Mike Bithell's story is inspiring for any aspiring developer.
His game, Thomas Was Alone, has gone from being Flash title made during a game jam to being one of the better-known indie releases in recent memory.
It made Bithell a star. He even appeared on stage during PlayStation's Gamescom press briefing to promote his new title Volume.
I'd be a dickhead if the success of Thomas Was Alone didn't surprise me,” Bithell says. It was a game that I always hoped might do okay and quit the day job and go indie, but the scale to which it was played and the scale of interest it had was mind-blowing.
But Thomas Was Alone wasn't successful for the reasons that Bithell expected.
The thing that resonated with people was the story,” he explains. I thought that I was making a cool game with an okay narrative but it turned out that people really connected with the story, probably moreso than the gameplay.”
Narrative might have been one of the reasons for Thomas Was Alone's success, but Bithell feels that story-driven games are being neglected by the triple-A industry. Luckily, the indie sector can scratch this itch.
The big difference is anticipation. People actually care this
time around. When I was making Thomas Was Alone I was
making it in my evenings and weekends around my day job.
No-one was waiting for it. There was no interest. No-one
had heard of the game until it came out. I got on with it and
when it was done I released it and did some marketing stuff
after the fact to promote it. It wasn't a mega thing, whereas
with Volume I'm very conscious of the fact that there are
people who are waiting for it, who are watching trailers for it,
reading my Twitter and looking for news about it. That leads
into the process as you're aware of it. You're aware that you're
being watched and that has an effect.”
Narrative-driven games are being underserved in triple-A titles. The industry has gone for the ‘boom-blast' graphics and set pieces, and not done as much with the storytelling,” he says. As an indie it's easy to get a story done. We have the resources to do that. Story is relatively cheap. Having a great script is something that's very achievable for most indies to do.”
Bithell is also a prolific user of Twitter. There's no denying how effectively he has used social media to create a brand and communicate with his fans.
There are indies who like to get into a cave and just make their games. They make better games for it because
they are making exactly what they want to make themselves,” he says. I want to make games that pleases a big audience. The easiest way for me to do that is to put it in front of fans over Twitter, showing off screen shots and sharing the process with people who are ultimately going to be playing it.”
Now Bithell is working on his next game, Volume, and this time around the development process is hugely different.
The big difference is anticipation,” he says. People actually care this time around. When I was making Thomas Was Alone I was making it in my evenings and weekends around my day job. No-one was waiting for it. There was no interest. No-one had heard of the game until it came out. I got on with it and when it was done I released it and did some marketing stuff after the fact to promote it.
It wasn't a mega thing, whereas with Volume I'm very conscious of the fact that there are people who are waiting for it, who are watching trailers for it, reading my Twitter and looking for news about it. That leads into the process as you're aware of it. You're aware that you're being watched and that has an effect.”
And it's not just Twitter that has had a huge impact on Bithell's development. YouTube Lets Players were also a huge factor in the success of Thomas Was Alone.
Let's Plays are very interesting,” he says. I've been making games for seven or eight years, so they are something that didn't exist when I first started, it wasn't something that people did. For me it's an extension of the playground or the water cooler. It's a way of someone enjoying a thing telling other people how they are getting on with it.
"The big thing is the asymmetry of it. One person goes on YouTube and says ‘This game is great for this, but it's shit for this' and 1m people watch it. That's exciting and weird.
At the core of it it's people just telling their mates about a game they find interesting. It's had a massive impact on me. The big problem with Thomas Was Alone was it came out and no-one cared. It had some good reviews and did its thing, but a month passed and it wasn't news worthy and all the press were looking for the next thing, which is fair enough. That's how things work.
"It went stagnant for a bit but then YouTubers really got into it and started playing and sharing it. We saw this second life happen for the game because that's how people play games. They don't always play games the week they come out, sometimes there is a longer tail. Thomas Was Alone really benefitted from that.”