Making Super Meat Boy sizzle

Q&A: Team Meat discusses its philosophy of game design, sticking to its guns in the face of focus groups, and why the App Store sucks.

Last month, Super Meat Boy debuted on Xbox Live Arcade, where the hard-as-nails, moist-as-ground-chuck 2D platformer won critical acclaim for precise controls and demanding-yet-doable difficulty. The game was developed by Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes--collectively known as Team Meat--who are rapidly gaining a reputation as outspokenly opinionated members of what is already an outspoken and opinionated indie development community.

Team Meat has beef.

McMillen and Refenes spoke with GameSpot for a recent feature article compiling designer perspectives on the social gaming trend. However, the interview stepped beyond those parameters early and often. Topics discussed but left out of the feature included the pair's design philosophy, their original goal for Meat Boy, and ignoring outside feedback on the game. Those topics are timely once again as Super Meat Boy debuts on the PC this week, complete with new exclusive playable characters from other indie hits like Minecraft and Machinarium.

GameSpot: Did you expect Super Meat Boy to be greeted by critics and audiences so positively?

Edmund McMillen: We didn't know how Meat Boy would do at all. We had no idea. We thought it would be too difficult, or just not everybody's thing. But it's kind of been released to an insane amount of critical praise. The fans are just great, and the sales are really great. If that's happening with us, I know for a fact that if you just make a good game, put your all into what you're doing, you can still outshine the mainstream money-making guys that can pour s***loads of money into advertising. If you go all-in on what you're working on, there's definitely hope there.

GS: How difficult has it been as independent developers when the channels that have lowered the bar to entry are also overrun with casual and social games?

Tommy Refenes: It's very hard now for someone who wants to make a game to legitimately say, "We're going to spend 18 months on Meat Boy and release it on iPhone." I don't think anybody in their right mind can justify that right now. There are like 30,000 apps, or something like that. There is so much random bull**** that goes into any game doing well on that system. There's a huge amount of luck. There's obviously the press and how people respond to the game.

That Angry Birds game is an exception to the rule. It's a good game and it actually did do well. But I really think a lot of their success is just because they kind of got lucky. They could have come out the same week as some sort of weird farting application that people would just gush over and then everybody would flock to that. It makes it very difficult to compete, and it makes it very difficult to justify spending any sort of large development cycle on making a game for something like the iPhone. There's a very real and very scary chance that your game comes out, some random thing comes out that isn't really a game but makes a lot of people laugh, and all of a sudden your 18 months is now screwed because that one week where you had your whole spotlight is now gone because this one joke fart app that Apple didn't even want on the system is up there and people are buying it.

You can argue the whole "free market" thing, but I think that only works sometimes. It's very, very important to make sure stuff is of a certain quality, and the App Store doesn't do that. They just let anybody and everybody put up whatever they want. They had a boob jiggling application, for f**** sake. Come on. Every prepubescent little 12-year-old boy that has an iPhone is going to buy the f****** boob game, and it's going to go all over the place because that's what it is. And then it's like, our 18 months are now flushed down the toilet; let's go work at ngmoco now. God, I hate the App Store so much.

It's not easy being meaty.

GS: One of the big trends with social games like Farmville is metrics in design, where you can do things like change the color of a button from purple to green and see how many people click on it as a result, to maximize average revenue per user or virality.

EM: I didn't realize that, but that's business. That's business and not game design, so that makes sense.

TR: That sounds like the most evil f****** s*** I've ever heard in my life.

EM: The funny thing about [metrics] and business in general is the idea that they think they're perfecting something and they're going to be more successful by perfecting it. When in reality, I guarantee you something will come out in the next few years that will beat out these games, and it will be something nobody knows about, and something nobody knows they wanted, because the thing that people really want is something they don't know exists. That's the important thing that business always forgets. People want something new and fresh. They don't know what that thing is. You can fine-tune something to hell, and all you're going to get is a few more thousand people. It's not just about that; once people get tired of something, they get tired of it and move on to something that's new and innovative and fun. And if Minecraft hasn't proved that, I don't know what has.

