Mike Bithell is here to build worlds
Mike Bithell is thinking. Asked about his biggest challenge, Bithell rolls around a few different answers in his head before nodding. He’s got it. “You can tell I’m a writer,” he laughs. “even in my most vulnerable moments. I’m thinking of your story arc.”
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Mike Bithell is a natural storyteller, admitting that he gets self-conscious when he hasn’t managed an exciting breakfast. Is a coffee exciting enough? “I’ve answered more questions about my breakfasts than I have any of my games,” Bithell says, half-sighing.
The developer, studio head of Bithell Games, was in the first wave of indie developers to find success in the UK. Everything can take on a certain kind of magic when he’s enthusing about it. He’s talking to NME from trade body UKIE’s London office while enthusing about (and eating) a burrito.
This sense of showmanship is in everything he does. The first game he made for himself, the minimalist platformer Thomas Was Alone, saw thousands of gamers enthralled by a jumping red rectangle solely because of the attached narrative, which had the characters in a computer mainframe after an unspecified Event. During the build-up to 2015’s Volume – a sci-fi stealth ‘em up inspired by Robin Hood – press and developers from the nearby GameCity festival went to a Gisborne Industries launch party, where Bithell appeared as a spokesperson of the in-universe company just to announce that voice actor (and later Andor monologue deliverer) Andy Serkis would be appearing as Volume’s baddie.
Spend an hour and a half with Mike Bithell and it feels like you’ve come away learning a little about 1000 different things. But who is Bithell, away from the storyteller?
It may not surprise you to know that Bithell was a child actor. It might surprise you to know that in his own words, he only ended up in games because he’s “an ugly man who liked Shenmue.” It’s not quite that simple, there’s a story. With Bithell, there’s always a story.
“I didn’t have consoles in the house as a kid. We had a PC that my dad had nicked from work, and I remember playing like the shareware first demos of a load of Apogee stuff on that, but for the classics like Mario and Sonic I only got to play those at friends houses,” explains Bithell.
“As a kid I wanted to be an actor,” Bithell adds. “ I was doing the child acting stuff, I was on a stage in London. I was doing the whole thing. Then, I got my first console. It was a Sega Dreamcast, and then I got Shenmue.”
Shenmue, an open-world RPG that follows teenage martial-artist Ryo Hazuki as he sets out to avenge his father’s death in Yokosuka, Japan was ahead of its time. It had a day and night cycle, and characters that had specific schedules that they adhered to that made the world feel lived in. Shenmue (and later, its sequel) was the most expensive video game ever created and it was probably a decade ahead of other games in several areas. The franchise served as the inspiration for the Japan-set Yakuza roleplaying games, which continue to this day.
“I remember I was playing Shenmue when my agent called and said that a show I’d done in London was going to go touring. They wanted me, but I would have to basically skip my GCSE’s to go and do their touring show. I had this moment of coming up on this fork in the road. ‘This Shenmue thing seems really interesting… or I could go and be an actor.’”
“I guess I was about 15 or 16, and I also knew I wasn’t good looking enough to be a leading man. So I thought: ‘Okay, I think I’m gonna go into games.”
“Shenmue was the first game I played it where I thought: “Oh, this isn’t just this isn’t just a test of skill. This is actually telling a story with an an interesting narrative and this massive world. You go back now and you play it and it’s just a street, but at the time like it felt like I’ve been to a place and experienced a life you know?”
Bithell ended up going to Newport university in Wales. While it’s now part of Welsh super-university the University of South Wales, back in the Newport days it was hosting one of the first game design courses in the country, and Bithell signed up for its very first year.
“University had two big wins for me,” explains Bithell. “I met my girlfriend there, but also I had my mind opened to critical analysis, [and] essentially realised that I could look at a game and not just say ‘hey, is this a good or a bad game’ but also start to unpick what it was actually trying to say. For me, that was a real eureka moment, that was when the lightbulb came on.”
As a result, Bithell spent university digging into games and learning the vocabulary to start talking about what – and why – he enjoyed. Explaining the freedom this gave him, Bithell’s eyes light up.
