Pub meetings, Andy Serkis, blind luck, and Volume on mobile: we talk to Mike Bithell

Miked up

Pub meetings, Andy Serkis, blind luck, and Volume on mobile: we talk to Mike Bithell
iOS + Android + PS Vita ...
| Volume
Mike Bithell

It's the first morning of Pocket Gamer Connects in London. I'm not hungover or drunk, just sort of bumbling through the first few hours before heading off to judge at the Very Big Indie Pitch.

I've got one appointment in my diary for the day - Mike Bithell, creator of the smash hit Thomas Was Alone, and upcoming stealth game Volume.

We meet in the press area then wander down to a Pret. I have a black coffee. He has something that looks like coconut sludge and a sandwich full of cardboard.

And then we talk about games. And pubs. And Andy Serkis. And how he's glad he's not trying to break into the industry right now. And at one point he really did eat some cardboard.

Harry Slater: First up, could you describe Volume in your own words?

Mike Bithell: So it's basically a stealth game. And it's a very back to basics stealth game. It's back to the era where stealth games were puzzle games. They were puzzle games dressed up in a way that made them feel more like action games.

The big addition being enemy AI - you often don't get AI in a puzzle game, and if you do it's hidden behind the scenes, a weighted dice essentially, but with this it's the wrinkle that's added by having active agents with their own objectives in the level.

It's back to that old-school stealth in the Metal Gear Solid, Pac-Man kind of era. One of the designers yesterday sent me a level he's made, a Pac-Man level in Volume, and it's the most fun thing ever.

It was like, 'that has to go in the game'.

So it's a stealth puzzle game, and the big thing people notice immediately is that you're unarmed. You don't have the capacity to kill the guards. You can't knock them out or strangle them or whatever. When you leave a level, exactly the same number of enemies are going to be present as when you entered.

Subscribe to Pocket Gamer on

What that does is it takes away the winning technique. In every stealth game I play I run around, I see a room, and I work out how I'm going to bop each of the guards in there on the head. I do that, then the room's cleared and I move on to the next room.

Now that is fun, and I love that, but I finish every stealth game with this bag of gadgets, of really weird, interesting, quirky stuff - like Mission Impossible shit - that I never use.

And the idea was by removing the capacity to just kill everyone, or figuratively kill them in the Batman sense where you knock them out forever, I basically force you into using the weird quirky stuff, and we have to design a game which encourages that.

So instead you're using noise makers and distractions, you're wearing disguises, or going invisible, or hiding in the shadows. You're using all of those things that may have been present in other stealth games, but you've probably not used. So that's the big kind of dream pitch of what it is.

And we're getting there. We're about halfway through content production on it, and content production on Volume is very quick, so I can complete the game now in five hours, and it's five solid stealth hours. I'm hoping we can bump that up by release.

Like you mentioned before, Volume is obviously a bigger production than Thomas Was Alone. Did you want to try and do that from the start, to try and make that sort of larger experience?

To be honest, a big part of it was, Thomas Was Alone did very well, very well financially as well, and when you make a game and it does that scale, you've basically got a couple of options.

You either keep doing that kind of scale, and basically go 'I'm going to be able to live off of Thomas Was Alone's money for the next however many years and I'm just going to make stuff at that level.'

Or you go 'actually, this is an opportunity to try and do something else.' And it's not so much that I want to make bigger and bigger games, it's just that I want to be free to make whatever I want. And a stealth game like Volume, we're not talking triple-A budgets, but it's something that you need a bit more money to do it right.

You can't really do Volume with rectangles, and I didn't want to. I wanted to bring in a team and start building something with a group of people again. Because that's where I come from originally. I worked at Blitz Games and Bossa Studios as a designer, I'm used to an environment where I'm surrounded by people telling me my ideas suck.

And I kind of needed that back again. I needed a team to work with me and bring all of their talent into one game, and the richness that that creates. And that's something I love about Volume, is that there's stuff in there that I couldn't have done.

In lots of places - in art, in music, in voiceover, in level design especially. Because other people have brought their own stuff and made their mark.

