The Average Gamer

Friday Feature: Mike Bithell, Indie Designer

This Friday we’re featuring Mike Bithell, the indie developer behind last year’s hit browser game Thomas Was Alone and currently lead designer at Bossa Studios. You can find him on Twitter as @MikeBithell.

So Thomas Was Alone is “A minimalist game about friendship and collaboration” What does that mean?

Mike Bithell: Minimalism is a movement in art and design which has always appealed to me. It’s not just about simplicity, it’s about boiling down to the core of the experience. Applied to games, it’s about cutting through the layers of technology and fashion to create an experience which does the bare minimum aesthetically, but does so to achieve a purer gameplay experience.

I really love the ‘white box’ stage of development (where levels and mechanics are prototyped before art production). I’m not anti-art, but there’s something transparent and cool about seeing game design that can’t hide behind an awesome lighting engine. When the mechanics work, it’s stunning.

I’ve been interested in making the game equivalent of a great buddy movie for a while, and an early prototype for a more complex game gave me an idea of just how much fun could come from characters with differing jump strengths and shapes working together to get to goals. I realized that the layers of complexity I had planned were a distraction, and tried to pull it back to the core design.

Thomas. He has friends now.

How did you translate that into gameplay and aesthetic?

MB: Well, to be honest, at first it translated to “game made in 24 hours about blocks jumping on top of each other”.

I decided to explore that idea through a prototype for a game focusing on a small band of allies working together, each one’s abilities enhancing those of their friends. The minimalist aesthetic fit the time constraints, but I did try to set a tone through colour and type. It wasn’t quite a white box game but it kept the simplicity I wanted.

As I’ve begun to develop the game into a larger, Unity based project, I’ve tried to hang on to those original goals and not be too distracted by all these fantastic toys.

How did you manage to get featured on Kongregate?

MB: Being featured on Kongregate was the direct result of a massive groundswell of support from the gaming press and community. Sites like Kotaku, Joystiq and Eurogamer really got behind the game and what I was trying to do. The guys at Kongregate sent me a really kind congratulations message, and put me on the front page. It was an amazing place to be, and that’s where tens of thousands of players started playing.

Mike Bithell. Perturbed Designer.

What’s your games industry background and current situation?

MB: I joined the industry roughly four years ago. I started at Blitz Games Studios as a Junior Designer, where I learned a ridiculous amount from a lot of very talented people. At the start of this year, I moved to sunny London to become Lead Game Designer at a startup called Bossa Studios, a social games company which is poised to do some incredibly innovative and creative work in the space. Our first game out shortly, and we’re always on the lookout for talented people to join us!

And tell us more about yourself.

MB: Mike Bithell, 25. I’m obsessed with videogames, which take up an embarrassing amount of my life. Like most designers I find myself interested and inspired by almost anything. The average design conversation I enter into with my massively patient friends or partner takes in everything from architecture to german theatre via bauhaus. I’m a geek with a roving eye!

What are 3 games are you enjoying the most right now?

MB:I really like Infamous 2. It’s just so damned competent. Every design decision feels thought out and considered. I love the boss countdown, a simple idea that achieves so much. On my PC I can’t put Frozen Synapse down, I love what the guys have done with their single player campaign – random seeding was the perfect way to go with such a tactical game. And finally, on my phone, it’s all about Hard Lines by Spilt Milk Studios. It’s shocking no one’s combined Tron and Snake in such a neat way before.

Why didn’t you go completely independent and set up on your own?

MB: There’s no better time to go indie, and I considered it. For me though, it didn’t feel like the right time. I still feel like I’m just starting out, and have a lot more to learn. I do everything I can to surround myself with people I can learn from. Working for them is a great way to do it.

In the future I’ll probably focus in on my private projects, but I’ll have to be a far better designer before I do that.

If you could do it all differently, what would you change? Also, what do you wish you’d known before you started?

MB: I honestly don’t think I’d have approached my career any differently with hindsight. It’s not always been easy, but I think it’s brought me to where I am today. There’s still a long way to go before I get where I want to be, but I think I’ve finally got a decent foundation.

What are the future plans for your independent (i.e. non-Bossa) work?

MB: Well, Thomas Was Alone (super special platinum proper cool edition, or something to that effect) is coming along nicely. I’ve moved to a new city, begun learning a new engine, and am 85% done on coding the game. Focus now shifts to great art (for which I’m receiving the help of the best colour guy in the business), stunning music (produced by a guy fresh out of Uni, can’t wait to share it – this guy is amazing) and level design (which, I fear, is down to me).

I’m planning to release it on PC and Mac early next year at a fair price, with other platforms to follow if the desire is out there. Following on from that, I’ll probably have a break, then crack on with something else. I’m pretty sure I can’t stop doing this now – making games is part of who I am.