Welcome to the fifth and final day of The Escapist‘s Indie Developer Showcase, a week-long celebration of the individuals and small teams who are making a big impact on the games industry. Each day we’ve featured a new developer and new games to play; to see the full list of developers, click here. Thanks for reading, and if you liked any of the games featured this week, don’t forget to support the developers!
There’s something remarkable about Edmund McMillen‘s games. Maybe it’s the fact that you can look at one of them and instantly know it’s his, despite the fact that their subject matter ranges from puking (Spewer) to conception (Coil), or from extended dick jokes (The C Word) to imagination as an escape from childhood isolation (Aether). Or perhaps it’s how he seamlessly blends traditional platforming gameplay with completely new mechanics (Gish, Time Fcuk). Either way, he’s established himself as one of the most thoughtful, provocative designers in gaming.
McMillen’s next major project is Super Meat Boy, an ultra-challenging old-school platformer for WiiWare and PC. It won’t be ready for public consumption for another few months, but in the meantime you can play the marginally less super Flash prototype at Newgrounds. We spoke with McMillen about the ongoing development of SMB, censorship, and the lessons he’s learned as an indie developer.
The Escapist: You’re nearing the end of development on Super Meat Boy. What’s the experience been like so far?
Edmund McMillen: Technically we have a few months of development left, because I raised the number of levels from 200 to 350. I felt it would add a lot to the game, so we had to push it back a little to add the extra content.
Developing for console has been somewhat strange. The biggest difference is that when you’re doing a console title and showing it to the press, the game basically needs to appear finished, so there’s a large amount of polish that goes in early on and that’s not at all how you usually do things when doing an indie PC title. But I’ve gotten used to it and can actually see the positive aspect of doing things that way.
TE: Do your games generally start out with a character and develop from there, or do you have the mechanics in mind before you begin working on the art?
EM: It depends on the game. With the original Meat Boy prototype, the basic gameplay was already in, and I designed the character around what we had. Many other games I’ve done have been based around the characters design first, like Gish.
TE: How did you come up with the idea of adding other indie game protagonists (like Braid‘s Tim, Bit.Trip‘s Commander Video, Messhof‘s Flywrench, etc.) as unlockable characters in SMB?
EM: The goal was to try to give back to the community that made us and also kind of bring some lesser known indies into the spotlight of the mainstream. SMB is a big homage to videogame independence as well as the heyday of 2D gaming. I just thought it would be awesome to feature characters from games I love!
TE: Do you favor any one portal over another when choosing where to host your flash games? It seems like you’re more active at Newgrounds – what about that community appeals to you as a creator?
EM: I stick with Newgrounds because they give you the most freedom. The site is also run by a very good game designer (Tom Fulp) who respects and understands the videogame design process. I’ve also been a fan of Newgrounds from way back when I started doing interactive Flash and games back in 2000. It’s a very open and creative community that doesn’t have a stick up its ass about content.
TE: What’s it like as an indie working with a huge publisher like Nintendo? Do you have to censor yourself or give up much creative freedom to get SMB published on WiiWare?
EM: Honestly, Nintendo has had no feedback or input on SMB at all. They just let us do our thing, and when we are done they pop it up on WiiWare. So far we have had the same amount of freedom we would doing a PC title; I hope that doesn’t change once we send it out to get approved!
TE: How is console development different than PC and browser development? Now that you’re nearly finished with SMB, can you see any console versions of your other games in your future?
EM: I have a few ideas for console titles in the future, but even more when it comes to PC/Flash titles. I have no idea what I’ll be doing after SMB – I’ll just see where things move me and go with it.
TE: What’s more satisfying for you as a designer: creating entirely new designs, or polishing older ones until they’re perfect?
EM: New ideas are always more satisfying in the short term, but fine-tuning and polishing up SMB has been a very satisfying experience as well. I’m not used to working on a project for this long, but I’m starting to enjoy the process of fine dissection of existing themes and smoothing stuff out till it’s perfect. But I won’t really know what I like more till SMB is done.
TE: How do you decide with whom to collaborate with on your projects? Do you ever meet with your partners in meatspace, or is it all online?
EM: I meet up with Tommy [Refenes] every three months for about a month; he’s been staying at my place for SMB development. I’ve met a few of the other people I’ve made games with, but the majority I’ve never met in real life.
TE: What does it mean to you for SMB to be nominated for the grand prize at this year’s IGF?
EM: It means a lot. It’s been five years since my last game, Gish, was nominated. I honestly thought it would be impossible to ever make something that would reach the heights Gish did back then. It means a lot to be there again with Super Meat Boy.
TE: You recently wrote a manifesto for aspiring indie game designers for IndieGames: The Weblog. Out of those 24 lessons, which one was the hardest for you to learn?
EM: I think “being honest” is probably the hardest one to learn. It’s very hard to be honest with yourself as well as your work – everyone wants to be something they are not and don’t want to admit to shortcomings. Being honest not only means making honest art but also being honest enough with yourself to realize you are a work in progress, not perfect and always learning.
I think the most common mistake people run into with game design is “biting off more than they can chew.” This isn’t the hardest thing to learn, but definitely the easiest to fall into and the hardest to get out of.