Mike Bithell is a British game designer best known for the BAFTA-Award winning Thomas Was Alone. In 2015 he launched Volume, a commercially and critically successful stealth-action game. And in 2016, as a launch title for Google’s Daydream VR platform, he created EarthShape. At D.I.C.E. Europe 2017, he’ll be talking about his latest game, Subsurface Circular. It was designed to be a short, satisfying experience with a high level of polish. In the conversation below, Bithell talks about the game and the atypical launch strategy behind it.
What will you be talking about at D.I.C.E. Europe 2017?
I'm going to be talking about short games and whether that's a thing that works. My team is going to have lots of interesting data on that, because we'll have just launched one. It's about this idea of games that are designed to be about one to three hours long, at a lower price point but with a high level of polish. It's going to be about games that respect our lives -- we're busy, we're running around doing things. It's about making games that are a nice little bite-size, that everyone gets to complete, and hopefully everyone gets a good experience from. I'll be talking about how those games work and whether or not they do work. I'll be finding that out soon and will convey that to the audience at D.I.C.E. [Laughs]
Putting aside whether short games are financially viable or not, aren't they something that just makes sense for today's society? We've always had life and work, but today there are so many ways to distract us, from numerous social media outlets, streaming video choices, and such.
I think it does make sense. There are so many people that are busy, people with families, and people with robust lives. As we see games age out of being just for kids -- a direction the industry has been going in for a while -- we see adults not having as much time. Adults want to get into it, get something cool out of it, and get out in a small amount of time. That's something that's tough to do in the boxed-games market. You can't sell a game for $60 that only takes two hours. That's not going to be very popular. With the digital space, we have the freedom to make these strong and polished experiences that don't take a crazy amount of time. And they're priced fairly for the experience they offer.
These types of games are interesting. They allow us to play with the immediacy of games. The game we've just released has plot twists. It has things that can be spoiled. It's almost like Game of Thrones -- you have to play it before it gets spoiled on the Internet. That's something you can't pull off with a 30-hour game. After we launched the new game, people have finished it within two to three hours. That allows for a completely different type of conversation that you'd have versus a 20- to 30-hour game.
Would you share some details on your new game for people that aren't familiar with it?
The new game is called Subsurface Circular. It's a detective game about robots riding an underground train network. You play as a detective. You have to have various conversation with colorful characters who are also on that train with you. You're trying to get to the bottom of a series of disappearances. Various robots have gone missing, something seems not quite right, and you're trying to get to the bottom of it. You play through a series of a dialogue sequences -- kind of like a conversational puzzle game, at some level, but with a level of visual polish that hopefully makes it satisfying to a broad audience.
The launch of Subsurface Circular was atypical. Would you describe the launch and why you chose to do it that way?
We announced the game and launched it immediately. That was specifically tied to what the game is and the scope of the game. I had a few concerns. Obviously it's a smaller game, but it's presented well. I was worried about hype. I was worried about people posting screenshots and other people thinking, "Oh, that's a massive game." I was worried about people getting their hopes up for a big, epic RPG. We're telling a small story in one location with only a few characters. Hopefully it works on that level, but we didn't want people to get caught up into the typical hype cycle.
Also, we wanted to play on the immediacy of culture. If you see something cool, you mention it on Twitter and share it with your friends on Facebook. For a typical game, you've already seen that a few times before the game is released and you're not as interested in this new thing. Game makers have to work quite hard to keep you interested in this thing that we've been getting you to retweet for all this time. So the idea was, "What if we announced a game with only a couple of screenshots and a logo? We won't have a lot of information, so that people that are interested in our stuff can get more interested. Then have the big splurge of media come out when the game is actually available to buy and play." I don't know if this works. It could go terribly wrong if we don't have that level of interest. A major event could happen that distracts from interest in the game. There are a lot of sensitivities to this. Going for that "out of nowhere" and "thing that everyone will be talking about" experience was something we wanted to see if we could pull off. It's something that's probably more available to us than it is to other indies because of the notoriety we've had and the fact that we've released smaller games. People are maybe paying a little more attention to us. I wouldn't have done this if nobody knew about us.
Hopefully we've generated enough coverage that created noise at the moment we launched. I hope we've made an important thing -- kind of like how I have to watch Game of Thrones within 24 hours of each episode coming out, because I don't want to have it spoiled by the Internet. Hopefully we've made it a thing people hear about and want to try it now. We'll see if it works. [Laughs] I don't know of any games that have done this. It could go terribly wrong, but that's why we experiment and that's why we do things.
