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As the co-creator of both Super Meat Boy and The Binding Of Isaac—plus numerous smaller projects over the course of the last decade or so—Edmund McMillen has established himself as one of the most successful independent game developers in the modern indie scene. Isaac, especially, has exhibited unprecedented staying power, with its updated remake Rebirth (and subsequent expansions) spreading enthusiastically to home consoles and the broadcasts of numerous Twitch streamers alike.
Last week, after four years of development, McMillen released The Legend Of Bum-bo on Steam, an Isaac prequel that ditches its top-down action gameplay in favor of a merging of Bejeweled-style Match-4 tile swapping and surprisingly deep strategic combat. Taking on the role of the titular, childlike Bum-bo, players dive deep into a cavern full of monsters crafted from a unique “cut from cardboard” aesthetic, matching tiles featuring an assortment of bodily parts and fluids in order to cast spells, raise defenses, and beat down a variety of cheerfully disgusting opponents.
McMillen hopped on the phone with us last week to talk about launch day worries, his love for hearing streamers talk about their urine-collecting habits, and the personal stories that underlie his work. [Note: This interview contains plot spoilers for The Legend Of Bum-bo.]
The A.V. Club: How are you feeling about the launch of Bum-bo?
Edmund McMillen: It’s complicated. It’s a unique launch for me, because sales are almost record-breaking. It might be my best launch and my worst launch. It’s super chaotic, because we launched it after losing a week of development. We considered pushing it back, but we thought we could get it in, and then the power outages in California really screwed us over. We lost seven full days of work, no power, no internet.
We tried to cram two weeks into one week, and once pre-orders started, we couldn’t really go back. I thought it would be best to just power forward and stay up forever, and [co-creator and programmer James Interactive] stayed up for, like, two full days. We’ve got 20 testers, and they’ve all been playing. And it looked good to go, but when we launched, it had a bunch of soft-locks that caused issues. We were able to patch it within 24 hours of the first day, and all the issues are gone at this point, but there was crazy backlash about it on Steam, which sucked.
So it’s one of those situations where I’m looking at the numbers. I’m looking at the praise from people who are streaming it, and being really happy about it. But also looking at this big wall of people screaming at me for an “unfinished game.” I made the executive decision to hit that launch button, knowing that if there were any issues, we could fix it within the first day, not realizing that people might not be that forgiving.
AVC: Do you think people will remember this in two weeks?
EM: I think they’ll just be playing the game. For the most part, I’m stuck in my little Twitter bubble, where I don’t see bad stuff. And then I go to Steam, and it’s like, “Oh, shit, there are a lot of people who are upset.” I did what I could. I want to be honest, and I want to be transparent, and I also don’t want—I ran into some issues when releasing Isaac stuff in the past with [third-party developer Nicalis, which handled day-to-day work on The Binding Of Isaac: Rebirth], where they wouldn’t be as quick to patch. And I wanted people to know that I’m not Nicalis, and that we are patching daily. And I want to make sure that people have some amount of trust.
It’s one of those situations, too, where I didn’t know how well this would do, and I did not expect it to sell like this. I honestly did not. And I didn’t expect everybody to start streaming it so crazily. It just kind of blew up. It could be one of my best games, if not my best game, when it comes to accessibility and mass appeal. Which sounds strange, the kind of game that it is, but it’s one of those games where people who don’t play games, if I show it to them, they get hooked and start playing it for hours. I want to make sure it lives up to its potential. I’d like to think that people will be forgiving and forget about the launch. I mean, No Man’s Sky had a terrible, terrible launch, too, and they fixed everything up, and people love it now. You never know. It may take a few months of adding extra stuff, or it may take a DLC in the future, but there are elements of this launch that remind me of the original Isaac launch. Which was released in Flash and really buggy, and it had performance issues. But people kind of saw the gameplay through it, and as we fixed it, and as it aged, and as we expanded it, more people and more people started playing. I can say, at this point, that Bum-bo warrants an expansion. I’ll probably work on that next year. And hopefully we can rectify this launch with the next one. Re-do it, knowing what not to do. And, I guess, get more testers.
