Just over a year ago, Mike Bithell, creator of the hugely popular indie game Thomas Was Alone, unveiled his latest project, Volume, a minimalist top down stealth action game inspired by the legend of Robin Hood.
During this year’s EGX in London, I meet up with Mike in a quiet spot away from the expo hall to have a chat about Volume and what things have been like since he first unveiled the game.
What’s it been like coming from Thomas Was Alone and the success that it brought, to starting a new project from scratch?
Mike: Do you know what, the weird thing about making a video game is that it’s such a long and slow process, so technical, that actually at the point where it’s done there is a very weird cathartic kind of, ‘ah that era of my life is over.’ You start anew, it’s a big project, even a small one like Thomas was, and it’s actually quite nice to not be doing that anymore.
I quite like a new game but I’ll get sick of this one as well, we’ll be doing this interview in two years talking about the new game and I’ll be like ‘ahh bloody Volume was a struggle’ cause it is, it’s always the way. As with a kid going to university you’re proud of it but you’re also pleased that it’s gone and done its own thing.
Once you’d finished Thomas, was there anything you thought you should have done differently, and that you’ve now brought over to Volume?
Mike: Oh yeah, a million things. I think the biggest one was, in term of user generated content, like the game got very popular with the YouTubers and you know, making videos for a quarter of a million people at a time and stuff like this, and you look at that and you go, well they only made one video cause it’s a short game. They just do a little video and looking back I regret you couldn’t make levels for Thomas, because that would have made it more visible, people would have been making more videos of it and also players wanted too. So with Volume there was a real push to allow players to make their own stuff and to make the game more encouraged and supported.
Is it quite easy to pick up how to use the editor?
Mike: In terms of just making the environment of the game, it’s literally like you have a paint brush, and you hold down the interact button and you scroll around with the keyboard and mouse or the controller, and then if you go over yourself it raises the walls up, so it’s literally like painting. And then what you do once you’ve defined the rooms and space, you can place down individual objects, so you could place down a locked door, and key somewhere else, or you could put an enemy down and you say ‘okay I want this enemy to start here and look in that direction for 5 seconds and then they walk here and then they look in this direction for 2 seconds’, it’s really straight forward.
I saw a quote of you saying “I want to see day one translation of the environmental texts to Klingon”
Mike: I do!
Something I’d quite like to see as well, but what are your expectations then for the map editor?
Mike: What I hope is that people start playing with it and that’s a slightly silly statement that I’ve made, that would be lovely, but really I just want people to play the game, have fun with it, you know see a story, see some gameplay that works and have a good experience. Then I just want that person’s brain to just click over into, ‘I could make my own room, or I could change that or I could grab that level from the story and make it pink or I could grab that level from the story and change all the text to Klingon, or I could do this or do that.’
I want people to mess around, and tweak and fiddle, that to me is fun that you’re inviting players to kind of join you for some of the creative jobs.
Do you think you’ll be sat there then on the first evening, flicking through all of the new levels?
Mike: Totally! The first level I play through that someone on the internet made, that’s just going to be, that’s going to feel good, I’m excited for that, that’s the reason I’m making this game. I really can’t wait to play that first level and hopefully the hundreds after; we’ll see how it goes.
Why Robin Hood of all people?
Mike: I’ve always been into Robin Hood, like Robin Hood Prince of Thieves is the best film ever made! I think really for me though it was just the process of sitting down and trying to write a story about a loveable thief, and you start to do your research and you’re like, well there’s a very obvious loveable thief. So I was kind of initially just looking at that for inspiration and going to do my own thing with it, but I started doing research and suddenly just woke up to this idea that, you know for nearly 700 years people have been telling the same story and adapting it and tweaking it and changing the politics of it. Henry the Eighth was a massive Robin Hood fan, so there’s a version of Robin Hood which stars him as a side character. That just appeals to me, adding to that history, the idea that I’m just the latest in a long line of writers that take this root story and do my own thing, appeals to me.
Obviously we see we’ve got Locksley, and some hints at the AI being Alan A Dale
Mike: Yeah you picked up on that
A slight mention of Gisborne as well,
Mike: Yeah, Gisborne’s the villain, yeah
Are we expecting to see any other legendary characters perhaps?
Mike: I think I’ve announced that Jim Sterling has played Friar Tuck. For me we’re not trying to do the whole Robin Hood story, we’re just kind of doing an origin story, we’re just trying to do the first moments. I always rave about Batman Begins; you don’t put Joker in the first movie, you lead up to it, you build up to that, you get there but you get there in time. So if Volume is a success we’ll probably start to play with that wider universe but for now it’s a very small story about a kid, deciding he wants to be a hero, and what that means.
So you’ve got Danny Wallace back again,
Mike: I can’t make a game without Danny Wallace ever again…contractually obligated to include him in every video game,
Well I’m sure he’s happy about that. And working with Charlie McDonnell as well, I know they are both quite big gaming enthusiasts, did they ever try and sneak a peek at the behind the scenes?
Mike: Yeah they are both really engaged with it. Actually Charlie now gets updates from the team because Charlie is a big gamer and he’s interested in how games are made. I send him bills, I send him videos of stuff we’re working on, because he’s really into it because he’s excited. So Charlie has actually given game design feedback. In the last email he sent us when he played the build we’re showing today, he was like ‘my god I felt cool, my character’s cool’. Danny’s been great as well. Danny obviously has much more experience especially with voice over, he took Charlie under his wing a little bit and helped that along, and it really works.
We record them on the same day, facing each other in the VO studio, so they’re taking the mick out of each other. I cut most of the improv as I’m a very egotistical writer, but there are still a few little bits, like you’ll hear them doing impressions of each other and stuff, its fun.
Well obviously you had Danny in Thomas Was Alone, did you start early on thinking, I’ve got to get him back, he’s got to be in this one?
Mike: Danny and me were doing PR stuff for Thomas Was Alone, and we were going to the bar after some interviews, chatting like ‘so what’s the next game?’ And I’d be like ‘oh a Robin Hood game’, and he’s like ‘oh cool, am I in it?’ I’m like ’Yeah yeah’. I love Danny, he’s a lovely guy, very very humble, very cool bloke to work with and he’s also my lucky charm at this point. I need to keep him, need to keep him involved.
How forgiving is the game? If the robots catch you, is there a chance to get out or is that it for you?
Mike: Well actually, tactically, there are lots of points where you can actually use being caught as a gameplay tactic. There will be times, like the high level play when you actually start to realise you can screw with the guards, like you can intentionally get their attention, get them to chase you, for somewhere that you need to loop back too, so you actually start intentionally catching out. But in terms of if you get killed, it’s a one hit kill, so if something shoots you you’re dead, but you have a bit of time between them seeing you and shooting you.
If you die, it’s an instant restart. There’s no loading screen or anything like that in the game, because in a stealth game you don’t want even 5 seconds of loading bar every time you die. It makes you play conservatively and you kind of go ‘well I’m just going to be very careful because I don’t want to see another bloody loading bar,’ so you have to get rid of that, you have to get everything happening super-fast, which we can do because of the visual styles, like it’s not loading in a million chunks of warehouse mesh.