In this week’s episode of the Fall Damage podcast we had the pleasure of interviewing indie gaming royalty; Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes. Together they are known as Team Meat, and their platformer Super Meat Boy (releasing October 20th) is set to be the main course of Xbox Live Arcade’s Game Feast.
The guys sat down with us to discuss indie gaming’s role in the current gaming industry, the crumbling barriers to entry into game development, and why Xbox Live Arcade > Playstation Network > WiiWare. The full transcription of our interview is after the cut.
Fall Damage: I was reading a interview today with Sean Murray of Hello Games, which are the cats that made Joe Danger, who said that so much innovation the remainder of this console cycle is going to need to come from indie developers, since we’ve entered the point in the console cycle where it’s more or less financially imprudent for the big developers to risk innovation. Is that something you’d agree with, and what role do you feel indie games serve in the industry right now?
Edmund: That’s something I agreed with five years ago, when I said it! Yeah, like I’ve said, it is impossible for large studios to take big risks because it could mean making one mistake and costing everyone their jobs. So they don’t take big risks. They do what’s safe and usually they reference indie games when they’re proven safe. That’s always happened.
I think that as an indie it is usually your job to take big risks and try to innovate things as much as you can and just try to do things that are different. I think that small teams have a knack for making stuff that have a lot of heart and that’s something that’s definitely absent from the mainstream and something I don’t think a large team can achieve, at least not easily.
There are not many big budget games out there other than quite possibly Shadow of the Colossus and Ico that have a lot of heart. And it’s something you can say about almost any indie game. Yeah, I think it’s an indie’s role to push stuff until it’s okay and once it’s proven okay I think it’s the mainstream role to take it and run with it.
Fall Damage: With a concentrated focus being more and more on small, platformed devices in the indie gaming industry, how do you see this affecting the industry as a whole? iPhone, Android, Windows7, iPad, this kind of stuff seems like it’s breaking down the barrier of entry for a lot of people to be able to develop games. What effect do you think that’s going to have on gaming as a whole?
Fall Damage: Okay. How so?
Tommy: Well, because it breaks down a barrier, that’s cool… but it’s like… if you have everybody making games and they’re able to put everything up on a service and there is no quality sort of control for the service, then the service becomes awful. Because you have 39,000 games and 38,000 of them are total horseshit. That makes it so the entire platform overall isn’t good for the majority of people that can actually competently make a game.
The app store for instance is awful and it’s a total lottery. There is no actual way to plan and project and see how well your game will do because somebody could come out with a fart simulator or some sort of thing that enhances the color of photos and totally knock you off the top. There could just be something that Stephen Colbert says “Hey this is funny” and it’s just a button you push that says “Fuck Pelosi” or something like that and that gets shot up to the top. That’s not a game and that’s not cool and it just sort of… it’s weird.
It’s cool that it lets everybody do it but at the same time not everybody should do it. When you have an open platform and stuff, there needs to be some sort of quality assurance so that you can make sure that what is up on the service is a high enough quality that it will encourage people that make high quality games to continue to make high quality games for that service.
Fall Damage: Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should?
Tommy: Well, I mean… because you can you should but it’s sort of the responsibility of the platform holders to make sure their platform has a high enough quality that they can regulate and put up stuff that is worth the money and is not just awful. It would work out fine if there was an app store on apple where people could submit and if it gets rejected they can put it up on a free homebrew store where the platform is actually open. But being able to have everything in the same sort of list as people that are spending 100,000’s of dollars to make a game on the iPhone, which i don’t know why you would spend 100,000 dollars to make a game on the iPhone, having that up against these awful shitty throw-away apps like fart simulators, it really kind of cheapens the entire platform and I think that’s bad.
