Thomas Was Alone Developer Interview – Exclusive
WhatCulture talks exclusively to indie developer Mike Bithell
When somebody asks you to suggest a game for them to play that will make them care about the characters, keep them engaged in the story and be the type of game they just cant put down, most of you probably think of games like the Mass Effect trilogy, Final Fantasy games, maybe even something like Spec Ops: The Line. Recently I have found that when asked that question I had a new and unexpected answer in the form of Thomas Was Alone. With nothing more than a series of monochromatic blocks to keep me company, I soon found myself immersed in one of most endearing games I have played in years.
The characters may just be rectangles and squares, but I found myself caring about the journey Thomas and his friends were going on more than any game in recent memory. I was recently able to sit down with the games developer Mike Bithell to chat about the game, his advice for aspiring game developers, the genre of his next game and much more. Read on, and discover the magical world of Thomas Was Alone.
Laura: For those who don’t know, could you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about Thomas Was Alone?
Mike: My name is Mike, I’m a game designer at a studio called Bossa in London, we make awesome social games. In my evenings I make indie games like Thomas Was Alone. Thomas is a game about friendship and jumping… you guide a group of rectangles with differing abilities through an environment. It started as a gamejam a year and a half ago, and I’ve been developing it into a fully fledged game since then.
Laura: Having Danny Wallace narrate the experience really added a huge amount of characterisation to a very minimalist platformer, without the narration this is a platformer where your character is a coloured square devoid of any recognisable personality. What was the experience like for you as a developer taking that kind of risk? Were you confident that the personality of your squares would shine though or were you worried that others might not warm to the characters?
Mike: The way the mechanics were designed, it kind of felt like the characters needed to be rectangular, and I decided to go all out for this minimalist look. I was afraid of that feeling sterile, which is where the voiceover comes in. Danny has a naturally warm tone and is a great storyteller.. I knew that with the right story he could do something awesome.
Laura: How did you go about getting Danny Wallace on board to narrate the game? How did you pitch the idea to him?
Mike: Kinda boring really, I just emailed him. I sent him a WiP build of the game, a description of why I thought he was the man to do it.. and we kind of took it from there. He’s been awesome, and has delivered a fantastic performance.
Laura: The games minimalist visual style is mirrored in the games soundtrack, which is simple yet works incredibly well to enhance the game experience. What were the main things you were looking for when selecting the music for the game?
Mike: I was really lucky with the music. I knew I wanted something minimalist but emotionally affecting, fortunately I met David through a colleague, and he did an awesome demo piece (it ended up being used for the credits of the game). I tried to keep the brief, well, brief.. because I wanted him to bring his own style. I think I said something along the lines of ‘Clint Mansell discovered chiptunes’ to him, which he totally spun off into his own direction. The soundtrack is incredible, and adds so much to the game.
Laura: Why do you think so many big name sites have picked up on a minimalist game created by one person? What is it about Thomas Was Alone that has caught the critical communities attention
Mike: I’m a very noisy chap. Ask anyone who follows me on Twitter. I’ve been pestering game journalist about my weird little game for a year now, and I think once they started to hear good things from each other, the big sites kinda new what it was, and started the gears turning on reviews. Really chuffed with the coverage, here’s hoping it continues. :)
Laura: What were your inspirations when designing Thomas was alone?
Mike: Design-wise I owe a lot to Valve, the way they structure a puzzle, and structure a narrative. In terms of the writing, I was heavily influenced by Danny’s writing (lucky I cast him to read it, really) and Douglas Adams. I’d also put Mario up there, I owe my jump to Mario World on the GameBoy.
Laura: What advice do you have for our readers who are looking to get into game development?
Mike: Develop a game. A whole game. A game with a beginning and an end. By doing that, and doing it to a level you’re proud of, you’re ahead of 90% of the people who want to do this for a living. After that, it’s about being a good person, getting your stuff to the studios you like, and working hard. And never be afraid to email someone you admire for advice, you’d be amazed who will reply.
Laura: Do you have any plans for the future you can tell us about?
Mike: I want to play some more in the world of Thomas, so I imagine there’ll be some updates. Other than that, I want to try my hand at another genre… tactical play and adventure gaming are two things that intrigue me, so I might do something in those areas.
Laura: What positives and negatives did you find developing the game by yourself as opposed to working as part of a larger team?
Mike: The positives are kind of obvious.. full creative control, and the ability to indulge any designs you want to try out. The negatives are less immediately obvious. You aren’t learning from your betters, bouncing ideas off people is harder. You also learn a lot of respect for everyone who does jobs you don’t, things involving contracts and businessy stuff.
Laura: Many people I have shown the game to have suggested that the earlier stages of the game would make a great interactive story about uniqueness and friendship for children, but that the difficulty of later stages could be a problem for younger players. Is this something that occurred to you when designing the game?
Mike: Difficulty is the single hardest thing to get right. There are high profile reviews of Thomas which say it’s too easy, others that say it’s too hard, even a few that say it’s just right. I think a kid who can manage a mario or lego starwars shouldn’t have too much of an issue with the game’s later stages, but yeah, I really wrestled with where to place things difficulty wise. In the end, I balanced for a mid-skilled gamer.
Laura: Lastly, do you have any final words?
Mike: Gosh. A lot of pressure. Umm. I guess that there’s nothing special or magical about making games. It’s awesome, but it’s an awesome thing that anyone reading this can do, if they’re willing to work hard for it. Go make games. It’s sort of the best job in the world.