AVC: What do you think would be the focus of a new expansion? What ideas have the most potential?
EM: Not to give you too much of a peek behind the curtain, but there was a tweet somebody tweeted at me, and they referred to the guy in the treasure room as “The Blue King.” And simply referring to him as The Blue King opened all these little doors in my head. Who that is, what that means, how cool that sounds. So that was my first thought: If we do a DLC, I’m going to call it something about The Blue King. And I’m going to have that be a major focus of the game. It’s vague, and mysterious—even to me. It just seems cool and inspired, and I want to go there. So, thematically, that’s where I want to explore.
Mechanically, Bum-bo was in development for almost four years, and for a good three of those four years, we didn’t have a fully functional game. We had a bunch of pieces of game that were slowly connecting over time. And the majority of what I was doing was design work—which made sense on paper. So I’m looking over my notes, and I’m playing the game in my head. It seems really fun, it seems like this stuff will be amazing, but will it work? And then, two months ago is where we had everything 100% in, which is when we started tweaking and tuning. And in that tweaking and tuning stage, I started to realize untapped mechanics that there’s no way we could add in the time we had left.
If you’re familiar with the early days of Magic: The Gathering, they were just getting some of their footing. They had their mechanics roughed out. They knew what was fun, for the most part. But they didn’t understand the game completely, because games with that kind of complexity usually take a while to realize what works, what doesn’t work. What’s fun, what isn’t fun. And what direction to take it. With Bum-bo, even more than Isaac, it has more potential to add an expansion that adds tons of new mechanics, and tons of new items, and tons of new bosses, and tons of new ways to play the game. And I’m still, as I watch people stream, as I play myself, as I watch my wife play, I write down little things, like, “Oh, oh, that’s a challenging thing.” The first thing that came to mind was, “What if there’s a sub goal of having 15 coins to spin a specific secret wheel at the end of the game?” So you’d have to hold 15 coins. Just little things that would add an extra amount of challenge to the game. And give people more difficulty, different tasks. And, of course, different characters. I had a lot of fun making all the different characters. I have an idea for one more character, and I’m sure more will come out of this guy as I explore it.
AVC: How much of the design process happens purely through sitting there, thinking about how the game would play?
EM: With this, the majority. We didn’t prototype this, which was my mistake. I should have pushed to prototype. But James had just learned Unity, and he just kind of jumped in, and we were really focusing on the cardboard aesthetic and the visuals. And I just thought, “Okay, well, we’re not prototyping it. It seems to make sense on paper. I’ll just trust my instinct, and we’ll continue to flesh out all the 3D stuff.” We kind of worked on it in sections, so, okay, get the rooms in, get the cardboard aesthetic in… It took a good nine months to get the cardboard aesthetic perfect. And even after that, we tossed out all the art that I had done in the first year and then re-did it in the second year, because it didn’t look—I don’t know if you’ve beaten the game yet, but it’s important for the game to look like you’re inside of a cardboard box. And I had too much detail in the original art, which looked better, but didn’t work with the aesthetic we were pushing, and it was super-important for it to look like a box.
For this—not all my games, but for this game—the majority of the design was played in my head. And tested in my head. For other games that I’ve worked on, not so much. With a platformer, within a day or two, you’ve got a physical thing jumping around that you can tweak and tune with numbers, and make it feel correct. Which is what I did with Meat Boy and The End Is Nigh. With Isaac, it was a similar situation, where it was easy to prototype it. Some of what I thought would be good with Isaac was in my head, and we didn’t see it until the end of development. But, then again, that game took three months to make.
AVC: When you set out to design Bum-bo, what was the core design idea you wanted to express?
