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Postmortem: McMillen and Himsl's The Binding of Isaac
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Postmortem: McMillen and Himsl's The Binding of Isaac

November 28, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 4 Next

5. Isaac's Fans

The number-one reason why you've heard about Isaac is its fans. Releasing Super Meat Boy and being in Indie Game: The Movie has shown me a wide range of fan types, but Isaac fans are just in a league of their own. At the time of this writing, there are well over 30,000 videos of Isaac on YouTube, countless pieces of fan art, animations, and plush toys all over the Internet, and over 30 fictional fan blogs where people can ask characters in Isaac questions and get in-character responses. It's totally surreal. Something in Isaac just spoke to a large group of creative people, and they held him up and ran with him.

Recently, I've been trying to find out how Isaac attracted such a creative and dedicated fan base. What is it about the game that spoke to this large group of artistic men and women? I can't ever know for sure, but I strongly believe that something in Isaac's theme and story connects to a large number of "creative outcasts."

I made it from the standpoint of a creative outcast; the game is about a creative child who is looked at as "made wrong" by the one person who cares about him, and his only real escape is his imagination. This is a story I could relate to, and it's one I think a lot of creative people latched on to mostly because it's not really a story you see in video games at all.

I am forever in debt to these people. Not only did they get the game to the masses, they also inspired me so much. You guys make me want to continue designing this game forever.

What Went Wrong

1. Shaky Launches

The Binding of Isaac was updated every day for two weeks during launch, and each time we thought we had solved all the issues. (Each time we were wrong.) Luckily, we were able to remove all game-breaking bugs in the first two days, but there were still many smaller bugs left that gnawed at us for a long time.

It sucked to launch with so many issues -- we had save bugs, game-breaking bugs that wouldn't let you complete the game, bugs that would not reward unlocks and achievements, and even some really odd ones that would scramble item clips and cycle through art from the game constantly. It wasn't pretty, and it was even more painful to watch so many upset players posting in the forums about the many issues with the game. (The biggest question, of course, was "Why didn't you test the game?")

The reason we released Isaac when we did was because it was done (if untested), and I didn't want to waste any more of my time on something I expected would crash and burn. I was just so worried it would suck that I wanted to get it out and over with.

2. Testing (and the Lack Thereof)

At launch, The Binding of Isaac had 100 items and five playable characters. 70 percent of the items in Isaac stack, and all the item abilities will affect Isaac in some way, so there were so many variables to keep track of that all the testing in the world couldn't have prepared us for launch.

Everything about the game was based on complex variables that multiply with each level you pass. In order to fully test all the variables we had in place, it would have taken hundreds of testers several days of extensive play time to fully debug this little monster -- there were bugs that actually took 100,000+ people four weeks to find due to how buried and rare some of them were.

Also, launching on PC meant launching on 10,000 different PC configurations, so we had bugs that would be caused by antivirus software, clean-up tools, and even some types of keyboard configurations.

The sad fact was that it was the day-one buyers that ended up fully testing Isaac for us, and I felt really shitty about that. A few weeks after launch I put together a free mini-expansion to make up for our shaky launch -- but that, too, was filled with bugs.

3. Performance and Feature Issues with ActionScript 2

The biggest downfall of The Binding of Isaac is its performance. Isaac was designed in Flash using ActionScript 2; that's what Florian could program in, so those were the limitations we had to work around. Sadly, Flash AS2 is quite outdated, and even with all the amazing work Florian put in, we simply couldn't get the game to run well on lower-end PCs. Flash even had major issues with PCs that used dual-core processors, so even PCs with amazing specs would slow down at times.

If I had known that anyone would have cared about Isaac, I wouldn't have made it in Flash at all. Framerate issues aside, Flash's lack of controller support and integrated Steam features really hurt Isaac. It pained me to release a game that was lacking features almost all games have. You'd think by now Flash would have added some kind of controller support, but no. Tommy actually wrote an achievement program specifically for Isaac so it could award Steam achievements, which was hugely helpful, but I couldn't ever really feel satisfied with the product due to our AS2 limitations.

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Michael Griffin
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I really love this game; Isaac's story reminded me of improvising a D&D campaign using the bits and pieces of toys I had on me--albeit in a darker way. There's a sadness to this game that really adds another dimension, which is why it can sometimes be hard to play for too long.

A Wii U or 3DS version would be fantastic--local co-op crossplay between them would be even better. I think the GamePad is particularly well-suited to single-screen play here, too. I didn't know Nicalis was working on the new version! That's great news.

