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Thomas Was Alone Dev: Indie Means 'I Get To Do Exactly What I Want'

Mike Bithell’s had a crazy year. He went from being one of a few dozen developers at U.K.-based Bossa Studios to becoming a solo indie creator supporting a game on multiple platformers. What prompted the drastic lifestyle change? The steady climb of acclaim around his minimalist platformer Thomas Was Alone.

Thomas just came out this week for PlayStation hardware and supports the Cross-Play feature that lets players pick up their progress on either platform. Hopefully, thousands more players are discovering how the game’s charm sneaks up on you, moving from deceptively simple jumping to genuine concern for characters who are, well, just blocks.

Bithell was kind enough to answer a few questions from me over e-mail. In the Q&A below, he talks about the difficulty of bringing Thomas to PlayStation platforms, the critical reactions to Thomas he took to heart and what he’s working on next.

Kotaku: When did the conversations start about bringing Thomas Was Alone to PS3 and Vita? Were you going to stop with Steam if those talks didn’t happen? Did you/do you have plans for a mobile port?

Bithell: So the game came out, reviewed well and had a bit of buzz. I could tell that there might be further opportunities. I went to my then employer, Bossa to help me work out the business side of it.. they shepherded me through the process. Simultaneously, Shahid at Sony was a big fan of the game and keen on bringing to his platforms. Curve, who I knew some guys at, were doing some cool work bringing indie games to PSN, so it all seemed to fit really nicely together.

I was always going to look into options beyond the desktop, and got into some preliminary conversations elsewhere, but it was Sony who seemed to have this excitement about the game, and a passion for turning their systems into havens for indie games in the living room.

On mobile, I’m still trying to work out a way to do the game justice on a touch screen. If I solve that problem, I’ll happily bring it to those places too.

Kotaku: What were the challenges in getting Thomas to work on these new systems? How did Curve Studios — who handled the port — tackle them?

Bithell: Well, first of all, Unity didn’t at the time support Vita (they will soon). So the best option available to us was to rebuild. The team at Curve rebuilt the entire game from scratch, building their own tools to import my levels from Unity into their own engine. Incredibly impressive stuff. After that, it’s all about polish… Console gamers will not accept the hiccups of an indie game, and Sony strive to keep a standard of excellence in the performance and quality of their games.

There was also a dev at Curve who took on making the game 60fps/1080p as his personal mission. The dude did it. That passionate awesomeness accompanied the entirety of my time working with Curve on this.

Kotaku: Did you start out consciously trying to make a game about friendship and jumping, that is to say the bigger themes of how people relate to each other? Or did you work on designing the puzzles and mechanics first, with the other stuff coming later?

Bithell: I’m chuffed at how organically it grew. I think the idea of ‘switching characters’ came first, but the act of playing that game informed where the project would go thematically. I’d come up with ‘I want a floating character’ and then think about how she would react to that ability, or I thought ‘I want someone arrogant’ and work out which mechanic would support that. It all kind of gelled.

Kotaku: The one thing that intrigues me most about Thomas is the pacing. The dialogue nodes are like the collectible breadcrumbs of this game. How do you decide where to place them?

Bithell: Well, first off, I obviously wanted them reasonably evenly paced.. as I knew players would (hopefully) look forward to them, and they’d define the rhythm of the game to an extent. But on top of that, I also knew I wanted the game to have structure.

So, the 10 chapters, they form a meta-structure which kind of follows the standard three-act film structure. That informed everything in the telling of the story, and the narration hopefully breadcrumbs between those key story beats well. I think the one place this falls down a bit is in the final act, I follow the right structure, but a choice made for gameplay reasons slightly dulls the player’s emotional investment. A lesson was learned.

Kotaku: The Benjamin’s Flight levels in the PlayStation exclusive feel harder at the ones at the outset than the beginning of the main game. Was this a conscious decision, driven by thinking that it’d be played by people who’ve already finished with the main game?

Bithell: Thomas is not a hard game. I never wanted it to be. I hoped that players would have a chilled out experience getting to the end. Some reviews have criticised this, and I totally get that. I know I felt similarly about games that did the same thing. I still kinda feel that’s a big part of the game’s appeal for many of its fans though, so no regrets.

With the DLC, I was indeed making content intended for those who had completed the main game. I therefore didn’t feel bad at all about upping the challenge a bit. I also kinda had to. Benjamin’s power is immensely unbalanced to other characters; he can get anywhere. Difficulty in the form of hazards was a good way of honing that in and bringing back some challenge.

Kotaku: Do you feel like there’s a list of absolute no-nos of things you can’t do as an indie creator?

Bithell: I actually feel the opposite. There are no areas indie games shouldn’t be exploring. There are some in the indie community who are pushing for a specific kind of game or style as ‘proper indie’. That’s cool, as long as they don’t seek to apply that criteria to other people’s work. We all have stuff we like, and stuff we don’t like. That’s awesome. In indie, I get to make exactly what I want, and so does everyone else.

Honestly, given the hatred some gamers feel for ‘pretentious indie games’, and the limits some developers feel on making an ‘indie game’, I’m not sure the word is as useful as it used to be. As the means of production become more open and more inclusive, I think we’re all becoming creators in some sense.

Kotaku: You’ve teased #project2 a bit on Twitter and it sounds like it’s going to be radically different from Thomas. Why should fans of your first game show up for the second?

Bithell: It’s a departure in that it’s not a game about jumping rectangles. But the focus remains the same: Trying to gel gameplay and storytelling in ways which I think are interesting. I’m also probably going to always write about flawed nerdy teens, at least until I age enough to write about flawed nerdy middle aged people.

My biggest regret in Thomas Was Alone was not inviting players to take part in the creation of the game, via writing stuff, or level design. So that’s a big theme of the next game, working out ways that I can tell the stories I want to tell, while opening up some opportunities for others to do the same.

I can’t wait to share the game with more people. I think it might be pretty good.


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