EM: I never said it publicly, because I knew it would turn people off, but I can say it now, because people like it: The core design was, I wanted to attempt to make something like Bejeweled strategic and fun for me. That was the core of it. There’s a lot of potential in match games. There’s a lot of deep strategy there. But usually, everything is time-based, reflex-driven. With games like Bejeweled, Match-3 games specifically, there’s a giant board, there’s a probability factor of, if you make one move, and you make one chain, there’s a high probability of a bunch of other chains falling into place. I don’t want to talk shit, but it feels condescending in some ways. Because it’s doing all these crazy things, and it’s rewarding you. “You’ve done this!” But did you really do it? Or did it just luck out?
With Bum-bo, I want you to see those probabilities. I want it to be more difficult to chain. I want it to be more deliberate. So I want the core of the game to be a strategic casual game, a deeply strategic casual game. I wanted this to be my most casual game, even though I don’t ever want to use that word to advertise it. But that’s what it is. I want to make a casual game that is deeply complex, and interesting, and looks fun, and makes sense, and is fun for me to work on. Aesthetically, and otherwise. And that’s what I was going for. I wanted it to make people think. Because there’s a lot of potential with casual games like that, there’s a lot of foundational elements in a lot of casual games that are very deep, and you could tap into them. But they don’t, because they’re trying to appeal to a demographic that simply wants to waste time, and be rewarded for not much thinking. Usually, in casual games, you don’t want people to think too much. You don’t want them to get frustrated. You don’t want them to stare at the screen and try to quantify what the optimal move is for the next 10 turns or whatever else.
AVC: What is the value of having random elements be such a big part of a strategic game like Bum-bo?
EM: It’s this kind of controlled randomness. Again, I’m going to reference Magic, because Magic is also a randomized game that can screw you over. But it’s controlled random. We control a lot of things, too, especially with treasure rooms. It’s not like Isaac, where it’s a treasure room pool of 400 items. It’s specific. In the first treasure room, you get either a defensive spell, or a spell to let you control your puzzle board. And there’s a reason for that: It’s very important to have one of those things right away, early on, in order to make good progression and make the game feel nice. Also, we look at your mana—so if you’re already utilizing bone mana and tooth mana, the new items aren’t going to randomize into any of those types in the first room, or the second room, until you’ve maxed out all of them. So it looks at what you have, and it makes sure it doesn’t screw you, because that’s no fun.
There’s a lot of controlled random, and in the beginning, I was worried about it, because in Isaac, it’s just fully random. You just go in, and it’s a slot machine, for the most part. But for this, it didn’t feel as appropriate to do the slot machine. Because it felt so strategic. And I wanted to complement strategy as much as possible. So I don’t want every run, when you win, to just be a full luck run.
But I also want there to be some, some, probability of it being a lucky run. Because it does also feel good to get lucky. In Magic, it feels good to top-deck the card that you need out of the 40-card deck that you’ve drafted. In this, well, maybe you got the item that you really needed, or maybe you spun the stat wheel and got two movement ups. Maybe you got lucky in that respect, and carried it through.
AVC: Your games are often about these heavy, painful concepts, while also being about poop and pee and boogers. Is there a link between those two ideas?
EM: I tend to make games about my childhood, about being young. And I tend to keep the humor that way, too. I think there’s something about that. And also, it’s just my personality, and that sort of thing is amusing, still. And I always will. Especially with Bum-bo, the aesthetic… Have you beaten the game?
AVC: I’ve played a lot, and then watched the endings last night.
EM: The whole game is played by Isaac. And I wanted to cater to that childish look. So I tried to make it look like little kid drawings with loosely colored crayon backgrounds and handmade objects. I felt like really pushing the poo-poo, pee-pee little kid humor stuff would be more appropriate here, so I explored it more here than I ever really did in Isaac.
