Brian R. Smith
Full Sail University, Winter Park, Florida
Hey, I know you're busy. If you love video games and those who create them -- rent or buy Indie Game: The Movie (2012). This is a really great documentary that features Mr. McMillen (and others). I highly recommend it.
Edmund McMillen, Indie game designer
Edmund McMillen has created video games for two decades -- a lifetime in an industry where the technological underpinnings change every few years. This paper shall apply lessons outlined in Robert Greene’s Mastery (Greene, 2012) as we examine key turning points in McMillen’s life through his chosen creative task, the creative strategy he employed early in his career, and his creative breakthrough as he fought to avoid the technical and emotional pitfalls of his time. This paper shall also cross-compare the authentic voice of both McMillen and musician John Coltrane.
The Creative Active Phase
Edmund McMillen, co-developer of the successful independent (Indie) video game Super Meat Boy (TeamMeat, 2012), found his personal creative task early in childhood. He liked to draw monsters at his grandmother’s home. Robert Greene suggests, “The task that you choose to work on must have an obsessive element … it must connect to something deep within you” (Greene, 2012, p. 179).
In the documentary-styled motion-picture, Indie Game: The Movie, (Swirsky & Pajot, 2012) McMillen “discusses his grandmother being his idol as a child as well as the trouble he encountered after drawing disturbing monster cartoons” (Mayo, 2014). Even after a third grade teacher recommended that McMillen be psychologically evaluated, as his monster drawings were not art, but a cry for help, his grandmother, “was always extremely supportive.” In fact, McMillen went onto say, “My grandmother passed away. She had a box of my drawings that she saved, when I was little” (Swirsky & Pajot, 2012).
McMillen’s obsession with monsters, and the mayhem they evoke, would carry into his game designs and development. Super Meat Boy, as just one example of his many disturbed video game titles, follows the struggles of a skin-less boy as he tries to save his girlfriend Bandage Girl from protagonist Dr. Fetus through a series of spikes, moving saw blades, and salt. One wrong move and Super Meat Boy explodes with a crunchy-squish into permanent wall-staining red.
Yet, McMillen relished in the fact that for him and his co-developer, “Our goal was to make a game that our 13-year old selves would be super-fan boys over.” Similar to Greene’s suggestion about connecting to something deep within, “This game is very me.” McMillen adds. “I make games to express myself, I think” (Swirsky & Pajot, 2012).
Of the many creative strategies suggested by Greene, the one that fits the best for McMillen is the Evolutionary Hijack (Greene, 2012, p. 231). Very much like Paul Graham, (who incorporated an online commerce store into the Netscape Web browser) McMillen hijacked Flash and created online video games. Originally, Adobe created Flash to enable simple in-browser animations such as a company logo sliding across the screen.
McMillen recalled in 2006, "When I started making Flash games online, there really wan't (sic) any respect from the game development community at all. Flash was considered a jcke (sic) to (sic) many professional programmers and designers and really wasn't looked at as marketable” (Ball, 2006).
This hijack had another positive evolutionary side effect. By building games built into a Web-page, McMillen, and then others, bypassed the major game distributers of the time – similar to how Amazon disrupted the publishing industry by bypassing the publishing houses (Guion, 2018). This allowed more and more Indie game producers to enter the market – the tide lifting all Indie boats.
In regards to the struggle most Masters have when laboring at their craft for many years Greene states, “At certain points in this process, lesser types would simply give up or settle for what they have—a mediocre and half-realized project” (Greene, 2012, p. 199).
McMillen had these self-doubts about his own work. “I’m notorious for making games that tend to alienate, or that not everybody understands” (Swirsky & Pajot, 2012). It took him two-years to create Super Meat Boy, and “for the first time in my whole career … I can’t help think that I’ve finally made something -- good” (Swirsky & Pajot, 2012). McMillen did not settle or give up. He kept true to his authentic voice and pressed on.
In a 2020 September Tweet @OfficialCapulus asked McMillen, “Do you have any methods for keeping yourself creatively active?” His answer, “I used to, then I had 2 kids and the USA imploded” (HazelCapulus, 2020). Can McMillen keep the same level of creative breakthrough while tensions (external and self-imposed) remain high, yet his ability to relax and reflect does not? Time will tell.
“In 2010, Jobs, head of Apple Computer, drew a line in the sand and said Flash would never appear on his best selling iPhones and iPads” (Cruse & Jordan, 2011). The same year as Super Meat Boy’s debut. But, the fight between Flash and the open standard HTML5 had been going on for years before. Jobs had simply put the stake in the Flash-heart.
Of the previous 44 titles published by McMillen, only two were not entirely in Flash. In fact, McMillen published Time Fcuk in 2009; a full year after HTML5 was released to the public (W3C, 2008). The writing was on the Web-page wall while McMillen still wrote in Flash.
From Greene’s list of emotional pitfalls, McMillen might fall neatly into either complacency or conservatism -- where you find that professional rut, and stick to it.
But, unlike some of the other arts and sciences, the game industry is constantly in the process of the evolutionary hijack. It is hard to fault McMillen for being complacent or conservative with Flash for a full decade, as he then successfully demonstrated a technical pivot to Xbox 360 (and onto other platforms including Windows, OS X, Linux, PS4, Nintendo Switch, PS Vita, and the Wii U) for Super Meat Boy.
Cross-Comparison: McMillen and John Coltrane
Greene writes about the authentic voice of John Coltrane, “By spending so long learning structure, developing technique, and absorbing every possible style and way of playing, Coltrane built up a vast vocabulary” (Greene, 2012, p. 208).
This study of Coltrane parallels the professional career of Edmund McMillen. He spent a decade practicing the structure and techniques of games in Flash before pivoting to other platforms. In fact, since Super Meat Boy’s release in 2010, he has created another nine titles on every platform you can play at home, including a card game. Here, being a master of platform has allowed McMillen focus on higher things and keep his authentic voice.
McMillen employed the video game version of an evolutionary hijack in 2001 by jumping early on the Web browser and Adobe Flash platform. When Flash faced pending technological extinction, McMillen avoided the emotional pitfalls of complacency and conservatism and pivoted to the Xbox 360. What has sustained McMillen during two decades of game creation was his grandmother’s support, allowing him to maintain an authentic voice with his multi-dimensional mind’s love of monsters with a disturbing, and marketable, edge.