That was what I was really hungry for. To make a game that could bring together people, and I could still run things and make the game I wanted to make, but I could, kind of like a vampire, drain all this awesomeness out of all these different people and make something better out of it.

So that sounds like quite a big change in the process of how you make the game. Has that been a difficult change to make?

It's been a gradual one. With Thomas Was Alone that was evenings and weekends. I'd get home from my day job, I'd have something to eat, and then maybe I'd have two hours until I became a shit coder and had to just watch TV or something, or you know, spend time with my loved ones.

And I'd have about two hours every night and I'd work through that on my own. And that was how Thomas was made. So when I started Volume, obviously I'd quit my day job, But I was basically developing in exactly the same way.

Every day I was waking up, sitting down at the computer, code code code code code, 'ooh nine o'clock,' go to bed. And that lasted for about six months before I ended up in hospital from overwork.

And that kinda kicked the crap out of me and I realised that I had to be a bit more grown up about it. And also I started to see the limits of my skills, I started to see - I want great art in this game and I can't produce it. I want this, I want that, and that was the point where I started picking people up and bringing people in.

It was a gradual thing and we're still doing it. I hired a facial animator two weeks ago because one character, I decided I wanted to see his face. Every time we hit a wall, we find someone who can solve that for us.

Thomas Was Alone gave me the luxury of a bank account to allow me to do that. But we're still being very careful. Volume is going to come in at a budget which is a tiny percentage of your average triple-A game, because we're being savvy with how we spend our money.

But yeah, it's been a gradual thing of building up the team. Plugging the gaps, basically, and just always striving towards a better game than we were imagining two weeks ago. And it feels like we're on the home straight now.

Thomas Was Alone, the way you described it then, sounds like a very personal project. But the way you're working with Volume, it sounds like you're keeping that personal core, then sort of spreading it out to other people. Is that the way you look at it?

Yeah, there are definitely certain parts that I keep a very tight grip on. The story for example. The script's all me, I directed the voice actors. That's my little chunk that no one else touches. Well, except the actors of course. And high level game design as well.

I'm the one fiddling and deciding what mechanics I want. But yes, when it comes to 'we need 100 levels,' at that point the story's there, the game design's there, I can hand that to someone and let them riff on it.

Game design isn't about being a dictator, a lot of it comes from listening to other people and letting them influence you. And even with Thomas Was Alone, even though it was just me, I was still sharing it with friends, and getting feedback and taking it to events, and watching people jump and fall down the exact same hole hundreds of times. And then fixing it.

Or not in some cases because I thought it was funny. There's a bit in Thomas Was Alone where 90 percent of players get smacked in the face by a moving wall, and I left it in because it always makes people giggle.

So it was finding those places, finding where I was willing to give up a little control and getting a massive amount of quality in exchange. And there are places where that was possible. But it's still very personal, it's still - I hope those people that liked Thomas Was Alone will see those beats, will see me in it, otherwise I've made something soulless and that would be a shame.

Did you have an overview of what Volume was going to be at the very start? And how is that different from the Volume that you've got at the moment?

I definitely had an image in my head. The overall structure, which is there are virtual spaces, enemies who can't die, and you have about nine or ten gadgets that you can use, that's not changed.

But what has changed is what those gadgets are. We've removed stuff that wasn't fun, added new stuff. Added more variety in the enemy types. Adding all the stuff in has been a fun challenge, and it's extended the game and made the game better as a result.

It's not so much the big over arching structure, it's the detail. This hasn't been one of those games where fundamentally the game has shifted halfway through. It's always been about being a clever kid running around a room tricking people.

Where it's differed is in the details of how we've achieved that. And I guess the only other aspect is the aesthetic stuff has really evolved. I think the first conversation I had with the concept artist was 'I want medieval meets futuristic kind of stuff.' And I didn't have much more in mind than that.

I knew I wanted something in that vein, but I didn't know what the details were. And he's kind of, him and me, we've built that from there. But yeah, it's been one of refinement rather than completely changing course.

So it always had that futuristic, Robin Hood sort of vibe?

