Virtually Famous: Mike Bithell

'I’ve stolen ideas and approaches from everyone I’ve talked to about VR.'

Virtually Famous: Mike Bithell
| Volume

With Samsung Gear, the first big VR headset has come to market, for everyone developing for the Vive, PlayStation:VR, and Oculus Rift, the launch is just around the corner.

In many ways virtual reality is as big a change to the process of making games so we wanted to talk to some developers to find out how they’re finding the change.

This will be an ongoing series once we get Christmas out of the way, and we're looking forward to finding out how some of these industry old-hands are getting to grips with new technology.

We're starting with Mike Bithell, owner of Bithell games, and developer of Thomas Was Alone and Volume.

Bithell is currently developing the VR DLC Volume: Coda for the Playstation VR headset. So we sat him down to get his thoughts on developing for VR and collaboration between the "pioneers of VR,”

Pocket Gamer: So, you’re bringing the Volume expansion to PlayStation VR. I guess what I’m looking for mainly is what you’ve learned doing that, in a very broad sense. Mike Bithell: The really interesting thing is that we’re definitely building on the shoulders of giants. We had a lot of conversations with lots of other devs that have been making VR games for a while, way too many Skype calls, really, like, specific conversations.

So there’s lots of stuff I can’t claim ownership of, just because it’s out there, lots of things that people have already found.

What's really interesting to me are the shifts in the use of the technology. So, a classic example is just rendering, just how games look, and you realise that the things that you have leant on and found useful and important before don't work.

So, Bloom is weird in VR, that kind of thing - you always press the bloom button, you always put a little bloom on it. Not too much, you don’t want it to look like a game from the end of the first Xbox. Now you don't, because it doesn't work in VR.

Then there's stuff like scale, finding out the height of a doorframe is the most important thing we’ve had a problem with.

The game is played in this kind of real-world room, and I was putting together the layout of that room and I realised the door was just a little too small, and it really made me uncomfortable.

It was just wrong. and it felt oppressive and weird. Even though you never go through that door. The height of a table, the size of a desk, how big a book is became a thing.

We have a bookshelf with some books on it, and, like, I’d made the books a bit bigger than you’d normally see and it just looked off.

It's a series of these weird things that in a regular game you’d just run past, you wouldn’t pay attention to. Stuff like that has been a really interesting change to how we make games.

Then we get to interface design. Interface design (in VR) is really tricky and really fascinating, because everything about UI is based or built around screens.

Everything about graphic design is based around the 2D plane, right? Everything’s printed on a piece of paper or on a screen. So that’s been fascinating, working out how our menu will work and how we can take quite a complex menu system, because we have lots of different buttons and options and all this stuff, like, making that work. So it’s finnicky stuff.

The best part was realising where to stop. So, we have a controller - right now it’s drawn in the wrong place, but we have a controller that matches the one in your hand, so it really helps ground the game and give you a sense of where things are, and it just makes it real.

In the original version we had virtual hands on the controller, and it freaked people out, because we were gonna have tracking so you can see your own arms and elbows and stuff but that didn't work, and then you go, ‘Okay, well we’ll just make them floating hands in space,’ but then that was odd, and we eventually just removed all that altogether.

There's this part where you go in thinking, 'We’re gonna make, like, a holodeck, right? You’re gonna be in this person’s head,’ and slowly you realise where those lines are.

But it’s exciting. It’s exciting because these things will continue to be explored and iterated on and as I say, Coda is the end result of ten different people’s work. I’ve stolen ideas and approaches from everyone I’ve talked to about it.

PG: I feel like one of the most interesting things about VR for me is that a lot of people are claiming that there’s a collaborative element. Would you say that people are still trying to work out what the boundaries are for VR, and this is bringing developers together? MB: Yeah. There’s a lot of very common mistakes, and things you do. Everyone tried to add these Tony Stark menus, and very quickly everyone realised that doesn’t work. Everyone got that wrong.

I’m sure everyone will start to lock down the doors a little bit, but right now we all just wanna make cool stuff, we’re all very excited about the platform.

And the other thing of course is that that information goes between devs but it also goes back to platform holders who then go back to devs.

I’ve had things where I’ve been talking to Sony about an idea and they’ve said, ‘No, we tried that with another game and it didn’t work,’ like, ‘Don’t go down that road,’ because they want the best experiences.

It’s the only way really to compress the amount of expertise that has to happen. If you think about the modern third-person shooter, decades of work has gone into working out how the best practice for that should work.

We’re trying to compress that into the two years that we’ve had dev kits. Everyone’s sharing. And I’m sure that will become much more proprietary and locked down as time goes on, but for now, it’s great.

PG: What I’ve heard from talking to a lot of people is that even the headsets are sharing a lot of stuff as well, at the moment it’s just a whole lot of people that are really passionate about VR that are trying to make things work. MB: Well, everyone wants good products.But I think PlayStation VR is off doing its own thing, I think Oculus have a very different idea to what they want to do than the Vive.

It feels like everyone’s doing their own thing, so they’re not in direct competition yet. It will happen, of course it will, but obviously with dev kits they iterate over them really quickly.

So, I had one that I never took out the box because I received it and was doing something else and then a week later got the new one so I had to send back the old one.

These things move fast, and what you spot is: ‘Oh, that’s a thing that was on the Oculus two weeks ago. They’ve put that on this now.’ It’s all feeding back in, and it benefits everyone.

PG: So, what made you decide to put Coda on the PlayStation VR? MB: For me, it just really suits well. I mean, honestly we have a great relationship with PlayStation, Volume’s doing really well on PlayStation, so it made sense to do that from a business point of view, but then also I think out of the gate it’s gonna be the most straightforward one for, like, a non super-nerd to play with.

I think the other platforms are gonna get there, and I think arguably they already sort of are, but I just love that plug-and-play quality to the PlayStation VR.

And it’s gonna be in people’s living rooms, it’s a very specific design problem, and frankly Volume was always a console-first kind of game. It always felt better on a console than PC, and I think it makes a lot of sense for the VR experience to build on that.

Jake Tucker
Jake Tucker
Jake's love of games was kindled by his PlayStation. Games like Metal Gear Solid and Streets of Rage ignited a passion that has lasted nearly 20 years. When he's not writing about games, he's fruitlessly trying to explain Dota 2 to anyone that will listen.