Saturday, October 27, 2012

Interview with Edmund McMillen of Team Meat

Due to some very busy weeks here at Georgetown, I wasn't able to upload an interview last weekend, but this weekend, we have a very special one: an interview with Edmund McMillen, the creator of games like Aether and The Binding of Isaac, as well as the co-creator and developer of the critical and commercial indie darling, Super Meat Boy.  Edmund is truly a man who knows what video games can do artistically and emotionally.  In the recent documentary, Indie Game: the Movie, Edmund himself admits that he is always trying to push the boundaries of what can be done in games.  But this does not just mean he just makes games that are obscene or absurd (although, with games like Spewer, where players try to solve puzzles by vomiting), but also games that deal with the emotional struggles and traumas we all have.  

Let's take the example of one of Edmund's past projects, Aether.  The game follows a young child as he explores space with a strange, octopus-like creature.  As the boy explores the various planets and stars, he meets many of the various planets denizens, most of whom have problems or fears that the boy must solve.  But, as the boy solves more and more the creatures’ problems, the smaller the Earth becomes until he tries returning at the end of the game, and the earth shatters under his weight.  This concept might seem bizarre to the outsider, but to Edmund, the game had deep artistic and psychological meaning.  According to Edmund, the game itself is a commentary on the dangers of isolation and obsession, for the boy is so focused on solving the creatures’ problems (which are the same problems Edmund experienced as a child, including painful stomach aches and extreme loneliness) that he forgets, and eventually destroys, his connection to Earth and the real world.  In many ways, this reflected Edmund’s experiences as a child, when he lived with his grandmother due to a poor relationship with his stepfather, and often felt isolated within himself and his graphic artwork.  To truly convey how much this game means to Edmund, the filmmakers of Indie Game: the Movie often compare the gameplay of Aether to some of Edmund’s childhood drawings, with one particular drawing of young Edmund imagining himself in space eerily resembling the game as a whole, as if the young Edmund knew he was going to make a game about this exact topic in the future.
Even the game focused on in the film, Super Meat Boy, has a large significance to Edmund.  The filmmakers focus on Edmund’s face, and also use clips from the game where the eponymous character dies over and over in the game’s death traps.  Solemnly, Edmund admits that the character is not supposed to be a light-hearted character.  With no skin and constant resurrections from grisly deaths, Meat Boy feels only pain and dread of his next demise.  But, there is more to it than that.  The objective of the game is to rescue Meat Boy’s girlfriend, who is made of bandages.  As Edmund explains how Band Aid Girl completes Meat boy and takes away his pain, the filmmakers drop heavy hints of this having a double meaning to Edmund, as we see a woman’s hands sewing plush toys of the two characters.  It is only after this explanation that we see Edmund’s wife, who is his moral support, and the relief to the pain and suffering that comes with his artistic mind and pursuits and the constant work that comes with game development.  In many ways, the game presents itself as a love letter to Edmund’s wife and all that she does for him.  When Super Meat Boy is eventually a massive success and critically praised, this is not only a victory for Edmund on a financial basis.  As Edmund tearfully admits, the idea that a child would stay home from school to play his game and be inspired by his life’s work – just as old games were an inspiration to him as a child – is the ultimate victory.  He was able to put himself out in the world, and was not only accepted, but also praised and even adored. For a person who suffered all his life with isolation and escapism, this acceptance means everything to Edmund.
And these are just two examples of Edmund's brilliance.  Another would be The Binding of Isaac, Edmund's commentary on religious extremism and the dangers of imagination, as well as a love letter to games like The Legend of Zelda.  Or Team Meat's next game, Mew-Genics, which does not, as of yet, have many details released about it, but will sure to be an interesting, and maybe even twisted, experience.

As Always We Have Some Links:

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Interview with Tom Fulp and Dan Paladin from the Behemoth

This week's interview is actually a text interview.  Once again, this weekend is quite busy with a large amount of work (Hooray for Midterms!) and Parents' Weekend.  