TR: By that same token, people will accept just awful s***. See the last nine Call of Duty games, or whatever. I'm not saying those are necessarily s***, but they're nothing new. They are exactly what the last one was, maybe with some improvements. Call of Duty is becoming Madden, basically.

EM: It's all business. It's just business, you know?

GS: What sort of metrics did you use in developing Super Meat Boy?

EM: [Laughs] It went as far as me and Tommy going, "Hey, is this good?"

TR: One day I go to Ed and say, "This level's too hard. What are you, silly?"

EM: And then I make it a little easier. Yeah, we had nothing. Our budget is zero, so we didn't have the ability to do much. Microsoft does donate one focus group, and that focus group came back with a lot of funny reactions to a lot of things.

TR: Had we followed [all] that feedback, the game would be dull, boring, and it wouldn't load the game during cutscenes. Instead it would pop up a static image that says "Loading."

So many asterisks!

EM: It's funny how that works. I guarantee, if we went by what people wanted, there is no way our game would be as popular as it is. Hands down, the game would not be as good, would not feel as honest. This is quite literally me and Tommy talking back and forth and making a game without any real outside influence, and just trying as hard as we can to stay true to what our vision was, which was essentially trying to remake Mario for us. How could we remake Mario perfect for when we were 13-year-old kids so that when we played it, we'd go nuts over it. That was the design. That was it. We just so happened to fall onto something that more people could relate to than just us.

I was kind of surprised that so many people did relate to and enjoy the game, because quite literally, we didn't put much thought at all into marketing and business and who would and wouldn't like it. I know for a fact that a good half of Microsoft, especially the business side, was very confused on how to market this game. I don't know if they thought it would do as well as it did because of the difficulty, because of the way it looked, or because it was strange. On paper, we do not follow any of the proven patterns to make a successful game. As an independent, it's cool to be able to say we did something different, took a risk, stayed true to what we were doing, and did well, in hopes that other people will do the same thing.

GS: So what were the less helpful responses from the focus group?

TR: Literally, like I said about the loading screen. They didn't like that it loaded during the cutscenes. Actually, what they said was they didn't want to watch the cutscenes every time. Well, the cutscenes are totally skippable, but there's a little saw in the corner that spins while it's loading the game (and unskippable). By their feedback, they felt it would be better to basically [let players] skip the cutscene, then show a loading screen. They thought that would be better. It sounds really d***-ish, but not everybody's a game designer. Just like not everybody's a doctor. Just because they think something is exactly what they need, they can't see the scope beyond what's always been presented to them. And what's always been presented to them is you skip a cutscene and then you sit there [at a loading screen].

I remember when PlayStation first came out and everybody b****** about the load time. But people got used to it and stopped seeing it as a nuisance and instead as a necessity. So when we did something different in order to continually engage the player, they said, "I don't want to watch the cutscene." They don't see the difference. They don't see that they are loading a game. They're not watching the cutscene; they're watching a really good loading screen.

Though he is clearly not a vegetable, Meat Boy still knows his roots.

EM: We got a lot of feedback saying that the game was too crude, that the humor was not funny. They wanted the humor changed. They thought the game was too hard. That was a universal thing, that the game was too hard. That sort of basic stuff. They weren't too specific on what they wanted to change; it was just an overall reaction that seemed not super-positive. The consensus on paper was that this was going to be a niche game for hardcore gamers only. And it wasn't going to be that well received in reviews because it was too strange and unfamiliar and didn't hold people's hands through things.

There were a lot of things, business-wise, which were and have been very frowned upon. Two of the biggest ones involved money. It was giving away levels for free, which is a big no-no for business. For us, it's more logical that if we gave something free to fans, they would start talking about the game and it would bring more people in than a microtransaction for a few bucks aimed at people who may have forgotten about the game by then.

