GDC 2018: A casual chat with Mike Bithell
Mike Bithell, one of the UK’s best exports and probably the most polite person in existence was good enough to meet up with us for an interview. We met at GDC and promptly went to Starbucks to grab a coffee and a doughnut, upon ordering we stood quietly at the end of the queue and waited while chatting about things like his time in America, and the Asimov book he had just been given by students at a talk. Eventually the drink came and we were left waiting for the doughnut, it was only after a few minutes had passed that Mike decided to ask the lady behind the counter where it was. Naturally the hard working lady told Mr Bithell that she had given his food to someone else and that it was his fault. In the most British way possible we both waited silently until it finally came, then scuttled off to find somewhere quiet to sit down, chat and try to forget the horrifying ordeal that had just occurred.
This is The Digital Fix with Mike Bithell for a general chat, how about we start with the marketing and release of Subsurface Circular? It was very unique as you basically asked on twitter whether anyone would be interested in a smaller game you were thinking of doing, then released it a couple of months later announcing it again via tweet.
It was honestly damage control, it was about making sure it wasn’t over hyped. I had this fear with the game, it looks quite good, the art is great and it has this dialogue system from your standard RPG game. I was really worried that people would see screenshots or video and assume it was a much bigger game than it was, that there would be a high expectation. It is Sci-Fi as well and people tend to overestimate Sci-Fi, it is a genre that inspires grand thinking. So that was the biggest concern, how do we stop that, and the easiest way to stop that seemed to be to completely cut it off at the pass by not giving people a chance to get excited. We preceded it by giving it to the press so there were some reviews that were ready to go at launch, we weren’t trying to keep anyone in the dark in terms of purchasing decisions, but it was important to me that people came to the game at a point where there wasn’t an opinion out there about the whole thing, it didn’t have time to grow into an expectation of what wasn’t there. It went really well for us, it also meant that we could cultivate a very niche small audience right at the start that got very passionate about it and told there friends and we have seen that momentum grow ever since. It has been a really good ride, it seems to have gone really well.
It has just come out on Switch a couple of weeks ago, are you happy with how it has done?
Yeah, it seems to be off to a good start, I mean obviously with all these platforms it is about lifetime it’s not about the launch week, although launch week matters because it sets the tone it’s not the end of the story. We’ve had a really good launch on Switch and we were in the top 10 on the E-shop, not sure if we still are I haven’t checked in a while, but that is amazing that’s a really good start and the audience is there. Now we have to settle into spreading the word on the game and keeping the game in people’s minds and generally trying to keep that tail, we talk about the tail in game development, where you are trying to make sure that a game has a life and that people keep playing it, because if it just does well in the first week and then people stop buying it that isn’t that good it needs to be better in the long term. So that is what we are focussing on now with Subsurface now, it’s just trying to keeping the audience interested on PC, Mac, Switch and IPad and kind of keeping that rolling over.
Okay so with it doing well and being in the top 10, I have to ask, will you be bringing Thomas Was Alone and Volume to Switch?
My stock answer is never say never. It definitely did well enough that it caught my attention, it’s definitely set a precedent for us that our games can find an audience on more than one platform. We will see is the honest answer, we aren’t working on it right now but never say never.
Will you be making more of this style of game, this short sharp style of gaming?
Yeah, it’s worked really well for us, I think wave said this publically but we are doing more along this path, because it seems like an idea that is maybe bigger than one game and we can do something else with. So we are exploring that and we will let everyone know when we are ready, but definitely the shorter more narrative game is something that people want from us, and when people want something from us we try and make it. It’s not the only thing we are going to make, we have definitely got ideas which are much bigger and bolder, but it’s definitely not the last Bithell Short.
Moving on to you personally, do you prefer the writing or the design process when making a game?
I think for me they are really intrinsically linked, I did a talk at GDC yesterday about this, about being a level designer who also writes and how that impacted Subsurface and the way it is structured. It’s kind of a stealth dungeon crawler, it’s kind of actually a level based game, it pretends to be a dialogue system but actually there is navigation involved. So I like both, for me they are combined, I think that design is sort of storytelling and I think that story telling is absolutely design, I think there is overlap there I really enjoy both. I definitely find writing harder, design for me feels more intuitive and iterating on an idea and working it out and playing with it is much more fun, I really enjoy design more. The writing, I like having done it, but I don’t like the process of writing, I find it very stressful, I have to make little deals with myself, like if I write this much today then I can watch a movie, or go out, so I have to treat myself a little bit like a kid who won’t do their homework. But it is something that people like about our games so I am going to keep going with it, so I would say I enjoy both creatively, I think both of them are important and useful and awesome. But in terms of my pure enjoyment, design is the thing I enjoy the act of.
Okay so (SPOILERS) there is a logic puzzle in Subsurface that was incredibly challenging (/SPOILERS) did you come up with that yourself or if you had to do research to find that?