Robin Hood was not always there. The first version actually was Sherlock Holmes. You were recreating crimes in order to solve them, which I thought was quite a good idea but then since Sherlock existed, the modern Sherlock Holmes thing, it sort of felt like 'do I need to try and do better than Benedict Cumberbatch?'

So that's why it slid into Robin Hood. I knew I wanted to do an adaptation of an existing story. But that was the first few months, pretty early to be honest.

You've also got an incredible voice cast for the game, how difficult was it to secure that?

It varied. Danny Wallace, who was the narrator in Thomas Was Alone, well we were doing press for the PlayStation 3 port. Me and him did an IGN podcast together, and we went for a few beers afterwards, and we just had the conversation where I was like 'Hey, so I think there might be a part for you in my new game,' and he was like 'Yeah, cool.' So that was easy.

He likes working with me and he likes the games we make, so that was very easy.

Charlie McDonnell, who's the YouTuber who plays the main character, who's a mega guy, he was the result of - I was down the pub with some friends and talking about the story and stuff, and someone said 'So who's your Robin Hood then?' And I said he's kinda like a YouTuber, but for crime.

So imagine Charlie McDonnell if he was a thief. And one of my mates around the table just said 'Oh, I know Charlie, do you want his phone number?' And then we had meetings and.. that was pretty straightforward.

The big one was the villain, casting the bad guy, arriving at Andy Serkis. That was a long process. We were talking to lots of different actors for the role, like people who you've heard of, kind of TV people, and film people, and it wasn't clicking with any of them.

And then I did the big PlayStation event where I went on stage and the reaction was amazing, and all the Sony guys were just saying 'Your game is going to be massive,' and in a fit of confidence I was like 'Screw it, let's double our VO budget. Let's get a movie star.'

And I wrote out a list, I've still got it, of like everyone, like these are the cool people, but the best person on the list, it's a game about motion capture, let's fucking try and get Andy Serkis. And in some ways he was just on the list so we could fail at that and then go down to the next guy.

But amazingly he was into the script and he was into the character and he went for it. I guess he had an afternoon free basically, so it was very cool. It seems to be this is the year of Andy Serkis. He's in Star Wars and The Avengers, so fingers crossed people will put up with a third performance from him and that'd be cool.

But he was lovely, and just so lacking in bullshit. I was terrified. I remember we got to the studio where we recording an hour early just so I could sit in the studio before everyone got there just chilling the fuck out.

And then when he walked into the room it just freaked me out. But it was great, just a really fun afternoon of getting a really good performance.

You seem to almost be the poster boy for UK indie. You're one of the big characters in that sphere. I think a lot of indie game development is focused on who's making the game. Is that something you feel you are particularly, or something you wanted to be?

I don't think I am. I don't know, it's kind of weird. It's one of those eye of the storm things. I have no way of gauging how known or respected any of my games are. Because all of my friends have heard of them because they're my friends.

It's weird to me that anyone has heard of my games, and in those moments where I try and consider that Thomas Was Alone has been played by a million people, my brain just, I can't handle that, I don't understand that.

Subscribe to Pocket Gamer on

So no, I don't think of myself in those terms. But if that's useful to other people, then great. But I kind of think I'd be an arsehole if I walked around the place like that was true.

The ultimate goal for me is that I get to keep making games. And because of capitalism, the way to do that is to be kind of known, and for people to buy my stuff. So fingers crossed they will continue to do so. But it's not something I think about really.

From your point of view, I know it's that awful, nebulous term that doesn't really mean anything, but what do you see as the overall state of indie gaming at the moment?

It's an interesting time. Because I think that the markets are shifting in a way that we were maybe naïve about. There was this golden time when there were king makers, when there were people who liked your game they could turn on the money hose.

Especially Valve, if they featured you on their front page, you could basically make enough money to live off for two years. I'm simplifying, but pretty much. And if you like at the people now who are the indie darlings, who are the names, that's exactly what happened to them. They benefited from that system.

And now with Steam opening up, with the App Store being quite as open as it is, with every platform leaning into this incredibly open space, it's much more competitive. I look at that and I wonder if Thomas Was Alone could do well in that space now.

