After a bit of miscommunication in scheduling, we finally got to sit down for a bit of a chat with the creator of Thomas Was Alone, Mike Bithell, about that game and his upcoming stealth title, Volume.
We cover a lot of stuff, from Santa to Iron Man and even something about 3D remakes along the way, and there’s naturally plenty of information about Volume if you’re interested in that. Nestled in all of this, we had a secret mission. Did we manage to ask Mike the dumbest question we could possibly think of? You’ll have to read on and find out…
TSA: What inspirations have you taken for Volume?
Mike Bithell: Well, obviously Metal Gear Solid played a part, I think that’s a fair thing to point out. So it was basically stealth games I loved as a kid: I loved MGS, I loved the original Splinter Cell, I loved a game that no one remembers, called Headhunter. Anyone here remember that? No one remembers that game…
TSA: No. Are you sure didn’t imagine it?
Mike: Might’ve done. No, it was a Dreamcast stealth-action game. It was kind of GTA just before GTA [got big]; it didn’t have the open world but there was this idea of you drive a car, then you run around a bit, but they had some stealth in there as well.
So basically it was a bunch of those games I played as a kid, and I thought, “Why doesn’t anyone make those kind of stealth games any more? Well, I’ll make one!”
TSA: And you were in a perfect position to do so!
Mike: Yeah, basically, it’s that classic situation which a lot of indies find themselves in, where I’ve made one game and it sold really well, so I have the means to make whatever the hell I want to make… so I will! And, in this case, the game I really wanted to make was Volume.
TSA: So do you think you would’ve still made Volume if you hadn’t had the success with Thomas Was Alone?
Mike: It would’ve been very hard. I think the way Volume communicates the state your player is in needs animation, for example – you need to be able to see whether that character’s standing up or crouched down, so I wouldn’t have been able to afford artists or animators, which would’ve caused a problem.
Also it’s a much more in-depth game – the demo we have at EGX is about eight months of work, but that’s eight months of seven day weeks with ridiculous hours because I’m an indie and that’s what we do. If I was still working a day job, and it was only evenings and weekends, it would’ve taken me about three years to get to this point.
So realistically, no – I think this is a game which had to be my full time job in order for me to physically get there, and actually get the stuff it needed done.
TSA: What kind of things have you learned from Thomas that you’ve been able to fold into Volume?
Mike: Definitely a lot of the story stuff. I really wanted to make sure that I was building on that storytelling that I did with Thomas, almost by mistake, but it went well so I’m going to keep going with it. I think as well, the idea of actually finishing the game and getting stuff done properly is handy. Just a bunch of things, really.
All of the approach to PR, too. It’s not the best part of making games, but how you talk to journalists and how you meet people to get the word out, that’s all been really useful.
TSA: You mentioned the story, so what kind of direction are you taking this in? Are you talking about that much yet?
Mike: I am keeping a lot of it quiet for three weeks, then I’m doing a massive announcement event… at GameCity… at a secret location.
TSA: This plan sounds like you’ve just made it up right now. [laughs]
Mike: [laughs] No… no I haven’t. It’s impressive the degree of planning, I mean I don’t plan anything, but this has actually involved other people and stuff that had to be organised. It’s all kind of ticked together and joined up. So, it’s been really, really cool, I’m just waiting on that, three weeks from now on the Friday of GameCity.
But until then, all I’m saying is what’s out there. So, there’s a dude, and he’s in a big warehouse with a holographic projected environment, and he can make it whatever he wants and do crimes. But beyond that, you’ll have to wait, as we’re keeping it hush-hush.
TSA: What was the thinking behind the art style and the holographic VR environment?
Mike: Well, it started off with two reasons, similar to Thomas actually. One was that aesthetically, I like minimalism, I like simplicity. I also like simplicity from a gameplay perspective, as when you’re playing a stealth game it’s all about awareness – where’s he? What’s he looking at? Where can I hide? – you know, the immediate understanding of the scenario. So, simplicity in the art kind of helps with that.
On top of that, I really like Tony Stark’s hologram stuff, in his basement or wherever it is. And I just really wanted to make a game about that. So it’s kind of a combination of game design and the fact that I’m an Iron Man geek. It’s a mixture of those two things.
TSA: Coming from having just played the game, it was quite difficult – so where are you taking the game in terms of that? Is it going to be really hardcore stealth, or are you being lenient?
Mike: It’s going to be realistic… no, of course it’s not going to be realistic. It’s not going to cheat for you, in a way a lot of stealth games do. If you’ve done something wrong, it’ll know, and you won’t get through.
TSA: So it’s like Santa Claus? [laughs]
Mike: It is like Santa Claus. It knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake!
No, but it is very focused on how you’ve got to play it right. That said, I honestly think some of the levels I’ve made so far are a little bit hard, mainly because I’m playing them and since it’s me, I’m like, “this is easy!” and it’s fine because I’ve played the game, obviously, more than anyone who ever buys the game will.
We’ll play with that, and there’ll be lots of playtesting where we’ll find out where the line is in terms of difficulty.
TSA: In a similar vein, how will you progress with the control scheme and help people learn the game, compared to the simplicity you had with Thomas?
Mike: I think it’s just case of making sure the start of the game eases people in, so tutorials and stuff. It’s more complex than Thomas Was Alone, but it’s actually easier controls than Call of Duty, for example: you’ve got shift for cover, WASD for moving, space for interaction and X for whistle, and then you’ve got mouse control for angling your gadgets. That’s it.
But we’ll see, it’s going to be a challenge to make sure that all works. On the controller, it’s a bit more intuitive and works a bit better, but this is what next year is about – it’ll all be fiddled with, tweaked and played with.
TSA: And with platforms, it’s coming to all of the things?
Mike: All of the things! It’s terrifying when I think of it like that. Initially, Vita and PS4, but then about a month later on PC, Mac and SteamOS, I guess now. [laughs]
TSA: [laughs] I think that’s almost about it really… so, now that you’ve started doing 3D, will there be a remake of Thomas Was Alone for next-gen? This is the obligatory stupid question.
Mike: Stupid question! No. Why? I think Thomas is as Thomas does, and I think that’s fine. I think Thomas stays as it was intended. I might do an HD remake one day…
TSA: Do an HD remake, where everything is all 3D, but it’s completely flat to the camera.
Mike: Ironically, that’s actually what the game is… it’s just rotated with the camera, because that’s easier for collision detection. Thomas is actually twenty meters deep.
TSA: You’re ruining the illusion! [laughs]
Mike: [laughs] I’m sorry.
We thank Mike for sharing a portion of his time with us. You’ll no doubt hear more about PlayStation timed exclusive Volume from us in the future.