Yep.  Chickens.
However, this week's subjects, Tom Fulp and Dan Paladin from the Behemoth games, who are responsible for games like Alien Hominid, and the Xbox Live Arcade success Castle Crashers.  With its fun cooperative play and bizarre sense of humor, Castle Crashers was a MASSIVE success, changing the way Xbox Live Arcade played into the online distribution of games for years to come.  With such a massive effect on the game industry, it was obvious that we would interview them.  Mr. Fulp is also previously successful with his website,, which features flash animations and games.  Ranging from the brilliant and emotional to the quirky and just plain disturbing, Newgrounds and its users has movies for every type of audience.  But let's begin the interview:

Mr. Paladin (Left) and Mr. Fulp (Right)

1. Castle Crashers has been considered one of the greatest indie/downloadable games of all time.  How do you handle such praise?  Do you feel that the game deserves such praise, or do you feel completely off guard by it?
TOM:  The success of Castle Crashers caught me pretty off-guard. We put a ton of blood sweat and tears into it and expected it to be a bigger success than Alien Hominid, but nothing in the range of two million sales. My personal dream was 250,000 sales; I couldn't imagine much beyond that.
DAN:  Yeah, this was a really amazing surprise for us.  We were proud of our game and thought it'd hold its own, but to be #1 rated ever since release, and to reach so many people.. that's just awesome.  We're glad people enjoy our work this much since we really gave it our all.

2. Your games, especially Alien Hominid, finely walk the line between “fun-challenging” like VVVVVV or Demon’s Souls and  “frustrating-challenging” such as Call of Duty on Veteran.  How did you find that kind of balance in gameplay?
TOM:  I don't consider Alien Hominid's difficulty to be a found balance, it feels like more of a mistake. We fell into the trap of getting too accustomed to the challenges and making it more challenging as a result. There's also just some bad design in general, where death can be unavoidable and a matter of luck. I try to take as many lessons away from it as I can. I still think it came together as a fun and crazy game.
DAN:  I think we just made a very dated mistake.  When it used to just be 1 person total on an entire development team it was easy to fall into a trap.  The way we're built is a lot like that old system.  So, if you know every trick the enemies are going to use, the game can't really be very hard for with that level of understanding.  Being so close to the project, Tom and I could fly through Alien Hominid like it was nothing, and I think we may have tuned it for ourselves accidentally -- although nowadays, being separated from it for so long, I can get my butt kicked by that thing.  Now, we take the game to shows, have more employees, and have a usability lab.. so it's hard to fall into that trap ever again!  Whew!

3. Your games are also very inspired by old school games.  Castle Crashers, in particular, seems to be inspired by beat ‘em ups, like Final Fight or maybe even Golden Axe.  What were your inspirations for each project?
TOM:  With Alien Hominid my personal inspirations were Gunstar Heroes and Metal Slug, although I wish I had leaned more towards Gunstar Heroes than Metal Slug. Any game by Treasure is an inspiration to me.Castle Crashers was a much more varied mix of inspirations, namely every brawler ever made (I've tried to play them all), Guardian Heroes and general RPG influences.
DAN:  I was more or less inspired by the entire genre, or the overall feeling I'd get when playing that genre.  I don't feel like a lot of the games that inspired me nowadays are as fun as they were when I was a kid.  I'd have to say one of my largest influences came from River City Ransom.  That game is still awesome, and has such a nice balance.  To recreate that balance is near impossible.

4. Your games definitely have an “interesting” sense of humor to them, which makes it quite distinct from other, serious indie games like Limbo.  Why did you decide to place this humor into the game?
TOM:  I think that just happens spontaneously. The silly stuff tends to come in the middle of the night, when we've been grinding away at something that has become boring and decide to throw something crazy into it to make it fresh.
DAN:  We just get silly sometimes.  It's interesting how a moment like that can end up being very iconic in our games, like the pooping deer.  Seeing it now, it's really nice that people laugh along with us and get a sense of how we are when they play.

