How a Santa Cruz designer created one of the most unlikely hits in video game history
Edmund McMillen still sports the same calm blue eyes, unassuming smile and Melvins T-shirt as the struggling, unknown game developer he once was, trying to get by with his friend Tommy Refenes in their bedroom studio. But the 35-year-old McMillen, who has lived in Santa Cruz all his life, has been anything but complacent since the wild success of his independent title Super Meat Boy in 2010. After designing a number of award-winning games like Gish, Coil and Aether, and forming the indie game company Team Meat with Refenes, McMillen is now experiencing his biggest and most unexpected success yet with The Binding of Isaac and its multi-platform expansion from the end of last year, The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth.
Full of dark satire and disturbing imagery, The Binding of Isaac is the kind of unlikely hit that only McMillen could dream up. For him, it was a chance to return to his game-making roots.
“I wanted to do something to relax, but also prove that I was still independent,” says McMillen. “Before Meat Boy, I had been making games without caring about money, or getting on a platform. Even though Meat Boy stayed true to what I was doing, it was still very safe. It was the least risky of all the projects I could do, because I wanted to try and make a future. I did some really weird stuff back in the day, and I wanted to be able to prove that I was still able to do that. I didn’t have to worry about pleasing everybody.”
Even the way The Binding of Isaac was released was unorthodox, at least for a developer as successful as McMillen. It was released as a small, unpolished game, meaning that big-name console deals like the ones they got for Super Meat Boy were out of the question. Independent developers can license their games to websites like Adult Swim or Newgrounds for a one-time payout, but the most popular and effective indie platform is a digital-distribution service called Steam. It allows users to purchase games from the biggest and smallest names in the industry; they can be browsed and demoed for free, but most cost money to download. Although McMillen had his reservations about submitting such an unpolished game to the marketplace, the positive reaction from friends convinced him to go through with it.
“I thought it would maybe be like a midnight movie, with a small user base that really likes it, since I love the game, and I’m a gamer,” he says.
Steam liked what they saw, and McMillen put it up for sale for $5. At first, The Binding of Isaac got a lukewarm reception—a few people were playing it, but first-day sales were weak.
McMillen was not surprised. The mechanics and style of Isaac are unlike any other game, and he designed it to be extremely difficult. Opening with a child named Isaac running to his basement to escape his fervently religious, knife-wielding mother—a twisted modern take on on the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac—the game leaves the player, as Isaac, to figure out how to defeat deformed-fetus enemies using the tears that shoot from his eyes, and gather powerups that hilariously mutate his body to defeat disgustingly designed bosses like “the gurgles.”
The Binding of Isaac is also a “randomly generated” game, meaning that every time the character dies, the game restarts with a completely different experience; untried enemies, new tools and a different dungeon to explore.
“Nothing like Isaac was really available at all in the gameplay sense, and theme-wise there was nothing like it,” says McMillen. “Going in, all signs were that this game was not going to do well. How was I going to get anyone to purchase it, much less play it?”
Usually, a game’s first-day sales are a good indicator of how it will perform from that point forward. But in keeping with McMillen’s odd career trajectory, Isaac was the exact opposite. After a few months, the game seemed to find its audience, and he started to notice a steady climb of users—100 people a day were buying it, then 500 people a day, than 5,000 people a day.
To date, The Binding of Isaac and The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth have sold almost 5 million copies—3 million more than his breakout title Super Meat Boy.
In the early stages of designing Isaac, McMillen teamed up with Florian Himsl, a designer with whom he had worked on some of his more graphic and risque games. Although McMillen wanted to do something very different for this game, his central inspiration for Isaac still came from the same man who had inspired him throughout his career: Shigeru Miyamoto. A legendary Japanese game designer who began working for Nintendo in 1977, Miyamoto created some of the company’s most recognizable franchises, including Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda. Super Meat Boy was McMillen’s homage to the former, and with Isaac he set his sights on re-imagining the latter—one of the most beloved video games of all time.
While there have been many iterations and sequels since, the original Zelda: A Link to the Past follows Link, a young warrior who is given the task of rescuing his homeland Hyrule and the Princess Zelda from the evil Ganon. Miyamoto based the game on his sense of exploration as a child, and in order to do justice to the title, McMillen had to turn inward for his own inspiration, as well.
“I had been thinking a lot about ’80s Christian propaganda and the ‘video games are evil’ movement,” McMillen says. “More or less the whole feeling like an outcast as a kid. If Miyamoto wrote about his childhood loosely with Zelda, discovering things and turning over rocks, what is my truth there? If I’m going to remix Zelda with my aesthetics, then I wanted to add my own themes and experiences as well.”
Growing up, McMillen says, he had two significant religious influences. One was his grandmother, who was very Catholic in the spiritual sense, but not overbearing.
“I always thought of my grandma as a mystic,” he says. “She would light candles, cast spells and talk about stories like Revelations and other creative things that I found very interesting and would draw from.”
On holidays, however, McMillen’s father’s side of the family would come into the picture, and he describes them as fire and brimstone-type Christians. “Anything I watched or played was bad,” he says. “I remember them turning off Ren and Stimpy, and telling me that Dungeons and Dragons would make kids kill each other. It’s weird to be young like that and have an understanding of how wrong they are about some of these things. As a young boy, having a bunch of people tell me that there are all these supposedly wicked things out there just made me more interested.”