Fall Damage: So it’s almost like the demarcation that’s there in Xbox live, where you have the XBLA games and you have the XBLA indie games…
Tommy: Yeah! That works out a ton better because anybody can get anything on XBL Indie games, and there is some really good stuff put up on XBL Indie games now. But to get on XBL, unless you’re a crazy huge publisher, there are very strict quality controls. They don’t just take anything and honestly that’s why XBL is viewed as one of the highest quality sort of download channels. You know when a game comes up on XBL that’s by an indie developer, chances are it’s going to be pretty good. You can’t say that for all XBL games obviously, because they still have ties to the publisher to pump money into the system or whatever, for the most part; XBL is associated with quality. The other platforms, Playstation has quality control also but it’s a little more lax. You can see that in the quality of new games that come out on Playstation Network. And WiiWare has no quality control and you can definitely see that on the quality of games that come out on WiiWare. So when you go to the very lowest one, the App Store, there is no quality of games on the App Store.
Fall Damage: Edmund, all of your games kind of have this both unique visual style and some sort of innovative gameplay mechanic. I was wondering which comes first to you? Do you develop an idea for a world and decide how you want it to work, or do you design a mechanic and find a world for it?
Edmund: It goes both ways. It really depends on who I am working with or if something is already in place. There’s been many games where, like with Time Fcuk, I basically met this guy who had a really basic tile editor and had this basic mechanic of switch emulators and I had a bunch of sketches of really abstract random things like radio frequencies having some sort of importance and switching dimensions, switching the radio and then there was a guy in black face, and a bunch of other really kind of weird paranoid ideas. I took those and I applied it to what we had so far and expanded it and that’s was how that worked.
Other things like Gish actually came first from like a character, and I thought hey this would look pretty cool if it was a physics based blob or whatever, and the guy that I was working with; that was what he specialized in. So, we went that way and it just depends.
Meat Boy first was just Meat Boy on paper before he was in a game. And actually I think I designed him like a year before there was a game at all. The same with Dr. Fetus. He was designed beforehand.
Fall Damage: You’ve jammed a ton of content into Super Meat Boy, with promises of pushing out even more after release through “Teh Internets.” Can you speak a bit about how you managed to work out a system to deliver free content over the notoriously prickly XBLA service.
Edmund: Go for it, Tommy.
Tommy: Alright, so yeah.. short story is that it was Microsoft’s Idea.
It’s kind of complicated but, when you start talking to Xbox they always want exclusive stuff, especially if you’re out on any sort of other platform. We were already announced for Wii and PC, and we were talking to them and they required us to do something exclusive. Okay, so we were like “multiplayer and maybe like an extra exclusive chapter like an exclusive retro chapter,” is what we were saying. As we progressed through development, multiplayer just wasn’t fun. We cut it because we’re not going to jam something into the game that isn’t fun just to meet some sort of contractual obligation. Then it was just going to be the exclusive chapter, and our Microsoft guy was like “Have you guys thought of doing level of the week?” and I was like “Yeah that’s cool but it’s not cool to charge a dollar for one level or anything.”
He told us about this specific XBL thing that we actually can’t say by name, but it’s a feature exclusive to XBL that is a very tiny amount of storage up on the server and developers can utilize it. Most developers ignore it because it is a really, really small amount of space. But the way that Meat Boy works is everything has like a central palette and level files are loaded in and level files are compressed and are super super small, they’re like 3K for each level.
As I was researching the level of the week stuff, I was like “Dude we could put entire chapters up on this thing and have a list of chapters that someone could select,” and that’s how that was born; not something that someone could be charged for.
It’s not like we did some crazy wheel and deal and went behind their back or anything like that. It was their idea, initially, like level of the week and we just kind of blew it up and made something crazy awesome with it. We take “Teh Internets” and do basically whatever we want with it. We can make chapters that do things with the characters; we can just push whatever levels we want there. And when we release the editor for the PC, then we’ll take the best of user created levels and put them up there too. It’s just neat.
Fall Damage: It just seems crazy. Do you think they fully realize the implication of this?
Tommy: Of course they did, they wanted us to do this.
