Aside from the time it takes, the biggest pain from transcribing an interview is spotting the points you failed to jump on at the time and the jokes you missed and didn’t laugh at. In this instance, I‘m annoyed that I didn’t catch Mike Bithell’s ‘non-fascistic purity’ joke and didn’t take the chance to talk far more about the majesty of Jean-Luc Picard.
The creator of Thomas Was Alone and Volume was also right in identifying the response that will probably be most keenly noted – that the small solo project he’s in the process of bringing to market might be the last thing he ever codes.
“I have a smaller project which I think will surprise people by how quickly it comes out,” he tells MCV in an East London coffee shop when asked about what’s on the horizon after Volume’s already announced virtual reality expansion, Coda. “It’s something I’ve been fiddling with since the end of Volume, so about six months. A little idea – a few ideas I’ve bashed together, actually.
THOMAS WAS A SURPRISE
The post-Volume world is a very different one for Bithell than that which
existed when he was making Thomas Was Alone in his spare time. The
project file on his computer for the game is still called ‘Teaching Myself
Unity’. His hope was that he might make enough money to buy himself
an iPad, and perhaps have a holiday to Disney World.
“It was me trying to learn how an engine worked so I could go make what
would become Volume,” Bithell recalls.
“I also had this creeping feeling it was going to be my last opportunity. The
crazy ‘oh my god this could happen’ objective was to get minimum wage
for a year so I could go and have a proper go at it. I didn’t think Thomas
Was Alone was going to be that proper go.
“There is an alternative universe where Thomas Was Alone made an iPad’s
worth of money, didn’t do as well as it did and I’m back at work and have
lost two of the best years of my life. It was a very big gamble and I’m very
fortunate to live in this universe.”
And he still hasn’t made it to Disney World. “I’m genuinely meaning to go
next month, but I’ve been saying that for like three years now.”
“It’s probably the last thing I’ll code if everything goes to plan, and that’s a horrible thing to say. That’s a quote that some smart ass will throw at me in ten years time when I’m sat in my shed.”
That’s far from the only project Bithell has on the go, however.
“Then there’s definitely seismic, massive stuff as well which is super exciting and completely secret,” Bithell adds.
“Volume opened some very cool doors. We were already talking to various people about various things but once Volume came out and sold well and reviewed well, a lot of people became interested in working with us.”
The next chapter in the life of Mike Bithell involves the opening of a dedicated game development studio, full of in-house developers. Volume, Bithell’s most recent release, started with a team of five people. By the end that had grown to 30. Opening his own studio, beyond the confines of the flat he currently shares with his girlfriend, feels like the inevitable next step.
Fortunately, the journey from Unity amateur to studio overseer is one that the developer has admirably taken in his stride.
“Before I was independent I worked on games including tiny little projects and million dollar projects, so I know how someone like me fits into those processes,” Bithell explains. “I didn’t do much coding in the last six months of Volume’s development. I did the core game, but the servers weren’t me, a lot of the underlying UI and porting wasn’t me, so it’s something I feel I’ve transitioned into.
“I can see myself bouncing between smaller things and bigger things, doing smaller things on the side while making a bigger thing. I’m not sure how it will play out. I’m always gonna have that interest in both ends. I play a lot of triple-A stuff but I also like small games and I want to make both. Diversity is the objective.”
There’s no better illustration of Bithell’s meteoric rise than his Gamescom Sony appearance where he announced the upcoming Volume VR expansion. Having watched the reaction to No Man’s Sky at E3, Bithell thought: “‘I want to do that, it looks fun’. Basically, I emailed everyone at Sony and asked whether I could do that, please. And the response came back saying yeah, we could try it.
“Sony was amazing to work with on Volume. That’s reflected in how it’s doing – it’s doing rather well on PlayStation. That’s paid off very well, both on a personal and business level.”
Interestingly, Bithell’s home-based isolation provided the foundation for his blossoming relationship with the platform holder. Twitter, he says, plays a big part in the lives of a lot of indie developers as it replaces the void that was once filled with office chatter. “I miss the atmosphere,” Bithell admits, before adding that “genuinely, a Twitter DM has been involved in most of my little coups”.
OK, MAYBE FREE-TO-PLAY ISN'T ENTIRELY EVIL
“I’ve definitely softened in my views on F2P,” Thomas Was Alone creator
Mike Bithell, a famously harsh critic of the model, tells MCV. “I think it has
led to some very negative approaches to treating customers, I think
everyone can agree on that. But I wouldn’t say it’s inherently bad. I used
to feel that way but there have now been enough F2P experiences I’ve
had where I’ve been like, yeah this is fine, this is good solid fun.”
In fact, Bithell says that he’d certainly consider the model for a future title
if he felt it was a fit.
“If it makes sense and it’s designed for the platform,” he concedes. “It just
so happens the last two games I made felt great on a controller. We
figured out how to make Thomas Was Alone work but I remain to be
convinced we can make Volume good enough on a mobile. There’s no
mobile version of Volume in the works. Although I would have told you a
year into Thomas Was Alone’s life there’s no way we’d make a mobile
version so who knows, but for now definitely not. I’ve not got anything
against mobile and I’m convinced premium titles can work on there.”
Bithell also reveals that he’s put some thought into how to make a good
licensed game. “I’m always impressed when someone gets the licence
right and respects it while building on it,” he reveals, before elaborating
on his thinking via his beloved Star Trek.
“The two bad outcomes of a licensed game are where you have someone
who doesn’t get what Star Trek is or someone who goes ‘I’m going to do a
game based on [fan favourite The Next Generation episode] Best of Both
Worlds’. I don’t want either of those things. I want something that’s its own
thing but understand why the logo is on the box.”
We’ll have to wait to discover what mega-project Bithell has in the works, although if his excitement is any measure then it will be worth the wait. Equally as interesting, however, will be to see the smaller, more intimate projects that emerge from the developer who lives on behind the businessman.
Having admitted that none of his in-progress projects currently feature a jump button (so no Thomas Was Alone 2), Bithell also enthuses about some of the mobile titles he enjoys.
“I play Threes constantly,” he admits, before name-dropping both Hitman Go and Lara Croft Go. “It’s the kind of game I like where it’s incredibly clean - that’s probably a theme you’ve noticed,” he said of Sirvo’s puzzler. “I like purity, in a non-fascistic way.”
We don’t know what’s coming next from Bithell, although when I observe it is unlikely to be a gritty, pixel art RPG set in a mud-filled forest, Bithell replies: “If I did it would have a really great UI.”