Bithell on Thomas Was Alone's success, Bithell Shorts and why you probably shouldn't spend your last £1k going to GDC

Mike Bithell was our Final Boss for March's issue. He gave this interview from Las Vegas in the run-up to GDC

When did you realise Thomas Was Alone had done well enough that you were going to be able to leave Bossa?

I’d set myself the target of a year’s salary. I promised myself that if Thomas was Alone hit that level I’d quit. I spent the whole of the Christmas break watching that number nudge up on Steam. I was sat on a bus home on New Year’s Eve when it ticked over, and I realised I could go do my own thing. The next day, a TotalBiscuit video of the game went up and by the end of that week I had two years in the bank. It was life changing. I took my boss into a meeting room on my first day back, and gave my notice. He said he was surprised I’d taken that long to go for it.

How do you decide on which game you want to work on next?

Ideas tend to bounce around my head. Nowadays, those ideas also come from the team, and folks pitch in often. We tend to take ideas and prove them with prototypes, make sure they translate to play in the way we’d like.

In the case of Subsurface Circular, because we only spent a few months on it, we basically polished the prototype and released it. With longer projects, we throw out the prototype and start from scratch once we know what we’re making.

What was the thinking behind Bithell Shorts, and what has the reaction been like?

We had about six months of dead time, thanks to publisher shenanigans. I liked the idea of using that time on R&D, playing with non-linear storytelling, and possibly releasing the result if it wasn’t terrible. As it turned out, Subsurface Circular was good, but brief... and that scared me. Players can get really frustrated by games that ‘underdeliver’ on runtime. We also had a really polished looking game, and I worried that folks might think it was bigger than it was, and get hyped.

The solution, as it usually is for us, was to be straightforward. By calling the game a ‘Bithell Short’, by mentioning the briefness of the game in every interview, and on the store page, we framed people’s expectations. I think it worked well, prevented disappointment and let the game be taken on its own terms.

What advice would you give those developing their own games in 2018?

I’d suggest that the short approach might work well for more people. If we assume (based on the evidence) that the games industry is very hit driven, then there’s an argument that achieving a higher frequency of games increases the chances of something clicking with the audience. Putting all your eggs in one basket can absolutely go wrong, and if you’re self funding, that’s dangerous.

There’s going to be a megahit with a big indie game at least once a year, but I think a more careful, smaller level of success, might be a good approach for other devs, too.

You attend a lot of shows around the world, do you think these in-person events are key for those in the games industry?

I don’t think these events are key, per se, but they can be useful. I certainly didn’t go to them until I could afford them, or was flown over by the organisers.

The key is to go to an event with an objective, and be honest in thinking about how successful you were to decide whether you want to return. I go to business events to talk to publishers and platform holders and catch up with friends and colleagues on the triple-A side of the industry. I go to dev events to learn about production. I go to indie and educational events to hopefully teach and provide help to newer devs. I absolutely appraise each event after I’ve been there to decide if I’ll return.

But no, if you’re broke and starting out, I don’t think there’s any event worth spending your last £1k to get to.

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