Though authorial intent doesn't matter to the type of analysis and critique promoted here at Critical-Gaming, I'll address various statements made by Team Meat to cover important topics.
According to a podcast on indiegames.com and this blog post on supermeatboy.com, Team Meat believes that they, along with developers like Matt Thorson with Give Up Robot 2, are "refining platformers" in a very particular way.
"We're all moving in the same direction, and realizing that difficulty needs to change and how can we change it. What is punishment? How can we remove it from games. What can we do to refine the paltformer to the perfect state basically. The penalty for dying in new current platformers is the time that it takes to respawn. And we shaved it off to nothing. It's like an instant thing. We also took the levels down, so the levels [are] small enough not to be discouraging as well. There's a difference between being difficult and being frustrating. Maybe later in the game Meat Boy gets maybe a little frustrating. But I wouldn't ever say that it gets that frustrating. It's quite difficult. But it's not punishing enough to be frustrating frustrating."
Here's my response:
The word "punishment" has a very broad definition that applies to any situation where one experiences a consequence, a loss, or a disadvantage from their actions. Still, thinking about difficult design in terms of punishment misses the point. Video games are essentially learning systems. At their most basic, video games are tools for players to teach themselves. Knowledge is the skills that's the most stressed for most video games. This means players are mainly tested on their ability to observe, create tests, and learn from the results. This is the core of the trial and error method of learning. Everything when playing a game is a learning experience. This means positive/negative feedback, moments of reflection, developing questions, and opportunities to experiment are all important.
Regardless, the "penalty" for dying in other platforming games is not the time it takes you to respawn. The consequences for mistakes are a part of all games. If there's a win state, there's a not-win state or a fail state. The "shaved" off respawn time in Super Meat Boy and the core design that revovles around 1 hit deaths actually achieves the opposite effect the designers intended. As humans, we all learn in the same, slow fashion. The faster a game's speed, the harder it is for players to learn. This is because increased speeds deemphasizes dexterity, adaptation, reflexes, and timing skills while putting a greater stress on knowledge skills. The more knowledge skills are stressed, the less room there is to take in new information, analyze it, and store it. So Super Meat Boy is a game that inherently challenges the learning process and demands proportionally more knowledge.
"Difficulty in a platformer is usually established by this very simple formula:
(% chance the player will die) X (Penalty for dying) = Difficulty?
As time has passed, lives systems and penalty have almost vanished from most games due to the amount of frustration they caused and difficulty had become watered down to the point of it not really being a factor anymore."
This formula is all wrong. First of all, the percentage chance the player will die is a factor of player skill (DKART). Using this as a factor to determine difficulty will only deliver inconsistent and subjective results. Furthermore, the penalty for dying really has nothing to do with the difficulty of the challenge. Sure, having to replay part of a level may try one's patience, but patience isn't a measurable skill (at least not a DKART skill). The easiest challenge in the world can have the steepest penalty (loss of life). However, this doesn't make the easiest challenge any harder.
It's much more effective to break core level challenges down according to DKART skills to get a better idea of a level's difficulty. Then you have to consider how the player can undermine the challenge and other factors. In other words, difficulty and challenge are tricky subjects that can't be reduced to a simple formula like the one above.
Of course difficulty is a factor in platformers like Super Mario World and beyond. There's variable difficulty and difficulty modes for people who want extra challenges with awards and rewards that only the skilled can earn. The secrets in the levels, secret levels, and pro techniques are all a part of the flexible difficulty design.
This attitude completely overlooks the impact of variable difficulty and suspension in games like Super Mario. Powerups not only change the way players can overcome and undermine challenges, but they can be held over (suspended) throughout the game if players don't get hit. Getting to Bowser on 8-4 in Super Mario Bros. as Fire Mario is difficult because the last powerups you can get are in stages 8-2 and 8-3, and they're hidden in normal bricks in dangerous places. Once you get to 8-4, you're on your own. With suspension, when you die you can lose a lot more than just the time it took you to progress through the level. In the same way, grabbing coins and adjusting your strategies across levels is significant. This is a whole layer of design that you don't get from the bite sized, compartmentalized design of Super Meat Boy and most indie platformers for that matter.