5. As one of the initial success stories on XBLA and the indie game market, do you feel your success has inspired the growth of indie game market?  Do you think we would have titles like Limbo or Cave Story without the success of Castle Crashers?
TOM:  We felt like we had accomplished something big when we got Alien Hominid on PS2 and Gamecube, although for indies the real market change came with downloadable. We faced another challenge convincing Microsoft to let us self-publish Alien Hominid on XBLA; the traditional publisher model was still in place and was being enforced. It felt like we were knocking down some barriers at the time but I can't really speculate on what games would or wouldn't exist without the success of Castle Crashers. I like to think it helped inspire other small teams to aim for consoles.
DAN:  Doesn't Cave Story pre-date us?  Anyway, just due to Castle Crashers' reception, I'd imagine it has shaped a bit of how things are going, but I'm not entirely sure what was shaped and how. I think what Castle showed was not that indie's could be successful on XBLA, but that XBLA was a new legitimate platform in its own right. Many of the top XBLA games, such as Castle, Trials, Minecraft, etc., are from independent studios.

6. Recently, one of your fellow indie game developers, Edmund McMillen was featured in Indie Game: the Movie.  Did you receive an invitation for the film?  Did you want to be featured?
TOM:  To my knowledge we were considered a bit too successful already, since the movie was focusing on developers struggling to break through. It would have been awesome to make some appearances in there, since it's such a great movie, but I'm happy enough that Castle Crashers and Newgrounds got some recognition throughout. The movie did a great job capturing the emotional rollercoaster of game development. I've had to suppress bug-related panic attacks at a lot of conventions over the years.
DAN:  I know we're mentioned in the film, and I'm in it for about 1 second shaking Edmund's hand, but I don't recall being invited.  We wouldn’t have minded giving our angle.

7. Are you close with any other indie developers?
TOM:  I'm close with a ton of developers on Newgrounds, including guys like Edmund and Tommy  from Team Meat and Tyler Glaiel and Jon Schubbe who made Closure for PSN.
DAN:  I know Edmund, Tyler and Jon as well.  Also Jen Zee from SuperGiant, and I've hung out with a few of the Doublefine guys a few times, and the Trap Door guys. We just don’t go out of our way to publicize our “indie friendships” and tag them in every Facebook picture. All of these people are genuine and cool.

8. Have you ever been contacted by a triple-A publisher?  Would you ever take them up on an offer a make a high-profile game?
TOM:  I don't think any of us have any interest in that. The only thing that tempts me once in a while is taking on an established cartoon franchise, especially now that I have kids who love specific cartoons on TV. Working with big companies is such a headache though so in the end it's worth just going your own way.
DAN:  I remember once in Japan that a Square guy came up and said he wanted to work with us.  But, it quickly became clear that we were unable to work anything out that made sense for both companies.  I was initially really excited by the idea, but looking back.. I have no idea what we'd do that I'd feel right with.  In Japan, most developers stick with traditional retail games, which we have moved away from. Downloadable games allow us to create the games we want to make, and on our own terms, and make it available worldwide. 

9. Your next game is BattleBlock Theater.  Could you give us a little bit of info on it?  What were you trying to achieve with it?  The gameplay looks like a very unusual mix of puzzle and platformer.  Is that right?  Or is it something completely new?
DAN:  BattleBlock is definitely its own animal.  It has familiar mechanics, but somehow it wouldn't be a fair comparison to any game I can think of.  It feels very strange just calling it a platformer as it provides both cooperative and adversarial experiences that are unique.  I think we were just taking our stab at platforming and letting the design lead us the way it wants to go.  I think it's accurate to call it something new, which is what makes it so hard to explain.

The Behemoth Website:

BattleBlock Theater Website:

And, Tom and Dan were nice enough to provide us with their favorite game music.

TOM's Playlist:

The entire Ys 1&2 soundtrack.

Monster Lair

Bonk's Adventure

Phantasy Star

DAN's Playlist:
River City Ransom

Warcraft 2


Kid Icarus