The second one was of course launching the game on sale. We'd been talking about a sale around Christmas for the game, but it seemed like a s***** thing to do to fans who bought the thing two months earlier for $15 and then suddenly it's $5 cheaper. So why can't we just launch the game on sale? The people who initially buy it are going to be the hardcore people who love the game, so why not reward them? Again, this isn't something business-wise that is smart. This is a risky thing that Microsoft never did. But they were finally like, "Yeah, OK, we'll try it." We don't know how we can prove that this made things better or worse, and we don't really care. All we care about is that we got to take a risk and do something innovative with business. Hopefully the fans appreciate it.

We're just trying to be as logical as we can about this. It just seems fair. We're not greedy people. Tommy and I have been poor for quite a while, and we've been fine. It's not about juicing the fans until they're dry. It's more about making a really awesome game that people like and continually giving back to the community. Business people think that we're stupid, so what are we going to do?

The sinister Dr. Fetus is Super Meat Boy's nemesis.

TR: And we think business people are stupid. Honestly, I know a lot of people that got MBAs in my college. No offense if anybody has an MBA, but it's not a CS degree. It's not a doctor's degree. These are the guys who pushed me in college. Like, I thought we were over this s***. Obviously there are exceptions, but the guys I knew were all jerks. And they pushed me and made fun of me in f****** college. Grow up.

EM: They were sorority girls.

TR: Shut up! Yeah, they were. [Laughs]

GS: Back to Super Meat Boy, it's intentionally old school in its design, but there are some more modern approaches there. There's no punishment for death, for example. How did you decide which modern design staples were worth including and which ones improved things?

EM: I just default back to the logical process. We went through games that were fun and tried to pick apart why they were fun and why they weren't. Things have just changed over the years. The rules of games have changed, and the expectations. Another reason we were worried the game might not be well received is because we didn't think people would be ready for something hard again. But it was kind of a reinvention of what difficult means. A lot of people think that punishing games and frustrating games are difficult. But I'd like to try to reinvent that word and make people think that when something's difficult, it's good. Because when you beat something difficult, you feel rewarded. And that's a lot different from playing something that's frustrating and discouraging. A lot of games in the past were very punishing. You'd basically have to start all over again when you made an honest mistake.

I think me and Tommy are both teachers, and our goal is to make sure the class passes the test. I don't think a good teacher would give their kids a test and then be happy that they f***** them all over and they all got Fs. That's a bad teacher. A teacher wants their kids to pass. It's the art of being a good teacher. I want people to understand how to play and feel they did a good job. I want them to feel rewarded for doing well and proud of the fact that they did it themselves. I want to give them the tools that they need in order to feel good about beating the game.

That's the basis of game design for me. I feel like I failed if people are really frustrated by the game, or can't finish it, or hit a wall. That all falls on me, not them. That's me as a designer. I failed. It's just trying to pick things apart logically to try and avoid frustrations: small levels, no respawn times, lack of lives, and just trying to get people to understand how the game plays without holding their hand through the process. You learn more by making mistakes than by having somebody tell you what not to do.

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90 comments
cachinscythe
cachinscythe

You know, maybe I'm just in a bad mood right now, but these guys sound like pretentious douchebags that aren't capable of seeing the obvious contradictions in what they say. Not to mention acting like they know or understand things that they obviously don't. "Business people are stupid and the free market only works sometimes." Except that they understand something you guys obviously can't: the market is patient and eventually provides people with what they want. All those apps they're complaining about will eventually die out as people start to demand more refined stuff, but because they're impatient--like most gamers it seems--they just figure if it isn't working now, it never will. And what of the whole "teacher" analogy combined with "I don't want them to feel frustrated." Buddy, they're GOING to feel frustrated because THAT'S PART OF LEARNING. Yet everyone's going to claim they understand it and it's clear as day. Oh, and I've played the entire first world and a quarter of the second in Super Meat Boy. It is NOT that fun to me.

