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Volume: Mike Bithell discusses the art of stealth, deception & reviving old heroes

Tuesday, 11th February 2014 08:49 GMT By Dave Cook

Thomas Was Alone creator Mike Bithell tells VG247′s Dave Cook about how he quit his day job and started adapting the story of Robin Hood for the modern age. Meet Volume; a game about being heard.

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In these days of spiralling living costs and the widening divide between the rich and poor, has there ever existed a more compelling time in recent history to bring the story of Robin Hood into the present? Volume is a game about conservatism and oppression in broken England; the story of one man leading by example, and inspiring a nation to fight back.

“If Volume can do well – and hopefully if it’s good it will – then it provides the funds to go on and make bigger games. Thomas Was Alone paid for two games the size of Volume, so I have two chances to make a game that doesn’t suck.”

Volume is the second of five work-in-progress game concepts created by Mike Bithell; the first being his runaway success Thomas Was Alone. It’s a stealth game that places great emphasis on sound, and sees hero Locksley streaming crimes inside a virtual world to show the people how to steal. It’s not long before the program’s AI – played by Danny Wallace – and villain Gisborne notice him running around the system.

Locksley is then pursued by AI guards while out in the real world, Gisborne’s forces are closing in on the source of his livestream. He’s a rich guy himself and should be considered a pincushion for hate, but through his act of defiance Locksley becomes something of a folk hero. Along the way you’ll be sneaking your way through several stages that resemble Metal Gear Solid’s VR missions, using gadgets and subversion to pinch items of value.

You’re also able to play through the whole story via stages that come pre-packaged with the game, or you can swap them out for a playlist of your own creations, or those crafted by the community. It’s a neat hook and a compelling premise, so I spoke with Bithell over Skype to find out where the concept came from, and how life has changed since his early success.

VG247: Thomas Was Alone is now a success and you’ve previously confirmed that you have a roadmap of ideas beyond Volume. How far do you plan these things as an indie? Is it always important to have ideas in reserve?

Mike Bithell: To be honest I was massively surprised by Thomas Was Alone doing as well as it did. Success hit on Thomas much, much later after launch and at first it was a game that paid for a nice holiday. I made it in my spare time around my day job in the games industry, I was fine with that, I was happy, it got a couple of good reviews. It was good. But then when it kind of took off it was a situation of, ‘Okay I need to quit my day job’ because I’d made enough money that I don’t have to work for anyone [laughs]; a ‘what now?’ kind thing.

It was a very weird position to be in and it’s obviously incredibly awesome and lucky, and feels fantastic but … yeah, it was one of those things where, ‘I’m leaving now to go make a game,’ and I said there have been five big ideas in my head for many, many years. I think most game developers have that list of games they’d make if they ever got the chance and I find myself in a position where I had the chance. So yeah, ‘Thomas’ was the first one; Volume is the second game.

Really it was chosen because I love stealth games, it’s my favourite genre and it felt like stealth games were heading in a more ‘actiony’ direction, and maybe doing a more traditional stealth game would be a more interesting thing to do nowadays. Also, it’s the cheapest of the ones left in the bank; the other three are all games that require more people, so the hope is Volume is the gateway to that.

If Volume can do well – and hopefully if it’s good it will – then it provides the funds to go on and make bigger games. Thomas Was Alone paid for two games the size of Volume, so I have two chances to make a game that doesn’t suck.

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VG247: It sounds to me that although success did find you, that it must have still been quite nerve-racking like, ‘Shit; I’m actually going to quit now and make a go of this.’ But there are more tools out there today for people to set up solo and we’ve seen a lot of devs quitting big studios to chase dream projects.

Bithell: So there was the generation in the ’80s of the bedroom coders, and those people are now – in many cases – the ‘titans’ of industry; they’re the guys running the massive 200-person studios, the guys maybe working at big publishers, and they created the franchises that generate ridiculous incomes.

”’Thomas’ had come out in November, so in the two months it had been out, it was at midnight on New Year’s Eve I had stayed in because the numbers were interesting. As the clock struck 12 it had hit my year’s salary in terms of the money it made on Steam, and it was this realisation that ‘I’ve got a year in the bank.”

Then what happened was there was a generation in the ’90s and then the noughties who didn’t have that. If you wanted to make a ‘proper’ game, you needed 20 people minimum, so we all learned how to make games in teams, and in big teams at that.

So for us, we were specialised; I’m not a coder, I’m a designer and I’m rubbish at programming. But tools like Unity kind of stripped away the challenges of coding to such an extent that I could ship a game, a multi-platform game, which I still don’t fully understand and the idea of doing it again terrifies me.

That was the big shift, that those of us who had come up in a time where games couldn’t be made in small teams, I think a lot of people saw… you know, for me World of Goo was the game where I was like, ‘Oh wow, this is something that’s actually achievable now,’ and then I think later Braid for a lot of people, or Super Meat Boy – these kind of ‘indie hit’ games.

I think a lot of people sort of looked at that and went, ‘I could do that,’ [laughs]. Not to knock the work of the people who did it, but that’s something that’s achievable. I think we’re now in the second or third wave. I hope that somewhere, someone in a dev studio looks at Thomas Was Alone and goes, ‘Seriously? Rectangles?’ but I think a lot of people look at the success of these games and just try it.

The benefits of doing it on your own, with the freedoms that give you, are awesome. There’s also massive risks as well, but it’s very appealing. To someone who’s worked in a big company all their career; it’s a very interesting space.

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