He gets around a bit, does Mike Bithell. Having shot to fame off the back of Thomas Was Alone, becoming something of an Indie developer darling in the process, and while he’s spent the last few years hard at work on Volume, has spent plenty of time talking to the press.
Volume’s getting closer and closer to a final release, and so Mike has been doing the rounds over the last few weeks, to show off the latest build of the game as well as talk to the press about all manner of topics. As we sat down for his first interview of the week at Rezzed, Kris and I did our best to talk about topics ever-so-slightly off the beaten path.
[TSA] Tef: I’m almost not sure where to begin. You’ve been jet setting recently and showing off Volume a lot of places?
Mike Bithell: Yeah, the last couple of weeks have been a little bit crazy. So we did GDC, which was amazing and showed it to lots of people there, then we did PAX East, which was great, and now we’re here…
[TSA] Tef: Slumming it in London. [laughs]
Mike: Slumming it in London! It’s cool, it’s nice, it’s good to be home. But yeah, it’s been good.
[TSA] Tef: And you must be at that stage where you’ve very confident in what you’ve got to show, getting close to release and reaching towards that final, polished product?
Mike: We are edging ever closer to the inevitability of the game coming out, yeah! It’s getting really tight now and we’re nearly there. You’re not going to get a date out of me, but we’re nearly there and it feels good. We were showing it to all the press in America, and we saw them getting it and it making sense, and yeah, it feels like we’ve built something very good, so I’m very happy.
[TSA] Tef: Last year was quite strange in that there were a number of games, like Alien: Isolation, where it seemed that the American press didn’t seem to get what the game was about, while the UK and European press loved it. Was that something you were maybe a little wary of, that kind of cultural divide?
Mike: There’s always going to cultural differences, there’s always going to be a difference in the way a game is received in Europe versus America or versus Japan. That’s always going to be the case.
I guess one thing that helps Volume is obviously that it is calling back to genre conventions, so people can look at it and go, “Oh, I get this. I’ve played stuff like this before.” I’m quite proud of all our many exciting innovations, however it’s a genre, so it’s an easier thing to sell because people had that experience with that genre before.
So yeah, there’s always cultural differences, people always play different games differently, just in general but also based very specifically on where they’re from, but we take it as we go. We’re not really going to know until the reviews hit. I know that right now, the game is better received in America than in the UK, but that might just be because the last build I showed in the UK is a bit old now.
[TSA] Tef: Also, we’re kind of sick of you over here… [laughs]
Mike: And also you’re sick of me. I know, I’m disgustingly ubiquitous these days. I get that, I understand.
I’m still something of a novelty over there, and they like the accent as well. They’re like, “Oh my God, you’re like off Downton Abbey! It’s brilliant!”
[TSA] Tef: [laughs] Next time you go across to the US, you should dress up like the Monopoly man. Monocle, top hat and everything.
Mike: When I’m in America, I totally posh up my accent. I go a little bit more Colin Firth in my accent, just because they love it!
[TSA] Tef: And avoid falling into too many glottal stops… So, preparing for this interview, we were very much trying to think of what we could ask Mike Bithell.
[TSA] Kris: Yeah, you seem to have done all the interviews in the world, and have been asked everything…
Mike: So, I’ve done all the interviews minus this one, and I knew this day would come. You are the last one! I can exclusively say this is my last ever interview. I’m actually going to stop talking to the press after we’ve concluded this interview, so this question had better be good!
[TSA] Kris: I was going to ask, with the success of Thomas Was Alone, which did come out and was very well received and people seemed to love the game, but even with that success under your belt, do you still have a fear of failure with Volume? Obviously, you’re a big success in Indie circles, but it’s also your second game.
Mike: It’s the second game that’s attached to me, but I think I’m on eight games now? No-one’s played any of the other ones, and definitely none of them would be associated with me, they’re all sort of me working for other people.
So yeah, it’s the difficult second album. If anything, it’s actually scarier now that there’s expectation, because at least before no-one cared about Thomas Was Alone. Until Thomas Was Alone came out, no-one cared, whereas now there are people doing interviews with me and asking questions and stuff.
That’s intimidating, but I’m just going to have to keep trying to finish it, that’s the thing. I think about six months ago, I was in a very scared position, but right now, I have to get this game finished, I have to just plough on and hope that what I’m doing is right. We’ll see.