If you are going to rip off game design, so do you know who invented that puzzle apparently? It was Einstein, it is known as the Zebra puzzle or the Einstein Riddle. So yeah, if you are going to rip off anyone rip off Einstein. It is a structure that any school kid can remember, you know, there are three people who live in four houses and there is red and blue and green or whatever. It is something that we added kind of late in the day actually as I realised that I wanted something, a real brain teaser right before the end of the game. It was interesting as well because it was about a story and it was about understanding and unpacking that story which I thought was an interesting mode to put the player in because they are about to get some revelations about our story. Giving them a little story to read between the lines on and unpack, narratively it felt like it made sense with where the game was going. It just put you into that mind set just before you get to the end, so I think it succeeded in that level. It definitely blocked a few people, we actually added the guided detection mode specifically because of that puzzle and then rolled it out across the game. There were definitely people who got stuck on it and got frustrated by it and we had to rethink it as a result of their challenges. I don’t think it is the best decision in the game but it is definitely something that people remember. I think it is one of those imperfections that a pearl kind of grows around. If I were to do it again I don’t know if I would put it in again but I quite like the reactions it has gotten.
So throughout the story there are the listener bots who are really interesting and then in the ending they are relevant, but how did you come to that and how did you get to the end point of the story?
So the ending was actually something I arrived at about mid-way through, it was always going to be involving those characters. But the idea to make that character related to a character earlier in the game was something that came around very close to the end of the project. It was one of those things where, I’ve made the game, and it felt fun, it was a mystery but it just wasn’t bookended. It’s often a challenge right at the end of any writing process that you want the beginning and the end to feel substantial and that they feed into each other. That the ending is the inevitable but surprising final point of the opening, but it didn’t have that feel so I ended up rewriting the opening and the closing completely right towards the end of the project, just to give it that satisfaction that I think it delivers. So yeah the big arcing plot was there but some of the twisty turny stuff was added quite late in the day and then obviously things were tweaked throughout the game to justify it and have it make sense. The way I write is very linear I tend to put out a structure and a plan for the writing, so what the structure is and who the characters are, but then I tend to write a very linearly so I will start at the beginning and write towards the end. Once you’ve done that through once that’s where the real writing process begins because then you start tweaking it and tying it all together and realising that, you know, that bit is way too long or that bit is way too short, so we need to make that bit shorter and that bit longer to keep the pace going where it is and all of that juggling happens in the last month or so.
The idea of the dystopian future in it is quite fascinating as it is something that could be rapidly approaching us, is it something that you went into the game knowing that that was the aim or did it pop up once you had started writing it?
So the way I tend to go, I don’t tend to sit down and say I want to write a story about XYZ because that tends to make for quite boring stories and I don’t enjoy that. What I try and do is I try and make worlds that have the inevitable but surprising outcome of whatever the impact is. So in the world of Subsurface Circular, it’s a world that I tried to realistically extrapolate what would happen if we did invent androids with sentience, how would we treat them, what would the problems be, what would the successes be, how would it change society for the better or the worse and how would this all function. That really was the foundation of every choice in there, it wasn’t that I wanted to make a statement about automation or really anything else politically. It was really just the outcome of sentient robotics and what would happen, and basing that on my understanding of history and my feelings on human psychology and how humanity works and sociology and all that stuff, my very limited awareness of that stuff. Just trying to extrapolate believably and realistically what might be a possibly outcome of that.
Probably the most unsettling part of it was the anti-robot faction, the ideas they had such as, they took our jobs for example, was that something that came to you because of the political issues in the UK and the US?
Of course it is, but to be quite honest, it’s because history quite boringly repeats itself. It is because ultimately you can find that kind of rhetoric and that kind of discussion pretty much at any point in history. I do try and read a lot of history and I like to learn about different eras of humanity and frankly, it is all boringly similar. People are pretty crap to anyone they feel they can be crap to, that is a trait in our character sadly, I wouldn’t say it was a direct reaction to current politics but to our actions historically and our failings.
Another great addition was the story of the Thomatoan, which is another fantastic nod to your previous work, is this something you are doing on purpose or was this more of a nod to those who noticed it in Volume?
There is a rule I like in Sci-Fi which is that you change one thing, in Sci-Fi you introduce one fantastical concept and people will go with it, if you introduce two then it will break. I really like that essentially Volume and Subsurface Circular are basically the inevitable outcome of the Thomas Was Alone events. The idea of AI gaining sentience, you always see the AI gaining sentience in movies and either they take over or they form a peaceful coexistence. I kind of liked the idea of telling a couple of stories that are just set in a world where that happened and those changes. So in Volume it politically destabilizes the UK for example, by the way, not a game to go back to now because it is about a business man who manages to take over a government on a platform of nativism, so that’s aged well, and it predicts Brexit as well.
Known Prophet Mike Bithell.
Yeah, so get ready for those robot trains. It’s definitely a fun world to play in with a couple of slight differences that mean I can tell fantastical stories. So it was fun for these two, I am not sure how stringently we will stick to it but it’s been fun telling stories in that universe and so far it has worked. The second I feel constrained by it though I will walk away from it, it’s not literally scripture.
So far you have hit a very wide array of genres, is there a genre you would love to do but that you don’t think you will end up doing?
