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Interview:  Super Meat Boy 's Silly Take On Classic Platformers

Interview: Super Meat Boy's Silly Take On Classic Platformers

October 19, 2010 | By Ian Adams

October 19, 2010 | By Ian Adams
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Inspired by classic platformers, Team Meat's Super Meat Boy offers a silly visual aesthetic and simple, classic mechanics. The game tasks players with completing a series of brief, and often very difficult, platforming challenges, all based on the game's traditional mechanics.

In addition to the stages available at launch, Team Meat promises that it will release new content for free via the game's "Teh Internets" feature.

The game has been featured in indie showcases including the Penny Arcade Expo's PAX 10 and was nominated for several awards in the 2010 Independent Games Festival.

The game is available this week on Xbox Live Arcade as part of Microsoft's Game Feast promotion, and will be initially available at a sale price 800 Microsoft Points "to reward the fans for buying the game at launch", before increasing in price to 1200 Points in November. It will launch on additional platforms, including WiiWare and PC, later this year.

Gamasutra spoke with Team Meat sound effects designer Jordan Fehr and music composer Danny Baranowsky to discuss Super Meat Boy's humorous take on the platforming genre, and the benefits and challenges of independent development.

How would you describe the game?

Jordan Fehr: Super Meat Boy is a hardcore platformer with very short levels and instant respawn times. Itís got 300 plus levels with like 15 unlockable characters, all from other indie games, and 100s of other videogame references andÖ

Danny Baranowsky: And diabetes.

JF: And diabetes.

Both: And Gall Bladder disease.

And a fetus in a jar wearing a tuxedo.

DB: You know, Edmund McMillen, artist and designer, knows the right ingredients to put in a game. Itís topical, you know? Itís a political statement. Itís like The Jungle.

Itís already on everybodyís lips, and they just havenít said it yet.

DB: Exactly. John Steinbeck did not make statements like this guy... Basically, Meat Boy is Barack Obama. JustÖ you can figure the rest out yourself.

JF: There you go. Meat Boy is Barack Obama.

DB: And Jesus all rolled into one.

So what is your favorite thing about working indie?

DB: Sleeping at night? And not selling my soul.

JF: It seems like the best thing is that people are only limited by their own creativity, and not shareholders. I mean, that sounds crass but itís true at a lot of places. Thereís thereís no producer breathing down Edmundís neck saying ďdonít draw that guy that way.Ē The whole reason Edmund works the way he does is he wants to do what he wants to do, and not change it for anybody. Itís a good environment to be in.

DB: Yeah, if I got a AAA gig, Iím not saying Iíd turn it down or anything, Iím kinda joking about all that. Itís just, with Indie games, I think itís a lot more direct and honest. The game that the guy wants to make is made. Iím freelance, I have contracts but Iím not contracted with Sony or something. There aren't like seven levels of bureaucracy to go through any time anything needs to happen. Itís just me and Edmund, and he tells me what he wants and I do it.

JF: Iíll play devilís advocate for a minute, because I am working on Donkey Kong Country Returns. I work directly with my boss and thereís no one in my way. I mean, I donít know what itís like for him, but Iím freelance as well. Weíre not like Edmund and Tommy Refenes, our programmer, and we have other jobs too.

DB: Well, you know Iíve never worked on a AAA title, so from everything Iíve heard about it, there are a lot of horror stories out there. There could be misinformation, it could be not as bad as Iíve been led to believe, but with a small team, everythingís so quick and dirty. I do my business through AIM. Itís just so informal, you know?

JF: Yeah, it can be more streamlined, for sure.

What is the worst thing about working indie?

DB: Uncertainty.

JF: Yeah, and I mean, it would be wrong for me to not mention money. No one has gotten paid for Super Meat Boy yet. Edmund and Tommy have been running on savings for 18 months. Danny and I have some other jobs to help us out, but nobodyís seeing any money from this game until it goes on sale.

DB: Iím really lucky, I got into some successful iPhone games and so Iím doing alright, but I mean, before that hit, that was the thing; youíre poor as hell. Though the deals Iíve gotten regarding how much I got paid on some indie deals would probably never happen on a AAA project, because theyíre a lot more stringent on how theyíre going to pay you. Indie games is this crazy wild west, it hasnít been around long so there are no steadfast rules, and sometimes you can get paid a lot more, and thatís cool.

JF: Yeah if a gameís creator decides he wants to pay his designers a lot more than everybody else, thereís nothing stopping him from doing that.

DB: Youíre also a bigger part of the whole. Greg Edmonson does the music for Uncharted 2, Iím sure he gets a ton of money, but heís also one person on a staff of hundreds, and Iím essentially a quarter of the team thatís making Super Meat Boy.

JF: Itís not really black and white. Itís an area where, in the end sometimes it just comes down to the people youíre working with. If theyíre nice guys, it doesnít matter what kind of company youíre working at, whether it's indie or AAA. If theyíre really nice guys, everything gets along.

Is there anything about this game that makes you feel like it had to be an indie title, something that would stop it from coming out of a publisher?

JF: Everything about it? (laughs)

DB: Itís pretty rockiní man.

JF: I mean, have you seen it?

DB: You know, I tend to think that if Ubisoft was in charge of Super Meat Boy there would be changes, and the Prince of Persia would have to make a cameo or some garbage like that.