Thanks for this post-mortem. I think it's refreshing to hear stories where the creative process is allowed room to fail--and soars because of it.

Sean Hogan
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Rad, glad it worked out so well! In general I wish people made their games more personal and as reflections of themselves...there's something about games with parts of the personalities and thoughts of the creators that's appealing - maybe gaining insight into their minds, etc. Are you going to be making all of the 16-bit graphics for the console version?

Michael Pianta
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Great article. I hope Nintendo does allow this game on the Wii-U. I think it could be a perfect fit - you could pull it down onto the game pad or whatever. And also I just want Nintendo to stay relevant. Indie developers like you are the bright future of games, all the consoles need to have this sort of thing on their platform.

Michal Dawidowicz
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Hey, you can make Flash games outside of FLA for years now, doing a little bit of research would probably saved you tens or hundreds of hours fighting with big ass FLAs. But past aside, I'm patiently waiting for the Rebirth now!

Tinus TheBoss
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So is the Rebirth not coming for pc/ steam? only for console? :S

Matt Hackett
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Many of the limitations you faced sound just like the issues I'm having with HTML5, which currently feels like developing with an old, shitty version of Flash.

I read this like three times in GD Mag. Solid game, great take-aways. Thanks for writing this, loved it.

Brian Devins
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I had no intention of buying this game until my friends, one after one, gushed over it. I bought it and couldn't believe how riveting it was. It's actually one of my favourite games of all time. I sure hope Reborn will make it to PC - I feel like I haven't paid enough for this game yet.

Craig Timpany
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I wonder if the Binding of Isaac could've made it through the Steam Greenlight process if it were pitched today? I'm not sure they'd even allow it to have a listing, seeing as they disallow "inappropriate or offensive content," whatever that means.

Daniel Boutros
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A great game. One my favorites of the year, pre-Wrath of Lamb. After that, it felt like starting again for me. :)

Was stunned it didn't even get an award nomination at any of the indie shows. Smelled like bullshit to be honest.

BTW Tyrone, I'm jealous. Great game dude.

Epona Schweer
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Reason #437 of why I work with indie creatives and am such a fan of McMillen's stuff.

Andreas Ahlborn
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I`m left quite speechless, how much technical naivety the "what-went-wrong-paragraphs" 3 and 4 show. How comes that an obviously talented game designer like McMillen would eventually blame his tools for the technical problems he created by not knowing the basics about his crafting tools?
It`s like a carpenter would complain about his hammer, saying: a hammer is probably the wrong tool for driving in nails, because wood is softer than metal. FYI: You don`t hold a hammer by its head.
If Ankama can use flash to drive a game like dofus, and you have problems with it even if your scope is much smaller...that doesn`t exactly speak for you having done your homework.

Andreas Ahlborn
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Actionscript 3 hit the market in 2006. You should think every programmer that wants to use this technology would have made the shift long ago.

Samuel Roberts
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Florian Himsl was the programmer, not McMillen, and AS2 was chosen because that was what Himsl was comfortable programming in. Still seems somewhat off that someone would actively choose to continue using such outdated technology when AS3 has been around for over five years, but that was the situation.

John Jenks
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Congratulations on such an unexpected hit.

I loved Isaac. As much as it caught you off-guard with its success, it caught me off guard with its unique charm and its simple yet addictive gameplay. And the fact that you made this game for YOU and not for US... well that simply earns more respect for you and for the game from me.

Nikolay Osokin
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In regards to Negative Point 2 (Lack of testing) I wonder how McMillen would feel about conducting future business using the pay-for-the-alpha model that a few indies have adopted. That way no one's getting hurt that doesn't want to participate in a buggy alpha/beta period, and there's greater community interaction and gauging of interest, which would have shown him how 'tiny' his niche base would have been.

In general, Binding of Isaac has been a genius product since launch. I've put in 100+ hours (like most have, I presume) and am excited to give it a try on consoles, especially considering the complete overhaul of everything. I dig the flash graphics and design, but I generally would love a remixed version of most games, and the 4 options put on his tumblr all look neat.

Mohamed Almonajed
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God bless you Edmund.

jicking bebiro
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for me this is the best roguelike game i've ever played. This is what i call indie for being what it is .

Kyle McBain
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Never played but the basic structure, or should I say lack there of, sounds like Oblivion from the Elder Scrolls series. The items are not required to progress, and all the enemies level up as you do. It makes me wonder why I am leveling up at all. It's not "magic". It's laziness. And the fact that the map is exactly like Zelda is odd to me. I know it is not... but definitely feels like plagiarism. The only reason this game sold well is because of Super Meat Boy.