theBeorn
theBeorn

wait wait wait, i like them and all, but i studied business and do not approve of their comments! LOL yeah those guys pushed you, you should've pushed back, instead of blaming it on the major they studied. Business is everything, CS is just a small part of business.

poopinpat
poopinpat

I think they succeded in making the player feel satisfaction in winning. This game is hard as nails but so rewarding.

brotherdime
brotherdime

@toptom924 On the Xbox 360, there is DLC already. The best part? It's FREE. Microsoft wanted them to charge for it, but they found some loophole that lets them upload levels at no charge to the player, because they're such awesome guys - they actually care about the people playing their games. The new levels aren't just shoddy extra levels either. The latest one is built specifically around Gish, so you can tell they're actually putting thought into this stuff. The PC version is supposed to be getting a level editor sometime soon. I don't know about you guys, but I trust these guys not to let me down and delay it. If they do, they'll be honest and forthcoming about why exactly they've had to delay it. They won't feed us some crap about it just to make us happy. These guys are gods. Simply, gods.

-Shadowbinded-
-Shadowbinded-

@grey_fox1984 What I think they meant about the app store is that it's easier to sell when there's only a few thousand than when there are a few tens of thousands. I agree, though, that games for iphones and the like should be simple games, but I do think there too many apps, as well. It's like they say, any fool can put up useless junk in the app store. Again I agree with you in that now, since enough people have heard about the game, why not put it on the app store? But remember that they're not in it for the money... they hate the app store, so I doubt any amount of sales would convince them otherwise. In my opinion, they did well in choosing (Sony would've been a good choice too), because the XBox Live Arcade is meant for mindlessly fun games; whereas the app store is full of... well... apps... not just games. (Note that I don't mention the Wii as a good choice because the game would be placed under WiiWare, and that kinda sucks, not to mention it doesn't have as much traffic as the XBLA or the PSN.)

Decrate
Decrate

i wish all game developers thought like these guys did

Squirrelatwar
Squirrelatwar

These guys are my new heroes. Super Meat Boy is a great game, and it's obvious that they really care for the community.

ashokmeena
ashokmeena

gonna buy it.. it's been a while since I played a tough game.. It's something different that I haven't completed any of the ninja gaiden games yet. :'(

jad206
jad206

Sound's like Team Meat would benefit by making an Android App.

-Canas-
-Canas-

and lets not forget freedom of speech only exists according to public domain, and not private business. So websites can choose if they feel the English language is too "naughty" and "offensive" and not "wholesome christian material." ahem.

-Canas-
-Canas-

Glad to see the Newgrounds community is finally having a direct impact on the gaming industry, instead of being condemned to the basic gameplay of flash-based games. Alien Hominid, Castle Crashers, Gish, and Super Meat Boy. Bringing back the old school to the industry when everybody is too caught up on lackluster FPS'.

5cott
5cott

This is a really great and honest interview. Good stuff.

grey_fox1984
grey_fox1984

@Shadowbinded Guilty, I read the first paragraph then tabbed down to the video review- which made me really interested in how i could play the game. I think their criticisms of the App store are unfounded though. To say that your game could be overshadowed by a "fart joke of the week" app could also be said about anything based around the internet. Why go on a gamespot forum when you can just poke around on fail blog? He's basically saying "We prefer Xbox Marketplace because there is essentially no competition- we like being a big fish in a small pond." I've played a few games on iphone that share similarities with super meat boy and the one thing i can say for sure is that bite-sized gameplay that comes at you in spurts of 30 seconds at a time, is the PERFECT type of game for a phone. I think they need to get over their fear of apple- particularly because the game is already made and would just need to be ported.