Fall Damage: And that’s the interesting thing. I think once this was announced, a lot of the press took it as “Oh they pulled one over on Microsoft and they figured this out and stuck it to the man” and you’ve said this from day one that this was something that they brought to you.
Tommy: Yeah well that’s something about “Press” and “Journalists”. They want to sensationalize and they want to get the most hits for what they say. Instead of putting up the part where I said “Hey Microsoft actually blah blah blah” and put that in the post, they put the headline as “Team Meat Circumvents DLC Rules.” Then they fake quoted me as saying we can get around DLC content checking, which I never said, because it’s not true. People just kind of ran with it and that was dumb… and irritating.
Fall Damage: Alright, the most important question. Is Super Meat Boy a Super Boy who just happens to be composed of meat, or is he a boy made of some sort of Super Meat? That is to say, is this a super powered boy made of grade F goat meat OR a regular boy made of the tenderest cuts of marinated carne asada?
Edmund: You need to think of Super Meat Boy as a Super Boy who has no skin. That’s the important part. He’s not composed of any meat other than his own meat. He’s just simply skinless so his meat is exposed.
Fall Damage: Does he have bones?
Fall Damage: He doesn’t look like a bone type of guy.
Edmund: Technically, yeah you wouldn’t think so but I am doing this PC box version and I am working on the PC box and it’s his face on the front and when you open up the front the CD is his skull. So yeah, he has a skull…because I just drew it.
Fall Damage: You heard it hear first. Super Meat Boy has an endoskeleton.
Edmund: He definitely has a skeletal structure because, in the flash version in one of the endings I believe he gets his face melted off and you see his skull. Actually, in the flash version you can see a bit of his rib cage. See, originally it was.. the first Meat Boy designs were literally an inside out boy. He had no skin and you could see his bones and he was a ninja. He was called Meat Ninja and when we started the game though it already felt similar to N+, and we didn’t want to have a ninja in the game because it was already pretty similar. So we cut the ninja part and took his hood off, and he became Meat Boy. And then everybody said he resembled Ogmo from a game called Jumper, but he’s in the game so…
Fall Damage: That’s the exciting thing. I like the fact that there are so many of these unlockable characters and most of them are from other games. They all have their one unique game play mechanic tweak that makes playing through these levels a completely different experience.
Edmund: Yeah it’s actually something that we can’t really convey how cool it was designwise developing it. Once a month we would add a new character in and it would be very exciting design wise, because I get to basically re-experience this game with this new character that we could that… the run speed, the fall speed, the jump speed, the distance, the wall slide, as well as completely unique abilities like being able to double jump, triple jump, stick to walls, float, rewind time all these extra abilities make the characters so so unique that part of the actual design of the game was realizing certain exploits… like a lot of the game made itself… we didn’t add Tim’s (from Braid) rewind ability until the second to last month of development, and once it was in I didn’t realize that certain things could be done with him. It was a pretty awesome experience to go through testing and realize “Wow, this works really well.”
I am glad it worked really well and it actually caused more fun design elements than holes. Which I was worried about: that there would be too many exploits. In order to find exploits you’ve gotta work pretty hard and have some great ability, but yeah it’s awesome. It gives you a whole new way to play and the cool thing is, there is actually an exploration aspect kind of like Metroid. There are certain bandaids on Chapter 3 that you’ll have to get certain characters in the future and kind of back track to them in order to get them. As you explore you start to realize that certain characters can do levels way faster than Meat Boy can. You just kind of go through and that makes leader board stuff pretty fun.
Fall Damage: I can’t wait to see all the YouTube videos out there of people beating insane levels in like three seconds because they found some sort of weird exploit with one of the characters.
Edmund: Yeah that’s going to be cool.
Fall Damage: Well thanks so much for coming on the show tonight, we really appreciate it, and we look forward to the game launch. It comes out next week?
Edmund: It comes out Wednesday.
Fall Damage: Next Wednesday. Alright guys. Everybody go buy it, it’s great.