It’s just my aesthetic. I mean, what are you going to do? [Laughs.] It’s just the first thing that comes to my mind. I think the original tiles that I had were roughly what’s going on now, like the poo was definitely there, but the pee wasn’t. And the boogers might not have been there. It was, like, eyeballs, and guts. That sort of stuff, stuff that seems appropriate for the game and works with my aesthetic, and is amusing to me in some way.
It’s also just really fun when you watch people play, and they’re like, “I gotta make more pee.” It’s amusing to me, so I put it in. You listen to the streamers play Isaac, or even this, and the stuff people will say is just too amusing to not explore in the game. I can’t say that that’s not part of my intention in adding it.
AVC: Is there a canon version of the Isaac story, that Bum-bo then leads into? Is there a “right” way to interpret the story?
EM: I think so. I see people sometimes get stuck on the unexplored areas of Isaac. I think Isaac’s story is pretty straightforward. A kid feels like an outcast due to what happened—which I explore, more, in Bum-bo—what happened in his life, as well as his mother becoming a religious zealot who is constantly telling him that he’s bad because of X, Y, Z, and that he’s evil, etc., etc. And then Isaac essentially gives up. He recedes into his imagination and suffocates in a box, and then his mom finds him. That’s the Isaac story. I always thought it was pretty straightforward. [Laughs.] I guess it wasn’t.
I don’t like hand-holding. I like ambiguous storytelling. And I try to say a lot with gameplay and the things you do in the game, like the items that you get. I want there to be some mystery, but there’s something to them, like the Wooden Spoon, or Mom’s Pill Bottle. Those things kind of paint a picture. And I want to paint this picture of something that… The Isaac story is very personal, in a lot of ways. It’s not directly personal—my mother didn’t try to kill me, or make me feel horrible about who I was—but growing up in a religious household, it’s hard to avoid that when you don’t fit in. Especially when you’re a creative kid. Receding into my imagination is what I did to get away from problems. Being creative really helped that, but it also made me feel more like an outcast, more like a black sheep. And I try to explore themes and visuals and whatever else abstractly from my childhood and try to put them through in the game.
For the most part, I think it’s a pretty straightforward story. It just gets confusing because, I think the intro of Binding Of Isaac shows his mom trying to kill him, and he goes into the basement. But those are all drawn on paper, and that’s important. The things that are drawn on paper are made up by Isaac. Much in the same way that you find out that Bum-bo is all a fictionalized world that Isaac played with his father. And Bum-bo is his father, the voice of his father, essentially.
AVC: Do you view Bum-bo as a more optimistic game? These endings feel more positive about the power of imagination than the original game.
EM: I don’t know. Maybe having a kid changed something. I don’t think a lot about what I do, when it comes to the storytelling aspects. I wanted certain things to be said, and I never really thought of it as a more uplifting ending than other endings. But I’ve been accused of making terrible endings that make people feel bad for forever. So maybe there’s something subconscious, having a daughter and everything, and focusing more on the positive? I don’t know. It’s not something I really thought much about when doing it. I actually think that ending is a lot more powerful than the “Mom” ending. And more true to my experience, for the most part.
AVC: During your recent AMA livestream, you talked about not wanting to ever run a full studio of your own. Do you have game ideas that you feel are too big for the sorts of two-person teams you’ve worked in in the past? Or is this right where you want to be?
EM: I think this is right where I want to be. I couldn’t imagine doing something bigger. This was my biggest project. Sounds weird, because it’s so simple. But this was the most difficult design cycle that I’ve ever gone through. I had to really, really think a lot with this one. And make sure I wasn’t fucking up the design. I couldn’t imagine working on a big project with a lot of moving parts. Because I can barely keep together one other person, you know what I mean?
When working with Nicalis, I’ve been accused of not being as complimentary as I should be. I’m working on that, you know? It’s a part of my skillset that’s not really fully developed. I’m used to working with one programmer, and for the most part, programmers tend to be… I don’t want to say non-emotional, but…more direct? Like, you can say, “This doesn’t work,” and they say, “Of course, I see, that doesn’t work.” And then they fix it. And when working with artists, or other people that maybe don’t have the personality type that I’ve worked with, saying, “Oh, that doesn’t work,” without saying, “Good job,” or something else complimentary, I’ll get better at that. But for the most part, I don’t want that to be something that I need to be.