-Shadowbinded-
-Shadowbinded-

@SicklySunStorm Hehe, I knew mentioning Nintendo would bring some conflict. I agree with you, Nintendo are very greedy in many aspects; but what I really mean is that at least the games those greedy dudes make are half more decent than most of its kind because Mario's always bringing a new way of play. True, they've over-used characters (not just Mario), but the "new" is what's kept the characters alive. If it makes you feel better, my favorite games are the Final Fantasy series (true to MS) and the Metal Gear Solid series (mostly faithful to Sony). I not only love the visuals of the games and the gameplay itself, but, FF games for example, most of the time throw hugely epic stories that really engage the player. Of course, they'd have their bad runs too, as is the case of Final Fantasy X-2. For one, it's not always the same characters, and always a different story with different twists. All I'm saying is that quality gaming is now scarce; making a sequel to some top-seller does not necessarily produce a good game (maybe a top-seller, yes, but over-the-top sales does not guarantee the game is good [or satisfy your likes]). All I'm saying is... Where are the new, promising games? Where's the innovation? Motion-sensing and the like is worth nothing with good games to support them. P.S. Sorry for not clearing the Nintendo part on the last comment; thought the comment was too long!

Savior4Life
Savior4Life

I totally agree..... F*** the App store, and f*** Apple...!

TechnologoDoom
TechnologoDoom

My heroes! These guys just went ahead and said exactly why so many main-stream big money industry games don't do anything new. Keep up the fantastic work!!

toptom924
toptom924

waaay get cod owned loving super meat boy although could we be seeing some dlc later?

pycho22solid
pycho22solid

These guys are awesome, they followed their own rules and said "F*** you" to the people who thought this game would suck. If that's not what a real game designer is, I don't know what to believe.

ggregd
ggregd

Marketing is used to make your product stand out from the crowd. They're right you can't just throw something on the app store and expect people to buy it, no mater how good it is, but that's true when you're selling anything. SMB benefitted from marketing on the XBox. Yes advertising is an evil business, but there's no way around it. Maybe in the next world, guys.

tyco_ex
tyco_ex

Kind of odd that it's on XBL but not psn. I guess Microsoft helped fund the project (as with the interest group) so they probably have a contract that it can't be on PSN for X number of months. Even with guys who hate the business side of the industry, business still reigns supreme.

ThePhantomGamer
ThePhantomGamer

SMB is one of my favorite games from 2010. I hope you guys make another one.

SicklySunStorm
SicklySunStorm

@-shadowbinded- - was agreeing with many things you said, til I read this; "At least Nintendo's always making new and fun games, so it's not just the money for them, at least good and different games come out of it for us, instead of the same game with different weapons and such" Nintendo are as guilty as anyone else for rinsing their known characters, albeit with a half-decent game underneath around 80% of the time... and don't even get me started about what money grabbers they really are, just as much as MS or Sony, if not more... take Motion+ for instance. Unless you're lucky enough to have got the Wii-Mote's with it built in, if you wanted 4 player on Sports Resort with it, you'd have to buy 3 Wii-Mote's @ £30 each minimum, 3 nunchuks @ £15 each minimum, then finally 3 Motion+ units @ £15 each minimum - result, that's £180 JUST on 3 full control units, and that's if you get them at those prices under the RRPs... if you don't shop around, the Wii-motes are £40 each, nunchuk is £20 and Motion+ unit is £20 - that's a staggering £80 for ONE single complete control unit, £240 for 3 complete - that's insane money. Motion+ should have been developed, integrated and included in the first place as they purported the controls of their system to be so accurate originally. ALL the companies are out to make money, that's without question, but Nintendo find the best way of nickle and diming you if you really look closely at what they outlay VS what they take as profit...

Rottenwood
Rottenwood

@SuprSaiyanRockr While 'The Kid' warp zone is brutally, brutally difficult, it IS perfectly representative of the game that inspired it, I Wanna Be The Guy. If you ever want software that drives you to an insane asylum, download that bad boy.