This led to his role with Blitz Games on licenced games. “I was on licenced games, but at a point in time where that wasn’t the most interesting work necessarily, like there wasn’t much freedom,” says Bithell, adding that many of the people managing these deals 15 years ago weren’t switched on to what games could do different with IP.
“The games industry 15 years ago was not filled with the nicest people in some ways. Like I definitely had bad experiences early on.”
“It was cool and I was glad to be there,” Bithell said with a grin. “But it was tough. The games industry 15 years ago was not filled with the nicest people in some ways. Like I definitely had bad experiences early on. It was a tougher industry back then. So that… well, that sucked.” Bithell wouldn’t be drawn into any specifics.
Bithell stuck at things in the industry, but wasn’t sure if he felt like he fit into a studio set-up. Then indie puzzler World of Goo came out: a physics-based puzzle about making structures out of big gooey blobs, building everything from giant pyramids and bridges to all kinds of imaginary shapes to sling them into a pipe.
“For me, World of Goo was the first indie game I’d seen as a player that made me think that I could make a small game and take it to a big studio and make it a success,” says Bithell. “I was playing World of Goo on my work computer during my lunch and thinking ‘this is pretty good. I think I could do this.’ I couldn’t make a game as good as World of Goo, but it did start me thinking about what was possible, and suddenly I was digging into flash prototypes and just creating stuff off my own back.”
At the same time, Bithell got a role at Bossa Studios and moved to London. As he knew no one in the city, he started signing up to “every nerdy thing he could find,” and one of those ended up being an early meetup for game engine Unity.
“I decided to go along for that, I thought ‘there’ll be nerds there.’ I ended up becoming part of the early Unity community, not really knowing that that was going to become one of the big [development] engines. So I got in really early there and kind of learned those tools. It all kind of conflated and that’s how Thomas Was Alone really grew.”
Working on his own projects gave Bithell the chance to play the showman again. “Games are magic tricks, right? They are illusions and that’s the artistry of it from my perspective. it’s all showmanship. I think with Thomas Was Alone, because it was made with very limited art on the side – it’s literal rectangles right – I think people thought it was an attempt to be more artistic and edgy than it actually was.”
“I think with Thomas Was Alone, because it was made with very limited art on the side … I think people thought it was an attempt to be more artistic and edgy than it actually was.”
“For me, I look at Thomas Was Alone and I see someone trying to make Uncharted on a budget.” Bithell points to sections in Thomas Was Alone where you’re running and blocks are falling away behind you. There’s no real danger: if you stop moving the blocks won’t fall. But it’s something that Naughty Dog was using to great effect in the Uncharted series.
“I was looking at what Naughty Dog was doing as a young designer and going ‘I can’t make that. But that’s a really cool idea.’ So if I did that with a rectangle, and there was like a rain effect at the same time, it would probably look real good.”
This showmanship underpins Thomas Was Alone, but it’s the same showmanship that runs throughout everything that Bithell Games – the studio founded with the proceeds of his rectangular success story – has made since.
“I think that’s something I’m really proud of. It’s something we’re very good at,” says Bithell. “We’re very good at pushing things further than we should and we punch above our weight and always have, which has been really cool.”
He clearly recalls the moment he realised that Thomas Was Alone had blown up. “I remember it being New Year’s Eve. I’m on the bus back from a party when Thomas Was Alone ticks over to the point where it’s made over a year’s salary. The Youtuber TotalBiscuit had put a video out on the game, and so the next day I was up to two years’ salary. I thought ‘I need to go and spend this money on making another video game because that’s the one way I know how to spend money!”
Bithell was in the first wave of UK success stories. “I think it was a bit like the American Office to… America’s original The Office.” Bithell says with a laugh.
Realistically though, Bithell’s success came at a golden time. The indie gold rush was in full swing and many people were titling their talks and motivational newsletters with incendiary titles promising that anyone could make big bucks with an indie title if they were just able to get found.
