Interview: Mike Bithell Talks Volume’s Progress, Robin Hood & Steam Curation

After playing the first few levels of the game, we sat down with Mike Bithell to discuss the progress he’s made with Volume since we last saw it, and soon moved on to discussing other things, mainly revolving around the contemporary Robin Hood story which the game features.

We then talked about Thomas Was Alone, which has just been confirmed for Wii U and Xbox One days after he couldn’t comment, before discussing Steam Curation and anything else which came to mind. You can see the full interview below.


TSA: It’s been a year since we last saw Volume, and I’ve seen a lot of progress has been made from playing it – what do you personally feel has progressed the most?

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Mike: In terms of what we’re showing at EGX, and this is often a challenge that we have at these events, because we’re only showing the very start. So one of the things that there’s been lots of progress in is all of the rest of the game, the stuff that we’re not showing today. But really, it’s polish, that’s a big part.

What we had last year was a proof of concept; it showed where we were going, you could play, it was kind of interesting and fun, but now we’ve got music, voice acting, animation. Everything’s coming up to the level that we want, and I’m quite confident in saying that the version we have here – that is the quality that I want the game to be. The challenge we have now is behind the scenes, taking what is a 20 minute demo and going “okay, how can we get four hours or five hours worth of game?”

We’re working through that, it’s coming along well, but a lot of progress is behind the scenes because it’s stuff we’re not showing.

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TSA: So is there anything in particular that you’re proud of – programming, art, or maybe to do with the voice acting?

Mike: Well, the voice acting, I’m laughing at some of the jokes! There’s a weird progress: you write a screenplay, you go into the studio with the actors to record it, you get it into the game, make it work, make it react to what’s going on, and then you get really bored of it when you’ve heard it 20 million times while testing.

So yesterday I was testing this build and making sure there weren’t any crashes. And… I just giggled at one of the jokes. Just one of the throwaway lines, I was like “I like the read on that line, it’s funny!” There’s moments where you get really sick of the game and then there’s a point where either enough time’s passed or you’ve just clicked in a specific way, and you just start to notice the things that you did on purpose actually working. Because you become blind to things when you’re so bored of seeing them over and over. It was quite fun giggling at one of my own jokes.

TSA: Did you have the actors in the studio at the same time? I noticed it was quite banterous, like they were hitting off each other.

Mike: Ah, I’m really pleased that that’s in there, because yes, those two – the actors Charlie McDonnell and Danny Wallace – the first bulk of the game is them talking. There are other characters who bounce in and out…

TSA: It definitely works.

Mike: So for them, we had a day’s rehearsal in London, we just sat down and read through the script, and the following day we went into the studio and the two of them were literally facing each other doing their lines, and that gives the energy and banter to it. So yeah, I’m really pleased that comes through, because it’s absolutely what we’re going for.

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TSA: I also noticed last year that you only had one gadget – the Bugle. There’s a few more this year, but are you going to take the Nintendo approach where you’ve got a different upgrade in every level, or just several throughout the game?

Mike: In terms of gadgets – they’re placed in levels and you pick them up, and they’re tied to levels so you can’t carry them through to the next level – there’s nine of them in the final game. You’ve seen the Bugle [a fireable noisemaker], the Figment which is the decoy, and the Foley which is a tripwire. So those are three of nine gadgets in the game.

This is the difficulty of showing the game at an event – I need to show you in a way that you can get through the level, solve some puzzles, have fun with it, but where the game gets really interesting is when you start combining the gadgets. So we have a level where you might use a Figment to trick an enemy into running through a tripwire.

Because they’re tied to each level it means we can come up with different combinations, and you don’t run out of them; that’s the thing in a lot of stealth games – or games in general – if you give the player a cool thing that runs out, they hold onto it. I’ve never finished a first person shooter game with anything less than a full bag of grenades, because you’re saving them like “I’ll really need those grenades later…”

Whereas the idea with this is to give it to the players so they can actually fiddle with these cool things – give them the toys so they can play with them.

TSA: Will you be able to pick up multiple gadgets at the same time?

Mike: You can hold one at a time, but you can always go back to the pick-up points and restock. You’re not building up an inventory, and that makes it quite fun as it’s more of a choice, so if you see a cool thing you think “do I pick that up now, it could be quite useful…” and it’s quite fun getting to choose between them.

TSA: In terms of the level creator aspect, how deep will that go?

Mike: Every level you’ve played of the game here was created in the level editor that will ship with the game. We’re not demoing it here, for two reasons. One is that we’re still polishing it, and two is that people can get really into the level editor.

