Birthing Super Meat Boy
GDC 2011: Team Meat dissects last year's breakout platformer, says PC release on Steam outperformed Xbox Live, and team is now working on 3DS dev kits.
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Who was there: Programmer Tommy Refenes was there in the flesh, while artist Edmund McMillen joined in via Skype to recap and dissect the development of Super Meat Boy.
What they talked about: After some technical tinkering, Refenes welcomed the audience to the postmortem, which he described as "the story of Meat Boy, peppered with various good and bad things." He preemptively apologized for a lack of preparation for the talk by explaining that it's so personal for him and McMillen that it seemed silly to write anything down about it.
McMillen talked about the original Meat Boy Flash game, saying he made it in about three weeks and hadn't thought it would be anything terribly popular. Refenes entered the picture when the two ran into each other at a previous year's GDC. They had previously known each other from the early days of Newgrounds, when they were affiliated sites that linked to one another. The two first worked on a Flash game called Grey Matter to see if the collaboration would work.
Satisfied with the results, the two agreed to make a console game. Refenes thought Meat Boy would be a strong starting point for the pair and a more appealing project to him personally than what he had been working on at the time. Around the same time, McMillen had been talking to Nintendo about bringing Meat Boy to WiiWare and had also been working on Gish 2 (a follow-up to a previous indie release he worked on) with an eye to release that game on Xbox Live Arcade.
Work on Super Meat Boy began in February 2009, when Refenes started rebuilding the engine of his previous project, Goo, to accommodate the needs of his dream 2D platformer. Describing the way Super Meat Boy moves in the air as "a lot of duct tape physics" with no guiding formula, Refenes said he tinkered with the engine for two months just to get movement to feel right. McMillen said he was essentially sitting on his hands until about June or July of that year, when Refenes had the level editor working.
Once they started showing off the in-development game at conferences, McMillen said he and Refenes fell "blindly in love" with Super Meat Boy, expanding the scope from a simple platformer with about 100 levels and no bosses to the game it eventually became. While that made the project significantly more time consuming and difficult, Refenes said it seemed like a shame to not run with the game and make it everything it could be.
Around the same time, McMillen said he and Refenes were trying to convince Microsoft that Super Meat Boy was something people would like. He said there was one person within Microsoft who believed in the game, but concessions had to be made. Specifically, they had to fight for months to limit the exclusivity window with Microsoft, allowing for the PC version of Super Meat Boy to be released by the end of 2010.
Refenes said he did get a version of the engine up and running on the PlayStation 3, but Sony was less than interested in pursuing the project. Even if Sony didn't get back to them, that bit of extra work did allow Refenes a little leverage over Microsoft. When someone within the Xbox 360 maker questioned Refenes' ability to get the game done on multiple platforms at the same time, he shot back that he'd gotten the game up and running on the PS3 within four days, so if Microsoft turned them down, they were ready to take Super Meat Boy to Sony.
Though Super Meat Boy has garnered plenty of critical acclaim, Refenes said he and McMillen were still incredibly stressed about entering the game into the 2010 Independent Games Festival. The evening before the IGF finalists were announced, Refenes said he thought he was having a heart attack worrying about making the cut. As for McMillen, he said one of the main reasons he was appearing via Web chat instead of in person was that he considers GDC and the IGF a major source of stress.
"With the IGF, you go into it thinking if you don't make it in, you're a loser. And it's hard not to think that way, especially when there's so much riding on it," McMillen said, adding, "This is my baby. Is it totally ugly and I can't see it?"
McMillen said he went into the IGF feeling like he'd overstayed his welcome. Some of his friends in the community believed he shouldn't have entered the IGF because he'd already won before for his work on titles like Gish and Braid, which won awards in 2005 and 2006, respectively. Refenes pointed out, "They're forgetting that I hadn't won ****."
Although it was nominated for the Seumas McNally Grand Prize and Excellence in Audio categories, Super Meat Boy took home no awards from the 2010 IGF. Regardless, McMillen said his days of entering the competition are over.
