Mike Bithell On The Development Of Volume

David Howard

David Howard


on October 16, 2014 at 9:30 AM

A year has passed since we got hands-on with Volume and a lot can happen in game development in that amount of time. Changes to the gameplay I had time with were subtle but helped to produce a far more slick product that aims to live up to a rather lofty expectation. Mike Bithell’s previous title, Thomas Was Alone, was exceptionally well received and anticipation for Volume is high as a result.

I got to spend some time with Mike and discuss what’s happened in the past year for Volume.

So, how is Volume going? I had a go on it earlier today, and enjoyed it, plus it’s a lot different than the EGX build from last year. So from your point of view, how do you think it’s progress, how much has changed, do you feel you’ve got a good year’s worth of work out of it?

Haha. Yeah, it’s been an interesting thing talking to people who played the build last year and it’s cool, it’s nice that people see a difference. I see no difference. I look at it every day so to me it’s like you don’t notice a tree growing. It’s a slow, slow thing. It’s progressing along well though, the big thing for me are the things you’re not seeing. That big chunk of gameplay that we bring, it’s very early stuff, very easy stuff for players to jump on at an event and play, have ten minutes of fun that makes them hopefully want to play the rest of the game. But what’s happening behind the scenes is the four or five hours of other stuff and that’s coming along really well.

The rest of the game is slowly joining and coming up to the level of the demo which is the goal. So yeah, it’s been a very busy year, the team’s grown quite significantly over the past year. We’ve got lots of people working on it now, but it’s a very big game, a very ambitious game; especially compared to the last one [Thomas Was Alone].

From your point of view, working on Thomas was quite a solitary experience aside from getting the voice work and music done. How is that different now for you? Does the additional members working on it change your role? Do you prefer it one way or another?

The reason I made Thomas Was Alone that was is it was a hobby game. I worked in traditional game dev, I was the lead design at a big company, and I was kind of getting bored as I wasn’t doing the game development. I was in charge of telling five coders what they should be doing – it felt weird and disjointed from the act of actually making something. So Thomas was entirely me: I coded everything, I did everything other than voiceover and music. I wrote the voiceover and directed the music, so I was still very heavily involved. With Volume, a game of this scale, it’s impossible to do everything on your own. It’s meant hiring an art team, it’s meant hiring sound engineers to do the sound effects, hiring a cast, all of this stuff. Different companies and agencies to deal with different parts of development. All of which I’ve been able to do because of the success of Thomas.

All that said, in terms of who controls how the character feels when they move that’s still me. I’m still developing. The gameplay code is me. That’s the most important part; I’m not in the film industry, or the TV industry, or the music industry, I’m in the game industry and I want to make the game feel the way I want the game to feel. So that part of it, for me I always want to be the guy making that. That’s the bit that excites me and interests me, though writing the script is cool as well. Doing this or doing that, doing graphic design I enjoy doing so I bring in some of that. What it means though is that, for example, the game has user-generated content which means we have to have servers and handle all of that stuff – that’s someone else’s job. I have two very talented coders who are doing all the background stuff.

Essentially, if I care about it and feel if it will directly impact the gameplay experience then it’s me. If it’s something that supports that, but perhaps the player won’t directly interact with, that’s someone else. It seems to be a good balancing act for us and that’s how I like it – it’s how I want to do the next game as well.

What lessons have you learnt from Thomas that you feel have directly impacted Volume? Elements either during development or after release that you realised “oh man, if only I’d known that before if would have saved me so much time”.

Yeah so many things. The example I always use is user-generated content. I still get an email every day saying “when’s Thomas Was Alone going to have a level editor? I want to make levels for Thomas.” It’s cool but because of the way Thomas was made it’s kind of impossible. It’s a very sloppily put together videogame. You can’t really go in and make that editable. So that was one with Volume where I wanted to facilitate that specific kind of creativity that players want to do.

