INSIGHT: How Mike Bithell became the world's first social developer

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Mike. Bithell. Two words sure to strike fear into the heart of every game developer.

Three years ago, no one had heard of him, but now you can't open a website or trade publication without someone writing about the man behind Thomas Was Alone, just like I am now.

It is crazy. He tweets, someone writes it up as a news story. He puts out a video promoting his new game Volume on the Sunday before E3, and instead of asking what he thinks he's doing, sites the world over are writing about it. What sort of madness is this?


I recently posed this question during my Develop in Brighton talk ‘Being Mike Bithell' and without sounding like an Upworthy headline: the results will surprise you.

Mike is the first truly social developer – one who is forging fresh routes to market. Historically, the industry has rarely deviated from news, previews and reviews path but Mike, operating according to whatever whim takes him, is demonstrating that you can get huge results by adapting your approach. Here are the key things I've learnt from studying him.

Share it. Assets from triple-A games are often heavily curated, access severely restricted. Mike has been benefiting from throwing content online, which can generate significant coverage, as well as providing sharable social content.

Be opportunistic. One of Mike's first wins – guesting on radio show One Life Left – came as the result of him seeing an opportunity on social media and grabbing it with both hands. Become part of the scene and ensure you're interacting with the right people before you need to and it'll save a lot of work in the long run.

I analysed Thomas Was Alone's launch window and saw that without a massive PR campaign, Mike generated significant coverage on release. He'd planned ahead, distributing code to those that needed it in advance. It pays well to be prepared.


Perhaps the most surprising thing I learned whilst pulling the presentation together was how Mike mainly lets his games do the talking. Only 25 per cent of coverage mentioning Mike did not mention Thomas Was Alone – whereas 75 per cent of coverage for the game do not reference its creator. I compared this to how Peter Molyneux is bigger than any of his games, with more coverage in the last 12 months about him than the games he is working on.

Finally, we looked at Google trend searches for triple-A games. The shape is similar – interest peaks around launch and drops off pretty sharpish after. Indie games, however, benefit from a different model – with interest sustained over a much longer period of time. It's often long after release that it peaks, showing that the launch window for digitally distributed games – particularly indies – is far less important.

The title of the talk started out as a bit of a joke – I wanted to use Mike as an example. But the results demonstrate that whether he is doing it deliberately or not, Mike Bithell is pioneering how to connect with both press and public. And that's something we should all aspire to.