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One Million Copies Later, Team Meat Reflects

Super Meat Boy's developers discuss dick jokes, six zeros, and grappling with success.

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If you aren't familiar with Team Meat's work, this picture does a terrific job summarizing it.
If you aren't familiar with Team Meat's work, this picture does a terrific job summarizing it.

“You feel like you’re walking into somebody’s mouth and they have the flu when you walk into a lobby. I feel like there’s an ass in front me and it’s farting constantly, and I have to breathe.”

That’s Edmund McMillen, the art and design side of Super Meat Boy developer Team Meat, talking about....airports, naturally.

“‘Did you try turning it on?’ No, it’s fucking broken. There’s a line down the screen!”

And that’s Tommy Refenes, the programming half of the two-man studio, explaining what it’s like to return a tablet to a Best Buy store after purchasing via BestBuy.com. Hint: it’s not fun.

The three of us recently spoke via Skype to discuss an important milestone in Team Meat’s short history: a little more than a year later, Super Meat Boy has officially sold more than a million copies.

McMillen and Refenes didn’t actually reveal this tidbit until days later, but the moment the number ticked into six zeros territory was--and they claim they aren’t making this up--on Christmas Day.

The occasion was a joyful punctuation to what was otherwise a “clusterfuck of a month,” where Refenes was forced to frantically finish work on the game’s delayed Mac port. Refenes admitted to not having much of an understanding of OS X, so Team Meat had initially outsourced the Mac version. But what came back wasn’t up to the duo’s personal standards, so Refenes was tasked with frantically cleaning it up. Even still, it's not perfect.

“I answer everybody’s email from tech support,” he said. “I feel like that’s the right thing to do. I answer the emails, and when they have a Mac problem, it’s just like, I go uhhhh. [laughs]”

My recording says we talked for 30 minutes, but Super Meat Boy only came up during a handful. It’s hard to keep McMillen and Refenes on a subject for very long, and the moment one gets serious, it’s as though the other can’t stand it, which means you’d better be ready for a dick joke to derail the conversation--and result in a fit of giggles.

Take, for example, McMillen trying to explain what it’s like to say he’s sold a million copies.

Super Meat Boy is part of gaming's refreshing challenge renaissance, right next to Dark Souls.
Super Meat Boy is part of gaming's refreshing challenge renaissance, right next to Dark Souls.

“Neither of us have a word for anything other than ‘This is life changing, and once again, this is insanely, crazy life changing event that I can’t process.’” he said. “ I don’t know. I can joke about it. We can make jokes about it forever, or be honest and say ‘Hey, this feels really good,’ but in reality, I can’t even define [it]. I can’t define the feeling of selling a million copies because it’s so foreign and bizarre and surreal and unreal. It’s beyond anything that I can really say. I can’t articulate it in any form other than it feels really great!”

“The closest thing is having a boner,” added Refenes.

“No, no, it’s better than having a boner” quipped McMillen. “It’s more like cumming for a month.”

“It’s exhausting and feels amazing,” said Refenes.

“At a certain point,” said McMillen, as laughter filled the Skype call, “it’s like when you jump out of a plane and get that initial rush, just like when you’re going--we’ll say going, rather than the c word. You’re ejaculating. I’ll use the technical term. You get the orgasm feeling, but I’m sure if you ejaculated and had an orgasm for a month long, you’d get used to the feeling, right? You’d become almost numb to it, but you’d still be feeling pretty good about it.”

This off-the-cuff, no-filter (and I mean no filter) approach is why Team Meat is Team Meat, but the consequence is finding themselves as a reliable source of controversy, a rub that appears rooted in grappling with skyrocketing fame. Each are fiercely passionate about protecting the integrity of the other, and this even came up during our chat.

When McMillen brought up a Formspring question about some issues in the PC port, he lit up.

“I kind of got upset, even though the guy wasn’t being mean,” he said. “I wrote this kind of manifesto of what people don’t understand. The more I thought about it, the more I realized how insane it is because nobody knows you made the engine that worked on all consoles all yourself, then when we went through the crunch with Microsoft, you got four months of work done in two months or less, and then when you passed it, you passed it faster than anyone who’d ever done it before. You jumped on from that schedule to doing the PC port in a month, and then when it came out, you fixed all the fucking major problems within the first week. People still complained! It’s just so fucking bizarre and so frustrating because nobody understands the amount of work that goes on in the background.”

Someone with public relations training would have said the exact same thing off-the-record, but like I said, Team Meat is Team Meat because they don’t think like that. It might rattle some fans, but don’t mistake it for the two of them not caring. Moments later, as McMillen calms down, Refenes explains how his own angered response to criticisms of his work is simply driving them to avoid similar problems when it comes time to finally ship their new creation.

Once Super Meat Boy shipped, McMillen almost immediately went to work on The Binding of Isaac.
Once Super Meat Boy shipped, McMillen almost immediately went to work on The Binding of Isaac.

Next time, Refenes wants to hire a company to test the game on way more computers. Refenes had several systems for testing out Super Meat Boy, but at the end of the day, they ran out of time and money.

“For every little email that I get that [says] ‘I can’t get the game to run blah blah blah,’ it’s not like I look at those and go ‘ha ha, you’re dumb,’” he said. “I look at those and go ‘Dammit, I wish I would have had the time to actually address this properly. I wish I would have had that time before we even launched it, and now we do. That, to me, is really, really exciting.”

The above back-and-forth is how most of a conversation with McMillen and Refenes goes, sporting a tangible tension between wanting to be taken seriously, while having trouble with the idea of taking themselves too seriously.

I mean, these are the guys who asked their fans to draw themselves nude for a Christmas fundraiser.

But it’s clear Team Meat is ready to move on from Super Meat Boy. The idea of putting that little wad behind them comes up constantly, despite their intense gratitude for being where they are today because it was such a success.

With them, however, the tension is described with an orgasm metaphor.

What comes next isn’t described in any specifics, but Team Meat appears to be following a path similar to Jonathan Blow after Braid. Super Meat Boy helped lay enough foundational support that Team Meat hopes it to avoid most of the problems that plagued them the last time around. Notably, enough time and money.

This is the fan-made charity painting that won Team Meat's Christmas-timed fundraiser.
This is the fan-made charity painting that won Team Meat's Christmas-timed fundraiser.

“There’s nobody above Edmund and Tommy,” said Refenes. “We don’t have to answer to anybody. We had to answer to time last time, that was above us--time and money were above us.”

“The next big game that we work on is going to be very, very different from Meat Boy, and it’s not really going to be comparable, and I think usually that’s the way to go,” said McMillen. “But I think, either way, me and Tommy--and I know Tommy for a fucking fact--is going to be much more happy with his overall work on the games to come than he would be on Meat Boy, looking back at it. I know for a fact that we’ll both be happier with the next project, and we’ll both probably think it’s much better, and that’s usually what matters.”

Asked whether living up to the legacy of Super Meat Boy will haunt them, McMillen isn’t worried.

“You only get depressed about that kind of stuff if you know that the next game is half-assed in some way and you feel bad about it,” he said, “but if you try your best, and try to make the best game you can and try to put your all into it, I don’t think there’s much regret there, when it comes to 'oh, it’s not as good as my last game or whatever.'”

Before Team Meat's next game arrives, you'll be able to see them featured in Indie Game: The Movie.

Patrick Klepek on Google+