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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 4 of 4
 

4. Too Big in Scope for Flash

Aside from the performance issues and AS2's limitations, late in Isaac's development we soon realized that Flash simply wasn't at all made to support a game of Isaac's size. Once the .FLA file rose above 300MB, we couldn't even consistently generate an .SWF file from it without crashing.

This issue almost prevented Wrath of the Lamb from coming out at all; we were at a point in development where simply saving the .FLA would corrupt it about 25 percent of the time. Florian would have to restart his PC and save the .FLA in a new folder every time we had to export an .SWF just to test it, and 50 percent of the time it wouldn't work for no apparent reason.

It was quite a horrible experience, and if we could have seen into the future with a crystal ball, we would have simply not used Flash. (Maybe this will be a feature in Flash CS7...)

5. "Blasphemy" and Controversy

Not surprisingly, controversy made a few appearances in Isaac's release year, but not in the way you might think. During Isaac's German retail launch, the German ratings board gave Isaac a 16+ due to "blasphemy." That itself didn't cause controversy -- instead, it was the idea that said blasphemy could affect the age rating on a video game.

Blasphemy isn't something you can define for everyone (what's blasphemous for one religion isn't necessarily so for another), so how could one define something as containing blasphemy? It was a very interesting argument, and I'd be lying if I said that having the first game rated 16+ due to blasphemy didn't feel awesome, but sadly it was this controversy that I believe eventually led to Nintendo's decision not to port Isaac to the 3DS.

I remember my wife being worried about Isaac's release, worried that it might offend the wrong people and someone could end up being hurt. I can't say I didn't have some hesitation about this aspect of talking about religion in a satirical and possibly blasphemous way, but I couldn't help but avoid the simple logic that, well, most of those kind of people don't play games. And after over a year, I really believe that's true. (Thank God!)

Isaac Reborn

As of writing this postmortem, The Binding of Isaac has sold over one million units on PC and Mac in its first year on Steam, one-quarter of the people who own the main game paid for the Wrath of the Lamb expansion, and the interest seems to continue building.

A few months ago I was contacted by Tyrone Rodriguez of Nicalis (publisher of Cave Story, VVVVVV) and asked about how I felt about remaking The Binding of Isaac for consoles. I love consoles as much as the next guy, but dealing with the business end of console development wasn't something I wanted to dive back into at this point.

I told him yes, but I had a few strict guidelines to make sure an Isaac remake was perfect. I wanted the game to feature the second planned expansion that I couldn't do in the Flash version, I wanted it to feature local co-op, I wanted the graphics to be totally remade in 16-bit but still look and feel like the Flash version, and finally, I didn't want to deal with anything when it came to business. Nicalis has agreed to these terms, and development has started on The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth.

It's still too early to tell for sure what consoles the game will end up on, but both Microsoft and Sony feel like it would be a perfect fit for their digital platforms, and we have a feeling the new look might soften up a few people at Nintendo for a possible Wii U/3DS eShop release. I'm wary about how the game might control on iPad, but if they can make it work, I'm all for it.

The Binding of Isaac was a huge personal achievement. I was able to talk about something personal and meaningful in a way I felt comfortable with, and I was able to get my feet in the water with the roguelike formula and random generation.

When I started on Isaac, my goal was to make a niche cult classic, something with a tiny but die-hard fanbase. What I didn't expect was how large a "tiny" niche audience would actually be.

But what moved me the most is the amount of creativity Isaac inspired in others. Every day I read fiction blogs, watch YouTube animations, and look at others' illustrations while thinking about how honored I am to have made something that could have helped motivate so many to create.

The three months Florian and I put into creating The Binding of Isaac didn't just pay off with a financial windfall -- it also gave us an eye-opening experience that proves to me without a doubt that people truly want and respect games that are uncensored and risky, and that ask more of the player than most games these days do.

[If you enjoyed this article, please consider a physical or digital subscription to Game Developer magazine, where you'll find a wealth more exclusive content, and where this postmortem originally appeared as the cover story in the November 2012 issue. An updated, Retina-compatible version of the Game Developer iOS app is also now available.]


Article Start Previous Page 4 of 4

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Comments


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.


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