By day Mike Bithell is Game Design Lead for social game developers Bossa Studios. By night (and weekend), he juggles his relationship commitments and social life around developing his first full game, the charming platforming puzzle game Thomas Was Alone.
“It was really quite organic, people liked it and it just grew from there,” Mike explains. He’s being a tad modest however, when he released his prototype of Thomas onto free online game site Kongregate a lot of gamers got very excited at what he had created. That prototype had been made in around 24 hours for a game jam competition. His entry, Mike admits, was purely coincidental: “My girlfriend was out of town so I had nothing to do, so I sat down and started coding and made a little flash prototype. And once I’d made it I thought it was alright, so I put it on Kongregate and sent it to a couple of games websites, they picked it up and the whole thing snowballed really quickly. By the end of that week the game was on the front page of Kongregate and I was getting congratulations emails.
“At that point I thought this might be a decent enough game to expand. So it was really quite organic, people liked it and it just grew from there. I then moved jobs to London and was pushed by my new employers to get it made as they were fans of the game too and wanted to lend support.”
“I’ve gained an appreciation for the absolute turmoil it must be to be an indie games developer outright.”
The fortuitous origins of the game continue. Coding Thomas was really just procrastination when Mike should have been working on another title: “The daft thing was, [developing Thomas] was actually a way of getting out of working on what was at the time another hobby project . I had another game I was working on with a couple of collaborators and it just wasn’t feeling right, I didn’t want to spend another weekend doing that. So instead I let myself had a weekend off and it’s gone from there. But I will get back to it eventually.”
Choosing to develop Thomas entirely by himself, Mike has had to make sacrifices to his personal life, especially his relationship with his girlfriend “I’ve had to scale up and down based on my personal life,” he admits. “In a weird way, I’m fortunate that my girlfriend works away a lot, so when she’s away I can put more time into it. I’m notoriously flakey with my friends, ditching plans to work on my own stuff. I’d go one further and say it’s had a genuinely adverse affect on my social life. It’s been a lot of fun but I’m looking forward to having free time again, and just watching some TV or meeting friends in the pub.”
“I don’t know if people would come home every night and play an hour of a game that would make you sad.”
Although this is his first full game project, Mike has taken on solo projects before. These experiences mean he has a huge respect for those independent developers who don’t have the security of another job, and risk virtually everything on their game’s success. “I’ve gained an appreciation for the absolute turmoil it must be to be an indie games developer outright, to have to rely on this paying your bills,” Mike said. “I’m very fortunate in that I have an awesome job that’s very supportive and pays my bills. So having to rely on indie games and the stress of trying to remain true to your artistic vision, while also being aware that you have to make some money, it’s a balancing act I have a massive respect for the people who face. I don’t envy people who have to make that call.”
The turmoil Mike has had to endure with Thomas’ development may not be financial, but he has still had to make some important calls. Now with the end of the development cycle in sight, he has started to plan out the final stages. “I’ve been saying the game is code complete for a couple of months now but it’s actually starting to feel like it might be true. It’s basically just level creation now, building up interesting levels and playing with the mechanics to create some cool stuff. David Housden [the game’s music composer] is producing some amazing work for the soundtrack. I’ve been so impressed, he’s simply awesome at what he does. I’ve also just teamed up with a PR guy to help with promotion. It’s starting to move into that preview, trailer, review cycle of stuff.”
From the trailers released, Thomas conveys a remarkable amount of emotion into such an uncomplicated visual style. The protagonist cuts a melancholic, isolated figure at times. Yet other instances shown indicate the lighthearted, almost slapstick nature of the characters, which the ‘mockumentary’ trailer released on the Mike’s YouTube channel displays.
This generation there has been copious indie titles that explore the emotional scale with far greater impact than some of the medium’s biggest selling franchises. Mike doesn’t buy the notion that large game studios ‘don’t get it,’ rather he feels the pressures of developing games with multi-million dollar budgets means sacrifices must be made. “I think we [the indie developers] have the freedom to do that,” Mike states. “Quite simply, the more money you put into a game then the more you have to make back. It’s just the economics of it. Also, when I spend £40 on a blockbuster title I expect a certain level of entertainment and duration for that, I’m not sure you can take feelings of melancholy and stretch them out to a 10-hour game. I don’t know if people would come home every night and play an hour of a game that would make you sad. And to be honest, with Thomas there is melancholy but it’s also a lot lighter than the trailer may indicate.”
Mike continues: “There’s voice acting with someone -who I can’t name yet- with a somewhat comedic background. There’s Thomas himself, the optimistic idiot, a character who thinks she’s a super hero and all these other differing personalities that overlap in a hopefully interesting way. With the basic graphics engine there is in Thomas, I can avoid a lot of the genre stereotypes that occur in say, a war game for instance.”
“I remember when I started this I said ‘I’m gonna finish it in December, so I can release in February comfortably’”
The core mechanic of Thomas, the pseudo-cooperative platforming, lends itself to some comparison with games such as Trine. But Mike states that inspiration has come from some of the unlikeliest of sources: “Trine is an awesome game. There’s a few of them. In a way Braid does that, you’re interacting with a different version of yourself. Weirdly, other things [have had an influence] like Bulletstorm. I got really into that game a while back and there are these spikes you can throw enemies into. So now there’s spikes in my game that work in the same way and there’s some cool animations where the character is swung around on them.
“There’s games that you think wouldn’t have any influence that have. There’s another feature that…” At this point Mike caught himself before continuing: “Actually, I can’t tell you because that would give it away! You’ll just need to wait until it’s unveiled.”
And wait we must, as Thomas doesn’t yet have a concrete release date: “The next few months is all want to be tied into just now,” Mike stated. “I remember when I started this I said ‘I’m gonna finish it in December, so I can release in February comfortably’. Since then obviously that’s passed, so it’s now at the stage where it’s taken a lot longer than I thought, but in the next few months I’m hopeful. That’s dependent on distribution channels so talking to some people about different distribution websites and some bundles to see what we can do.”
As for what happens next, Mike is a little tight-lipped. He explained: “We’ll see how it goes. I think I’m very lucky in my day job, working in social games which is a really interesting area. I will continue to do stuff in that area. I’ll take a break from hobby games for a while. My need to work as part of a team and be part of something bigger is satisfied by my day job, so I think my follow-up projects will continue to be one or two people working together.
“Another point is that a lot depends on how Thomas is received. If the game comes out and no-one likes it I might have to go back to the drawing board a little bit!” Given the initial positive impressions Thomas is garnering, that scenario seems unlikely.