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Pump up the Volume: A candid chat with Mike Bithell

Volume dev Mike Bithell discusses how if he were launching Thomas Was Alone now, it'd be a whole different ballgame.

Mike Rose, Blogger

March 20, 2014

13 Min Read

I was hoping to bump into Mike Bithell at GDC, not simply because I wanted to see his new game Volume in action, but because he's a man with his head screwed on right, and advice to share. Such bumping did occur, and after I'd dragged him into an empty side room, the conversation that flowed was one of looking to the future, and how developers will be putting out their games as openness begins to trump curation. Bithell has already grafted for his own badge of honor, but the goalposts are rapidly moving. Here, he discusses how if he were launching Thomas Was Alone now, it'd be a whole different ballgame. Mike Rose: You hear about "the difficult second album" in music all the time. Does this feel like your "difficult second game"? Mike Bithell: It's not my difficult second album - it's like my difficult seventh or eighth album. You just didn't hear the first six. But yeah, the pressure is on now to be open about development, and to share development, and to talk to people about what you're doing. I try to do that as much as I'm comfortable with, but there is that awareness of people watching over your shoulder that wasn't originally there. When I was making Thomas Was Alone, I wish people would have been paying attention. No-one cared, I couldn't get any coverage or interest. And now I post up a video of some raw footage of my new game just to show people where it's at, and that's a news story. I'm still getting used to that - it's a lot of pressure. I'm fully aware that almost certainly [Volume] will be seen as my disappointing game, unless it's amazing. And then god help me with the third game. TWA.jpgSo yeah, it's in your mind, because there's expectations. You work very hard, and all indies work hard to get their first game known, and then it's terrifyingly straight-forward to get coverage from that point on. Thomas Was Alone was out for a while and wasn't getting the greatest amount of traction. Then the PlayStation deal was revealed, and suddenly you had tons of press and players talking about you. It's really interesting, the credibility consoles still have. I think because PC is "the open platform" and anyone can release a PC game, your average gamer who is not seeking out weird indie stuff - for them, me having a PC game coming out doesn't impress them.

"Discoverability is an issue, but it's not the issue. Being given the badge of honor by whoever is the person handing them out is actually crucial, and makes such a difference to how your game is perceived."

It's actually a badge of honor to those people. I know Thomas Was Alone gained an incredible amount of "mindspace," or whatever pretentious bullshit term a marketer would use, because it was out on console. And I saw a ridiculous sales boost just because, the second people saw it was coming to PlayStation, it became a "real game" for a lot of people. What it demonstrates, and it's going be interesting to watch in the next few years - it demonstrates that curation is more powerful than getting people to see your game. Discoverability is an issue, but it's not the issue. Being given the badge of honor by whoever is the person handing them out is actually crucial, and makes such a difference to how your game is perceived. Up until recently, Steam was the biggest deal if you got on it - but with Valve striving to be a more open platform, it feels like that's starting to fall away. Exactly. Steam meant you were going to be sorted, as long as your game was quite small, you'd be sorted for a year or two, bare minimum. I struggle to believe that Thomas Was Alone would have been successful were it to come out now on Steam. It was on the front page of Steam for a week. It was released right before that final moment where being on Steam meant Valve thought you made a great game. That used to be what that meant. Did Thomas Was Alone get accepted before Greenlight was announced? We agreed to get it on Steam at the Greenlight announcement event. It was that tight. Valve do a lot of events for UK indies, and they did an event to tell us about Greenlight just as the press release went out, just so they could talk to us about what that was. After they explained it, I just thought "I don't want to wait for that... that's going to be a lot of work." So I went up to a Valve representative and said "Hi, I'm Mike!" And I thought "Yes! I've just got in by the skin of my teeth." I beat Greenlight - just. And obviously once you have a relationship with them, things get easier - I'm not doing a Greenlight for Volume. I think Greenlight was a great experiment. I don't think it came from anywhere but a place of goodwill. There are flaws and problems with it. I suspect that those problems will get resolved, but I'm still waiting for them to open it up. I thought Steam Dev Days was going to be the announcement of "Everyone can be on Steam." But I think that's what's coming - something like the App Store, with very simple checks to make sure you're not uploading a virus, and that's it.

"I struggle to believe that Thomas Was Alone would have been successful were it to come out now on Steam."

I guess it's not dissimilar to the Nintendo seal of approval they have on the boxed games. Steam meant something at one point, and being on Steam said something to players that allowed a lot of people with weird, esoteric games to get an audience. That's going to be harder to find now. You'll require more traditional marketing and talking to press. I think other curators will come in. Look at YouTubers with their audiences who get ridiculous numbers of views. I know from my own data that they lead to a lot of sales. So I think that's going to come through. It's sort of a return to it being about marketing, and Steam have removed themselves from the equation in terms of them being a curator, which - is it good, is it bad? It means a lot of indies are going to have to find a new way of getting an audience, while a lot of the advice from old-timers like me who used the old system is now redundant and useless. They're going to have to work out new ways of bucking the system. It's either going to be crazy or awesome. One downside to this curation stuff was, the system relied on you impressing someone at Valve. Should the people in Valve's offices by the arbiters of what is good and bad? Maybe this is going to be great because it'll open it up to completely different people and different views. Maybe there are games that Valve would absolutely hate that are going to be ground-breaking and awesome. It's too early to call it, but I'm personally grateful that Thomas Was Alone, being the game that it is, got in before the change. volume.jpgIt feels a little like PlayStation is at the point that Steam was at a couple of years ago, curating the indies that get onto the platform, but allowing them on in droves and giving them that stamp of approval. Yeah, and I think being open is the end goal for Sony. I think they're working towards making it as easy as possible to make games for their platforms, which is a great plan. Same with Microsoft.

