When Isaac’s mother starts hearing the voice of God demanding a sacrifice be made to prove her faith, Isaac escapes into the basement facing droves of deranged enemies, lost brothers and sisters, his fears, and eventually his mother. The Binding of Isaac is a randomly generated action RPG shooter with heavy Rogue-like elements.


Edmund McMillen is one of the most popular indie game designers of the past 5 years. From his early award-winning work on Gish, through the mega-popular Super Meat Boy, and now his personal project The Binding of Isaac, his games have exhibited truly brilliant design and a unique visual style. Check out some of his tips for designing your own games, highlighted here, and be sure to watch the full video interview for even more valuable info.

Posted by design3 on Jan 30th, 2012

Just minutes after Edmund McMillen strolls through our front lobby, and exchanges greetings with design3 interviewer Ben Mears, they’re already in the midst of a discussion of various game publishers and their assorted crimes against indie-game humanity. Edmund is the art and design half of Team Meat, creators of the hit game Super Meat Boy, with Tommy Refenes making up the programming half. Edmund got his start in the game industry by working on the award winning game Gish and hasn’t looked back since. He has become a hugely popular game designer, and is most recently known for the roguelike game The Binding of Isaac. He is also famously known for saying what’s on his mind, and not taking crap from anybody; be it measly internet hecklers or mighty corporate giants such as Microsoft. He is self-taught, both in art and in game design, and doesn’t worry about adding offensive or controversial content to his games.

The Binding of Isaac

That being said, and disclaimers aside, his advice is straight as an arrow regarding video game design. His first tip is to pay more attention while you play the games you enjoy. For example, “Question why, in the latest Mario, coins even exist when lives are pointless? What does it matter? You’re gonna get a continue and then continue again?” Good game design, to Edmund, involves not letting any aspects of your work go unquestioned. “What should I add here and why? What worked back then that doesn’t work now, why doesn’t it work now, and how can I make it work?” All very important questions to ask when designing and planning your own games, because unlike many other artistic works, most games involve some kind of repetition. During repeated attempts at achieving the particular goals in your game, aspects of gameplay that were underdeveloped or ignored can become highly noticeable and frustrating to players.

Super Meat Boy

“How can I avoid frustration? How is frustration created in Meat Boy?” Edmund recalls asking himself. “Frustration is created by having a penalty....what’s the penalty in Meat Boy if there’s no lives system? Well, the penalty is how much time it takes to start playing again. So if we take that down to nothing...what do we have penalty-wise? Well, the penalty is how long it takes for you to go from start to finish...It’s little stuff, but you’re chipping away at it until it becomes close to perfect.”

Much like determining the theme when writing an essay, finding ‘the core’ of a game helps you stay focused during development. It also helps greatly when making gameplay decisions. When asking if a certain mechanic should be implemented, you can determine which answer best supports the ‘core’ of your game. Edmund continues, “That’s basically it, you just chip away at it logically, with one set goal. Like with Isaac it has nothing to do with frustration lacking...my goal [was] to create a unique experience every time you play...I wanted the game to trick myself, I wanted it to fool me...Okay so, I make it so ten percent of the time maybe the enemy is a little bit bigger, little bit tougher, but gives a bit more of a reward, and so on. So when you’re starting a new game, you’ve got to find it’s ‘core’; with Meat Boy it was ‘difficulty without frustration’ and with Isaac it was ‘replayability’. You find the core, and you just chip away everything else until it’s very prominent. Even like, Jonathan Blow’s latest game The Witness, I know he’s doing the exact same thing because the core is ‘puzzles.’ And you can see that he’s chipping away, and there’s puzzles within puzzles within puzzles and then there’s puzzles outside of puzzles...he found the core foundation of what he wanted, chipped away until it was perfect, and then built around with the same theme.”


In short, Edmund’s advice to you when approaching your first video game design project is to “find out what your goal is, and interweave every aspect of your game into that goal.” While playing his games, one can easily see this philosophy in action. Approaching your own game projects this way will greatly improve your future results.

Check out the full video interview with Edmund here:

Edmund McMillen:

Team Meat:

Article by Pat Flannery: Pat is currently a Production Assistant at design3 and has been busy shooting and editing lots of interviews with game developers and industry professionals. Find him on design3.com as “pflannery” or follow him on Twitter, @design3video.

Post comment Comments
Katana_ Jan 30 2012, 11:57pm says:

Where's the tip about not connecting to a remote database directly and providing full access to random users? You'd think they'd be emphasizing that that's a bad idea, considering they had to find out the hard way...