"It was imperative that the action never stopped, even when the player was killed. The time it takes for Meat Boy to die and respawn is almost instant, the player never waits to get back into the game, the pace never dropps and the player doesn't even have time to think about dying before they are right back where the left off."
The worst part is that the fast respawn rate exacerbates the problem. As humans, we need time to reflect. We need to take our time in the critical steps where we analyze our mistakes and store the processed information. If you mess with this process, you make a game unnecessarily hard. Sure, the player can take a break after every death, but playing an interactive video game is probably too enticing for most gamers to force breaks on themselves at every death.
Playing Super Meat Boy is like playing a hard song in Guitar Hero, but every missed note quickly resets the song. Not only would the musical flow of this GuitHarD Hero be destroyed, but you can imagine that (like the original Guitar Hero Game) getting more exposure and practice to the later sections of the song would be more difficult and repetitive. Guitar Hero eventually added an extensive practice mode that allows players to focus on specific sections of a song at different speeds. Bangai-O Spirits lets players edit any level so they can practice any part of a stage in any fashion at any time. And games like Donkey Kong Country Returns have checkpoints so the repetition is reduced when practicing. And all of these games let you make mistakes and keep going.
"...it was very important that the levels in Super Meat Boy be bite sized... If we keep the levels small enough for the player to see their goal, it lowers the stress of not knowing what's to come and the distance they will have to start over from if they die."
The designers claim that the levels are bite sized so that you can't lose too much if you die near the end of a level. Otherwise, Super Meat Boy would be overly frustrating, they claim. However, the fast game speed, questionable mechanics design (controls), and 1 hit KO design creates a type of difficulty that is much more repetitive than a platfomer like Super Mario Bros. There are some Super Meat Boy levels that are contained within a single screen where the goal and obstacles are clear, but most have some kind of scrolling (vertical, horizontal, or both). In these larger levels the goal and hazards are obscured. Sometimes I didn't know which way to go. Sometimes I had no idea how far I had to go. Some levels are very large with winding paths to compress space. Certainly, the bite sized design intent isn't consistently applied across the majority of the game.
In Mario Bros. players can grab powerups to increase the number of hits they can take. When you take a hit, the game pauses so you can take the extra time to see where you made a bad move. When you die there's a brief moment with no music so you can mentally prepare for another attempt. Then the game starts you back at the beginning of the level or the last check point. All of these design features create a game where players can learn better and faster. Super Meat Boy doesn't feature such an intelligent design. So really, the game doesn't refine platformers at all.
"People will forget. They'll see videos of meat boy and wonder... Aren't they frustrated? But when you're actually palying it, you forget about your misses and only remember you hits. You're only thinking about the good things that you've done."
Another way of explaining this is Super Meat Boy plays at such a high speed with such a fast respawn from mistakes that players don't have enough time to perceive and reflect on the mistakes they make. So not only will they take more time making more of the same mistakes, but this time will be forgettable because it's comparatively mindless. And when the player succeeds, of course they remember the victory. Beating the level is the whole point, and it's the last thing they do.
"This simple visual reward for taking a beating not only reminds the player of just how hard they tried but also shows a time line of how they learned and got better as they played."
I consider the replays to be a neat feature, not a reward. More so than anything else, the videos show me exactly how strict some of the challenges are. Seeing all the many Meat Boys die from being slightly off in spacing/timing is upsetting at times. Sure, the replay shows me how I developed/learned to beat the level, but I also see a very inefficient, stressed learning process driven to this point by the core design of Super Meat Boy that I don't completely agree with. For the most part, I see dozens of myself being killed for trying to freestyle and express myself.
"You did it. And you didn't die because the controls are bad. You know that you did it. It's not that discouraging at all. And you kind of enjoy it."
I died many times because the controls aren't perfect. Besides many graphical glitches, there are times when the buttons simply didn't register. I hear other people are having this problem with the PC version as well. Some times a WALL KICK, which should be a diagonal arc, JUMPs me straight up.
I greatly respect Team Meat for articulating their design philosophies so well (and with such nice pictures that I had to borrow). But their ideas are missing key insights of game design and how humans learn. They're like the young, excited teachers that have plenty of new ideas on how to teach, but fail miserably at actually fostering a quality learning environment.
The meal is over, but for dessert I'll discuss how Super Meat Boy stacks up against N+.