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Bithell leaves Bossa to go it alone

Thomas Was Alone dev gives up the day job to become a full time indie

First Thomas Was Alone, and now its creator Mike Bithell is. He's just announced that he's left Bossa, where he's worked as a lead designer since February 2011, to concentrate on indie development.

In case you've somehow missed this wunderkind's story so far, he's the sole developer behind indie smash Thomas Was Alone, a game he created while trying to teach himself Unity, and while holding down a full time job. The hard work paid off though, and now the success of Thomas Was Alone has allowed him to make leap in to totally independent development, even if he hasn't got round to buying a desk yet.

On Friday, his last day in the Bossa offices, we spoke to Mike about the success of Thomas and his plans for the future.

GamesIndustry International So what's the big news?
Mike Bithell

So I'm talking to you just as I'm about to go for my leaving drinks. Thomas did very well, not miraculously well, not FTL well, but kind of well enough and it's given me enough money in the bank to go and see what I can do for a couple of years. So I'm going off to become a full indie.

GamesIndustry International So not gold toilet status, but enough money that you feel confident enough to do your own thing for a little while?
Mike Bithell

Maybe bronze - well, you wouldn't want a bronze toilet seat, that wouldn't work. It's too soft a metal. But yes, exactly, it's not like... I don't want to underplay it but I don't want to overplay it either, it's done very well, much much better than I frankly expected.

GamesIndustry International Why is now the right time to go it alone? Is it purely financial?
Mike Bithell

It just feels like a really exciting time to go indie. I'd always wanted to go and do my own thing at some point, and once the financial stuff kind of made a bit more sense it felt like time to go and experiment. It's a time now where that's actually possible, it's possible to go off, make a game that's kind of niche and small but find an audience that likes it and then to continue doing that indefinitely. The kind of downloadable stuff that's available to you just makes that possible in a way that it's arguably never been before, which is very exciting.

GamesIndustry International So this was the always the dream, the success has just allowed you to do it perhaps sooner?
Mike Bithell

Yeah, basically. It was always the thing I was going to do "if I ever have this much money in the bank I'll have to go and try this." And then I did. It was kind of like winning the lottery after two years of hard work buying lottery tickets, so it's cool. And yeah, it just felt like the right time to do it.

GamesIndustry International So do you already know what you're going to be working on next?
Mike Bithell

I've got a couple of things, I'm not fully there yet. There's one specific genre for which I've been designing a game in my head for since I was eight, and then there's definitely a lot of stuff that I learnt on Thomas to do with story and storytelling and character stuff that I kind of want to explore a bit more. So I've not nailed it down yet. To be honest it's going to be a case of just going for a few months and starting to play around with ideas, see what works, see what doesn't.

I'm not someone who, when designing's not a case of sitting down and writing the 200 page document. It's more a case of building something, building some rectangles, building some cubes, and see what happens and find the fun in that and then hopefully build it out into something that starts to feel cohesive. I'm not going to stick to rectangles this time, I'm going to try and be a bit more ambitious, but it's a good way to start and it's a good way for me to find the game and from that hopefully story starts to happen.

And also I've obviously now got this insanely cool community around Thomas that I can go to and get their opinions on stuff and I really want to try and kind of build it in that way along with the community, but without the need to do a Kickstarter which is cool. I can do all the cool community stuff which Kickstarters have shown works, but I don't have to ask people for money yet, because I don't know what the game is yet so I don't feel I'm ready to quite ask that question.

GamesIndustry International So is Kickstarter something you would consider further down the line?
Mike Bithell

I'm not going to rule it out, it's something that as you say I've not got a pressing need to keep the wolves away. I might be in that position in a year or so, we'll see! But I think the exciting thing about Kickstarter is that it involves people, that's the big shift, and that's happening in Twitter, I love Twitter, I'm always on Twitter, so talking to people and that side of game development has become massive in the last couple of years in a way that it wasn't before and players are getting very excited about that. And I think that the game designers I admire are getting excited about that too.

So I wouldn't rule out Kickstarter. I wouldn't be comfortable asking for money for something that I hadn't quite worked out what it was yet, so at some point if I'm feeling I've kind of worked it out a bit more and I kind of know what I'm making, who knows? But not short term.

GamesIndustry International So are you planning to go it alone for your next project or would you like to build a team?

"I never start a game expecting to be the right solution. I know with Thomas Was Alone the folder on my computer that all of the source code is in is called: Teaching Myself Unity"

Mike Bithell

I'm very lucky in that I've got the indie community already which bounces stuff around quite a bit, which is really awesome. I know that I can send emails to friends and get massive lengthy articles back on their thoughts. Which is great, and that's kind of there already. In terms of the actual day to day production I think short term it's going to be me, just kind of fiddling and working out, but if there's a gap and there's something I don't know or don't think I can learn to the standard that needs to be done then I bring people in.

That's what happened with Thomas. I'm not a musician by any means, so I found David Housden who did the incredible music for that and then my voice is kind of nasal and lame so I got Danny Wallace, a professional, to do the voice over. So if there's a gap then absolutely, I think you'd be foolish not to, and kind of identifying where the gaps are is part of the process.

But I definitely want to learn some new skills and things on this one, so I might try and keep some of the jobs for myself to be honest, and see if I can build out in any direction.

GamesIndustry International So on the first day of sitting down at your desk as an indie, what will you be excited about and what will you be nervous about?
Mike Bithell

Well I think step one is buy the desk! I'm incredibly unprepared for this, I have a very rickety kitchen table and chair in my flat that's never been used that was there when we moved in. I think Monday is going to be mainly buying office chairs and maybe a desk. But then for me it's just booting up Unity and starting to play with some concepts. It's still very much up in the air but there's obviously a few things I want to try and play and experiment with. So it's probably initially a lot like jamming, just building stuff and seeing what works and what doesn't work and hoping it takes shape at some point.

I never start a game expecting to be the right solution. I know with Thomas the folder on my computer that all of my Thomas source code is in is called "Teaching Myself Unity" because I was treating it as a self learning exercise, and then two years had passed and I'd made a game and it was like "oh, OK, I'd better release it."

So I'm just going to play, basically, and I do have some specific areas I want to play with, so that's probably going to guide me for the next couple of months just to work out if it's the right thing.

GamesIndustry International So as you prepare to leave for your goodbye drinks - how has Bossa helped you get to this point?
Mike Bithell

It's been awesome. I need to quieten down my tone a bit because my absolute boss is very close, but it's been awesome. It's just this amazing company with absolutely cool people. I was the first person they hired, and now I tried to work out how many people there are and I don't know, but there's a lot more than six. And just seeing the company grow and getting that kind of insight into how a company gets cool, and then just all the people that a company does hire. They have a lot of very very talented people in this room, and I was very lucky to pick up as much as I have from them.

I'm going to miss it, to be honest. I'm going to miss being in a room full of cool people, I think I might go a little bit crazy without them. But they've been awesome and so supportive with Thomas, there's not many games companies that would allow someone to make a game in their own time and then sell it independently and do all that kind of stuff. They're badass.

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Rachel Weber avatar
Rachel Weber: Rachel Weber has been with GamesIndustry since 2011 and specialises in news-writing and investigative journalism. She has more than five years of consumer experience, having previously worked for Future Publishing in the UK.
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