0 votes     reply to comment
Ennui Jan 31 2012, 12:12am replied:

Good job sailing right past the whole point and content of the interview there champ! So what if Team Meat ****** up on some network security issues - what in the hell does that have to do with game design?

+7 votes     reply to comment
dafishanator Jan 31 2012, 1:20pm replied:


+3 votes     reply to comment
garrettcolas Feb 8 2012, 9:25pm replied:

Come on now, it was just a joke.

+1 vote     reply to comment
ANtY93 Jan 31 2012, 12:59am replied:

Good point, man. Thanks for writing this :)

+4 votes     reply to comment
PompiPompi Jan 31 2012, 2:56am says:

All the glorifying of the designer are really unnecesseray, and look kind of stupid, to be honest.
I guess I will listen to the video because I didn't seem to understand what the post was trying to teach me.

+1 vote     reply to comment
Hell_Diguner Jan 31 2012, 2:15pm replied:

All you had to do was skip the first paragraph to get to the advice part...

+1 vote     reply to comment
PompiPompi Feb 1 2012, 4:24pm replied:

How was I suppose to know where the advice starts before reading it?

+1 vote     reply to comment
design3 Author
design3 Feb 2 2012, 2:59pm replied:

Yeah, traditionally articles/papers begin with some kind of more "fluffy" introduction. Of course, I suggest you read the article before saying it offers no information for you, but to each his own.

+1 vote   reply to comment
PompiPompi Feb 2 2012, 11:25pm replied:

I did read the article.
I guess you didn't fully read my reply.

0 votes     reply to comment
design3 Author
design3 Feb 8 2012, 5:04pm replied:

That didn't come across (to me) in the comment. But heck, thanks for reading either way!

0 votes   reply to comment
Leaufai Jan 31 2012, 3:24am says:

Interesting article.

Although Meat can still be very frustrating. That's what dying enough times does to you. VVVVVV's checkpoint system worked much better in that regard.

+3 votes     reply to comment
medve Jan 31 2012, 7:13am says:

this sounds more like a self *******

+1 vote     reply to comment
Otter. Jan 31 2012, 1:06pm says:

Forgot to mention to also throw in some quite nasty stuff for the manchilds and memes, don't forgot the memes. Although no one will get them in a few decades but who cares, the world will end by then and you can have fun shooting tears or blood on poo till then. XD

But seriously speaking, they did quite a good job building up a solid gameplay.

+1 vote     reply to comment
OnslaughtMike Feb 1 2012, 6:32pm says:

Great video.
Had some good bits of advice that I agree with and a few laughs.

+1 vote     reply to comment
No_Frags Feb 2 2012, 8:08am says:

mp3 download for interview perhaps?

+1 vote     reply to comment
Protektor Feb 2 2012, 11:54am says:

I guess I have been gaming far too long, longer than he has. It seemed to me that the points he made were quite obvious and not particularly insightful, at least to me. I also thought he tended to ramble a bit during the interview. It takes a special skill to get use to being in front of a camera or large group of people and getting the point of your message across with a modicum of words.

+1 vote     reply to comment
Noremakk Feb 20 2012, 2:03pm replied:

The Team Meat guys don't really care about being professional in interviews. Read their interview on Giant Bomb for an example.

And you'd be surprised how many game devs don't understand the things he said. Just look at the first Assassin's Creed, with its five-minute-long unskippable talking/cutscenes before every level. Horrible.

+1 vote     reply to comment
ChristmasAsen Feb 6 2012, 9:52am says:

It was a mistake to read the comments here.

+3 votes     reply to comment
design3 Author
design3 Feb 8 2012, 5:05pm replied:

Yeah, makes things seem much worse than they are sometimes...hahah.

+1 vote   reply to comment
TheDomaginarium May 7 2012, 11:32am says:

Very good interview. I like the honest view on things. I don't agree with the FarmVille comparison, though, because I know of a lot of people playing FarmVille and they would not even touch Isaac because they wouldn't find it compelling at all.

Personally I don't play FarmVille but not because I don't consider it a game, but because it doesn't draw my attention, which is the same reason why I don't play COD, Angry Birds, Minecraft or WoW.

I think what's cool about gaming right now is that you can make different kinds of games that will appeal to different kinds of people. You can make a game that will really get the attention to hardcore players, and then make a game that may become moms' all-time favorite. It's about having an open mind and not consider certain genres as "leser forms" of entertainment/gaming.

+1 vote     reply to comment
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The Binding of Isaac
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Released Sep 27, 2011
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