Funny, abstract, passionate: anyone that's had the pleasure to meet Team Meat will coin the same phrases. Tommy Refenes and Edmund McMillen's easy chemistry is what brought the two together originally, and what has birthed their darkly humorous ode to the classic platformer, Super Meat Boy.
We phoned them ahead of the latest XBLA update and PC Steam release and found they had a lot to talk about. In this first extract of the interview, they cover SMB's creation, the Independent Games Festival, and how Edmund made his wife cry.
You guys have got rave reviews yet something tells me you're too snowed under with future plans to be lying back sipping margaritas just yet....
Edmund: We just finished the update. And we're currently working on the PC version. We did, just seconds ago, announce the Steam version will feature a headcrab and that will be replaced by a Goo Ball in the other versions.
What did you guys do to swing the Valve cameo?
Tommy: It's funny how all our experiences, all the craziest things that have happened to us, as far as opportunities go, have all come from half-jokes.
When we went to Valve about doing something special for the release of [Super Meat Boy] on Steam and asked 'do you have any ideas?' they said 'well we'd really like to do something, we really like the game'.
They were fans of the game, played it, liked it and were willing to support it. And we jokingly said it would be awesome if we could have the Headcrab, like half-joking - thinking a company like Valve wouldn't even allow this. And they were like 'yea sure'. Everybody loved the idea.
How did you guys manage to pull in cameos from other independent icons for the original release??
Edmund: We're friends with all those people. The indie scene is actually really tightly-knit. I think about every indie has talked to every other indie or had some connection with them.
Everyone is really friendly there's no bizarre business people that don't want other people sharing their idea because it might jepordise their IP or something, I don't know what dumb reasons people have for not sharing IPs. I'm sure there's some sort of complicated business reason. Basically everyone are friends - its really easy to communicate. When we had the opportunity to go console it was our chance to be pulled up by bigger indies but also pull smaller indies with us. And it allowed us to pay back to some of the independent games we loved and people might not know about.
One of the cool things so far is that people are looking up these characters online and play the original games, which was our intention. Its just a cool way to pay homage to the independent scene that we came from.
So the exposure worked?
From what we've seen everyone is really happy about it. A lot of the designers that we use characters from were really eager to get their hands on the editor so they could make their character-exclusive chapters for the game. The response from those indies have been very postive and they really seem to like the game so...
And how have you found implementing new levels?
Tommy: Yea, but you're the one that creates the levels.
Ed: Yea but you're the one that implements all this stuff so its harder for you to put things in.
Tommy: Eh....yea. [laughter] Well it is at the point, well, it is on your shoulders to do the new stuff. Like everything's already in for me. All I have to do is the title updates and fix stuff....
Ed; Yea, Tommy planned this out from the beginning. So originally Tommy's work was a million times harder and he had more work than me - by far. But now he's whittled it down so he does very little and I have an endless amount of work...for years.
Tommy: I don't do anything anymore.
Ed; Tommy just sits around and watches his mom make these wonderful cakes out of gingerbread. I just work all day.
Tommy: And we all sit in here, in my mansion. We have cameras placed in your house.
Ed: Yea, I know.
Tommy: we all just sit, and laugh. Sometimes when you're really frustrated, that's actually when I get the most aroused. [laughter] I like just to see you struggle - like ‘yea, do that.'
Ed: The camera's just following me around and then suddenly it starts gyrating really strangely. I give a little back Tommy.
Tommy: Well that's what I'm doing over here.
How did you you guys come together, aside from this weird sexual friendship you have going on here?
Tommy: We met on JDate. No. A long time ago, in the 99s and 2000s, which in my brain doesn't feel that long ago but is ten-eleven years ago., Edmund and I were both internet kids, we both had websites and we both were both affiliated with Newgrounds. Edmund made a bunch of flash games about dressing up babies and I made a game about throwing nails into Jesus' hands.
Edmund: Those babies were dead, don't forget that.
Tommy: Oh yea, that's true. They were dead babies.
Edmund: Its somehow seems weirder if you say they were just babies. It makes me sound like a fucking paedophile! [laughs] They were dead okay? They were dead babies.
Tommy: Yea, so everyone knows that Edmund isn't weird the babies were dead when you were dressing them up. They weren't alive - they were dead.
Anyway, Newgrounds...so we were both on it and linked to each other. We both sort of knew of each other but went off to do our own thing. I had a game that got into the IGF (Independent Game Festival) and was looking through old IDFA winners and I saw the Gish one and it was done by Edmund McMillen and I was like ‘hey - I know that guy!' so I IMed him.
