It’s been more than eight years since the release of Super Meat Boy. Soon, developer Team Meat intends to release a sequel, Super Meat Boy Forever. Before that happens, there’s more work to be done on the original game. Nearly a decade later, programmer and designer Tommy Refenes is still tying up some loose ends on what many, including yours truly, believe to be one of the greatest platformers of the modern era.
Super Meat Boy shipped with more than 300 levels in 2010. Surviving that gauntlet was intimidating enough, but at the time, Team Meat had no intention of ever developing a sequel. The solution was Super Meat World, an online portal where people could use a level editor to make their own punishing creations. The game would even package together new chapters of levels, based on the stages highly rated by the community.
Super Meat World wasn’t part of Super Meat Boy at launch, and when it showed up on April 1, 2011, the level editor wasn't done. Instead, Team Meat added more than 140 levels, while the kinks were being worked out. The editor came a month later.
“The level editor is FREE, a final gift from Team Meat to the fans who have supported us,” said the developers at the time, signaling a chance for them to move on.
For eight months, everything was fine. People made levels, people uploaded levels. But Refenes was also naive enough to think he could cut corners and it would work out.
“The editor was something we promised and I had to deliver on after launch,” he told me over email recently. “I was naive when I was coding it and I figured ‘Hey, it's this free thing, I don't need to secure it…who would mess with a free thing??.’ It was a project I just wanted to get done and I took shortcuts. That was incredibly stupid of me and sure enough a few months after it launched people took down the database.”
At the time, Team Meat was suffering from burnout. In 2011, the studio published a post-mortem about their time working on the game. Their struggle was highlighted in the documentary Indie Game: The Movie. The development of Super Meat Boy had been exhausting—professionally, emotionally, financially—and the continued declaration of “no Super Meat Boy 2,” “a final gift” and “shortcuts” seemed part of the same picture.
That “shortcut” Refenes was referring to allowed hackers to infiltrate Super Meat World’s database, screw everything up, and force Refenes to shut everything down.
“I was a dick for not securing it,” he said, “they were dicks for destroying it. Lesson learned, but after I restored what was there I locked out all uploading to the server and just said ‘fuck it.’ There was no real incentive for me to rewrite everything because I had other things I wanted to do and I didn't want to work on the editor alone again so the lock stayed.”
For seven years, anyway.
[Editor's Note: A number of readers have pushed back on Refenes' characterization of what happened with the level editor's security, arguing Team Meat were more than adequately informed about what was going on, but chose to ignore it.]
More than 7,500 levels were uploaded—”a lot of the levels were garbage but there were tons of amazing levels and ideas people put out there”—but other tasks grabbed Refenes’ attention, and Super Meat World pushed down the priority list.
“It always felt like, and rightly so, a failure to me that I didn't fix it correctly,” he said. “It felt like a wound left open.”
At the end of 2016, Refenes found himself with some free time, so he rewrote the game’s online functionality, fixing the security issues and addressing other glitches. As he dug into the game’s code, he discovered there were lingering features he wanted in Super Meat Boy—the ability to swap soundtracks or delete save files, a glitch with refresh rates—he could address. The last patch was back in 2012.
A lot happened between 2012 and the end of 2016. Since its inception, Team Meat had been Refenes and Edmund McMillen, artist and co-designer on Super Meat Boy. Super Meat Boy made them life changing amounts of money—enough to focus entirely on passion projects, they told me in 2012—but they still wanted to make games.
These days, McMillen might be better known for The Binding of Isaac than Super Meat Boy, a Zelda-inspired roguelike whose original prototype was developed while Refenes was on vacation. Refenes and McMillen continued to work together after Super Meat Boy, toying around (and later abandoning) a mobile take on the platformer and spending years developing Mew-Genics, then described as a cat breeding simulator.
“That started out as an incredibly fun project to work on but as the months and years went by I felt very alone working on it,” said Refenes. “After almost two years of development I showed what we had at PAX East 2014, and the reception wasn't what I was hoping for.”
Refenes called his time tinkering with AI for Mew-Genics “some of the most fun problem solving I’ve ever done in my career” but the game didn’t seem to be making progress.
“I couldn't see a light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.
Mew-Genics was put on pause, as they turned their attention back to Meat Boy.
The mobile version, dubbed Super Meat Boy Forever, was Team Meat’s attempt to rethink the runner, games where the character moves on their own. It’s the only way they could imagine a game with the complexity of Super Meat Boy on a platform without buttons. Forever was a familiar, pleasant distraction from Mew-Genics, one that, even after only a few months of development, was getting the reception Refenes craved.
You can see some gameplay from Forever circa 2014 below:
“I heard over and over again ‘It's different, but it feels exactly like Meat Boy’ which was the best case reaction I was hoping for,” he said. “It felt like a win after about three years of wondering what the future held. The game was going to be a small thing, only a few levels and chapters, so we figured it should come together pretty quickly and easily.”
That didn’t happen, obviously, or else Forever would have shipped in 2014. It’s 2018.
Team Meat showed the same build at PAX West 2015—and 2016. Forever was in the same murky world of Mew-Genics: a game whose future was unclear. Left unsaid is what happened between Refenes and McMillen, who went their separate ways around this time. Perhaps not coincidentally, it’s also when The Binding of Isaac took off.
Refenes didn’t elaborate on McMillen’s departure when we spoke recently, but he (briefly) touched on what happened during an interview with Eurogamer, describing it as “something [he] couldn’t really dive into.” It seemed like a pain point.
“It was a giant part of my life but people grow, people change, your views on things change,” he said. “And unfortunately sometimes people just grow in different directions. It's a natural thing. It's something you could sit and be angry about but it doesn't get you anywhere.”
McMillen is no longer part of Team Meat, but the studio survives. The mobile prototype was tossed out, and Refenes broke an old promise, deciding on a proper sequel to Super Meat Boy. Forever would still be Team Meat’s riff on the runner, but larger in scope.
Every time people saw the game, it underscored he was making the right decision.
“You see people's reactions to your game,” he said, “and even though you've been standing on your feet for seven hours just waiting to get home to sleep to do it again the next day, you can't help but smile along with them.”
It’s a Super Meat Boy renaissance for Refenes. As he closes the book on Super Meat Boy, the future is in sight; Forever is, come hell or high water, releasing in 2018. (Refenes will be a father later this year, adding a sense of urgency.) I played a few minutes at last year's PAX West, and while it's unclear whether Forever can live up to the monstrous expectations of a sequel to Super Meat Boy, it was a delight. Maybe that's enough.
There are no plans to bring the level editor to anywhere but PC right now. For one, it’d mean coming up with a controller interface, something Refenes doesn’t have time for. For another, there are no restrictions on user generated content on PC. If people want to make levels full of dicks, they can. On consoles, there are corporate hoops.
Someday soon, development on Super Meat Boy will—finally—be over by rewarding the fans who’ve stuck by the game (and Refenes) over many years. He’s already thinking about what comes next, including a hail mary so ridiculous I feel the need to pass it on.
“The hail mary is getting the rights or whatever to make Actraiser 3,” he said. “I have a story, I have gameplay plans and I want to take all of these things and ideas to Square Enix and go "With respect, I'm going to make this game and people will either call it 'The Spiritual Successor to Actraiser' or they will call it 'Actraiser 3.' I'd much prefer people to call it Actraiser 3.’ They will probably say no, but a boy can dream!”
The world could use some more Actraiser. Godspeed, Tommy Refenes.
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