'I changed things around, grew up a bit. I think if you don’t have those moments it can spiral. It was a wake up call'

How Mike Bithell’s never-ending crunch on Volume sent him to hospital

The following is an excerpt from Lee Bradley’s eBook Raising Volume, about the making of Mike Bithell’s latest game, Volume.

On 1st January 2014, Mike Bithell spent the night in the accident and emergency department of Hammersmith Hospital. He hadn’t been out on New Year’s Eve, deciding instead to stay in and work while his girlfriend Kerry partied at a friend’s place. When Kerry returned the next day, she came home to find Mike tired and dishevelled. The couple went to bed and an hour later Mike began having heart palpitations. Scared, they headed for the hospital.

Mike had been working on Volume, his follow-up to the BAFTA-winning Thomas Was Alone, since early in 2013. By the end of the year he had put together a small team for his new game, Volume, built a playable demo for the Eurogamer Expo, taken part in scores of interviews, spoken at numerous events, overseen the release of Thomas Was Alone on PlayStation 3 and PS Vita, negotiated a deal with Sony for Volume, and revealed Volume’s story and some of its voice actors in a special presentation at Nottingham Castle. The workload had taken its toll.

Almost exactly one year on from the day that Mike’s life changed, 12 months after Thomas Was Alone sold enough copies to allow him to become a full-time indie developer, Mike was sat in a hospital, waiting to be seen by a doctor.

“They told me to stop being a fucking idiot,” says Mike. “They got me in there and I think they very quickly realised I wasn’t dying. I wasn’t having a heart attack or anything, I’d basically had too much Red Bull. They kept me waiting overnight and I didn’t see a doctor until about 3 or 4am, by which point I was so groggy I think they thought I was drunk. I was shuffled around.

“They did some heart tests, they did some checks and said I was basically just overtired, consuming too much caffeine and pushing myself too hard. I was told to rest, relax, sleep. It seemed like a big deal at the time, but it wasn’t. It wasn’t a massive, terrifying ordeal. They quickly realised that they were dealing with someone who was overworking. I was told to grow up a bit and sent on my way.”

Thomas Was Alone and Volume composer David Housden suffered from almost exactly the same problem in 2012. He had taken on a job that demanded he create all of the music and sound effects for a game in just two weeks, something he attempted to do by surviving on energy drinks, chocolate and two hours sleep a night. He ended up spending an evening in hospital with heart palpitations too.

“To be honest, I think it happens a lot more than people talk about,” says Mike. “The lifestyle of being self-employed, being a freelancer, building indie games and all that kind of stuff, takes you away from the structure of 9 to 5. Especially when it’s your income and career on the line, I think a lot of people go through it. It can develop into nasty things, if you don’t stop yourself and realise.

“Luckily I had that night of feeling a little bit embarrassed in the hospital, and as a result, I changed things around, grew up a bit. I think if you don’t have those moments it can spiral. It was a wake up call.”

Mike had essentially created a never-ending crunch period. Crunch is a term prevalent in software development that refers to a spell where the team has to work long hours in order to hit the next milestone. Thomas Was Alone was created in this way; at weekends and during late nights, fitted around Mike’s role at Blitz Games and then Bossa Studios. When Thomas was done, Mike spent every spare second promoting it and as soon as it became a hit, he started working on Volume. There was no break, no trip to Disney World, no months out enjoying the conference circuit. Just work. All because Mike wanted to prove himself.

What made the situation even worse was the amount of work Mike had taken on with Volume. He may have been able to create Thomas Was Alone with the help of just a few collaborators, but Volume was an entirely different prospect. In every single respect, Volume dwarfs Thomas Was Alone and as Mike’s vision of the game took shape, the scope kept growing. Following the hospital visit, Mike decided the best thing for his health – and for the good of the game – was to bring more people on board.

“That was the point where I started to get my girlfriend to help more with things like contracts and paperwork,” says Mike. “That was the point where I decided to get more coders in, where I started talking to other designers and getting people to help. That was the point where I realised: just because I could do a job, it didn’t mean I had to.”

By the time Volume was complete, the team had grown to around 15 people. Mike’s former Blitz Games colleagues Kris Hammes and Aron Durkin worked on character art and animation respectively; industry veteran Wayne Peters contributed environmental art with assistance from Nic Tringali; and programmers Andrew Roper and Danny Goodayle focused on cleaning up and embellished upon Mike’s code. Significantly, Mike also drew on the support of Curve Digital, a London-based developer and publisher, with whom Mike has a good working relationship. The company ported and published Thomas Was Alone on console and mobile. Mike knows the team well.

“I was invited the pub, for the launch party for Curve’s Stealth Inc. 2,” says Mike. “One of the founders came up to me and said: ‘The designers have nothing to do. They’ve finished the game and we haven’t got much more design for them right now. There’s a gap’. He knew I was struggling. I had initially intended to design all of the levels myself. He said: ‘Do you want to borrow our level design team?’”

Learning from his mistakes, Mike immediately said yes.

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