A tale of friendship: The making of Thomas Was Alone
From PC to PS Vita
Indie favourite Thomas Was Alone arrived on PS Vita this week – a notable addition to the handheld's line up, and part of Sony's wider plan to revive the ailing platform's fortunes with ports of indie hits.
Created by Mike Bithell and bought to PS Vita as well as PlayStation 3 by Curve Studios, Thomas Was Alone is a puzzle platformer with minimalist visuals belying an engaging story about friendship.
Its already been the recipient of a number of awards following its release on PC, and this new handheld version is currently attracting a similarly warm reception.
In the latest of our making of series, we speak to Bithell about Thomas Was Alone's humble origins, its role in the PS Vita's attempted resurgence and how a one-man band overcame the difficulties of spreading the word.
Thomas Was Alone began life as a Flash prototype created by Bithell over the course of a weekend in 2010, while the designer was still employed by console developer Blitz Games.
Alongside the eponymous protagonist, this early version of Thomas Was Alone featured a cast of characters represented by differently proportioned rectangles, all of whom had their own abilities with which to traverse the environment.
Following the game's release on the Flash game portal Kongregate, and the positive reception it received, Bithell felt the basic concept could be expanded upon.
"The big thing was I called it Thomas Was Alone kind of at random," he says. "But that implied a story, and players got really into it. They came up with their own stories, cared about characters. There was something there, and I wanted to build on it."
At the heart of this was Bithell's desire to develop the prototype's narrative, although he's characteristically unassuming about how the idea progressed.
"Oh Brother, Where Art Thou, weirdly, was the primary catalyst," he says.
"Watching that with a friend and thinking about how buddy games weren't really a thing. Then I combined that with some platforming ideas I wanted... and that was that really."
Each of the different characters in the game were fleshed out and given personalities that built upon their unique abilities, thus tying the visuals with both the gameplay and the narrative.
One thing that didn't receive a drastic overhaul, however, were the visuals. Although improved over the Flash prototype, the use of basic geometric shapes for the characters and world remained.
According to Bithell, this was due in no small part to the project's financial constraints as well his own limitations as an artist.
"I couldn't do detailed 3D character meshes," he says. "Once I accepted that, I tried to work out how to make the most of the limitations I had, which meant a lot of research into minimalism and graphic design."
"I'm proud of the result. Hopefully people can see that thought went into making what I had look good."
To bring all of these elements together, Bithell wrote a script narrating the cast's adventures, fleshing out the relationships and injecting some warmth and humour. To provide the voice work he identified Danny Wallace, the British actor, broadcaster, writer and filmmaker.
But with Wallace's celebrity considered to be a potential stumbling point, alternative plans were formulated.
"I wrote the part for Danny, then spent a while trying to find a soundalike," says Bithell.
"One evening, after hearing many guys who's only sin was not being him, I found his email on a fansite and emailed him a build. He liked the game and script, and we took it from there.
"It looks like I got my first choice for my next game too," teases Bithell, "so I'm feeling a bit spoiled."
Not every element of Thomas Was Alone's development was quite so smooth, however. Bithell identifies a lack of coding skills as well as his full-time job (he moved from Blitz to a role as lead gameplay designer at Bossa Studios in 2011), as significant challenges.
"I think it took about a year and a half to make, evenings and weekends," says Bithell, lamenting "many missed pub visits."
"I used Unity to build the game, with some minimal Photoshop and Illustrator use around the edges. Not being able to code was a big challenge, initially, but Unity is great and the community dragged me kicking and screaming into making something decent.
"I think it actually ended up exceeding my plans, in the end. It really came together. Because of the limited time I had working around a day job, I had to plan quite tightly, so it all fell into place pretty well."
All of this was helped along by Bithell's use of social media to promote the game. "Twitter is sort of where I live at this point," he says.
"Without that direct connection to players and press, I can't see how I would have got the word out. I also try and send personal emails to people I think would like the game."
There's also the small matter of a spoof making of video documenting the game's fictional motion capture sessions. Released on April Fool's day, its ingenuity ensured that many of the major gaming outlets picked it up.
The approach paid off.
Such was Thomas Was Alone's popularity following release that it picked up numerous awards within the specialist press and beyond, a feat capped by a Best Performer gong for Danny Wallace at the BAFTA 2013 Games Awards.
It was around this time that the PS Vita and PS3 ports of the game were announced, with help from Bithell's ex-colleagues at Bossa Studios and Curve Studios.
The deal came about "from all directions," says Bithell. "I really fancied the game going to consoles, and approached my then employer, Bossa Studios, to help me make that happen business-wise.
"Simultaneously Curve was starting to investigate publishing indie on console, and Shahid [Ahmad, Senior Business Development Manager at Sony Computer Entertainment Europe] wanted Thomas Was Alone on his platform... we all kinda got talking and hatched a plan."
That plan resulted in an enhanced version of the game, with a commentary by Bithell himself alongside the new Benjamin's Flight DLC.
More than just a chance to bring Thomas Was Alone to a new market, the deal is of vital importance to Sony's new approach to PS Vita.
In the months following the announcement of the Thomas Was Alone port, a large number indie hits have been announced for release on Sony's handheld, including such celebrated titles as Stealth Inc: A Clone in the Dark (formerly Stealth Bastard), Machinarium, Spelunky and Hotline Miami.
It's a huge shift in focus for Sony, which initially marketed the PS Vita as a handheld device capable of delivering home console-like experiences.
That approach didn't pay off, as the Vita has massively underperformed during its first year on the market. Now the platform-holder is turning to indies for salvation.
Bithell believes it's a wise move.
"I think indies are an amazing source of new and fresh games," says.
"Indie has already become a massive sector of PC gaming, just look at the Steam charts, and I think Sony are being really smart in attempting to bring this segment to its console.
"It has swung the doors wide open and Sony is doing everything it can to make us feel welcome. Thomas Was Alone is one of the first experiments, I can't wait to see where this goes, as a dev and as a consumer."
"I'd love to see Thomas Was Alone do as well as it did on PC, but only time will tell. Sony is doing a lot to help promote it, so fingers crossed this game could do really well."
Regardless, however, Bithell sympathises with the PS Vita's struggles.
"I honestly don't know enough to be super useful in my opinions, but I think it's a hard time to launch a console," says Bithell. "Companies can't rely on awesome tech to do this anymore, they need to show valuable experiences to players. That's where cool games can be useful."
It will be interesting to see how both the Vita version of Thomas Was Alone performs, especially considering it adopts Sony's Cross Buy feature, ensuring that one purchase unlocks the game across both PlayStation 3 and PS Vita. Despite its relatively diminutive status, it's an important release.
Looking to the future, with a hit game under his belt Bithell feels his role within the development community has changed.
"As Thomas Was Alone has become better known, I've been able to put less work into shouting from the rooftops about it, and more time celebrating and sharing indie work that passes my way," he says. "I like that switch."
Not that Bithell has turned his back on games development. Indeed, the success of Thomas Was Alone has allowed him to strike out on his own full-time, leaving Bossa Studios to pursue his dream.
"I'm working on something new, and I think it's good." he says. "I guess the world - and more importantly, the internet - will decide soon enough."
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