After we met in person at GDC I took a trip out, because we were working on a game called Grey Matter. We found that we just worked really well together and decided to make the best game ever and then Meat Boy came out.
Ed: [laughs] We're still working on the best game ever.
Tommy: Still working on it yea.
Where did the idea for Meat Boy come from?
Ed: I did a prototype around the time that Tommy and I started talking. When we did Grey Matter, was around the time I obsessively made shitloads of flash games because I wanted to see how far I could push myself.
One of those six games I made that year was this game called Meat Boy, which was this really basic platformer made it with an online friend of mine called Jon McEntee. It was the first and only game that he programmed.
It was pretty rough, created in like three weeks - we threw it together and I had these characters lying around. Meat Boy, who was originally Meat Ninja, Dr.Foetus and a few other characters that I thought would be cool to use in a game. That was really all the thought that went into it.
I didn't realise that people would care so much about the game when it came out, but it became my most popular flash game, went viral and when Tommy and I got the option to make a console game it seemed most logical to make, or remake, the game that was most successful online because it, and the characters seemed to have a lot of appeal.
So Tommy's been riding on your coat tails all this time?
Tommy: I am to Edmund what Andy Richter is to Conan O'Brien.
Ed: Except I'm the fat one.
Ed: That's the only difference - I'm the thin one and he's the pale one.
Tommy: It's a reversal. Its creepy.
What are the logistics of a two-man outfit with both members living in different places across America?
Tommy: Like this actually.
Ed: We turn on Skype and just badger back and forth. We sync up a few times a year. We're most productive together - we entertain each other better when we're together. I don't know if more work is actually done but it seems more fun.
Tommy: I think we get about equally amounts done. Last time I [was over] we got what, four chapters done?
Ed: Remember what happened last time you were here? IDF. That was like a good two weeks of depression. [laughs]
Tommy: It felt more like being kicked in the balls.
Ed: The IGF is the Independent Games Festival that happens every year here in San Francisco. It wasn't that we were necessarily upset that we lost to Monaco, it was that every fucking person in the godamn world told us we were going to win and we were so confident that we where going to win...
Tommy: We were up for multiple prizes so we thought we'd go home with at least one. Then people, judges, journalists, network judges, came up to us after the awards show to say "well, you guys already have your deal with Xbox - you don't need this win".
Ed: In order for us to get out of that funk we made a mini-game over a weekend to mock the iPhone. We united and attacked the iPhone for almost no reason at all.
Tommy: it was because of my rant.
Ed: Yea! It was totally off on a tangent from what Tommy ranted on at GDC. How he talked about the iPhone being a Tiger handheld system and when we came back we basically made Super Meat Boy's Tiger Handheld for the iPhone. (Ed's note - its available on the App Store for 59p right now) and put it up as a joke.
Tommy: It sucked, but the most hilarious part of it was those sites that reviewed it as a serious game. That was the funniest part.
The cutscenes would sell SMB as a very irrevant, darkly humourous game. Yet they're sandwiched between some of the most sadistic platforming levels of recent years. How do you strike that balance?
Ed: I don't know. I don't put much thought into it. For us, it's hard to say that game design can have a bit of improvision to it, but the whole design schedule or whatever you want to call it, the design of SMB waas so open and loose, we just basically improvised through the whole game and let it make itself as we went. We never really overthought it. That's one of the coolest things about it - never overthink anything, we let things fall into place, didn't force anything.
A lot of the humour and references and reasons why things where the way they where possibly due to specfic events that happened while we were developing. Most of them are probably inside jokes, that just seem funny so we put them in. People don't really need to know what we're talking about to know its something dark or weird. I think we hit some major highs and major lows in development and I think that's why its dark yet hopeful.
Who came up with the idea to smother that boss with a pillow?
Ed: That was my wife's idea. I actually totally remember that too - that was the one cutscene I was struggling with. He was originally going to start screaming, then it was going to get really awkward as he'd continue to scream, like for the whole thing, and it was going to get kind of weird. And then we'd walk away.
It seemed funny, but on paper that meant a lot of screaming, leading yo a lot more file size due to their length, with a lot of shaking of the screen, which would have been a big problem with flash as I was animating.
So I was thinking around it and [my wife] suggested what if he's making kissy-faces, gets fucked up and has to be smothered [laughter]. So that's her doing. It was never this huge big plan - if something sounded funny and it fit.
On a day to day basis, how'd the game design work between the two of you?