Were there any products or companies that inspired you to launch Subsurface Circular this way? The surprise launch of the Sega Saturn comes to mind. The way Tesla handles business is similar, with Elon Musk saying that marketing is a waste of his company's resources. Yet Tesla generates a lot of viral marketing through its community.
We've found, honestly, that we don't have the money to do the massive, upfront marketing that the triple-A games world does. We just can't afford to do it. We've also seen a limited payoff to doing a half-assed version of it. Doing the typical indie approach of releasing a trailer a few months before launch and trying to build up hype has worked for us to some extent and it has worked for other developers. It's definitely not a terrible way of doing it, but I'm always on the lookout for a new approach. The benefit of the Subsurface Circular launch was that while it was high risk, it was also low cost. We've not paid for any sort of marketing, really. We just aimed to get it out the door. We've referred to the strategy internally as Beyonce-ing. [Laughs] Obviously we're nowhere near that level of fame and notoriety. If there are enough eyeballs attracted to the game then a strong argument can be made for having the first time someone hearing about a game being the same day that they can buy it.
We've looked at entertainment products as influences more than anything else -- Must-See TV, the stealth launch of Beyonce's Lemonade. Things like that, that are immediate and people haven't heard about before. Those are very exciting things when they launch and hopefully we've tapped into that with our game.
Thomas Was Alone and Volume were very different games, but they had a similar tone to them. How does Subsurface Circular fit in with your other titles?
Well, there are robots, which is a running theme for me. [Laughs] I do like my robots and my AI. The story-first elements are a big part of what we've done up to this point and that's apparent in Subsurface Circular. It's effectively a text-adventure game. It's heavy on story. You're going to get to have all these different conversations with different characters, but in a very structured way. It will echo the way people saw stories in Thomas Was Alone and Volume. As you said, there's a very similar tone. The style of storytelling is very similar. On top of that, the things that we're known for -- polish, smooth gameplay -- hopefully people find that in the new game as well. There's some continuity and history as well. Most of the people that worked on Subsurface Circular worked on Volume as well. We've expanded the team in some areas, but a lot of the core people are the same. I think Subsurface Circular fits in nicely into the continuity of what we've been doing.
Text-based games were the norm in the days of Zork, but are fairly uncommon in 2017. How would you describe the gameplay style of Subsurface Circular?
It's kind of its own thing. It's sort of a dialogue-puzzle game, almost like a logic puzzle of Mass Effect's dialogue system. We kind of use dialogue as level design. You navigate conversation and try to find the right path through them. You try to work out how to get to the bottom of what's going on through these conversations. There were lots of inspirations in terms of interactive fiction and the dialogue systems in modern RPGs. It's interesting seeing how gamers react to it, because it doesn't really fall into a specific genre. It borrows from aspects of a lot of different genres. It's unique in that way.
In the past you've said that you'd like to alternate between working on smaller titles and big-budget titles. That's common for the movie industry, but does the videogame industry make that feasible for game creators?
I think it does. We've bounced around quite a bit. We've done Thomas, which was very small. We've done Volume, which was considerably bigger. Last year we worked with Google on a project that was big. Subsurface Circular is smaller, something that's very specific and little. We'll probably bounce to a bigger project next. I've been very lucky in that my games have been successful enough to tackle different projects with big variations in scale. Digital pricing and digital storefronts have helped us get there. It has allowed us to price games in a way that makes sense. Of course the price of a game helps determine the budget for a game. Ultimately though, it's the audience that has allowed me to make games at the scale that justifies the idea.
It's a bit different from movies. My job on a game is this weird combination of director and producer. There's definitely an argument to be made that someone like me, at this stage of my career, shouldn't be in charge of a $30-million project. Frankly, I don't know how to run a team like that and the team would know that I don't know how to run a team like that. It would be tough for me to gain their respect. With films, you have the producer as an external person. You can change out the director and it will still work. With games, I'm well equipped to work within the zero- to a few-million-dollar budget range. I definitely think that I shouldn't be in charge of the next Far Cry or anything. Maybe later in my career. There's a lot of stuff you have to learn on the path to bigger projects like that. I'm working my way up, but I don't think it's the equivalent of taking a cool indie director and putting him in charge of the next Marvel movie. I don't think you can make that jump in scale in games as you can in film.
Three years ago you said, "Not being a dick is very important." Does that still apply today?
[Laughs] Yes, not being a dick is very important. As far as I'm concerned, it still applies. The people that work with me can decide whether or not I keep up to that rule. Like most things, games are made by people. If you treat people well then you'll make better games. If you treat people badly then you could make better games in the short term, but it will bite you in the ass later. I try to show respect and friendliness to everyone I work with. Most of the time I get that right. [Laughs]