October 25th, 2012 - As we enter the final three weeks before the Kong Off 2, it might be a good time to assess the state of competition in the Donkey Kong community, and to look ahead at where we might be going.
I've written before about how the world record is approaching its end-point, but what about the top 20 in general?
To be blunt, I feel that heavy competition around Donkey Kong isn't going to last much longer. There may be a few good years left, but not more. There are several reasons why.
The Luck Factor
As I've said elsewhere, the record is becoming more of a lottery than a display of pure skill, requiring a very lucky game to beat. It probably won't be too long before one of the elite players is blessed with the "magic game" that combines huge skill with huge luck and the score can no longer be realistically challenged. That alone won't bury the game, but when everybody else gives up on ever having a shot at first, it will douse a lot of the competitive fire.
The Skill Plateau
Lower spots won't fare much better. Donkey Kong has an inherent weakness, in that a player eventually maximizes or near-maximizes the game's potential. You can only get so good at this.
The beauty and mystery of the game is that it (generally) takes years for a player to reach that skill plateau, but reaching it is nonetheless inevitable for anyone who perseveres.
Much of the currently-active community will attain "Donkey Kong enlightenment" before too long, or at least come close enough to feel that they have nothing more to learn. I believe that Dean is more or less there, and that Hank is on the approach. (They, and others, are also going to leave an iron wall of a leaderboard in their wake.)
The plateau is also a consequence of the fact that Donkey Kong has been pretty much "solved." Any secrets that there ever might have been are no longer secrets. While nobody can say for sure, it's probably the case that there is nothing new to discover about the game, and certainly nothing major.
No More Machines
One problem is admittedly a bit further in the future than the others I'm discussing, but it's still a problem: the original hardware is only going to be around for so long.
These machines are now over 30 years old. Tens of thousands were produced, but only a fraction remain, and every day more are junked, converted, or simply fall apart from age. There's always emulation, but eventually emulation will be the only option.
Procuring (or traveling to) a Donkey Kong machine isn't necessarily easy even now (and is a major barrier to entering the competition pool in the first place). It's only going to get harder, and only a matter of time until the arcade leaderboard must be abandoned. (One might suggest eventually combining the arcade and MAME leaderboards, but trust me when I say that taking such a step would cause numerous heads to explode and corpses to whirl in their graves.)
Ho Hum, Another Million
With every passing year, new players are coming in and building their skills, and every time we mint another millionaire, the achievement is diluted. The more top-level players there are, the less interesting it will seem to become one.
Speaking from my own experience: at the time of my first kill screen in December of 2011 there were only three million-point players on the Twin Galaxies arcade leaderboard.
I immediately set out to acquire an arcade machine, thinking that it would be pretty cool to be right behind Hank, Steve, and Billy as the fourth.
Two days after I committed to "going big", Dave McCrary nabbed himself the million.
Dave deserved it, and it didn't knock the wind out of my sails (I'd already figured that at least one person would beat me to it), but I was surprised in the eleven months that followed when the number of million-point scores on the leaderboard more than doubled. The Kong Off 2 qualification requirement incentivized many players to work their hardest, and the effect was clear.
Nowadays cracking seven figures would barely get me into the top 10. I'm still going to do it, and it's still going to be a blast getting there, but "one million" definitely doesn't have the same ring to it in 2013 that it did in 2011.
At any rate, I feel like my situation might portend the general state of things: the day is coming when the competition around Donkey Kong will have been squeezed too dry to be appealing anymore.
Once somebody bumps into that freak occurrence world record score, and all the prime real estate on the leaderboard has been eaten up by a top 25 of million-pointers trying (or more likely not bothering) to scrape for the next-highest spot, in a highly congested scoring range that represents approximately equal ability, where else is there to go?
Becoming a million point-caliber player takes a lot of dedication and effort. Part of the appeal is knowing that you will be in rare company when you do so. When that exclusivity goes, so does a lot of the motivation.
It's rewarding in itself to go for the million for the sake of doing it, but for someone playing from a purely competitive standpoint, who will want to push so hard just to be in 30th place on the brutal leaderboard of the future?
Eventually, Kong Offs (if any) will be more about fun, fellowship, and tradition than serious attempts to keep up in a high score chase between rivals, which will have slowed to a walk in the park among friends.
That, of course, sounds fine to me too.
But I'll be enjoying the chase while it lasts.