JF: I mean, think of how this game sounds on paper. Every internet blog has copied and pasted the same description, so itís on 400 websites, but you look at that on paper and if you didnít know anything about Super Meat Boy you would go ďWhat? That soundsÖ what?Ē I mean, even with some of our deals with putting the game out on these consoles, it took until the game was well along for people to come around and go ďWow, thatís a really good game, itís really fun to play.Ē In the early development it took a little while for people to take notice.

DB: It is much harder to get known. But then thereís the whole viral Internet thing going on. It's the proliferation of Twitter and social networking that even makes this possible. Itís not just the technology that lets us upload a downloadable game to Xbox Live, not needing a multi-million dollar marketing budget.

JF: We have no marketing budget.

DB: I mean, I donít know how big, I donít know how popular it is compared to other stuff, because I know about it, but a lot of people know about it. Iím sure there have been AAA games that fewer people knew about than this game.

JF: With guerrilla marketing and free internet stuff. And I mean, Microsoft is obviously marketing it a bit now that itís on their Fall promotion, but before thatÖ

DB: Well, Tommy publicly trashing the Apple App Store kind of helped.

JF: Right, but I mean, thatís press. The comics had a lot to do with it too. With the first round of comics that were sent to all the media outlets, everybody was like, ďWow, this is so cool.Ē And they started covering it.

So distribution wise, it seems like you guys have mostly been focusing on console. Is that by choice, or is that just who youíve been meeting with?

JF: I canít speak for Edmund, but as far as I understand it, Nintendo approached him about it and originally it was going to be one of his other Flash games that was going to be remade, and it ended up being Meat Boy in the end. So it pretty much all started with Nintendo.

Up until now Edmund has been pretty much Flash from the get go. And some of his games are really really great, and thatís why people know who he is already. So, yeah, Nintendo was the one that approached him first. Iím sure he always planned to put it out, even if it was a self-published thing, on PC. And the other stuff, like Xbox Live, came later.

So between the initial like plan that you had in your head, and the time it was going to take and whatís actually happening, what has the shift been?

JF: The shift has been fairly big. Nobody knew it was going to blow up like it has. I mean, from the get go we knew it was going to be on the Wii right? Even when we first started talking about this game, but we didnít know how much attention any of it was going to get. Because, I mean, there are tons of great games on WiiWare that nobody knows about. So, we were like, "Itís great itís going to be on a console," but nobody knew what was going to happen.

DB: For me personally, because the original Meat Boy, Ed approached meÖ

JF: He worked on the original Meat Boy, I did not.

DB: Right, so for the original Meat Boy, Ed approached me for music cause he knew me through Adam Atomic, who is the guy I did Canabalt and Gravity Hook with, and there wasnít time for me to actually write music so he said, ďHey, send me whatever youíre not using.Ē And I just happened to have 10 or 12 ridiculous tracks, just stuff I did in my free time.

Itís crazy to think that a year ago how little I had going on as opposed to now. I mean, just in the development of this game, stuff has changed, but he grabbed these tracks, and he just picked five of them and somehow it makes a cohesive soundtrack. So like four of five of the tracks on Super Meat Boy are remixes of tracks I made three years ago that I never thought were going to be anything. I was just me getting stuff recorded.

If you take the main theme of Super Meat Boy when you start the game, and compare that with the last track I did, which was the end credits music, you can see me change completely and improving as a musician through that time. This is by far the biggest project I was ever on, and the most stuff I had to do, and the most deadlines and everything.

I had no idea at the start what any of it was going to sound like, where it was going to go. And the later stuff I started doing because I used to do film score for indie films, and I started doing score for the cut-scenes. I never thought it was something I was going to do, it was just one day Ed said, ďHey, do you want to score these cut-scenes?Ē

And so, I never could have imagined how big it got in terms of the breadth of musical styles that were involved. In the course of all this I got a new guitar and an amp modeler. You can hear it as you play through the game, the tracks getting better. Like better produced and stuff. I hope itís not too noticeable, but it is what it is.

So you worked in indie film before this. What are some of the similarities and differences between game and film in the indie world?

DB: Well, game designers are just as insane as film directors. I think itís been easier to work with them, cause theyíre more my age. When I was working with directors, they were always like 20 years, 30 years older than me. Personally, there was friction, because itís like working with your dad instead of your buddies. As far as the work I would make, sometimes they wouldnít understand it.

One of my first indie film gigs had a club scene. It was for this Christian college organization; I literally took whatever I could get. I was trying to explain to him the kind of music people would actually listen to, like out and about, and he was this super pious, Christian, 50-year-old guy, and he had no idea.

It seems more congruent as far as like, what itís supposed to sound like. Me and Ed are only a few years apart, we both grew up with Nintendo, Super Nintendo, so we both have that nostalgia and that background to draw on. I mean, thatís basically what I do, is rip off Mega Man music for a living.

There are way worse jobs.

JF: I work in indie films too, and itís been remarkably similar for me, which is interesting. The filmmakers Iíve worked with have been closer to my age. Around Ohio and Chicago and, Iím working on a film right now. Thereís a big cast and crew that worked on the film, but the only people I talk to are the producer and director, and theyíre both the same age as me. So itís very similar to working on Super Meat Boy actually. Though obviously, itís a completely different kind of job.

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