Furry_McTank
Furry_McTank

Great game, these guys have a great attitude towards the industry to boot.

Freak_Ache
Freak_Ache

These sound like exactly the type of people I would expect to have made Super Meat Boy. Awesome!

Rottenwood
Rottenwood

Great interview; GREAT game. Blows away just about anything on the shelf at $60, for a fraction of the price. I'm especially glad they blew off the focus group. This game is clearly aimed at a very specific niche; asking for the opinions of people outside that niche is a waste of time.

SuprSaiyanRockr
SuprSaiyanRockr

Great game, but if I had to change one thing, it would be 'The Kid' warp zone... every other part of this game was fun... the only thing motivating me to finish was that I had already spent hours trying to beat the previous levels... So relieved when I finally beat it, but it convinced me to take a break from Super Meat Boy for a while... just until I forget the frustration of that zone. Brilliant game otherwise.

Elgranpimp
Elgranpimp

Wow. I was a little interested in Meat Boy before. But after reading this I think I may have to purchase it to support these dudes. Keep up the good work.

-Shadowbinded-
-Shadowbinded-

@buft Lol, well said! Games should be for the players, not for the team's pockets.

-Shadowbinded-
-Shadowbinded-

@grey_fox1984 Didn't you read when they said they hate the App Store? Do you really think they'd put they're game up in there? They're not the kind of greedy fellows from business; they're the kind of dedicated designers. Some else mentioned something about Sony not getting back to them, so I think that's not coming either. Anyways, these guys have won my respect, unlike the guys from Bungie or COD or other big companies that just keep making dumb storylines and adding a thing or two to their online gameplay simply to boost sales and to buy a new car. At least Nintendo's always making new and fun games, so it's not just the money for them, at least good and different games come out of it for us, instead of the same game with different weapons and such. Still, that's just my opinion: that developers should concentrate more on making good games instead of just the money their fans are going to spend; anyone's free to disagree In any case, I dare say that the overall quality of games has decreased in recent years. I played Super Mario Bros. 3 when I was three years old and I constantly enjoyed different games for the Nintendo 64, for the PlayStation 1 and 2, and even for handhelds. Nowadays, I have to browse through lists of games just to find one that looks half-interesting, and not just visually (only fools will say a game is good simply because it has impressive visuals).

Tarfang2
Tarfang2

if smb is a indie game y id it 800/1200 MS points were in the indie section most games are 80-240 MS points

-Shadowbinded-
-Shadowbinded-

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

Guppy507
Guppy507

@tequilasunriser: The ToU was updated recently....

buft
buft

Support Team Meat and lets make video gaming about the community, like it used to be. I can't stress enough how much these guys have give back to their fans.

Hanzoadam
Hanzoadam

I received this as a gift on steam and its way to hard for me :cry:

nintendoboy16
nintendoboy16

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

firehawk998
firehawk998

The game was really awesome and super fun. The critical ratings and sales this game got was well worth it. In the gaming industry needs these kind of people. They are taking risks that most big publishers would take and their description of COD is spot on.

gk_of_berea
gk_of_berea

Glad to see indie guys doing their thing and being successful. It gives hope to us up-and-comers

jedediahpelland
jedediahpelland

HaHaHa, these guys are F****** great!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

shinigami7th
shinigami7th

these guys are my new heroes... not often you can meet devs that are truly passionate about their game

shani_boy101
shani_boy101

This game looks to me like a vastly improved version of the N free flash game, which was already awesome. If it doesn't come out on PS3 then i'll be getting the PC version.

Tevi
Tevi

where is the ps3 version

kerrman
kerrman

This game is fantastic. Blew me out of the water, my only 10/10 for the year.

mbashour
mbashour

SuperMeatBoy and VVVVVV (similarly hard 2D indie platformer that just came out too) have been sucking up my time this week. brings me back to when games were hard and no regenerating shields...