So there are several that I love that I am definitely going to do but I will give you one I am probably never going to get to. I would love to do a sports game, I don’t know how I would do it because I would have to find a story reason to do it or a direction into it, or a racing game or something like that. Most other genres I secretly believe I might end up doing at some point so I don’t want to jinx that, but sports is interesting to me, but I am not sure how I would find a path into it or whether the audience who play my games would want to come with me into one. Sports might just be a bit too far. We are still exploring other genres so you should continue to expect to be surprised by us.
What was the hardest genre for you so far?
Stealth wasn’t hard because it was something I had been a fan of for years so I felt comfortable, platforming was similar. I would say it was probably Subsurface because as you say it draws on dialogue trees, visual novels and point and click adventures. Finding a middle ground where those ideas worked together and didn’t put anyone off, I didn’t want to make a game where people felt like it was just me messing around, I wanted it to feel cohesive and solid. I also knew it was going to be, and I saw this in steam reviews, that it was going to be peoples first game in that genre and they’d not tried anything like that before. I knew because of the audience we have from the other games that there would be people playing this who wouldn’t normally pick up a piece of interactive fiction. So making something that was accessible and also felt interesting enough for people who weren’t fans of the genre was a weird balancing act. It seems to have worked out but there are definitely criticisms form the interactive fiction community that we would definitely bear in mind for future games, so more branching and more options, really interesting ideas we will probably play with in the future.
The interactive fiction genre has had some very interesting outings recently with games like Doki Doki Literature Club and Subsurface Circular, is this a genre you will be doing more work in then?
I think we will keep playing, definitely with Subsurface we have scratched the surface of some mechanics and I think there is some more stuff I would like to do in that space. It’s a really interesting area because it feels like there aren’t already right answers, if you make a first person shooter then there expectations about how exactly that game will work. What is interesting about the visual novel space is that it feels a bit looser, it feels a bit more varied, and it’s not standardised or a mature genre. It is all very varied, it hasn’t chosen a path and stuck to it yet and that is very interesting as a creator because you can mess around with it. Subsurface does things differently to a lot of those games and we haven’t had complaints about it because people expect innovation in these games. This is exciting as a designer so yeah we will probably play with that some more yeah.
What are the other genres that you think are still growing and still maturing that you want to get involved with then?
I’m not gonna tell you because I am probably going to just do it.
Well, we nearly got away with none of those answers but while we are here, any news on any new projects you are working on?
Sure, let me tell you about my next five years plans. (There were a few laughs during this interview, this one was the pinnacle, but you have to at least ask the question sometimes)
The politics in your games, we think, are fairly representative of your own left leaning views is that something you do on purpose or something that you can’t help?
I think probably we all speak truths about ourselves in our work, it’s probably inevitable. I am a leftie, anyone who follows me on twitter knows that I have some left leaning opinions. So it probably makes its way into the games, I don’t think it’s the job of my games to be propaganda for a perspective but I do think that they have a powerful opportunity to talk about issues that I care about. So I think there is a balancing act there of having good story telling that has something to say and telling it well enough and interestingly enough, and this has happened, I know there are players who don’t agree with my politics who like my games because they offer a different opinion in an interesting way. So hopefully I can talk about issues that I care about in a way that is inviting and welcoming to people who disagree with me, and maybe I can shift some opinions a little bit which would be nice, but my primary goal is to tell a good story.
Do you ever have PR people tell you off for being too far one way or the other on Twitter?
Some would say I am too active.
We disagree, most people like to know who they are dealing with so it can be a good thing.
So basically do I get told to shut up? I have not been told to shut up since I owned my own studio, let’s put it that way. I have definitely annoyed PR people in the previous jobs. But one of the great things about working at Bithell games is that I ultimately get to decide what I say. There’s not many people at Bithell games who get to tell me what to say. So no, but seriously I am responsible for more people than myself and I do take that responsibility seriously. If I mess up on twitter and say something that was too polarising then I would be risking the livelihoods of the people who work for me. So I am respectful of that but at the same time, yes I am going to take the opportunity to talk and share my opinions, I am sure lots of people who choose not to listen to me.
We will end it on something fun, rather than politics. What games at the moment are you playing or would you like to be playing?
Honestly I have been on holiday so I haven’t had much time to play games recently but my diet of free time fun games is AAA. I love me an open world game, I have Assassin’s Creed when I get home and Far Cry 5 is out next week so I will be home just in time for that. I should be just over the jet lag and I will give myself a day of Far Cry. I just love the AAA stuff, mainly because its stuff I can’t make, I am just not set up to make it. So I can enjoy it without trying to pick it apart or work out how I would do it differently, I can just allow myself to enjoy them. I am a big fan of Ubisoft and a big fan of those kinds of games so that is probably what I will be doing and I am looking forward to playing some Far Cry.
Cool, thank you very much.
So that was our interview with Mike Bithell, if you haven’t already definitely check out Subsurface Circular as it has just landed on Switch and maybe we can get Thomas Was Alone and Volume over there too.