Donkey Kong at MIX08: Behind the Scenes

In the two weeks since our MIX08 event in Las Vegas, I've been asked many times about Steve Wiebe's attempt to re-claim the Donkey Kong world record at our TAO attendee party on March 5th, 2008. So, I thought I'd document what happened "behind the scenes" for those of you who may be curious.

The story really began back in September, 2007 when a few of us at Microsoft had dinner with Steve at a local restaurant here in Washington. We're all fans of The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, and our only motives were to eat some good food and meet Steve Wiebe. It honestly didn't go any deeper than that.

Some time passed, and as we started to think about entertainment for our MIX08 event, Steve's name came up again. I was a member of our MIX08 core team (the group of people who organized and ran MIX08), and we reasoned that our audience—which consists of a lot of people who grew up playing classic arcade games—would love the opportunity to play some classic games and meet a true master. Due to space constraints at TAO, we eventually dropped the idea of renting a club-full of games but stuck with the record-breaking attempt.

I asked Steve if he'd be interested in participating, and after coordinating the time off with his school district (he's a teacher), he said yes. Steve then put me in touch with Ed Cunningham (leftmost in the photo), the producer of The King of Kong. In addition to being an all around great guy, Ed knew a lot about what it would take to make this an official world record attempt...more on that later. Ed also suggested that we screen the movie at MIX08 so that anyone who hadn't seen the film would understand who Steve was and what he was trying to do. He offered to help us coordinate and also put me in touch with Walter Day, the founder of Twin Galaxies.

I love Walter. The first time I talked to him on the phone, I had a smile on my face from ear-to-ear. When I started to explain what a Microsoft Technical Evangelist does, Walter actually gave me one of the best descriptions I'd ever heard! And most people have no idea what we do as Evangelists at Microsoft...even after I try to explain it to them. He's poetic in his phrasing and articulate in his speech. For our event, though, he was not only the official referee, but he helped me coordinate the intricate process of staging an official world record Donkey Kong attempt.

According to Walter (and Ed and Steve), the release of the movie and its ever-increasing popularity has raised the bar for what it takes to stage a record-breaking attempt for Donkey Kong. To start with, I needed to find a Donkey Kong printed circuit board (PCB) that I could have validated as authentic and unmodified. As luck would have it, we have a vintage Donkey Kong arcade machine in our building on the Microsoft campus. Unfortunately, the cabinet is locked, and despite my many attempts, I could never find the owner of the machine.

Walter put me in touch with Jeff Kulczycki (maker of D2K: Jumpman Returns) as one of two people who are trusted by Twin Galaxies to validate Donkey Kong boards. Thankfully, Jeff had an extra PCB he was willing to rent to us for Steve's attempt. To mitigate the risk of the board being damaged during shipment, Jeff also located and purchased a second PCB. Both of the boards were tested and validated by Jeff before being sealed and shipped directly to Walter Day at The Venetian Hotel (where they were kept sealed in The Venetian's secure area until Walter's arrival in Las Vegas).

To maintain a chain of custody, around 11:00am on the morning of March 5th, we had a camera crew film Walter as he signed for and accepted the two packages from The Venetian. The crew kept filming as he carried the packages to TAO and unsealed the first of the two PCBs. We had coordinated with a local arcade rental company to deliver an original Donkey Kong cabinet (along with two other related machines for attendees). Walter observed as one of the technicians removed the PCB from the original Donkey Kong cabinet and replaced it with the validated board.

After verifying that the machine worked properly, it was sealed and guarded by security personnel as the lighting and audio/video equipment were set up. A professional-quality video camera was mounted on a tripod behind and to the right of where Steve would sit. This camera would not only be used to record every moment of Steve's record-breaking attempt, but it would also send a live feed to the large monitors positioned in the club so that everyone could watch him play.

Steve arrived early in the afternoon to go through a technical check. We needed to make sure that the game was performing correctly, that the joystick and buttons were operating properly, and that the video and audio feeds were functioning. After playing some warm-up games, Steve left the club to put on a darker shirt (his white t-shirt was reflecting off the glass and interfering with the video image). Throughout the technical check, Steve's wife, Nicole, and their two kids came to visit too.

When Steve returned around 5:00pm, he started his first game. We wanted to give him as many opportunities as possible to beat the high score, and since the official party was from 6:00pm - 10:00pm, starting at 5:00pm gave him an additional hour. According to Steve, he had scored over one million points the prior weekend while practicing in his garage. Walter sat next to Steve and tracked his pace against prior attempts.

Though I didn't note the actual scores myself, Twin Galaxies reports that Steve reached 929,800 points on his first attempt. While not enough to re-claim the world record, this was the sixth time that someone has reached the kill screen at an event like this. It was great to see in person. After a short break, Steve played a second game and scored 579,300 points. I played a lot of Donkey Kong when I was young, and I have to tell was amazing to watch Steve do what he does. I almost couldn't look at the screen, because my instincts were telling me that there was no way to get out of many of the situations he found himself in (or rather, put himself in). Perhaps most impressive of all, he looked just as calm, cool, and collected in the loud nightclub as he did in the movie. He is truly a professional.

Overall, Steve put on a very impressive performance. We had a huge crowd, and everyone seemed to have fun. If Steve would have beaten the record, we would have filmed the removal of the PCB and shipped it back to Jeff Kulczycki for re-validation (according to the rules). As it turned out, however, we didn't have to do that. As an additional "thanks" to Steve for participating in our event, we gave the second validated Donkey Kong PCB to him for his own use.

I've published some photos from the party. Some were taken by our MIX08 event photographer, some were taken by Robert Hess, a 20+ year Microsoft employee, and the third set was taken by Andrew Laidlaw who was gracious enough to let me host his images. There's also a video of the Q&A session that followed the movie screening and a short video interview with Steve and Walter.

There are three other questions that I've heard, and I'll respond to them here for completeness:

  1. Why are you playing a Nintendo game at a Microsoft event? Honestly, this thought never crossed my mind until someone asked it at MIX08. It's simple, really. We grew up on classic arcade games too, and we figured that our attendees would love it.
  2. What about Billy Mitchell's hot sauce? Yes, it's true that Billy Mitchell sent a case of his hot sauce to the event (you can see the bottles in some of the photos). The bottles have a limited edition label titled "Steve Wiebe Attempts Donkey Kong World Record March 5, 2008" along with various Billy quotes. Depending on who you talk to, this is either 1) a way to honor Steve's attempt, or 2) the "long arm" that is talked about in the movie. Regardless, even Billy would agree that this was Steve's event, so we didn't make mention of the sauce that evening.
  3. What affect will the new rules have on the Donkey Kong world record? Well, I can tell you that it took more effort to pull this off than I had originally anticipated. If it takes this level of effort each time someone thinks they may break the current Donkey Kong world record, I can tell you that the opportunities for this to happen will be greatly diminished.

In closing, I'd like to thank Steve and Nicole Wiebe (and their two kids), Ed Cunningham, Walter Day, Jeff Kulczycki, and New Line Cinema for helping to make this event a success.