“This is why I’m very cautious about giving advice now, and very kind of side eyeing a lot of developers my age who pour out the advice. We came up with a very different time, you know, a very different set of rules and very different kind of industrial structure.”
The advice Bithell gives out now the most? Making indie games is hard, and it might not work out. “My advice is ‘release Thomas Was Alone 10 years ago and basically coast on the success of that game for the rest of your career.’ It doesn’t really translate.”
Still, Bithell does think a lot about the worth he has for the industry and how he can help people starting out using his experience.
“I think it’s a really hard time to get into games. There’s lots of opportunities for exposure… But if you want to get funding or support or something actually tangible, then it gets much harder.”
“People need a first job,” adds Bithell. “I think it’s a really hard time to get into games. There’s lots of opportunities for exposure, there’s lots of opportunities to show your game off and discuss stuff. But if you want to get funding or support or something actually tangible, then it gets much harder.”
Bithell admits this desire to create structures and systems to help other people thrive is probably something that’s come with age. “The change I see in myself now is that rather than the ego-driven place I was coming from ten years ago – because there’s nothing more egotistical than making a game and expecting people to fucking play it – to now wanting to look after my team and set things up in a way that’s good for them.”
“There’s definitely a transition that takes place as you grow up,” suggests Bithell. “ What’s good is that that little egomaniac who set me up 10 years ago, he did a good job. And that means that I’m in this position to do this now, which is nice.”
While he bemoans naming his company after himself, the success allowed the company to grow and evolve. Part of that growth came when Bithell realised that although it was his name on the studio, it didn’t have to be a “wish fulfilment fantasy” that revolved around him. “I wanted it to be the wish fulfilment fantasy of multiple nerds,” he explains.
This led to Nic Tringali, a long-term collaborator, stepping up to direct games of his own at Bithell Games. Bithell adds that it shows his team that anyone working at Bithell Games can direct games and stamp their own identity on the studio.
For Bithell, that’s exactly what he wanted from the studio.“Nic’s games are very much not like my games, and I love that, because I don’t want to play games by me,” he laughs. “That’s the only kind of game I don’t like to play.”
Bithell chuckles again. “It’s the curse of every game developer. Any game you want could exist, but you’ll never enjoy it.”
While it’s something many game developers will probably empathise with, it’s a shame he won’t get to enjoy the sheer variety of games that Bithell works on. Whether it’s sci-fi stories, a solitaire game or even licensed games like the just-released adventure game Tron: Identity or turn-based murder-’em-up John Wick: Hex, it’s nearly impossible to guess what Bithell will do next.
When it comes to projects though, the selection process isn’t scientific. “There are probably two or three games bouncing around in my head that I would love to make next, and one of them will win. But it won’t be because I sit down and go, ‘What are the pros and cons?’ It’ll be because I mentioned the story down the pub with someone who works with me. And they kind of make a face. That will be the death of the idea, and they’ll never know they killed it.”
“If we’re announcing a game, and people aren’t saying, Wait, what, then I think we messed up,” says Bithell. “I like that jumping around. I wouldn’t want to be making the fourth game in the Thomas Was Alone franchise, it’s just not interesting to me.”
“It’s the curse of every game developer. Any game you want could exist, but you’ll never enjoy it”
Instead, you get the games you wouldn’t expect., Bithell has been most recently working on licensed games but not in the way you would think. John Wick: Hex is a turn-based hex-based fight-’em-up about fight choreography, a game the developer says he managed to get made because the people looking after licenses now understand what a good game is, and they were keen to make some of their own.
Hex, then, involved Bithell talking to the license holders at Lionsgate about XCOM and GoldenEye and other excellent licensed games, turn-based games. “This just wasn’t how people were talking about games in Hollywood 15 years ago,” he offers. “So with John Wick it wasn’t about ‘let’s make a game to come out with the movie’ but they just wanted John Wick in more places. They wanted to expand what John Wick could be.”