[TSA] Tef: I think on top of that, you have that kind of expectation on day one, whereas Thomas Was Alone was more of a sleeper hit and spread from one platform to another.
Mike: Absolutely, and this is going to be a noisy launch. Hopefully, if we do it right.
[TSA] Tef: Well now that you’ve sacked off talking to the press, surely it’ll be quite quiet?
Mike: Well that will add to the intrigue!
But yeah, Thomas Was Alone, it took a while, it was a build up, like you say, and that was easier and less intimidating, but it was also slower and we’re hoping to build on that success for this one. So we’ll see.
[TSA] Tef: Looking towards Indie games as a whole, it feels like we’re in a period where there’s a greater crisis of discoverability and how people have to get their games out there and noticed. Obviously it’s not such a problem for Volume, but for Thomas Was Alone, there wasn’t quite as much noise.
Mike: Yeah, I got lucky. I got very lucky. I think if Thomas Was Alone was coming out now, we would struggle to get the word out, because yeah, there’s just so many games and they’re all getting lots of noise.
When I was on Steam with Thomas, I had a week where I was just on the front page, every day. Everyone who went on Steam saw my game, and that’s massive, and that simply doesn’t exist anymore really.
It would be scary as someone if I was making my first game. Fortunately, because of Thomas, I get a certain amount of attention now for Volume, which is great, and I have relationships with people at Valve and people at Sony who can help to make the game more visible, but yeah, I wouldn’t want to be with my first game now. That would be quite scary.
[TSA] Tef: Is there any kind of advice you might have for people?
Mike: I think the best thing is that any advice I could give would be utterly useless at this point! Because frankly, we are at a point where, you know, Thomas Was Alone was what, three years ago now?
[TSA] Tef: I can barely remember that far back.
Mike: [laughs] But my point is that neither can anyone else. In terms of how all the platforms work, the situation with the consoles… we’ve got massive support from Sony now, Valve with massively open doors and the awesomeness and bad things that come as a result of that.
So honestly, I can’t give any useful advice, because all of my advice is rooted in a success from three years ago in a completely different environment. What I’m excited to see is how this new generation of people coming up solve these problems, because I know how we did it and how it worked, but the guys who are working this out now, the guys who are going to be making games for the first time, bringing them out and being successful, they’re taking advantage of routes that we’ve not considered.
I mean, Youtube seems to be a good route right now. Most of the big breakout hits I’ve noticed in the last year have been due to big Youtube support or being very streamable, and that kind of makes sense, but honestly, I don’t know and that’s amazing.
[TSA] Tef: What is, you not having an opinion?
Mike: So, it’s not very interesting for your interview, but for me as an individual, it’s very interesting. I’m genuinely intrigued by the fact that I don’t know anything about this.
[TSA] Kris: With PlayStation Plus, they seem to be quite good at sticking something Indie in there every month, but do you think that helps discoverability or in a way hinders it? Because you only get those big breakout stars on the Sony platform and everything else is a bit hidden and buried away.
Mike: Well we did very well from it – Thomas Was Alone was in PlayStation Plus – and it was amazing because it put the game in front of lots and lots and lots of people, who played the game who were not going to buy it and would not have picked up a $10 Indie game. So in that regard, it’s amazing and cool and useful. I think it’s something that devs should use at the right moment and use intelligently, but realistically, I think it’s only a positive.
The great thing about Indie, which we don’t talk about much, is that unless you’ve made Minecraft, you’ve not saturated your audience. And even Minecraft still sells; Minecraft is always in the top sellers.
[TSA] Tef: And it’s in the top 20 twice, because you’ve got separate versions for separate platforms.
[TSA] Kris: And I don’t understand how!
Mike: I’ll tell you why, it’s because there’s lots of f***ing people in the world, right? I really cannot stress this enough, there are lots of people on the planet!
What’s great about that is that it means that, you know, if you’re making, say, Call of Duty, you put all this money into marketing and you do actually manage to start to hit a decent percentage. I can’t remember what the stat is, but it’s like one in two homes with an Xbox owned one of the more recent Call of Duty’s. You can achieve that level of saturation, which is amazing.
