When Tommy Refenes first sat down to prototype a new, auto-running one-button Super Meat Boy game in his GDC hotel room back in 2011, it was meant to be a tiny spin-off for mobiles that stopped after nine levels. “The scope of it was going to be very small,” the programmer of Team Meat told me at PAX East 2019 last weekend. “The idea was just to be like a palette cleanser in between our bigger projects because we were working on Mew-Genics. It was supposed to be, ‘Let’s just do this, put it out and charge like a dollar for it and then move on’.”
Fast forward to today and Super Meat Boy Forever will shortly be out on every platform with somewhere in the region of 7200 levels (or “chunks” as Refenes calls them). It’s still an auto-runner, but if you’re worried about Forever being dumbed down after beginning life on mobile, rest assured that it looks and feels just like the 2010 mega hit – right down to the speed of Meat Boy’s stubby red legs.
“It’s the same speed, so he’s exactly as fast,” says Refenes. “I took a lot of the physics from the first one and just made it so you were always running. That was actually pretty simple to do because the controls from the first one already had that tightness. I had everything there. The challenge has been exploiting that movement to a point where you’re not just doing run-jump-die in every single level.”
Indeed, breaking the common perception of auto-runner games being easy and simplistic was high up on Refenes’ to-do list when he started working on it.
“I really liked the auto-run in [that early prototype],” he says. “I liked the potential there, but everything I saw about auto-running games was very much what you’d think of when you think of an auto-runner. You think jump, jump, jump. It never ends. You just get a high score and that’s it. In my mind, ‘No, we’re going to make a platformer that’s just two buttons. It’s not going to be an auto-runner’.”
The two button controls were particularly important for Refenes, as he says they both “lower the dexterity barrier to zero” and make it “completely accessible to anyone” while still being absolutely rock hard – the latter of which is something I can personally attest to having played the first few levels.
“You’re not having to do like five controls to dash out of the way and you don’t have to do the weird wiggle back and forth to land on a platform that’s small,” he continues. “We have two buttons that you can map to anything. I feel like that lowers the barrier of entry enough so we don’t have to make an easy mode. We start at Hard, so our base is as hard as Super Meat Boy was, and it goes up from there.
“If we would have just done Meat Boy 2 and it would have been the old game, old controls, new paint, new levels, then I might have considered putting in something kinda like what Celeste did, where they said you can use this [mode] if you want to enjoy the game. But I really feel that because of the controls of this game and how we’ve designed it, the easy mode is the controls. I’m actually really excited about that because you want everyone to be able to play your game and enjoy it.”
It was also important for him personally as a programmer: “For me, that design challenge of actually making random levels and designing for the two buttons controls and everything is a challenge I wanted to actually do because, honestly, making old Meat Boy but with new paint and new levels would have been super easy and would have made a ton of money a long time ago, but I don’t like doing the same thing over and over.
“After this one, I don’t know if I’ll make another run-and-jump-and-avoid-obstacles platformer, because I’ve kinda done it twice really well, and I could do it three and four and a million more times, but I want to do different stuff, because that’s what interesting to me.”
But Meat Boy and Bandage Girl aren’t going away forever after, err, Forever, as Refenes assures me this “isn’t his final appearance”.
“I know the third one that I have in mind will have him in it, but it won’t be anything like the other two. It will probably be the last time you’re running and jumping over saws as Meat Boy because it kinda finishes up here. We finish it up and we close it out. This is phase one of the cinematic universe, now we’re going into phase two.”
Before Meat Boy and Bandage Girl do run off into the sunset, however, they’ve got some beefy new moves to show off: “This time around Meat Boy and Bandage Girl are trying to save their daughter Nugget, and so with that they’re more resilient,” says Refenes. “Meat Boy and Bandage Girl have attacks – Meat Boy punches and Bandage Girl kicks – and that was actually a design consideration to give the player a bit more movement.
“When you’re in the air, you move forward in a dash so you pick up speed… And when you’re in the air and you dive, you get back down to the ground faster, so it gives you that kind of air control. Then we made a bunch of enemies you can punch, and that’s a lot of fun. Now the bosses, since you can punch, you’ve got to be able to punch bosses, so now you’re actually fighting a little bit. He’s still fragile in that you hit one saw blade and you’re dead, but he can at least punch a bit to fight back.”
To help show off their new moves, Team Meat have created some stonkingly big levels to go with them. “They’re randomly generated, but they’re randomly generated in a way that we sort of brute force it,” Refenes explains. “Every level has a pool of 100 smaller levels, and we smash together eight of them to make a level. So when you’re going through 1-1, you’re actually going through eight 1-1 chunks. That’s almost half a chapter in comparison to the first game just in a single run.
“Tetanus is the third chapter and it has pipes and keys, and [one of our level designers] Ryan made this level that’s huge. It’s like bigger than any level that was in the first Meat Boy and that’s just one chunk. It’s like a Zelda dungeon. It’s stupid, but it’s surprising how much you can do with one mechanic.”
There’s more of it coming, too, as Refenes plans to release at least one DLC pack, if not two, hopefully in time for the game’s Steam release next year once its exclusivity deal with Epic runs out.