TSA: I could spend hours in it!

Mike: Yeah, whenever I have the level editor at the event, there’s always one kid who sits down and plays it for two hours, and while that’s awesome, and it’s cool that people are liking it, it means that there’s a queue of people behind not getting to play that game. So we don’t generally show it.

I use the editor – there’s no way of making a level for Volume without it. Everything you’ve played is made through that.

TSA: So it’s like an engine within an engine, effectively?

Mike: That’s kind of how we built it, yeah! It means that it’s not limited; within Minecraft for example, you have to collect the stones to make the thing. There’s none of that, you just literally make something. And if it’s fun then hopefully it’ll rise to the top of the charts in the game, if it’s not, it won’t.

TSA: Going back to the original idea for Volume, why did you base it on Robin Hood?

Mike: It was a weird one, I made a prototype for the game, a stealth thing where you ran around and could sneak around the guards, and it came to the point where I had to make a story. So I thought “okay, you’re sneaking. So I guess maybe you’re a thief, so I’ll make a thief game.” Well, not a Thief game, but a game about a thief.

So, the core problem with writing about a thief is that they’re a bad guy – they’re taking stuff. “I guess they’re robbing from the rich people and that makes it okay… alright, what stories have worked? Oh, Robin Hood!” And then I read five stories about Robin Hood, and got really into the research for it. There’s so much, and it’s so cool how this story has been adjusted over time and evolved. I got hooked on the idea and thought “Why not just do a Robin Hood game?”

The cool thing about Robin that’s missed by a lot of modern day scholars and fiction fans, is that Robin Hood was never meant to just be set in the Medieval era. It’s like Spider-Man, whenever it was written, that’s when it was. So there are versions of Robin Hood set in other times. Henry the Eighth was a massive fan, he even cosplayed as him. So of course they wrote Robin Hood adventures starring Henry the Eighth, just to appease him. He used to cut people’s heads off…

People loved that, and it was in the Victorian era, where they got hooked on romanticism and Medieval stories, like King Arthur had a resurgence. Robin Hood got time warped too. So it just really appealed to me, like “can we go back to what Robin Hood used to be – he was a contemporary hero – and can you do a near future version of that?”

Our idea was that Scotland gets independence and then this happens. Now, that’s going to have to change because of the vote.

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TSA: Oh, so you’re going to have to change that?

Mike: I’ll have to rework some of it, yeah. The set-up for the story is that the UK breaks up, and England is taken over by an evil corporation. That’s going to have to time shift – we’re just going to say that they didn’t get independence this time, but they’ll get it in 2030 or something.

TSA: If it had actually happened, you’d be like “oh no, this is going to happen now.”

Mike: It was weird for me on the night of the referendum, just watching and thinking that it’s potentially a massive monumental and historical event, potentially, but also if they vote the wrong way, I’m going to have to do more work to my script. And they went the way against the script, so I did have to change a few things.

But yeah, it’s interesting taking Robin Hood, and having him be a contemporary hero. And also kind of examining it, because there are a lot of issues: Robin Hood is basically a story middle-class people tell each other to feel better about poverty. It’s basically like “it’s okay that you’ve got the nice TV, because if you had to, you would totally rob from the rich and give to the poor.”

It’s totally a myth middle-class people tell each other – that’s always been the case, and it’s always been most popular during very weird wealth disparities, historically. And I just like the idea of playing with that in a video game.

TSA: So staying on the topic of Robin Hood, what did you think of the Doctor Who episode doing robots and Robin Hood sort of first?

Mike: I really liked it, I’m a big Doctor Who fan. It’s nonsense in quite an insane way. I think a lot of people make the mistake of thinking Doctor Who is sci-fi. It’s not, it’s fantasy, it’s meant to be silly. But no, I really enjoyed it. I quite liked the guy they cast as Robin Hood himself, because I’m an Errol Flynn fan, so there was a nice tinge of that old school Robin, before they tried to make him gritty.

He’s meant to be a show off – and our one in Volume is definitely that – he’s effectively Let’s Playing online. He decides to use this technology to broadcast to the internet his daring deeds. He’s a show-off; Robin Hood always was. Anyway, I liked the episode and I like Capaldi in the role.

TSA: Yeah, definitely. Now… back to Thomas Was Alone. You’re always going to be stuck with this one. [laughs]

Mike: [laughs] Do it! It’s been two and a half years, it’s fine.

TSA: So, it’s coming to PS4, we know that. And… we saw listings for Wii U and Xbox One.

