[Super Meat Boy co-creator Edmund McMillen tells Gamasutra about the expansion for his twisted roguelike-like The Binding Of Isaac, as he reveals the original's sales have reached 450,000.]
Prolific indie game designer Edmund McMillen is currently working hard on an expansion for his twisted roguelike-like The Binding Of Isaac, originally released for PC in September last year.
The game follows a crying child who has locked himself in the basement in an attempt to escape his crazy mother. By firing tears at enemies, he must collect various power-ups and defeat difficult boss battles.
The Wrath Of The Lamb is the first expansion pack for the game, and is due to be released "when it's done." It is set to add lots of new features to the original game for a cut-down price, McMillen told Gamasutra sister site IndieGames.com in the following interview:
When you first started working on The Binding Of Isaac, did you expect that you would end up making an expansion for it?
McMillen: No way. I didn't expect anybody to care. I didn't expect to do the updates that I have done.
It must be nice to have unexpected attention and demand for this expansion.
Yeah, it's kind of surreal, honestly. When I started development on Isaac I wasn't even sure if I should charge for it, because I didn't think people would want it, in all honestly.
I had to shop it around to a bunch of different developers, and say like "Do you think I could sell this?", because I thought it was way too weird, I thought the content was too disturbing and creepy, I thought it would just rub too many people the wrong way, and I thought the design was just too hardcore for any kind of mass amount of people to enjoy.
Permadeath is very discouraging, that's why roguelikes are very niche and small. There are very specific people who play them. There's another key thing too: What traditional roguelikes, that use permadeath like that, do you know of that [developers] charge for? Most of those are free. I came to the conclusion that I'd put it up for $5, and if people don't like it they don't have to buy it.
Then it just fucking blew up. I didn't know, I didn't expect it. I'm sure doing Meat Boy helped, but it's to the point now where people are starting to know me for Isaac, and don't even know about Meat Boy.
People are like, "Oh, you did Meat Boy too?" and I'm like "I assumed that's why you bought my game." That was the turning point, I was thinking that at least I had enough name recognition in the industry for people to know what it is, and maybe I'll turn some people onto the roguelike formula, but I didn't expect any of this, honestly.
It's pretty absurd, we're closing in to 450,000 copies, it's just ridiculous, there's no reason for this game to have done well. It's nice for everyone involved.
I feel bad, because I wanted to do this with Tommy [Refenes, Super Meat Boy co-creator]. I don't want to say that to sound bad to Florian [Himsl, Binding Of Isaac co-creator], but this was a game I wanted to do with Tommy, and he just wasn't available when it was happening. It was supposed to just be a week long game jam, I wanted to jam out this little idea I had, just to have fun, and it just kind of grew and grew.
The time that I wanted to work on it was when Tommy was on vacation, and he was just gone the whole time. So I thought I might as well hook up with Florian, because he wasn't working on anything else at the time. I've made multiple games with him in the past, and it was always fun to work with him: He's my second favorite person to work with.
It's pretty cool that Danny [Baranowsky, long-time audio collaborator] and Florian were all involved, and it did so well, so they both got that financial success from it, because they needed it and deserved it. It was cool that it wasn't just a Team Meat game, but it also sucked because I didn't get to work with Tommy.
I'm sure you'll be working with him plenty in the years to come.
Yeah. I'm also quite positive that if we did do it, it would have been much bigger that it was, it would have just kept going. Working with Tommy is just a whole different thing.
You said you weren't sure how people might respond to it because of all the weird or creepy elements. Are you kind of surprised that there's not been any massive controversy in the mainstream media?
I called it from the beginning. People said that from the very beginning. Even my wife was like "I dunno." But I had a feeling, logically I was thinking to myself, "The only people that would be upset by this game, do not play video games. Period." And that's a fact, that's why nobody cares about any of the content in it, and that's why it's not a thing.
Maybe it'll be discovered by the mainstream media a few years down the road.
That would be a blessing in disguise for sure, but I called this from the beginning. People were like "You don't wanna fuck with Christians," but the thing is, nothing in the game is really anti-Christian. It can be taken as that, but it really isn't, a lot of the stuff in the game is by the book, literally. I think it's more of a conversation about religion more so than me saying Christianity is bad.
It's more like "Hey, let's talk about religion, let's think about it. I'm gonna throw some things out there, give you some context here and there, and let you figure out how you feel about what I might or might not be talking about."
It's not this literal slap in the face to Christianity in any way. The majority of what I'm drawing on is my experience with Catholicism, the pros and cons, I guess. It's honestly me having a conversation with myself about how I felt about religion growing up, and that's how it came out. I have a strange relationship with it, I think it's really interesting.