After GDC, it was time to work on the Electronic Entertainment Expo build of the game. The IGF and E3 showings of the game pushed the completion of Super Meat Boy back several months, McMillen said, because they spent so much time polishing certain parts of the game to show at the events and overall development was dragged back as a result. Refenes said he would wake up at 8 a.m. and work until 11 a.m. the next day trying to squash bugs and get the game in shape for E3.
Once at the shows, Refenes said it was great to see people play the game who were unable to put it down. That let them set aside whatever sadness and drama they had endured in the weeks leading up to the events.
Originally, the plan was to release Super Meat Boy right after Summer of Arcade. Microsoft had already told them about how much better Summer of Arcade titles do on average, so Refenes said there was no way they were going to miss the next opportunity to make a promotion. That promotion wound up being the fall Game Feast lineup, which Refenes knew they had to make. He had -$853 at the time, so it was imperative that they make their Game Feast deadline and start bringing some money in.
McMillen said that for the two months leading up to the release of the game, he and Refenes took no days off and slept no more than five hours a night. Refenes said he thought he was going to die, but wouldn't allow it to happen until after the game was done. As bad as McMillen said it was for himself, he acknowledged it was worse on Refenes, who was the only one of the pair with the programming skills to fix bugs.
"It's a bad practice in development to be going through bug fixing as you're implementing features," Refenes deadpanned, adding that he wound up thinking through many bugs while he slept.
McMillen said that was part one of hell. Part two was the launch. As the final release of Game Feast, Super Meat Boy was projected as selling on par with Hydrophobia. That worried McMillen and Refenes to no end when Hydrophobia came out and there were only 10,000 people on the leaderboards in the first week. A week later, Comic Jumper came out, with its leaderboards performing only marginally better.
At that point, Refenes said they were somewhat resigned to a grim fate. Things got a bit worse when it came out that Double Fine Productions' Costume Quest was also coming out the same day as Super Meat Boy, even though part of the Game Feast promotion was supposed to be a guarantee that each game would have the week to itself.
On the day of launch, Refenes said he turned on his Xbox 360, went to the Marketplace, and saw no trace of Super Meat Boy. The game went up late due to technical problems, and even when it was available on the store, it was relegated to the fourth-highest promoted slot on the Xbox Live dashboard, behind a car commercial and a "spooktacular" sale for already available Xbox Live content.
"The reason the game sold well was because of how we promoted it," Refenes said. It was the interviews that they did and the Metacritic score that drove interest, he said, with Microsoft offering very little support. McMillen said with the Game Feast games doing poorly out of the gate, it seemed like Microsoft wanted to distance itself from the promotion. He acknowledged it sounds weird to complain about it considering how well the game has done on Xbox Live, but, "It was a f****** mind****."
Wrapping up the session in a hurry, McMillen said the game ended up performing better on Steam than it did on Xbox Live Arcade. Refenes echoed the sentiment, saying, "Everybody should love over Steam. Like all nasty love over Steam."
Refenes added there would be no WiiWare version of Super Meat Boy because they made a game too large for Nintendo's downloadable size limits. McMillen said a retail release was also out of the question, as he said no publisher wants to touch Wii retail right now. However, McMillen did say that Team Meat has 3DS development kits, though he wouldn't commit to the protein-rich platforming star making the jump to Nintendo's new handheld.
Quote: "We definitely wanted to do it on everything. But thinking about it now, if we'd done it on everything, I'd be dead. That's not a joke. Don't laugh."--Refenes, on why they scaled back platform plans for Super Meat Boy.
Takeaway: Delivering Super Meat Boy was a painful experience for both McMillen and Refenes, demanding significant sacrifices from both. And despite making a widely hailed game, they didn't know what sort of critical or commercial success it would garner in advance. As for Microsoft, Refenes said everyone on the creative side was great, but they didn't understand the business people.