Ed: Tommy just let me do whatever with the levels, I'd throw them to him, he'd tell me if anything looked or felt weird, then I'd keep playing it and if something felt odd or out of place we'd smooth it.
I'd get the rough skeletal outline of what I wanted on paper - there's a rough, very strict formula that I use for level introduction. Like, mechanics, even colours to make sure the levels look interesting. Every chapter has a progression of colour. The background will change from a light yellow to dark gray, back to a light yellow, which was the case with the salt factory.
I just followed the basic formula, one I used with games in the past. Then Tommy and I played the hell out of it until it became really refined. Like the really fucking weird rock formations you see in the desert, with the wind blowing on them and reforming them into something bizarrely awesome? That's essentially how it happened.
Did you have any influences in designing Meat Boy's control scheme?
Ed: We wanted a Mario sort of thing, if you tapped A and held right you felt like you could jump far. But with Meat Boy we knew we wanted insane air control anyway so we had to have it in there.
Tommy: We wanted Mario - but a Mario that would feel really really good in the air. Before anything else, I started with a few test levels in the Editor. This was like, more than a year ago. I'd build levels with little blocks everywhere and I'd jump and try and hit those blocks, then adjust for air-friction and wall jumps.
Later on when we were going through we found that people liked to press a direction then press jump for wall-jumping, so I made it that he sticks to the wall for a little bit rather than you just sliding off the wall immediately.
Ed: The universal design we went back with was "think of everything as logically as possible, question everything, even the stuff that is just default in videogames, question why we need it - and if we don't need it cut it. And what else can we explore with it, then just play the fuck out of it, until it becomes really really tight and smooth".
How long was that process and was it just the two of you testing it?
Ed: We had my wife, Tommy had his sister, and Mom and Dad. I had a friend come over a few times. That was essentially it. Tommy and I are incredibly anal when it comes to the games we play. I think why it became refined to the point it is because it honestly came to the point where if I put something up and Tommy said he didn't like it- then it went. We'd keep playing and any tiny nitpick, we'd want to remove it - because why not? Why not refine it down to its core, the purest form of what we're doing?
One time my wife was playtesting it once and cried...
Why did you make your wife cry?
It was not necessarily best time of month for her to be playing it [laughter] It was do with this one specific level actually. It was one of the levels that introduced portals, and those just destroyed her. She threw down the controller and ran off into the other room in tears.
What was the thought behind the dark world versions of the levels? The game seems hard enough...
Ed: The game isn't as hardcore as people think. People get off on calling it really hard and difficult but in reality its not. You'd be surprised looking at some statistics of how many people have finished the game or how many people have a hundred percented the game.
Like you'd think that the game was not that hard. Because the majority of people that go in, come out the other side. They don't necessarily 100% it and go to the Dark World but honestly, I believe people are good enough to beat the game. That was the whole intention from the beginning. There are people that are now better than us. That was the whole thing - we actually have faith in gamers that they are ready for this type of game and they are ready to complete it and enjoy it. That faith wasn't shared by everybody, especially the business side of certain companies. Because they didn't understand, didn't think that it would do well. But we grew up in a time were games were hard and it was kind of reinventing difficulty, but not making it frustrating.
Games back in the 90s were hard because they were so fucking frustrating and the reason was because they were so punishing. We removed punishment from the formula, to get this pure difficulty that is basically an endurance. Its like its only as hard as you want to let it be hard. Whenever you want to give up is when the level ends. You're not punished or discouraged for how many times you die. The game is difficult, but in the purest, most enjoyable way.
We're using the analogy that people don't run races because they're this easy thing. People enjoy racing because they want to be challenged - because its fun. Because when you come out the other side you feel so good for doing something that's hard, and not necessarily everyone in the world can do, or has done.
You ask anyone that bought Halo if they've beat the game and they will tell you they have. Because all games made now are easy and made to be beaten and to be effortless. And in a lot of ways they're the reasons why those games will be forgotten and don't stand the test of time that old classic retro games do.
Everyone talks about the nostalgia factor, but I do think that the greats, like the Marios and the Zeldas, aren't good because you were young and happy, I think they're legimately very well done and stood the test of time and didn't hold your hand and treat you like you're retarded. That's basically what we're trying to do - not treat you like you're retarded.
Come back tomorrow for the concluding half of the interview with more meaty goodness, as the guys talk the dumbing down of the games industry, why motion-control will burn out quickly, sexual harrassment cases and why they're unlikely to be buying mansions anytime soon.