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Postmortem: Team Meat's Super Meat Boy

April 14, 2011 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

[In this Game Developer Magazine postmortem, reprinted here on Gamasutra, Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes candidly discuss the development process of smash Steam and Xbox Live Arcade hit Super Meat Boy, diving into the punishing process that lead to the retro revitalization that took hardcore gamers by storm.]

When I was in middle school I would draw up designs for what I thought would be the ultimate video game: full of blood, huge bosses, epic worlds, and a story that would follow an immortal hero through hell, the end of the world, and beyond.

Then I grew up... and not much changed.

Super Meat Boy originated as a simple Flash prototype that an online friend of mine (Jon McEntee) and I made during our free time over the course of three weeks. I had no idea it would become one of my most-played Flash games, let alone spawn a full-fledged console game.

In 2008 I was contacted by Microsoft and Nintendo about working on something for their download services. Originally my first pitch to Microsoft was Gish 2, and Nintendo was more interested in an expanded version of Aether, but the deciding factor was actually determined by a chance friendship.

I met Tommy Refenes in 2008. I've worked with a lot of programmers over the years, and my past artist/programmer relationships were always a bit alien. Working with Tommy felt a lot like hanging out with my best friend in junior high, nerding out and going off on tangents that would annoy just about everyone around us. I knew right away that whatever we decided to work on together would be fun, and this was how Super Meat Boy got made.

We just wanted to make something fun and have fun making it.

Getting this console deal was basically our one big break, our one shot to show everyone who we were and what we could do. No pressure.

What Went Right

1. Using Our Own Engine and Toolset

Tommy: When I tell most people that I made the engine and tools myself, they usually ask, "Why did you do that?" My friends over at FlashBang try to cram Unity down my throat every single time I talk to them, but I stand by the decision to make our own tools and engine.

One huge reason is control. I'm sort of a control freak when it comes to code; I like to understand everything that's going on in my codebase. That way, if something breaks, I know exactly where and how to fix it. Also, I got into games to program games, not to script them. I enjoy all aspects of game programming, from the engine to the gameplay. Since we're indie and can do what we want, and since I had the skill set, I simply enjoyed doing the engine.

Development of Super Meat Boy took 18 months from the first line of engine code I wrote to the last line of error messaging code I wrote before final submission to XBLA certification. Personally, I think that's record time for a game made by two guys with as much content as it has. I honestly feel the reason we were able to do this is because I was so involved with the code. When a bug would pop up, I could track it down immediately no matter how low to the hardware it was.

There weren't many tools used with Super Meat Boy. The in-game level editor was invaluable because it provided Edmund the ability to make levels with a "what you see is what you get" mindset.

The only other tool we had was the Flash Exporter I made. Basically it was a script that packed all the Flash symbols into one texture and exported animation information with sound cues. This paid for itself with the very first export of Meat Boy that Ed did. We had sounds, animations, and everything with one quick export that the engine could easily manipulate and call when needed.

2. The Design Environment

Edmund: Very early on, both Tommy and I became a bit frustrated by the very rigid work environment most developers told us we needed to have in order to be taken seriously and get things done.

I remember the day we got an email from Nintendo asking for head shots and a developer bio. It suddenly seemed so insane how serious everyone takes an industry whose goal is supposed to be entertainment.

Tommy and I went out that day in search of the most ridiculous sweater vests we could find, broke into Sears Photos and used their setup to take what would become our team headshots. I believe we also submitted some totally ridiculous dev bio to Nintendo that was printed in their press release alongside our photo.

Tommy Refenes (L), Edmund McMillen (R)

The point I'm trying to make is that everything about our design environment was fun. It was important for us to always enjoy what we were doing, and let the love of our work come through in interviews, videos, conventions, and even the game's design.

Tommy and I bonded over the course of development, and Super Meat Boy was an expression of that. We had fun making this game and didn't hold those feelings back when it came to the decisions we made. Super Meat Boy was a schoolyard inside joke that just got out of hand. I think one of the things that is most appealing about SMB is anyone who plays video games gets to be in on that joke.

Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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Aubrey Hesselgren
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It really sucks that you were put in this position re: Microsoft. You think you're in a position to take your time a bit more now?

Eric Ries
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This is such an interesting story of talent, hard work, and struggle. It's douchey of microsoft to not live up to their promises, but lesson learned i guess. Congrats guys!

Stephen Hodgson
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Amazing game guys. It really shows you two put a lot into this game. It is kinda strange how Microsoft treated you guys though. Was all that stuff they promised in a contract of some sort? In either case, it seems that everything went extremely well after launch.

Edmund McMillen
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No, the promo came long after the contract was drafted. we assumed we didnt need to add anything.. and that was were we made our mistake.

the biggest thing we learned here and the reason we publicly talked about it is so people know. if you are going to kill yourself for something like this, get what you are promised in writing so you can avoid stuff like this.

David Holmin
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Isn't a verbal contract supposed to be just as valid as a written one? Even if that's the case, though, I guess the problem is it's harder to prove in court.