Ironically, as he worked on the game he started to think somewhat differently about the effect his religious upbringing had on him.
“When I was writing all this, I started to realize how there is a duality to it for me, where it did make me feel like an outcast and like I did not fit in, but in doing so it made me feel unique and like I had something to offer,” he says.
MEAT THE TEAM
The process of creating The Binding of Isaac was also unusual in that it did not involve McMillen’s Team Meat partner, Tommy Refenes. He was on vacation when the project was conceived, and by the time he returned, he felt that it would be unfair to Himsl if he stepped in.
But McMillen and Refenes have made their name in the video game industry together. They spent the better part of two years painstakingly creating and programming Super Meat Boy all by themselves, culminating in a 30-day mad dash to finish in time for Microsoft’s “Game Feast,” an Xbox Live advertising campaign designed to promote smaller, cheaper, arcade-like games for direct download right to users’ consoles. While both had made video games before, Super Meat Boy wasn’t a flash game played in your Internet browser, or a game designed for a small audience. The two friends were independently building a game that was expected to be released for wide distribution on one of the most popular video game consoles in the world, and in order to make that happen they stayed up days at a time to reach art deadlines and programming goals, while climbing deeper into debt as they essentially worked for free, for themselves.
But on the morning of the release date that they had all but killed themselves to meet, not only was Super Meat Boy not prominently displayed on the Xbox Live front page as promised, it was also nowhere to be found in the marketplace, at all. For a video game developer, this is the equivalent of expecting your product to be lining the shelves in a store’s most visible aisles, when in actuality the customer now has to find a manager and ask them to dig one up from the back room.
After phone calls with Microsoft, though, the game went up, and Super Meat Boy went on to sell 22,000 copies in its first day alone. Gamers fell in love with McMillen’s loveable characters and beautiful level design, brought to life by Refenes seamless programming skills. Super Meat Boy became the most popular game on Xbox Live Arcade, garnered the second-highest score on Metacritic (an Internet Movie Database for video games), and sold upward of 2 million copies. Its success quickly launched the small Santa Cruz game studio into the national spotlight, as blogs and major media outlets like The Wall Street Journal were clamoring for interviews with the minds behind Meat Boy.
Shorty after the game’s debut, a documentary called Indie Game: The Movie was released, which followed Team Meat as they created the game. It won the best documentary award at Sundance, and further thrust Super Meat Boy and its developers into the spotlight.
The summer following the original release of The Binding Of Isaac, McMillen released an expansion that almost doubled the content of the game—more enemies, cool new items, and artfully designed boss fights—and the game truly hit its stride. By the end of summer 2012, Isaac had surpassed the sales of Super Meat Boy.
However, even though millions of people were playing, it was still an unrated game that McMillen and Himsl had spent only a few months making, and it was only available on PC, meaning a lot of the console players who enjoyed Super Meat Boy were unable to play it. McMillen wanted to bring the game to a wider audience, and realized that this might be his chance to finally get a game on a Nintendo platform.
McMillen teamed up with the studio Niclaus, which was experienced in adapting and remaking computer games to be played on console. What was supposed to be a year-long project quickly stretched into two years, as McMillen worked the kinks out of his passion-project-turned-blockbuster.
“I had felt cheated many times when people re-released games,” he says. “I didn’t just want it to be a revamped game, especially since I had to charge three times the price. I wanted to give people a reason to buy it again.”
During this process, an interesting conversation started to emerge surrounding the game. Although it was adapted directly from a Bible story and re-imagined in cartoon humor, it was making some in the industry nervous. In Germany, Isaac was given a 16+ rating for “potentially blasphemous content.” And after initially promising talks with Nintendo, the game was denied access to their platforms by headquarters in Japan, perhaps not surprising, considering Nintendo’s generally family-friendly approach.
McMillen was understanding, but the Internet, as usual, was not. These decisions prompted heated discussions on forums and between video game writers everywhere about who gets to decide what blasphemy is, and why any one religion should supercede others in determining the definition. For instance, Hindus may find it blasphemous to kill a cow, yet thousands of games have cow killings, and they are not considered blasphemous by these rating systems.
But the demand for the game was clearly there, and after two years of hard work The Binding of Isaac was ready for release on consoles. In November of 2014, The Binding of Isaac was released on Playstation 4 and Playstation Vita Handheld, with the XBox One version slated for release in 2015. Even more importantly for McMillen, after more than 10 years of making games,with dozens of titles released, he’ll finally be releasing a game on his childhood hero’s platform, Nintendo.
“For whatever reason, after the expansion came out, Nintendo decided to change some of its policies, and now Isaac will be released on the Nintendo 3Ds in the next few months,” he says.
What is perhaps most impressive out of all of this is that McMillen didn’t plan or expect any of the success he’s had with The Binding of Isaac. He merely set out to have an honest conversation with himself about religion, and make a fun video game while he was at it—and in the process, his game became the catalyst for people all over the world to have that same conversation with themselves, as well. For McMillen, the point is not only to create games that he’s proud of, but also games that would have inspired and nurtured him as a conflicted child.
“I know that there is a kid out there who stayed up all night long for the game to come out, and then stayed home from school the next day so he could play it,” McMillen says, in an emotional scene from Indie Game: The Movie. “To think that I could make something that could have a creative impact on this kid so he thinks, ‘Hey, two guys made this, maybe I can make something, too,’ it’s just cool. It feels really, really good.”