“Whether we’ll make it for launch or not is yet to be seen, but we’re certainly going to try!” he laughs. “We have ideas for two DLC packs. I don’t know if we’ll do both, but we’ll definitely do one – we have really, really hard levels in mind that we want to make.
“The cool thing about this one is every new game [players] make is going to be new levels. Your save game will always have the same levels that you played through, but you’ll be able to play through the game again and have different experiences. But then to be able to say, ‘Well, now you have the Darker Darker world, which is like, there’s no ground it’s all saws!’ That’s legit one of the levels we’ve made. You start in mid-air and the first thing you do is punch this thing that makes you go… yeah – it’s so stupid, I love it.
“But that kind of stuff, that little extra challenge, I think people really like that. It gives them a reason to come back and play it… I used to be very anti-DLC and we didn’t really have the resources to do DLC for the first Meat Boy, but I wish we did, because we had tons of ideas for more stuff. But I feel like we missed the boat.”
For now, though, Team Meat are just concentrating on getting Super Meat Boy Forever’s initial release done and dusted before it arrives on console boxes and PC where it will debut as an Epic Games Store exclusive sometime “after April”. Refenes seems particularly pleased about the Epic partnership, too, and he says the “curation part [of their store] is the biggest thing” that makes it so appealing for developers.
“I’m actually really happy to work with them,” he says. “When I told them I wasn’t going to hit April, they were like, ‘Oh okay,’ so I was pretty happy about that. Say whatever you want about how they’re getting exclusives or whatever, but it’s kinda the only way you can compete. If they made a store that was exactly the same as Steam, why would anybody use it? You already have Steam. And Epic, they’re trying not to make it into what Steam is now, which for better or worse is ‘anybody can release a game’. There’s good with that and bad with that.
“[With Epic] actually going through and making sure they feel like this game is good enough, I feel, like, really honoured to be considered for the Epic Games Store. Everything that’s coming out and everything I know that’s coming out [there], I’m like, ‘Wow I’m in really good company’ and I can’t necessarily say that with Steam, because the company is everybody. I’m on the same platform as Borderlands 2 or whatever but I’m also on the same platform as that rape game, which is kinda like ehhhh.
“I don’t feel like [those types of games] will affect my sales or anything, but honestly it’s weird. It’s weird that on [Steam’s] New Releases, when Super Meat Boy Forever does come out, there will be some hentai match-three game either above me or below me – and the chances are pretty good – and like, that’s fine, but it’s also a little weird. It’s strange. I like the curated stuff. I know it locks out some developers, but you know, there are enough stores now that they can just go to Steam. I like the idea of if it’s on Epic Games Store, that already says to me it’s something substantial. It’s weird, but it is what it is.”
The partnership has been a long time in the making, too. “They called me in right after PAX West [in 2017],” says Refenes. “Originally, I thought they wanted to talk to me about Unreal Engine or something. But I went there and they game me the whole spiel. They gave me their run-down, I know what’s coming up in the pipeline, in terms of what they’re doing and what they’re planning, and it’s pretty cool. I think it’s long overdue.”
For Refenes, Epic’s curation approach is probably the closest thing we have today that resembles what Xbox Live used to stand for when the original Super Meat Boy came out. “The beginning of indie games was that curated store, in a way,” he says. “You look back on the early days of Xbox Live and you have Shadow Complex, Braid, Limbo and all these classic indie games, and the ones you don’t remember either weren’t on there or they just fizzled out on there.”
There are still risks that come with launching on a curated platform, though, as Refenes knows full well from his own experience with the original Super Meat Boy. “Back then it was a struggle to even get Meat Boy on Xbox Live. The reason [for that] was because they were unsure it was going to sell. We submitted it to them, they liked it, but they were uneasy about it, so one weekend I made a PS3 build, and I was like, ‘Well, if you guys don’t let us, I’m going to do it on PS3,’ and that’s why they signed us.”
A lot has changed since then, of course – “people are spending money on [games] now,” Refenes jokes – but today’s developers have a different kind of problem on their hands: “Getting on platforms is easier, but the harder thing I feel for everyone is cutting through the noise,” he says.
“Actually getting people to look at your game and pay attention. It turns into a marketing problem. Before, it was development and connections problem. Now there are a million games coming out every week. How do you stand out? That’s why a lot of companies have social media managers and all that stuff. We don’t – we probably should!” he laughs, “but I haven’t found one yet. That’s where I think a lot of publishers help out.”
And now, that publisher for Team Meat is Epic, although that’s not to say the Epic Games Store won’t also become over-saturated further down the line. “That’s the natural progression of these things,” says Refenes. “Something’s going to get big, then a curated store will come along, which will then get big – it’s cyclical.”
In the meantime, though, it’s all hands on deck to get the game out the door, which hopefully won’t be more than a couple of months from now, but Refenes won’t be drawn on an exact date yet.
“The next thing we’ll announce is the day you can actually buy it,” he says. “We’re almost there, but I very much underestimated [the time it would take to finish the game] when I made that trailer [last December]. I was like, April’s far away. It’s far away but not so far away, but it definitely wasn’t far enough!”