That’s probably the most obvious one, others things are Thomas was very much made to be one game – do its things, tell its story, get out – whereas Volume is being made with an eye on it being able to be expanded if I want to. It could scale up if I intended.

Obviously Thomas was a huge success for you and put your face on the map. Do you like being that front-facing persona for people who look up to you as this success story?

Well I love, I love to talk to people who play videogames. I love to talk to people who, for the lack of a less pretentious word, are my audience. I want to know what the 14-year-old who is playing my game thinks about it and being able to have that direct line of conversation, which social media lets us do. It’s something you couldn’t do before – to get that feedback. I’ll put up an image of the game, a new thing I’ve added to the game…

… like the UI for example?

Yeah and I can say what do you think of this? I’ll get fifteen messages about it. Now, I’m pretentious and arrogant enough that I’m not just going to do what they tell me. If I disagree with my audience then I’m going to do what I want to do… but, it’s cool to be able to get that feedback and information direct. To them, when I want to announce something just being able to do it and not have to necessarily go through press and instead talk directly to my audience – it’s something that I’ve chatted with film people and a lot of people in my position who have always been behind five PR people, whereas now I can go directly to the punter which is really all we care about. So it’s cool in that regard.

As for being a sort of spokesperson thing, it’s a bit weird. I’m just a jerk I’m not… it’s weird to me that we elevate certain voices and it’s weird that I’m one of those. That’s strange yeah. I think it’s natural though.

You say you enjoy that interaction with people but you’re always trying to avoid the ‘design by committee’ thing. Is there anything that someone has said that you’ve thought “actually, that’s really good” and perhaps has impacted something in Volume?

That’s happened a lot of times, it’s something that’s occurred many, many times. I’m trying to think of a specific example. Oh! There’s one. So, you launch these projectiles around the environment [such as the bugle] and one thing I had in the game, for about six months, was every time it happened I had a small screenshake. Not Michael Bay proportions, but a small, tiny little one to give a sense of impact – it’s an old animation trick. You have this slight shake and it creates this illusion of impact. I thought it was really good, but then when I put up videos that had that in it I got like twenty people saying, “Oh my god, that video gave me a headache.” People were saying they felt “woozy” or “horrible” afterwards.

I think what makes people very good at creating stuff if they have a very blinkered view, but games are an interesting intersection more than any other medium. Because we require engagement and interaction and accessibility, like designing an iPhone interface, you’re designing something to be used. Throwing stuff to other people’s awareness so they can say “I felt seasick” meant I could fix that problem and didn’t release a game to an audience of a million people that made them throw up. That’s always a win – if you can stop your audience from throwing up you can achieve your goal.

Agreed – you do get tunnel vision when designing and developing something. It’s so easy to miss a spelling mistake because you’ve read the same word a thousand times by this point.

Exactly, and that’s why you surround yourself with people who can deal with that. Some of those things can be public, you go to your audience and they say change this, but also obviously I have testers and proofreaders and people who professionally check that I’m not messing up; and you know what, I always mess up.

It doesn’t matter as long as it’s caught before release though.

Originally you were aiming for 2014…

I was.

…but now you’re planning on releasing in 2015. From your point of view was that an easy decision to make? And are you happy with the decision?

It was so easy to make. Genuinely, I’m in a position where I’m self-funding now, I don’t have shareholders or any external business pressure to release anything. I’m never going to release something until it’s done. Midway through this year, I was looking at the game and thinking that I wanted more time. I want a little bit of room to do this and that was the thing really to push it into 2015.

It’s very easy. It’s very very very easy. People will moan a bit if they release it a bit late, but I want it to be right.

There’s the phrase that “a shit game is shit forever”.

Yeah that’s Miyamoto, though I think you’re adding the word ‘shit’.

Yeah, it might have been a ‘bad’ game.

I don’t think Miyamoto-san would use the word shit. At least not to be quoted on.

Is there any concern from your point of view, that there’s no external pressure on you to release the game, that you might get to say February or March and think “I still want more time”, and then you get to June and think the same?