Nikolay Kushnar
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A verbal contract is nothing. Get EVERYTHING in writing.

Jose Teran
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What an awesome story !!

I really admire you guys, this success story have to be known by every game developer and have to teach them that building a great (even small) team, working hard, and being crazy but serious are the essential ingredients for a great product.

Both thumbs up for all you !!

Ian Livingston
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"There was one point where I had emergency gallbladder surgery that put me in the hole $50,000 due to the fact that I couldn't afford health insurance."


Robert Bevill
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Kind of a depressing postmortem, but at the same time pretty inspirational. SMB is fantastic, you guys deserve all the awards you've received.

Maurício Gomes
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I only do not understand that "no games" phrase when Edmund did Gish (that got the indie award at GDC and everything...)

In fact, Gish I think is one of the best platformers all time.

Also, crunch like that suck, I learned too the hard way (finishing a game for university... got 20kg fatter in 2 months)

Jacob Pederson
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Second this. Gish is drop dead incredible :)

Alberto Fonseca
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Great writeup guys, it's very inspiring to see you guys succeed after all the hard work and stress you endured. Thanks for sharing the lessons learned with us and love the game. Now go on vacation or something, you've more than earned it!

Steven An
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Well, I take it you guys made a lotta money from this? TELL US!!

Edmund McMillen
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we made a lot of money from this.

Edmund McMillen
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Thanks for all the positive comments everyone.

We were both a little worried about appearing ungrateful in this postmortem, especially after a few headlines came out summing up the last paragraph of the article only. its good to know our honesty is appreciated.

i personally think that breaking down the "illusion of success" is something that needs to be done more. nothing worth doing is ever easy, but i believe most people only see the outcome and assume things were.

im happy our honesty was appreciated and maybe some of the holes we fell into can now be more easily avoided by other developers.


Eric Schwarz
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It's always interesting to see the process behind some of he most successful games, especially those that don't necessarily get a lot of coverage over the course of development. Real people make games, and put their blood, sweat and tears (almost literally) into them to get them out the door. Even if not every game is a success, the effort should always be acknowledged.

Super Meat Boy is excellent, by the way. Congratulations to Team Meat for the success!

Nickesh Chauhan
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You have great personalities and gaming knowledge (loved you on Skype at the 106% speedrun at AGDQ 2013), I hope you go far.

Can't wait for your next game, whatever you choose to do!

Lee Vermeulen
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Really enjoyed this, and yeah going by just the news headlines of SMB talks/writeups they only only really focused on the negative, so it's good to read this and see that you guys still enjoyed development (before crunch time anyway)

Do you feel at all that going for XBLA and the trouble with that didn't seem worth while due to Steam sales?

I feel like too many indie devs currently have XBLA as their main goal. It depends on the team/game, but it isn't the end all platform for indie games to be a hit as it once was

Edmund McMillen
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i think the one thing to take from this isnt "xbla shouldnt be a goal for indies" but "xbla shouldnt be the ONLY goal for indies".

in the end SMB did well and it was worth the hard work, BUT if we had signed a 100% exclusive deal with MS we would be very unhappy with the outcome.

At this point in the game i believe that steam, xbla and psn are getting pretty even in terms of how well indie games can do on them. but i stand by this...

and indie dev should NEVER only release on console. i firmly believe that a pc/mac version of your game is vital to the success of your title and the closer you can get both releases the better.

Leandro Rocha
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I believe that is important to launch in consoles first. This was something you'll thought too during the development, or it was more because of your focus in finishing SMB to 360 before the endo of the year?

Edmund McMillen
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if we had the choice we would have launched on both at the same time.

but there is the effect of a steady build when it comes to word of mouth. i do think that the xbla launch started the buzz that was easily transferable to pc once it came out the month after.

sean lindskog
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Only 2 months of crunch? Lightweights. ;)

Geoff Thom
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After reading this, I went and bought the game again (already have the Xbox version) on Steam.

SMB is easily the best game I played last year and is one of my all time favorite games I've ever played. Can't wait see the next game you guys make.

Jordan Fehr
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My name is sadly missing from the end of this article in the list of people who worked on the game.

Kamruz Moslemi
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Reading this made me think that perhaps laziness and pessimism being ever the bane of my whimpering ambition is perhaps not such a bad thing. The indie life certainly seems a daunting one, especially taking into consideration that plenty work as hard but with their efforts never amounting to success.

Oh nameless indie, wasting away in some dark corner with dreams unfulfilled, my heart goes out to you. Also I have a message for you from the man, he says "get a job you hippie!".

Eric Schwarz
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There are plenty of developers that respect talent and don't make their employees go through Hell and back every time they put out a game. Of course, managing to gett a job at one is a whole other story.