Which brings us to, as Bithell says with a theatrical voice, to “The Disney portion of the interview”. “I think, genuinely, with Disney they understand the importance of collaboration,” he says of his work on Tron: Identity with the house of mouse. “They have an absolute focus on storytelling. I think they did want someone who they felt they could build with. Especially with Tron, because there was a great opportunity to build something interesting.”
It’s a culmination of the work that he’s done up to this point. Crediting the fact he now considers himself to be a more mature developer, he explains that turning John Wick’s blockbuster action films into a turn-based game helped him understand Hollywood and its expectations.
It wasn’t a straight path — after the success of Thomas Was Alone, others reached out to Bithell before Disney, but their calls didn’t go as well. “I fucked them up, because I walked in as that kid that made Thomas Was Alone,” admitted Bithell, who explained that it took hiring COO Alexander Sliwinski and “years” of restructuring to make Bithell Games more sustainable.
Meanwhile, Hollywood was beginning to trust the game industry with more ambitious projects, which Bithell says was a contrast to the time when it was after “big media beats around a theatre run – they wanted the lunchbox, the action figures, the loo roll with the characters on it”.
For Bithell, that shift was an opportunity to do something unusual. The showman, storyteller and lifelong nerd jumped at the chance to work with Disney and create a game in the Tron universe. Bithell says he “wore out” his VHS of the first Tron film, while Daft Punk’s Tron: Legacy soundtrack has accompanied Bithell through a decade of programming.
It was a match made in heaven — and then there was the chance for a big reveal, which Bithell couldn’t resist, coming out on stage as part of a Disney presentation to explain that he was making a new game set in the Tron universe.
“ I fucking love surprising people,” Bithell says, his voice thrumming with excitement. “When we announced Identity at [Disney expo] D23. I heard the audience gasp.. And then and I think that was more Tron. But then I went on Twitter and just saw like ‘they’re letting Mike do Tron?’”
Ever the showman, Bithell “lives” for flashy PR, and admits it’s informed “possibly too many” of the studio’s decisions.
So what’s next? “Every Disney franchise?” says Bithell with a chuckle. “But honestly, I’d love to do something with Star Trek. That’s the one I keep coming back to, I love Star Trek. For me, I want to know what is the original story you tell in Star Trek?” Bithell also touches on Doctor Who as something he’d love to work on, but admits that for now he only has eyes for the Tron universe, something revealed weeks after our interview when news broke that Disney is certainly expecting more Tron games from the partnership.
Try to pull back the curtain on Bithell Wizard of Oz style and, behind the showmanship, you’ll probably find a hard working developer that’s trying to empower everyone working with him while turning his varied interests into games. But actually, the showmanship is the point.
It’s reminiscent of Christopher McQuarrie’s approach to putting together the Mission Impossible movies, where he suggests anything can be cut and reshuffled if it makes for a better story, and keeps people more invested.
During our interview, Bithell explained how he got Danny Wallace on board to voice the narrator of Thomas Was Alone. At the time, Wallace had already lent his voice to a stack of Assassin’s Creed games and was a successful humourist, but his casting for this strange game of platforming rectangles was a splash of showmanship.
But how did it happen? Bithell thinks he has it down. Maybe. “The problem with this story is I’ve told it so many times. I’m sure it’s made up.” Bithell laughs, gesturing with a dangerously overfilled burrito. “So I’ll tell it the way Danny tells it.”
“Danny’s memory of it is that he came home drunk one day from the pub, and he looked at Twitter. I’d just tweeted saying ‘oh my god, I’m trying to find someone who sounds like Danny Wallace.’ So, in his drunken state he thinks ‘I sound like Danny Wallace’ and messages me going: ‘Hey, can I be a voice in your game?’
“I think there was more of a process, and I probably asked a bit more carefully than that. But I like that story. That story is better. So yeah, basically, that can be the history.”
It’s a little on the nose, but it describes Bithell perfectly. There’s tons of hard work going on behind the scenes, carefully concealed, always just out of view. If you see it, Bithell hasn’t really done his job.
Games industry trade body UKIE provided the location for Mike Bithell’s photoshoot.