Interview: Mike Bithell on distilling the action of John Wick Hex

Easily one of the more improbable sounding movie tie-ins, the psuedo-turn-based adaptation of a popular action movie series, John Wick Hex is coming out today for PC and Mac. It’s a fascinating blend, not least because it’s also an indie game from Bithell Games.

A little while ago, we got to speak with Mike Bithell about how all of this came together, from getting the project started, to honing the gameplay and on.


TSA: What game do you think best prepared you for taking on making a John Wick tie in?

Mike Bithell: Best prepared me… Well, that’s more about arrogance than anything else!

I think partly it’s the confidence of, obviously we’ve made and shipped a lot of our own games, and that’s been a really good foundation for me to know that we can actually do this, we can make games. We can walk into rooms with publishers, but also with Hollywood people and be like, “Yeah! We can make a John Wick game, sure?”

That confidence is something that we’ve picked up as a team as we’ve been making stuff for so long, but in terms of the actual skills required to make this game? I think a lot of it comes down to us as a studio…

TSA: Googling? [laughs]

Mike: [laughs] No! I think it genuinely comes down to us having a history as a studio of doing games that go to the core of an idea. Minimalism with Thomas Was Alone, but Volume distilled stuff down to its core, and I think we’re pretty good at that as a team.

Well, John Wick doesn’t make sense as a shooter, because you’d feel clumsy, but if you did a strategy game, how doo you distill and get down to the syrup of strategy? Figuring that out and getting down to that has been really interesting.

And then yeah, just working with actors as well. Being able to walk into a room with Ian McShane and give him direction; I’ve been lucky to work with lots of actors over our other games, and having that experience, again, gives you confidence to talk to the room.

He’s great, by the way. I like Ian McShane a lot!

TSA: [laughs] With this core distillation of strategy, as you call it, I’m certain there will have been an awful lot of back and forth in the team over every tiny little gameplay detail.

Mike: Well yeah! The original pitch, the thing that got us the gig, was we made essentially XCOM but one character. It sucked, but apparently it didn’t suck enough that anyone stopped us from going on with the game!

We basically had this version and showed it to Chad [Stahelski] and the film studio, and their immediate reaction was, “Why is John waiting his turn?” And I was like, “Oh, well it was a turn-based strategy, that’s how it works…” But fair play to the Hollywood folks, they said, “OK man, you’re the game director, you get this stuff and we don’t… but it does seem weird that he would wait.”

They were going to go along with it – there’s definitely an alternate universe where we’ve made a purely turn-based John Wick game – but […] I realised that the moment you’re explaining to the makers of John Wick that something is the way that it is, just because that’s how it is? You’ve f-ed up.

I wanted to do something that captured the feeling and flow of movement through the game, and that’s where the timeline came from. So then it was me and Nick Tringali, my co-designer on it and who’s the biggest strategy nerd you’ll have ever met, thinking how we could get to that level of specific overlapping action that makes John Wick action sequences work. Then from that point, lots and lots and lots and lots of demos and prototypes.

TSA: The thing I found from playing the demo, and obviously this will fade into the background as you get used to it, was that I could make John do this and that without paying attention to the timeline… and then I died.

Mike: So what you’re saying is you got good?

TSA: Well… I got slower.

Mike: I think that’s the pattern that we’ve seen through out playtesting, which is that people go in gung ho, and then most of the time they realise they need to think about things, and then like you said, they go a little slower and more deliberately. What then happens, back up the curve, they get much better because they’re now badasses and they’ve learnt it, and yeah, players that are good at the game play it almost real time. It’s almost like watching Hotline Miami at that point.

In fact, we encourage that with the two difficulty modes, where Hard mode gives you five seconds per turn. You get five seconds to choose action, and if you don’t then you automatically take a wait action. So you’re against the clock to keep moving and make decisions.

TSA: I find that fascinating as one of those tiny details of game design. Why that and not time dilation so that the action is running in slow motion? You see that a lot in action games, so I guess it’s coming to a similar solution from an opposite direction?

Mike: For us, the reason that we didn’t go in that direction was the specificity of the action timings. I’m sure you’ve found that, when you’re figuring out the actions on the timeline, you’re trying to work out what gets in before the next thing, and it was very important to me that was consistent, that you could learn the strategy.

Having it on a slow track would hamper players, I think. At the start of the game, you want to let people play slow, so they can learn to play fast. That’s where the difficulty mode came from, to reward the players who are quick at the game, and then finding the exact right number of seconds that are the sweet spot, not to give anyone a heart attack, but give a little bit more tension to someone who’s played through the game and wants to take it to the next level.

TSA: Has anyone tried to do a “push to kill” playthrough yet? (Where you do a push action, which deals one damage in a very non-violent way)

Mike: Push to kill? I’ve not seen that! I’ve definitely seen lots of “throw to kill”, people have really tried to master that. So no? And if they did, to be honest, that’s the point that you look at it as a designer and go, “OK, we need to think about this…”

For example, rolling could be massively overpowered, so there’s always this rock, paper, scissors balancing act you’re pulling. Push is amazingly tactically advantageous in later levels where things get a bit more labyrinthine, so push becomes a way of completely blocking off a guy who’s trying to shoot you.

TSA: Finally, how are you pitching this to fit in with the rest of the John Wick-iverse?

Mike: So, we’re a prequel. We take place before and we’re telling a story from before John left for the first time. We’re telling a legend from the backstory, the main reason being that if you look at the three movies, there’s not a gap to do a video game in. The first movie to the second movie is just him finding out where his car is, which isn’t much of a video game, and obviously the second to third movie, it just immediately carries on.

TSA: John Wick in Dude, Where’s My Car? [laugh]

Mike: Oh, we’ve had these conversations! You better believe that for half an hour we were like, “Could we make that interesting as a narrative? Maybe his car’s being used for something?” But no.

So a prequel made sense, and the great thing is that by going back we can dig into a little more of the history of that world. The opening cutscene has Winston and Charon in trouble with Hex who’s kidnapped them, and John Wick is going to save them. It’s a pretty straightforward story that gets more complex as you go along, as you’d expect!

Thanks to Mike for chatting with us, and make sure to catch our review of the game when it goes live in the length of time between the second and third films. One hour.

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