Indies never get close to that, because we don’t have the marketing saturation, and we’re also making stuff that’s a little bit more niche, which means there’s always new players. Thomas Was Alone still sells pretty well every day, Minecraft sells very well every day. These games keep finding audiences because we are not saturating, and what that means is doing deals, doing bundles, giving the game away, whatever, you’re never really cannibalising your sales. You’re never slowing down those sales because there’s always more people as we are at the smaller end of the spectrum.
Anything that gets your game visibility is probably a good play. The flip side of that is you don’t want to lower the perceived value of the game, so if you made the game free that can have a negative effect, because people think that you just made it free and don’t want to pay for it anymore, but generally, any noise you can make is good noise.
[TSA] Tef: Finally, the last topic I was wondering about was, I think you’ve played around with all the three VR headsets?
Mike: I haven’t tried the Valve one yet. I’m playing with that one Saturday, so I’ve not tried that yet.
[TSA] Tef: Could you email us your thoughts once you have? [laughs] To me, not having played with the Valve one, let alone the Morpheus, it feels like there’s a perception of these headsets being a dead end already. Do you think you can only really get past that by going hands on… well, face on?
Mike: I think actually what I find really interesting about the VR situation, and it’s very easy to forget as game developers and journalists, we are in the tiny minority of people who have actually ever tried a VR headset, and most of your audience probably haven’t. So it is amazing, it is very cool and it blows you away the first time you experience it.
What I find really interesting about the Morpheus, the Oculus and Valve’s [Vive] headset […] What’s great about them is that, yes, they are all headsets you put on your head, but all of them are approaching it differently and with different quirks and systems.
Oculus, obviously the one that started it all, has very good motion tracking, Morpheus is very good at including other people in the room with the screen stuff and also tracking the controller, which is a cool feature that you can use in interesting ways. And then you’ve got the Valve one which has this enormous capture-able volume that you can move around in, so you can move around the room.
So I think they’re all focussing on different parts of the problem, and that makes it interesting because it means that they’ll feel significantly different. If you compare that to the consoles that we have now, what’s the functional difference in your daily use between an Xbox and a PlayStation?
[TSA] Tef: Well, your left thumb is in a different place…
Mike: Yeah, and that’s what’s interesting, because VR is already segmenting, and what’s nice about that is that it implies there isn’t a dead end, because we’ve got three companies all doing their own route down through this problem. Some of them will fail, some of them will succeed, some of them will combine their approaches and go, “Well I like what they’re doing there, let’s put that in the next version.”
I think it’s going to be a really fertile, messy space for quite a while, and that’s exciting because it’s going to lead to a bunch of weird tech doing different things. I don’t think it’s a dead end, I think we’re just seeing the very start of something exciting.
[TSA] Kris: We seem to still be at the point where everyone’s going, “That’s interesting,” where there’s no clear kind of winning approach.
Mike: Well, yeah. No-one’s sold one yet, so we don’t know yet. We don’t know what the audience is for it, we don’t know what the audience wants, we don’t know any of that stuff, and that’s cool.
I imagine it’s scary if you’re putting lots of money into the development of it, but as a software guy, I love it because I can see all the interesting applications.
[TSA] Tef: And as a high profile software guy, you get to play with all the toys too.
Mike: I also get to play with all of them. They’re cool. I think I’ve got three Oculus’ now?
[TSA] Tef: [laughs] One for each room in the house?
Mike: Because you never know when you’re going to need a VR experience! Will I want to play VR in my bedroom? Will I want to play VR in my living room?
[TSA] Tef: VR on the toilet?
Mike: So I’ve got a prototype for the Samsung one, the mobile version? And what’s cool with that is that because it has a camera in it, it can do picture in picture, and you have never seen a more scared postman than when you open the door and you’re wearing a [Samsung Gear VR].
Because they don’t know how you can see them, and you’re just like signing your name, and you’re still in the VR world, but you’ve got this little picture in picture box of the real world in the bottom right corner. So I was just signing over for the packages and stuff, and he’s just stood there like, “What?” It’s fun!
But yeah, they’re cool toys and I’m enjoying fiddling with them, making a few things to see what works and doesn’t work. They’re fun to experiment with and I think all three of them are doing significantly different, interesting stuff. So, it’s a win.
Thanks to Mike for taking the time to talk to us. We’ll eventually get to writing up our impressions from the latest build of Volume that was at Rezzed, which is shaping up rather well, actually.