The fairy tale aspect of a lot the stories are really well done, it's extremely creative, and stunning in lots of ways. The rituals are very interesting, and the reasons behind things are very interesting, and the history is very interesting. There's a lot of things that are very interesting about religion, especially Christianity, although I don't really know much about other religions. For me, growing up, it had big impact on me in both creative and negative ways.
What kind of new things should we expect in Wrath Of The Lamb?
My goal is to try to trick myself, once again. I wasn't entirely happy with the game until I was able to trick myself with the random elements and happenings, so I wanted to add so much more. There obviously is going to be more of the same, I think I added 50 items, 20 trinkets (which are a whole new set up), and then as much rare and random happenings as possible.
There's basically two paths, there's an alternate chapter per chapter. What I've shown is the cellar, which is an alternate to the basement. So you could start your game, and it might be cellar 1, which has different enemies, different rare rooms, different bosses, different random happenings that are going to be new to the mix. Then the next level you might be in basement 2, or maybe the next level you'll be in cellar 2. It'll just choose randomly from those.
So is the idea that it still takes roughly the same amount of time to complete?
Yes, it's crucial to the game's design. A lot of people ask this, and I don't think they think about it enough. It's crucial to the game's design for it not to be longer than the game is now. It can't be longer. There's a lot of elements to its design that won't work, and it will just become boring, or drawn out, or too hard.
It's the kind of game you want to be able to complete in one session, and still give it another go if you die.
Exactly. I don't want people to invest more than an hour plus into a play session, it seems unfair. That's not what I'm about. This expansion is about beefing up the unexplored aspects of the game, it's going to create a lot of magic again, the same kind of magic that was there when you played the game for the first time and you weren't sure about what was going on, and you were running into things that had never been seen before. The exploration aspect that was there at the beginning.
It became more of an arcade game when you know what everything does, and you're going to play well. Which is cool, and eventually this will boil down to that as well. I want to create that air of mystery again, and the expansion will definitely do that. It will be cool to watch the wiki page, and watch as people discover what things do. There are still some things in the game as it stands now that people haven't completely figured out yet.
I think I've played it for more than 100 hours, and I got into one of the glitch rooms once, and I still don't know how I did it.
[laughs] Yeah, there's definitely going to be more of that: Rare random happenings that will definitely change things. There's even ultra rare pickup items: Hearts, Bombs, Keys, Cards and Coins, they will all have an ultra rare version of them that will do something special, and the something special might take people a few times to work out what it is. I'm going to make sure that people can feel full.
One of the main reasons I started the expansion was because my wife had 100 percent-ed the game. She was one of my main testers, and I think she's like 130 hours in or whatever, and she finished it 100 percent, and I just wanted to add something there. Also, part of it too was annoyance with people saying "your game is too easy, I beat Satan in like 5 seconds." So the final ultimate chapter in the game, I don't want to spoil it but whatever, there's an alternate chapter to Sheol which is much harder. That will have the true final ending.
Then you'll be rewarded by beating that part of the game with each character with items that are really unique. There's a lot of really unique items, new items sets, even new player statistics. There's a speed of shot stat, not just rate of fire, that can actually be modified now, which is cool to mess around with. There's also a bunch of new tear types that goes with the items. There'll be definitely a lot of interesting things that appear as you play, maybe even more if I feel inspired.
A while back you said that there was maybe a potential for a 3DS version of The Binding Of Isaac. Any news on that?
Yeah, there is news, but I can't talk about it. I don't know if it's promising or not honestly, it's still up in the air. All I can say is, it's being discussed in-depth.
It's definitely being discussed quite in-depth, to the point that it's taken this long for a conclusion to be met. The game has definitely thrown a wrench into the gears of the people involved. A lot of people don't know, even I don't know, exactly how to take the game.
Any clues about Team Meat's next game?
I can say that Tommy has been working his ass off, and has finished the exporter. Our games from now on will all be vector based, which means really high resolution, HD, crisp, clean graphics, that will run even better. Tommy basically wants the new engine that we're using to be as perfect as possible.
One of the reasons I'm doing the Isaac expansion now is because Tommy's busy with the engine, and we can't work on a new game in full development until he's finished on the engine. He's doing his stuff, working his magic, and he's kicking ass right now.
I imagine probably in a month we'll start working full time on development of the next game. The next game will probably be iPhone. Probably. Unless it sucks, then we'll can it and focus on the big game. Things are moving, things are starting to rev up again. That's why I need to get this expansion done, keep my plate clean for the next game.