A close friend of mine, George Fan, who made Plants Vs. Zombies, he works with a small group. And he’s such a diplomatic person. He has this personality type where he just always says the right thing. And I don’t say the right thing. I can’t imagine being the head of a company that has to tell a bunch of people what to do, and explain a bunch of things, because I’m bad at that, too. I need to be asked questions to say the right answers. And I tend to just assume people know what I’m going for when I’m working with them. And I probably should be talking more. So I can only imagine that if I had more people under me, it would just be more complicated.
And then, just the idea of being responsible for somebody else’s financial situation just seems terrifying. Imagine if I fucked that up. If I fucked that up, and the game didn’t sell well at all, I would feel a tremendous kind of guilt. And I’m just not the person that can deal with that kind of emotional stuff too much. Because I’d just carry the weight. And I don’t know how other people do it, either.
So that’s one of the main reasons why I wouldn’t want a studio. And then one of the sub-reasons is that I’ve started many games with many different people, and I’ve worked with many different programmers over the years. And I’ve had relationships go sour real fast. And would imagine it’s simply an odds game when it comes to that. And in times where I’ve brought more people in to do more sound work and whatever else, and just didn’t do contract work, but actually had people more as part of the project, caused more problems. And it’s just more loose ends to tie together. More emotional situations that I need to deal with. And it spreads me too thin, because I’m not… I’m adequate when it comes to keeping things together, and holding the game’s design together, and making sure everybody’s on point and whatever else. But I’m not good at it. And it’s not what I was made to do. I would rather not do it. But I also don’t want to pay someone else to do it, because I feel like I’d still do a little bit better of a job.
AVC: Do you still play Isaac? Why do you think people still are playing this game after 700 hours with it?
EM: I don’t, outside of development. Obviously, I’m playing it now, for [the game’s final dose of expansion content, Repentance], which will be out probably mid-next year. Maybe early mid. Hopefully. My wife plays it. Well, right now she’s just playing Bum-bo. But I’m sure once she’s done with Bum-bo and unlocked everything, she’ll move back to Isaac. I love watching her play it. It makes me happy, because I get to see her enjoying something that I made. But also, it makes me look at it, not as a game that I made, but as a game that’s being played. And I get to appreciate why it’s interesting.
I’d like to think that people are still playing it because it’s compelling, and relaxing, and rewarding. All the good things. But I don’t know for sure. It’s…[Frustrated noise] I don’t know! Like, people shouldn’t be. They shouldn’t be playing it still. They should have moved on to something else. Maybe nothing has ever really beat Isaac when it comes to that, and once it gets beat by something else, they’ll move on to that and stop playing Isaac. But I don’t know. I’ve got a pretty good feeling that there’s something coming up pretty soon, because Steam’s doing that co-op play thing, where you can play with other people on your friends list online, so Isaac, with one click, will become an online co-op game. And if we can support that in the DLCs, that would be a huge deal, too, and keep the game going. I want to see more stuff like that. Co-op play, I think would be really fun, especially if we design around it.
Maybe people are playing for the same reason I’m interested in talking about it. Because it’s fun. It’s fun to talk about, it’s fun to expand, it’s fun to explore. Maybe the world is ambiguous enough, and living enough to feel like it could keep going, but you don’t know where it’s gonna go. I don’t know. But it’s fine with me! If people want to keep playing it, good on them. I like the world. It’s personal. It’s something that I can expand on. But I hope to god I’m not still working on Isaac stuff once Repentance comes out. I’d like to move on to other things. I’ve been putting off Mew-Genics for years, because I’ve been working on other stuff. I’d like to work on that.