"If you're a PlayStation fan who likes the indie games that are out on PlayStation, you're going to say 'If Sony think this new game is good enough for their console, it's good enough for me!' And that's very powerful."

But for now with those curated shops, you've got people like Shahid [Ahmad, Sony's UK indie guy] saying "I like that game, I want it on the console." Which is going to benefit people in the short-term because it's a badge of honor, and if you're a PlayStation fan who likes the indie games that are out on PlayStation, you're going to say "If Sony think this new game is good enough for their console, it's good enough for me!" And that's very powerful. What impresses me with Sony is that it doesn't seem like lip service. They're going to treat me well because I'm proven to make money for them, but I know enough indies who are coming up with their first games that are getting massive amounts of support. So as long as they're not just going after people who are selling millions of copies on Steam, then it's going to help a lot of indies. Don't get me wrong - I went in cynical. I've said this to Shahid - for the first six months, I thought "this guy is just totally being nice just because he has to be." But then I spent enough time working with him, and I realized "Wow, this guy just really likes working with indie games." It makes good business sense as well, of course - I'm not just saying Shahid is the savior of indie exclusively. He's also a business man trying to help his company. But he's doing a good job, and it comes from an honest place. You joke about being too active on Twitter (@mikebithell), but on a serious note, does the way you are perceived, your "social persona" if you will, change the way you approach game development at all? Yeah sure. I mean, not being a dick is very important. I'm a big believer in a long term approach to this. You can get a lot of visibility quickly by being negative and aggressive - basically being newsworthy. If I wanted to, I could say horrific things every day and I'd get much more coverage, and my games would probably sell better. But I still want to be doing this in 20 years time, so maintaining a relationship that's good and friendly with people is just the way to be. I'm aware I'm making games for an audience, so there's times where I'll put up - for example, recently I put up a rough video of something I was working on for Volume, and there was lots of camera shake in there. Half the comments I got back were "That camera shake is horrible, it hurts my head." So I thought OK, that's probably going to annoy people. Next time I playtest the game I'll keep an ear out, and if I hear anyone say that in public when playing the game, then that goes.

"I still want to be doing this in 20 years time, so maintaining a relationship that's good and friendly with people is just the way to be."

I've already got a bunch of people on the internet who feel that way - they're not playing it, so it's not great feedback, but it's steering the way I think. That's why I share stuff - it's great to get feedback. So you're actively curating the stuff you're working on via Twitter, to see if it gets a thumbs up from your fans? If I'm not sure about something, I'll share it. Recently I've been doing a lot of work on the GUI, and I was showing work in progress. I'm not doing that so people on the internet will say I'm clever - that's not very useful to me. It just means that if I start to see people saying "I can't read that" or "that doesn't work" - for me especially, because I work on my own, it basically feels the same as working at a studio and having people wandering around you, and you say "Hey, have a look at that, is that working or is it shit?" So I can use Twitter for that. I guess one of the issues is that you'll now have specific types of people following you, so they'll be giving you a specific type of feedback which may not be in line with what the average player thinks. And that's basically playtest theory in general. For example, I get a lot of comments saying "This looks like a really hard game." And I have to put that through a filter, since people who follow me are mainly Thomas Was Alone fans who like story-driven, arguably too-easy platformers. I'm making the game I want to make, so what's useful is if I can frame it in a question that I can get useful feedback from. It feels like you're one of the rare developers who has a large following on Twitter, and you like to use that for good. I had a really stern talking to from Brandon Boyer. Not stern, he's not stern - a friendly talking to. We were doing a panel together at GameCity, and it was just at the point where Thomas was about to make me enough money where I could quit my job. And he was talking about the indie scene - I don't think he was specifically instructing me, but he's got an air about him that I love, and he was saying that the great thing about successful indies is how they realize their success is often based largely on luck, and they realize they can give back. Essentially, if you have the opportunity to give back, then that's part of the arrangement. If you're one of the few, then pay it back. I don't think he was talking about me, but I absolutely heard it as being, "This guy is instructing me on how I should live my life!" But it had a profound effect on me, and I thought well, when you're starting out as an indie, when you're trying to get people to give a shit, it can be selfishly motivated. You're thinking "I need to get every interview I can, I need to fight to get attention." And then when you have it, it can be hard to lose that attitude and stop fighting for it. But you have to say to yourself, "I'm lucky enough to be in the position where some people seem to care about what I have to say." I'm absolutely going to use that position to decide to go to GDC two weeks before it happens, and get interviews with all the major games sites - however, as well as that, I'm also going to try and use it for good. There's certain things and issues I care about, and I have a platform. I know there's lots of people who follow me on Twitter who don't give a shit about civil rights or British class politics, or many other things I'm interested in. But if there's something I can do, and any way I can make things better for other people coming up, I'll absolutely help them out. I'm an atheist, I'm not going to get any reward in the end, so I might as well try and be nice. [laughs]

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