I think the best solution for indie developers is probably to keep their projects manageable and have a secondary job or source of income to help fuel them. Even if it only means working on your game 2-4 hours a day, it's still a lot better than starving, going into debt, etc. I don't want to say "set your sights low", but there's something to be said for efficiency and knowing your limits at the same time. Success in the indie market depends as much on game quality as it does on fairly random factors such as time of release and whether the word-of-mouth wildfire catches, so I'm not sure what the point is in killing yourself over getting your game out, even if it does mean a few months' difference in the end. There will always be a place for smartly-designed games, even if they're not necessarily the "flavour of the month."

Kamruz Moslemi
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I agree.

Jonathan Escobedo
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I love Super Meat Boy, and this was a great Post Mortem to read. As someone who is thinking of starting a game from scratch, it really helped me understand what to look out for and what to do when it comes to making it as an indie developer. Thanks for putting this up.

Chris Skuller
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Excellent work guys. I'm still recommending Super Meat Boy to people. I tell them it's like Mario 3 on crack! :-D Super Meat Boy is easily the best downloadable game to come out of last year and simultaneously one of the best games in general, even compared with retail. I really enjoyed reading your experiences making one of my all time favorite games and I'm sorry that MS were such jerks to you (for what it's worth, you aren't the first small developers I've heard say some pretty negative stuff about them). I for one am glad you got your game out on the 360 though. Otherwise, I might not have got to play it. I eagerly await your next project gentlemen.

Ryan Mcpherson
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Super Meat Boy really is a great game that captures that retro spirit. Shame microsoft dicked you over on the game feast thing. Is there anything you guys would have liked to have added if microsoft had given you more time?

Edmund McMillen
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I wanted to add dark world bosses, but the only one we were able to add was dr.fetus. i would have also liked to have a few months with the bosses to make them a bit more dynamic, the bosses were a bit rushed at the end of development.

I think tommy would have appriciated not going into lotcheck till the game was finished as well as adding a few little things like Ghost racing your best times.

Jitesh Panchal
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Super Meat Boy is currently my favorite title! I love the fast pace, thrill ride filled with chopped blood and gore with numerous cheap deaths! The mood of the game does come from the character design, dark and comic art direction combined with ability to retry quickly and with ease. Charming and "in your face" Narration and accessibility is a definite plus!!!

Keep more of such gut-wrenching games coming our way! We love them :)

Christopher Aaby
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Just a few cents to throw in the well:

1. SMB is an awesome game, and it's awesome because you guys invested the time and effort to make it so. You guys rock, don't forget it!

2. The whole situation with Microsoft really just highlights a sad fact of doing business in the games industry. This is coming from a producer at a 30-person studio. The party which takes the largest risk is generally going to be the party which makes the least amount of money, and has least power in the business relationship. This is obviously the developer in a developer-publisher relationship.

A business strategist would have no reason to start a game development company, because it's just statistically a bad deal. It saddens me every time I see evidence of this, and I have great sympathy for your story.

Once again, I can only applaud your effort and brass balls for getting this game out AND making it awesome.

Aaron Truehitt
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I think the next SMB should have more power ups and enemies to beat! But that's just me :) (alternate routes would be cool to.)

Jose Teran
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I agree, nice suggestion !

Tomas Augustinovic
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Thanks for sharing your story. It was an interesting read! You definitely deserve the success you received from SMB. The best of luck to you in the future. :)

Rene Argoud
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This is actually refreshing to read as a lifetime gamer whos making a career shift into VG dev. I like the presentation of the real world/ business elements as obstacles to overcome in the creative and QA process. On the outside, we newcomers tend to get the "Dream Job" orientation...I most definately appreciate an actual representation of what the day to day (or in your case month to month) frustrations are, an how murphy's law doesn't stop the creation of little masterpieces like this.

Marco Conti
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Loved the "head shot" part! And love the game of course.

I believe this story is inspiring for indie developers that are facing hard times. It's a common situation and it's reassuring to hear how someone else succeeded after considering dropping the project - it will help other people to hold on in those bad moments. Congrats and keep up with the good work!

Kevin Wells
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Great postmortem, guys! Bummer about the Microsoft mess, ugh.

Also, crunch time sucks!

I found this whole story inspirational, as Marco mentioned. I'm currently trying my hand at indie game development myself, and it can get discouraging at times. Kind of ironic, since we're making bloody GAMES!

Matthew Doucette
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Edmund, what are you thoughts on going with a third party publisher, instead of "self-publishing" through Microsoft acting as the publisher to it's own system?

Bo Daugaard
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Great story!

Like the super mario approach.

It's great that it was all worth it. Sometimes you can lose yourself a bit when you spend so much time with a project.

Over all every inspirering.

Btw love the game it's freaking awesome!

Nikos Chatzigeorgiadis
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I take so much courage from your words guys. Not only this interview but from others as well. I am a game developer myself with one more partner-friend. I hope we have some luck also with our game...

Asar Dhandala
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Great postmortem! As a perk, it gave a detailed guide of how a proper postmortem should be done.
Will be doing a likewise postmortem for my game Pac-Port.

Thanks 'Team Meat' for such an awesome game.

Julian Adams
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No one's going to mention the very similar indie game series?