Mike Bithell: ‘Subsurface Circular Massively Outperformed What we Were Expecting it to Do’

Were you surprised with how well Subsurface Circular did, considering how short it was? Do you think that your transparency with would-be customers helped the title avoid significant backlash?

Yes, transparency massively helped us with Subsurface Circular. If anything, I think we actively downplayed what the game is. I want players to be surprised by the game. I want them to feel really good about the money they paid and want to come back to us for good games in the future. Setting expectations is a big part of that, especially when you’re making a game of a scope [that] folks might not be familiar with yet. It seems to be working.

You’ve previously been critical of the term indie and how it’s not the same as it once was in the gaming industry. Do you still hold on to that view and why?

I wouldn’t say I was critical of the word indie, beyond a fear that its meaning is so broad to be meaningless. We can see the same historically with indie music. Once the term became ‘cool,’ a badge of honor, it became adopted by such a broad range of musicians that it became a useless word from a definition perspective.

The place I most often bump into this issue is in advice. The advice I’d give about development is arguably useless to a sole developer making awesome twine games, just as the advice Mojang might give me is at a scale far beyond what I could use. ‘Indie’ is used to describe vastly different people, working at vastly different scales on vastly different games. For that reason, I think it might be time for more specificity.

Credit: Mike Bithell Games.

Do you think that a studio like Ninja Theory has changed the development process for both indie and AAA developers with Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice? Is the so-called ‘independent AAA title’ the future for many developers?

The thing I love about Hellblade is that, ultimately, the development process didn’t change as much as the funding model. Ninja Theory has demonstrated to its peers in AAA that by making smaller games, they can fund their teams and make content players love and turn up to play without a need for mega publishers. I hope to see other studios of Ninja Theory’s might and skill give it a try.

“‘Indie’ is used to describe vastly different people, working at vastly different scales on vastly different games. For that reason, I think it might be time for more specificity.” -Mike Bithell

Should the opportunity ever arise, would you be open to developing an independent AAA title in the future?

I wouldn’t presume to be ready to make games at that scale. I’d love to, and I began my time in games working at a low level on games of that scale, but I’m not ready to lead one yet. We’ll continue to grow and I’d love to get there, but I have to learn some of the lessons on the way to doing so.

Hellblade Review Screenshot

Hellblade, which was released in August for PlayStation 4 and PC, sold over 500,000 copies worldwide. Credit: Ninja Theory.

As a developer looking at the current state of the gaming industry, what have your thoughts been regarding the microtransaction fiasco that Electronic Arts has been involved in with Star Wars Battlefront II?

I’ve honestly not been paying enough attention to comment; too busy playing Assassin’s Creed [Origins].

So, where does Mike Bithell head from here in terms of future projects?

I’ll let you know when one of those future projects is ready to share.


Subsurface Circular is available for PC and iOS devices. For more on Mike Bithell Games, check out Hardcore Gamer’s review for Volume.


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