Mike: Those pesky Germans with their ratings boards! I can’t comment on that one at the moment.

TSA: How did the mobile version do at the premium price point, then?

Mike: Really well. People went for it – we’ve played with the pricing, it’s a little bit lower than it was when we first started. But it’s been really good, and really successful on those platforms. I think one thing with Thomas Was Alone was that it was quite a straightforward and accessible game, and there’s quite a lot of people who that game appeals to that maybe don’t own a PlayStation or another gaming console.

So we did really well, on iPad especially, but iPhone’s done well, Android’s done well; there’s definitely an audience for it. It’s not Angry Birds, but then… it’s not Angry Birds. It’s a different kind of game, and it’s found its audience, so that was fun. I love it on the iPhone, it works really well.

TSA: What’s your favourite version?

Mike: Probably the Vita version.

TSA: Yeah, I’d say that too.

Mike: I like that version, especially because I didn’t do it – they had to rebuild it from scratch. So there’s none of my code in the Vita version. I like it because it’s slightly better than my version. It’s embarrassing to admit, but it’s a really solid version and I just like it on the Vita.

TSA: Moving onto you yourself, how does it feel like to effectively be a spokesperson? Everyone looks up to you in the indie scene.

Mike: I don’t know if that’s completely true. I think the weird thing is how we often equate visibility with authority, and that’s not the best way. If I say something in an interview or whatever, then that’s a big deal. That’s bollocks, I shouldn’t get that, I’m not elected democratically to have an opinion. I’m required to as I have a lot of interviews, but I’m a bit uncomfortable with it and I think it’s weird. We’re all equally qualified to an opinion, it’s just that my voice is a bit louder, but that’ll change.

TSA: What do you think of this Steam Curation stuff – have you seen that?

Mike: Yeah, it’s interesting.

TSA: What about TotalBiscuit, his Planetside 2 stuff – there was a bit of commotion around that? [his paid promotional video pushed Planetside to the top of his Steam Curator’s list]

Mike: Yeah, he picked up a bit of slack for that. But if you look at the details, well, PlanetSide was a grey area, but with his Guns of Icarus one, he can provably demonstrate that there was nothing wrong there. I don’t put much stock in the viewpoint that it was controversial. A) Total Biscuit is one of the most transparent and visibly ethical YouTubers ever – I don’t agree with everything he says, but he behaves professionally. I don’t think he’s doing anything dodgy – I think he’s removed it now, which was the right choice.

For now, with this curation stuff, it’s not having a massive effect. It might over time, and it might scale up in terms of how important it is to the larger industry questions, but for now it’s not as big a deal.

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TSA: You previously said that when Thomas Was Alone released on Steam – before PlayStation – it didn’t quite make a big bang, so do you think Steam Curation might have changed that?

Mike: Honestly, I don’t know. The one thing which is potentially interesting is that it gives people more of the stuff they like. Have you ever tried to browse for a new book on Amazon? What Amazon does with its recommendation system is that it knows what you like and just pushes the same stuff, and indie games probably do require that more. I’m not sure yet, it’ll be interesting to see if Curation leads to the success of a weird indie game. I’m not sure it will, but I’m interested to see. It’ll get tweaked and fiddled with I’m sure.

TSA: What about Volume, is Sony’s backing enough?

Mike: No amount of backing is ever enough, I’m never going to turn away opportunities. I think it might do well for Volume, but only because Thomas Was Alone did well. Thomas Was Alone is on a couple of the bigger Curator lists. So I think Volume will do better with it than it would have done without, but I’m not sure it’s going to have a massive effect. But I’ll take it, basically anything that helps my game find an audience…

TSA: So, when will it find that audience – any word on a release timeframe?

Mike: 2015. All on track for 2015, I’d expect it to be out in the first half. We’ll see though; I’m not going to lock it down, because I tried that before and it didn’t work out. I’d much rather be vague than rush my game. Being indie, I don’t have anyone breathing down my neck – if it needs another month, it’ll have another month.

Thanks to Mike for taking his time to talk with TSA.

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2 Comments

  1. I have to admit that i’m more interested in the story telling approach than the gameplay so far but that was a fascinating read. Great interview, thanks.

  2. Great interview, Mr Bithell is always an interesting guy to hear from. Good points made about the visibility of indie devs, it’d be great to hear from even more of them, apart from anything else their lack of marketing rubbish is very refreshing. Can’t wait for Volume, the gameplay had me hooked but the story and background are sounding very interesting too.

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