Yeah, yeah, you can always do more. You see this with novelists who spend five years on a book, but then you have others who do a book a year. Game development, at least from my side – in indie development – it’s very akin to writing a book. It’s so personal. Especially in terms of your timing and your motivation and stuff. So I think, for me, it is a fear. There’s the fear that I could get lost in it and decide it’s not perfect and not release it, which we’ve seen happen to a lot of devs.

For me, a) my rent needs paying – that’s a motivator, b) I know there’s an audience waiting, and c) I don’t want to be stuck doing the same thing for four years. So Volume will probably have been in development, by the time it comes out, for about two years, maybe two and a half. That sounds reasonable.

From other indie studios 18-months to two years seems a nice development length.

Yeah, and this was developed so that it could be scaled. Thomas was made for about five grand, the budget for this one is quarter of a million so it’s a bit of a jump. Knowing how to spend that money, and how to make it do everything is hard. We’ve been very lucky to be in a position to do that.

It’s also the difference between working on your own and working with a team of people.

And just good old-fashioned stupidity and a lack of preparation.

Thomas started out on a single platform and then has grown and is now out on nearly everything.

I think we’re aiming for everything, we’ll see.

Volume’s obviously gone a different route, you have the bigger budget for starters.

Yeah, we’re starting on PS4 and Vita and then a month later PC and Mac.

With the knowledge that you’d be developing for multi platforms eventually, is that something you’d be doing personally, or getting others into do?

We handle ports through a few people. Right now, my desk is mad: there’s a PlayStation 4 devkit here, a Vita one there, a bunch of others over there. My desk is all electronics. I had to get reinsured because of how many are in my home now.

The great thing about the tools I’m using – like Unity – is that you can develop once and deploy elsewhere. You don’t have to do an enourmous amount of work. It’s still a big job, it shouldn’t be underestimated.

It’s not a total rewritting though?

Yeah, you’re not talking years if work, instead it’s a couple of months. I’ll be doing some of that, but there will be a lot of more talented people taking a lot of it. I’m a big fan of giving the jobs that require the smarts to the person with the smarts. If someone’s better than me at something, I’m going to hire that person and let them do it for me.

One of those roles is with the voice acting. You have Danny Wallace back but some new ones as well.

Yes, Danny Wallace is back, but there’s also Charlie McDonnell; Kathryn Maccoll who’s a really good up-and-comer, she’s doing a lot of the additional voices; Jon Daou who’s actually a composer but as a favour for a friend he did some placeholder voices for our bad guys, he made everyone laugh so much with his voice over that we got him back in the studio – so I think it’s his first and last acting role as one of the villains in our game.

The interaction between Wallace and McDonnell was superb in the playable segment, and the voice of Danny Wallace gave it that “oh this is a Mike Bithell” game vibe. Did you record each of them individually or together?

You know what’s really cool is you’re the second interviewer to ask me that after just a few hours and it’s awesome – yes they were in the same room. And I’m more and more pleased with that choice. Basically, it’s clearer coming across in the game. We spent a day rehearsing in a loft in London, we rehearsed it like a play – all of their dialogue with each other. Then we went into a VO studio the next day and literally had them facing each other like a presidential debate. It created an energy in the room, a sense of chatter, and I’m incredibly happy with how it’s come across.

What left to do before release then?

Ha. We have to make a lot of levels, a lot of content we haven’t done yet. We’re nearly done with the server side, the boring technical gubbins that makes everything work. Then just polish. The game is pretty much done, but now I get to spend months and months and months making it as finely produced as possible.

What your favourite element of Volume at the moment?

Whenever you ask a game developer that it’ll be the last thing they saw, so the thing that just went in was the music – David’s [Housen] amazing score is now in the game. I adore it, he’s brilliant. I love that right now but that’s because it’s the new thing. If you asked me last week it would’ve been something else and if you asked me next week it’d something else.

I look forward to asking you the same question once you’re all done.

I look forward to that as well.