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So meaty! The life and times of Super Meat Boy

2:20 PM on 01.20.2010 // Ben Perlee

If there is one thing Edmund McMillen is known for, that is making videogames. A whole lot of them, actually, for if you look at his blog, everything from Time Fcuk to Gish rests as laurels upon his resume. One little guy has stood above the rest, and for the simple reason that people just plain liked it: Meat Boy.

The Newgrounds title has gone on to receive plenty of play time from fans of old-school platformers, and those with a penchant for brutally difficult gameplay experiences. Meat Boy was far from a polished experience, but one that has held a whole lot of promise. Thus, it actually comes to little surprise that Meat Boy is being rebuilt from the ground up as a WiiWare title. After all, if you are going to enter the consumer market, why not go with what the fans would most want?

Of course, any gamer would already know that Super Meat Boy, as far a WiiWare titles goes, is one of those games worthy of attention. However, much like most other games out on store shelves and in a download queue have a story not told, the experiences of the developers themselves tend not to be explored. It's with this feature that we hope to show the lives behind Super Meat Boy.

Super Meat Boy is a big moment for creators Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes. After all, this is their first title with a Nintendo console (well, any console, for that matter), and it also represents a major financial and personal achievement if they can make a WiiWare title a true success. Well, let's rewind that a little bit. Yes, it's a WiiWare title, but more than that, it's also a Steam title, where it will release with the added bonus of Achievements. "We always said we want to go multiplatform," says McMillen, with the goal to one day see Super Meat Boy outside the wagglebox and the PC snobbery. "Hopefully, everything will happen," he says. Don't discount a PSN or XBLA version of the game.

However, maybe this isn't the best way to go about this. After all, the original Meat Boy is in itself an established platformer on the Web right now. If we are to talk about Super Meat Boy, one cannot forget the original. How did that come about? Well, according to McMillen, he and his original programmer, Jon McEntee, originally made the title in 2008 as a way for McEntee, who had just learned Flash, to build an engine from the ground up. McMillen, who in his words had spent 2008 making a "shitload of games," was approached by McEntee to build an experience off of the engine, which at that point was a little red block that could bounce off walls.

McMillen, meanwhile, had been tossing around the ideas of characters like Dr. Fetus, who would later become the main villain of Meat Boy, and Meat Ninja, a character who was inside-out and susceptible to all dangers. He would later become Meat Boy himself. These slightly twisted takes on traditional '90s videogame tropes would lay the foundation for the experience of Super Meat Boy. All in all, it was a pretty simple experience for both guys until they started doing surprisingly well.

At this point, in late 2008 and early 2009, McMillen had been working on getting his game Aether over to WiiWare, but after all of the attention Meat Boy received, the decision was made to switch over to developing that game as a WiiWare title. After all, McMillen had been working hard to get any title onto the Wii, and this seemed like a good game to start off with.

Meat Boy was "the first and only game Jon made," according to McMillen. If he was going to port the Meat Boy experience to the Wii, he needed a programmer. Refenes, at the time, was in a bit of a pickle. After spending about two years working on a game called Goo, he found his creation to be losing ground. It failed to make it out as a game, but once he was able to move on guilt-free, McMillen showed up. They had been talking for a while, and the opportunity to turn Meat Boy into Super Meat Boy was too good to pass up.

But for now, the PC and WiiWare are the primary focus for these two men. Refenes, who is the programmer for the game (although McMillen says "he does more designing than he would like to admit"), has rebuilt the game from ground up. When asked about the particular challenges of working with consoles, Refenes found just one thing, mentioning that it is frustrating seeing a game on a PC run at 1920x1440, then move over to the Wii and run at "606x something less than 480." "It makes you wonder why they didn't just have the Wii run $50 more and put a decent graphics card in it."

However, other than that, the actual creation process has been good. An odd side effect of working with a for-profit console title is that the game has to be created backwards from an independent title. Whereas a game made in Flash on Newgrounds can be chipped away like a statue, a game made for mass consumers must be completed in chunks. That is, everything needs to be completed in bits and pieces to create the impression that the game is finished...even months or years before it will release.

"It's all about creating the illusion that the game is finished when you show it to people," McMillen says. There are certainly pros and cons to both development styles, he says, but a good advantage is that, at least for Super Meat Boy, the first world is as tight as it is going to get. The next challenge is making the first three worlds perfect by GDC, and the entire game perfect for its release later this year.

When discussing Super Meat Boy, the issue of difficulty comes up. Anyone who has played the original Flash title knows that the game has a habit of kicking your ass. For both developers, there is a different approach to it. Expect Super Meat Boy to be a little change of pace. Edmund points out, as an example, the indie game VVVVVV, a game that can be frustrating due to its difficulty. Both men are designing the playable characters to be completely functional, and to make the levels as tight as possible. While a solid design choice, this also forces gamers to man up to their own mistakes. The goal of Super Meat Boy is to be hard, but not unfair.

One of the concessions McMillen and Refenes made was to eliminate the respawn times. Whereas many games force players to wait for an animation to complete before finishing, Super Meat Boy immediately sets you back ready to try again. "Even with VVVVVV, the death animation is about 2 seconds. If that animation had been cut to a third of that, people would be less annoyed. So the goal now is to make the respawn itself less obnoxious."

There are 150 levels in the main game, and the difficulty ramps up more slowly so that it's more accessible for players. Good players may find that these levels are too easy, so there are alternate versions that are much more difficult. Thus, Super Meat Boy promises to be a much more balanced experience than its Flash predecessor.

Helping to mix things up are the special indie stars making appearances in the game. Commander Video from the Bit.Trip series, Alien Hominid from Alien Hominid, Tim from Braid, Gish from Gish, and Flywrench from...Flywrench all are represented in the game. They all have their own powers, such as Tim's rewind and Commander Video's floating ("He's the Peach of Super Meat Boy," says McMillen).

Now, all through 2009, things were going along swimmingly for the two developers, or as well as an indie team can go, when in early October Edmund was rushed to the hospital. "I had been sick for a while, and knew something was up, but didn't have insurance, didn't have money." A typical guy in his late twenties, McMillen had been experiencing back and stomach pains for almost a year at this point, and had been waiting until the release of the game to get the proper coverage. Unfortunately, one night the pain was so bad that he was taken to the hospital and left waiting for morphine while they determined he wasn't having an aneurysm. Once it was found out to be related to his gall bladder, the proper medical steps were taken.

To make things even worse, by the time he was placed on painkillers, the doctors had found a potential lump on his liver, turning one bad experience into an even worse one. Luckily for him, "It was such a blur cause I was on morphine the entire time." Thankfully, the liver problem turned out to be nothing, which was a relief to him, his wife Danielle, and Refenes.

Then, like anything in the States, the financial consequences raised their heads. With over $50,000 in hospital bills, McMillen and his wife faced a scary prospect. Thankfully, due to some quick reaching out to the gaming community for people to make PayPal contributions, and the thoughtful elimination of many of their debts on the part of the hospital, McMillen and Refenes are back on track to finishing Super Meat Boy.

With 90 percent of the foundation of the game laid out, many of the characters to design and about two-fifths of the actual content completed, McMillen and Refenes have a whole lot to finish. After all, this is a huge undertaking for just two guys. But with hopefully the worst behind them, making a game should be the easy part; it's the life of a designer that's hard.

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