, which depicts him as a consummate cheater and manipulator who uses his celebrity and personal connections to Twin Galaxies in order to disqualify underdog Steve Wiebe’s winning score; Day left the organization in 2010.) Thus, when Hall bought the organization from its previous management – who left it in a state that he describes as a “disorganized mess” – he immediately started instituting what he describes as a more robust process, modelled on the peer-review procedures associated with dusty academic journals, relying implicitly on the community that has ebbed and flowed around the edges of Twin Galaxies since its inception.
Hall favorably compares this refined “Twin Galaxies Submission and Adjudication Processes” (better known as TGSAP) system to similar crowd-sourced measures of quality, such as online retailer Ebay’s ubiquitous buyer and seller ratings. “Rather than relying on a single point of failure, we have many points of failure,” he says. “It’s a scientific, peer-reviewed, crowd-based adjudication system, where thousands of people weigh in on a particular score. You always end up with the correct answer, eventually. Now, we can adjudicate thousands of scores a month, not five. It’s public, it’s on record, and it earmarks player achievement … But because Walter never had a real dispute system, you have decades of pent-up competitors who think and feel that there are certain scores in the database that’re just lies.” To Hall, this newly-minted process for reviewing old scores serves the necessary purpose of “garbage-collection,” ensuring that every score can be reviewed by these modern standards if needed.
A careful perusal of Twin Galaxies’ dispute forum reveals that the review process is often rather straightforward, requiring little knowledge or technical acumen: a player might have recorded a score of 208 in a game that only gives points in intervals of five or ten, making the entry clearly impossible on its face. Sometimes, it might even be entered for the wrong game; another thread shows that a score of 4,100 points on the Atari 2600 game “Spacechase” got garbled by space and time into a time of 41.0 seconds on the similarly-titled Atari arcade game from six years earlier, “Steeplechase.” (This mistake was detected in early 2018, almost twenty years after it was verified, and only because some insightful users determined that times of below a minute are utterly impossible in that game, even with perfect play.)
With that said, the two highest-profile cases so far – that of notable player Todd Rogers’ world-record time of 5.51 in the Atari 2600 game “Dragster,” and Billy Mitchell’s pair of million-point games of “Donkey Kong” – both turned on extremely specific claims about the technical minutiae of each game, which necessitated hours upon hours of rigorous testing. For the Rogers case, Hall went so far as to hire famed engineer and modder Benjamin Heckendorn – best-known as the host of the long-running Ben Heck Show on YouTube, which concluded in June – to construct a custom kit for an Atari 2600 such that they could read its RAM even as it played itself. Even though skeptic and speedrunner Eric “Omnigamer” Koziel’s spreadsheet-based simulation of Dragster’s software logic has held that a 5.51 is “possible only through acute hardware failure,” Hall enlisted Heckendorn to try to look at both levels at once.
“It was like solving a hardware logic puzzle,” Heckendorn told Variety. “I basically built a device that would shadow the RAM, so as the CPU writes to the RAM, the signals would be interpreted from what I built, and it would make a local copy of the RAM in an external microcontroller. Basically, a real-time RAM buffer. But because the entire thing was written in machine language, it took me a while to figure out how to make it work. I’ll admit I’m not a very good machine programmer. We eventually did verify that all of [Koziel’s] predictions were correct, on real hardware, with frame-accurate tests.”
For Heckendorn’s part, he readily admits that he has no deep interest in the concept of a competitive gaming scoreboard – rather, he just likes to tool around with old hardware, and this particular case presented a unique technical challenge for him to tackle. Before the decision was publicized, he felt that the intense media scrutiny that the case had garnered would lead to a “feeding frenzy” of disputes; though that has yet to materialize, he warns that more complex games might require even more levels of technical knowledge in the future in order to settle such issues. “Sure, my kit would work on an NES, because it has the same processor,” he says. “But ‘Dragster’ is an incredibly simple game, with very few inputs. Even a Mario game would bring so many more variables into it that you’d need someone who really knows the game to make it work, like a speedrunner or the like.”
For Hall, these multifaceted processes are part and parcel with Twin Galaxies’ raison d’etre – the widespread acceptance of competitive video gaming as a legitimate pastime, which he views as separate from the ever-ascending forces of esports like “League of Legends” or “Counter-Strike.”
“Ultimately, esports are great, but they’re a limited part of the gaming sphere,” he says. “Competitive video gaming is everything from ‘Galaga’ to ‘Flappy Bird.’ When you see somebody get 1,000 points in ‘Flappy Bird,’ you think, oh, damn, that game is hard as hell. When you see somebody get a lot of points in ‘Piano Tiles,’ you think, oh, shit. Competitive video gaming is across many platforms, across all of time. We always say that someone’s a great ‘League of Legends’ player. Why can’t it be that they’re just a great video game player? Twin Galaxies is trying to shift the entire significance of video gaming onto people, who’s playing it, away from the only way we’re supposed to think about them, which is games as commercial products to be bought and sold. We’re trying to move away from that.”
While it’s easy to see how that comports with Walter Day’s original mission – and its continued partnerships with globally-recognized recordkeeping organizations, such as Guinness – Hall has other plans, some more outlandish than others. In particular, he says that he wants Twin Galaxies to become something akin to a credit rating bureau for inappropriate behavior in top multiplayer games, like the raucous hit “PUBG.” “It’s simple,” he says. “All games have problems with toxic behavior, but the publishers don’t want to punish their own customers. It’s bad business. But if there was an in-between party that kept a rating, so if you buy the game, you go behave poorly in the game, and that activity gets reported to Twin Galaxies, that goes onto your public record. Then, you can’t access the Twin Galaxies server, where all the non-toxic players are. Instead, you get to play in the other server, with the cheaters and hackers. We’d offer a path to redemption, too. Just like a credit report. Yeah, you can go run up all of your credit cards, not pay your mortgage, you can do that, but nobody’s ever going to loan you money ever again.”
When asked how he thinks notoriously-fickle players will respond to this change, Hall shifts gears. “Well, if Twin Galaxies had a bunch of relationships with publishers and we all agreed that we were going to be the arbiter, it gets easier. There’s nothing player can do about that. But the fact of the matter is that it would be better for players for it to be that way, because they have no chance of fighting a publisher, and if they come to Twin Galaxies, we could make changes with the publisher…We’re not going to try to force ourselves onto people or anything. But look at IMDB, it offers value to the people who use it, right? And, so a system like that for players will offer value.”
While it’s unclear if Hall’s ideas will come to fruition, one thing’s for sure – as a recordkeeping organization, Twin Galaxies may have had ridden the crests and troughs of gaming culture, but it seems more sustainable than ever. And for Hall’s part, he seems committed to the high-score cause, controversies and all. “People couldn’t believe that Twin Galaxies could’ve ever ruled against Billy Mitchell, because the history of Twin Galaxies has been that it has promoted Billy Mitchell as sort of the frontman, for high-score play, and all this other stuff,” says Hall. “From my ownership, this is all about the integrity of the database, it’s about holding a platform for all players. It’s not about one particular person, no matter what.”