With the big Electronic Entertainment Expo known as E3 taking place in Los Angeles this month, we thought we’d devote this installment of Animated People to someone who has helped to bring stylized animation and gaming together in a truly original way. Edmund McMillen is an accomplished graphic artist and creator of the popular Flash-based video game Gish, which won the $20,000 Seamus McNally Grand Prize at the 2005 Independent Games Festival (IGF).
Animation Magazine Online: What impact did winning the IGF award for Gish have on your company, your career and your life in general?
Edmund McMillen: Winning IGF was a big high for me and Alex Austin (lead programmer/designer of Gish). We had been shut out the year prior and I think when we won it really felt like a win for the little guy. In past IGF’s the games with the biggest teams and budgets seemed to win the grand prize and I don’t think either of us expected to win against Alien Hominid. It was also a very memorable experience in my life because that’s when I proposed to my girlfriend, Danielle, on stage. She really supported me through the six months of Gish‘s development when I was making nothing and just crossing my fingers hoping I would make enough to justify the time spent. So in a lot of ways it was a really great way to end the Gish chapter of my life.
Shortly after winning the grand prize, the company [Chronic Logic LLC] broke up, but that had very little to do with the win. I think we all knew it was going to happen years before but held out to finish what we had started. Since the breakup, Alex has started a new company called Cryptic Sea (crypticsea.com), and we are currently working on two new games.
What is it about Gish that people have really responded to, in your opinion?
Because of the company split and disputes over rights to the game, we lost a lot of mainstream publishing deals. Personally I think that Gish would have done really well on handhelds and Xbox Live. At its core, Gish is a console game that really shines when you’re playing with 2-4 players using game pads, not something easily done on PC. Its too bad that we never got to see the response from that audience, but the audience we did acquire is a unique one.
Because of its underground nature and unique gameplay, Gish has really become a big independent Internet hit, and after 2 years people are already calling it a classic. Gish has kind of become a diamond in the rough for hardcore gamers, a game people can say they really love, but still feel cool knowing that not everyone else knows about it.
How was Flash regarded in gaming circles when you started making games, and how have attitudes changed in the past year or two?
When I started making Flash games online, there really wasn’t any respect from the game development community at all. Flash was considered a joke to many professional programmers and designers, and really wasn’t looked at as marketable, mostly because everyone seemed to be giving it away for free. In all reality, a lot of the games that were being made were actually very well animated and pretty deep when it came to gameplay, even compared to some GBA titles of the time. Since then a lot has changed. There are console games being made in Flash and a lot of animators are using it for sprite animation. There are also quite a few web sites out there now that will pay you for quality Flash content, encouraging Flash developers to advance and giving them hope that they can possibly make a living off of it.
Who are some other people working in Flash that you really admire?
It’s hard not to admire Tom Fulp (newgrounds.com) when it comes to Flash in general. In a lot of ways he started the whole Flash game/movie movement making the first successful Flash portal that really supported its users and got them a lot of recognition for their creative works. He also paved the way for using Flash in console games when he made Alien Hominid with Dan Paladin. I personally think people will be seeing a lot of popular Newgrounds Flash artists and programmers making their way into the mainstream. Tom has amassed a very talented team and I think names like Mindchamber, Caulder Bradford, Will Stamper and Dan Paladin will all be pretty well-known in years to come.
How do you see the independent games segment growing, and what do you think is driving that growth?
I think the most obvious factor that is driving independent games now is their recent success in the mainstream. Titles like Alien Hominid, Wik, Darwinia and Gish have all received high praise from mainstream critics. With mainstream publishers like Steam and Xbox Live picking up these games, I think a lot of doors have been opened for the independent community.
Aside from the obvious money making opportunities, I think the most important thing that is driving independent developers is the thing makes being an indie unique. With mainstream games becoming more and more competitive and requiring company-breaking budgets, mainstream publishers can’t afford to be that innovative anymore. Companies are in fear that the innovation might turn off their audience and push them into the red. As independents, it should be our number-one priority to use that factor to our advantage and take the risk of turning some people off in order to push video games in the right direction and change what’s acceptable in the mainstream.
With a game like Gish, there was no way any mainstream publisher was going to get behind an idea like that. It didn’t play like any other game on the market, so you couldn’t compare its success to anything. It was also 2D and, even with its next-gen lighting effects and physics, it was still looked non-current generation because of that. But look at the market now. Two years later you see big budget games like Loco Roco with similar gameplay mechanics being released. I can’t help but feel like we did something right with Gish and maybe changed what the mainstream saw as successful. Personally, I think that it will be the independent game development communities that will change the way we play games of the future, that is if we all don’t sell out.
What can you tell us about your two upcoming games?
As of now there are actually three. The first two are being done with Alex Austin. The more simple of the two is a yet’to-be-named physics-based puzzle game where you take the role of a crazed miner who uses barrels of dynamite to blast his way through the earth in search of gold. Like our past games, physics plays a big role, so it will keep the feel of a classic puzzle game with a new gameplay mechanic. There will also be tons of Ren & Stimpy-inspired animations going on as the miner gradually loses his mind.
The second is called The Book of Knots. It’s actually based on a 10-page comic I did a year ago and is set in the same world as Gish and my other Flash games. In a lot of ways it’s the spiritual successor to Gish, but this time you take the role of a physics-based bi-ped who sets out to collect the souls of the immortal creatures written about in the Book of Knots. Think [Sony’s] Shadow of the Colossus in 2D meets Gish, and you’ll have some idea of how the gameplay will feel.
The third game I’ve been working has been a side project of mine for the past four years. It’s called the Badlands, and it’s based on all the games I’ve done under Diverge Creations with Caulder Bradford. It’s 100% Flash and has been completely remade three times over the past few years. It’s a simple 2D sidescroller with a twist. I want to have it ready for next year’s IGF. I hope all the work will be worth it in the end.
How will the new games push the technology and raise the bar for indie games?
I think when The Book of Knots comes out sometime next year it will raise a lot of bars when it comes to the technology used in it. Alex is really one of the best physics programmers out there, and I think our next game will make that very apparent.
Hopefully, once it’s released it will also change the minds of a lot of people who think you need a team of 50 to make a video game. Alex and I made Gish from start to finish in less then six months. I actually think big development teams can be a curse to a lot of video games. Communication is a big factor in game development and the less people you have to deal with the easier it is for everyone to get their ideas across and keep the game itself pure.
What inspires you personally?
Honest artists and designers inspire me. I’ve always gotten a big boost from work that has a lot of heart. I think its one of the hardest things to put into your projects and one of the most redeeming. You don’t find many artists these days doing professional quality art for fun, it’s usually to make a quick buck or to impress their peers. It’s very refreshing to see artists and game developers pushing themselves and taking risks with their work, not worrying about how people will react and just trying to do something different while still staying true to the art form.
McMillen’s portfolio can be viewed at www.coldstoragedesigns.com, and you can play some of the Flash games he’s worked on under the Diverge Creations banner at www.diverge.ws. He is among the ‘Rising Stars of Animation’ profiled in the June issue of Animation Magazine, which you can look for soon at Barnes & Noble locations and other fine book sellers.