I think Thomas Was Alone benefitted because Steam put it on their front page and said 'this is a game you guys, really, trust us, rectangles? I'm as surprised as you are, but fuck it,' and that's how that game did well.

And I'm not sure without people shouting the virtues of these things whether that would still be the case. There's still people who are doing that, there's still people who are able to create that effect for people, but it's trickier and trickier.

It's sort of a time and place thing I guess. You were almost at the crest of that wave and then...

I feel like I got very fucking lucky. Like the timing, I was kind of the last, or one of the last. Literally at the event where Greenlight started on Steam, they ran concurrent events around the world where they basically announced it to the major indies in every venue. So that when the news broke they weren't all on Twitter moaning about it - just get them all in a room.

And I managed to talk my way into the UK one. You know, I was nobody, and I was just sat there surrounded by all these very famous indies, and they did the announcement of Greenlight and I was just like 'Oh shit, there's no way Thomas Was Alone will do well with Greenlight, this isn't going to work.'

So at the end of the speech I just ran up to the person who'd done the talk from Valve, and I was like 'Hi, I'm Mike,' and she said 'Oh, Mike Bithell, right,' and I said 'It's awesome you know who I am, but I don't think that's going to work for me.'

And she said 'That's fine, do you want to go on Steam,' and I said yeah yeah yeah, and basically got signed on to Steam at the Greenlight announcement. So literally just one of the last few that didn't have to go through that system, so I'm very grateful for that.

If that had gone differently, I'd have struggled out there. What I'm saying is I don't think it's the end-times, or anything terrible, I think we just need to learn new ways of doing things.

Because the existing model of 'hey, you wanna be an indie, get on Twitter, be noisy, be a face, build up a reputation, get traditional coverage in games press, that way Steam will get your game on their platform,' that line to fame and fortune is not really there any more.

So a lot of our advice is now fucking useless. So that's a worry. But I think new ways of doing things will emerge. You're already seeing YouTubers taking on a lot of that responsibility, which means a very specific type of game is starting to do well, but hopefully that will diversify.

And then on the App Store we're seeing some interesting stuff. I found Monument Valley's success really, really encouraging – that there's actually an audience who are willing to pay for quality now. And that's great, because I don't want to make free shit that you have to trick people into paying for, it really annoys me.

We did very well with Thomas Was Alone on mobile, but I think a lot of that was the brand recognition. It's a fascinating time. It's a time that I'm glad I'm coming into it with a certain caché that my stuff has been heard of and is being played.

I wouldn't want to be trying to break in now, that's scary. But people will work out ways of doing it.

Will Volume come to mobile?

So here's your answer. A couple of months ago I'd have said no. Because it's a stealth game that uses almost every button on the controller, it's quite complex interaction. I don't think complex games are impossible on mobile, but complex interaction often is. Or if it is possible, it's shit.

But that said, I've seen some interesting stuff, and I think it might be possible to bring some of it over, or bring an aspect of it over and see how that plays on mobile. We're going to have a really great system where players can create content, and maps and make levels, and that's platform independent.

So it seems like a shame not to bring in that mobile audience to make stuff and play stuff. We'll see. I don't think it's impossible any more. I remember with Thomas Was Alone, I was asked the same question for like a year after the game came out and I always said 'no, platformers are shit on mobile.'

And then Bossa Studio made me a prototype. They sent me an email asking for the source code, and I used to work there so I trust those people, and I was like 'okay...' And then two weeks later they got back and said 'Hey Mike, load this up on your iPad,' and made it work.

And I really like how Thomas works on mobile. So, I've been wrong before. I'm not going to rule it out, but a lot of it depends on how it's received on other platforms. Thomas Was Alone we were lucky because people across the board liked it, which means we felt comfortable porting it to absolutely everything.

If Volume does really well we might do the same. If Volume is a very small audience or a very specific audience, then it might not make financial sense to port it.

We'll see. But yes, it's no longer impossible. It's no longer a never. It's now an incredibly unlikely.

Harry Slater
Harry Slater
Harry used to be really good at Snake on the Nokia 5110. Apparently though, digital snake wrangling isn't a proper job, so now he writes words about games instead.