Playing the punishingly hard Super Meat Boy is a masochistic exercise for many players. But in a GDC 2011 presentation today, creators Tommy Refenes and Edmund McMillen – the two person Team Meat – laid out the many ways that the development process was equally masochistic, at times.
“I remember looking at the calendar and feeling the panic and feeling the stress of that, and... I said to myself, 'I will die when this is done,” Refenes said, in what he assured the audience was not hyperbole. “I kept thinking, 'If I make it through, I probably won't die, but it's OK if I die afterward.'”
The reason for the nearly lethal development pace, the team said, was the promise of being included in Microsoft's Xbox Live Fall GameFeast, which they were told would lead to increased visibility and more sales.
With their dwindling bank accounts unable to sustain them until the next promotion six months later, Team Meat undertook a truly punishing schedule to get from rough trade show builds to a polished, bug-free game in just a few months time.
“This isn't an exaggeration; the last two months of development, Tommy and I never took a day off and never slept more than five hours a day,” recalled McMillen, who joined the talk via Skype call from his home office. “It was like a Groundhog Day situation, where we're just living this same awful day over and over.”
The incessant grind got so bad that McMillen recalls frequently telling his wife he was ready to throw out all their progress and just quit. Refenes, who's diabetic, said the stress caused his blood sugar levels to become disastrously unstable, and that his parents had to bring him a meal every day, or he would neglect to eat.
And after all that hard work, Refenes and McMillen said they were extremely disappointed with the promotion offered by Microsoft. What was supposed to be a featured promotional spot on the Xbox 360 dashboard, with no competing new digital releases for the week, quickly turned into a fourth slot initial placement opposite the release of Double Fine's highly visible Costume Quest.
Refenes and McMillen said Microsoft's limp support was somewhat understandable due to the somewhat underwhelming performance of earlier GameFeast releases Hydrophobia and Comic Jumper. Still, they felt like the rug had pulled out from under them, to an extent.
“It isn't supposed to hurt your feelings, because it's business, but it did hurt my feelings,” Refenes said. “Ed and I killed ourselves to get this game done, and we're just kind of pushed to the side.”
Despite the promotional snafu, Super Meat Boy received widespread critical acclaim and attention on the way to nearly 400,000 downloads across Xbox Live and Steam. But the high cost of that success had McMillen looking back in confusion.
“I still think back to those months and I'm like, 'Jesus Christ!'” he said. “The human body can do it when it needs to, but I would never voluntarily go through that again. If someone said 'Hey, you want to do Meat Boy again and get the same success?' I would say 'No way.' … In a way I'm weaker because now I'm afraid of something like that.”
That said, there are some tangible benefits to the development hell. “When we'd see someone pick up the game and not put it down, that would take any sadness we had and just put it aside,” Refenes said.