Mike Bithell interview: John Wick, crunch culture and going to Hollywood

Mike Bithell, the head of Bithell Games and the developer behind Thomas Was Alone and Volume, gave a talk at the Yorkshire Games Festival in last month about the making of his studio’s latest game, John Wick Hex. He had some interesting anecdotes about the unlikely scenario of a small British indie studio making a licensed tie-in for a big Hollywood movie, but the thing everyone wanted to ask him about was his comment on crunch culture right at the end of his talk.

I had a 15-minute interview slot with Mike later in the day – here’s what we chatted about (my questions in bold).

One of the most interesting things you said in that talk I think was…

I said something interesting interesting in that talk?! [Pause while we both laugh]

You were talking about going to see the martial artists, and then they said they wanted to use your game… [For context, Mike met some martial artists and videoed their moves to use as a guide for making John Wick Hex, then they asked whether they could use a version of the game to plan out fight choreography]

Yeah, that was a nice moment … so I don’t know if you played John Wick [Hex] but it’s a fight choreography game, so you’re figuring out the flow through a fight. And yeah, they were playing it like, ‘we can use this’. I definitely don’t think that they’re going to now use this as the core of that process, but it’s a nice little prototype fight sim, because the whole the way modern fight scenes are done – I don’t know if this has always been the case, but definitely how they’re done on John Wick – is that they basically workshop them. So they’ll have an environment, they’ll know how big the room is, where the cameras can be set up, and they’ll just start figuring out the flow and working out all that. So our game kind of models some of that process, by giving you the time to make those decisions, so it’s it’s an interesting kind of overlap.

Yeah, it struck me as quite different, because normally the flow goes from films into games and not the other way around.

You know, the best example I can think of from someone else’s project was there was a Captain America video game that was made – I want to say it was Sega or Activision, I can’t remember who made it. [Our lovable fact-checking Victorian ragamuffin informs us “It was Sega, guv’nor.”] But there was a Captain America game that was made based on the first movie, and they had a bunch of fight moves in it, and the story goes that the reason the second one – what was it, Winter Soldier – the reason why in Winter Soldier his fight style is so much cooler, is because Chris Evans had played the video game. And there were these cool animations, because basically this game team were like: ‘What can you do with a shield? Oh, you could bounce it off someone!’ And they built all these animations, and Chris Evans played that game and went ‘Why can’t I do that in the movie?’ I think that’s the best example of a video game directly… We’ve not done that to John Wick, but maybe we will! But that Captain America story’s great.

Speaking of the John Wick licence, how did that ever come about? Because it seems such an unlikely thing…

It is super weird, isn’t it!

Like, let’s get the guy who does the geometric shapes!

Yeah, the pretentious hipster nerd guy! The one thing John Wick needs is feelings!

I know, it was super weird. So Good Shepherd – the publisher – and Lionsgate, they knew each other. I think they met at a conference and had some conversations, and they were already starting to build like a friendship between the two companies. And yeah, they were just looking at all of the stuff that Lionsgate had, in terms of Hunger Games, Twilight, John Wick. And Good Shepherd were like, wait a minute, John Wick, that’s cool, we could do something with that.

And they went out to a bunch of studios and got pitches for exactly what you would kind of think, like a third-person action John Wick game. And they were talking with Lionsgate about that and talking among themselves, and they were kind of like, well, it’s not very interesting and it’s not very original, and maybe that’s not the best kind of place to be going with this. So yeah, that kind of fell through, and they were like, well, let’s do something creative. They brought in a producer called Ben Andac, who was like ‘You need to get someone weird.’ And they said, ‘Who shall we get?’ and he was like ‘I know a weird guy.’ And he brought me in and asked me what I would do with it, and I pitched a strategy game and apparently that just lit up a lot of lights for them. And then yeah, I ended up flying to Hollywood with my laptop to kind of show a prototype.

What was it like going to Hollywood?

I mean, that became eventually routine, because like during production, I was there once a month. But that first time, it was like Entourage or Get Shorty or something, going into Hollywood’s kind of system and structure and meeting people was just wild.

Did you feel out of your depth at any point?

Um, yeah, like, throughout the whole process! I didn’t know anyone in that world, I didn’t know what that [world] was. So yeah, you feel very out of your depth. I was saying to someone else, what’s interesting about Hollywood is everyone’s out of their depth, everyone’s faking it, and everyone’s just moved there. Because it’s an industry that sucks in people from all over the world, so yes, you’re new and you feel out of place, but that’s kind of the vibe everyone has.

So I didn’t feel like an outsider, because everyone was outside, and I fitted in. It was a fascinating process. And then the relationship builds up, and I was going over there once a month to meet with executives, with the filmmakers themselves, or whatever.

Actually, speaking of that, one of the things you mentioned in the talk is that the nerds are now the executives.

Yeah, it’s true. And I think you can kind of tell in terms of what movies are getting made now. That age bracket of people who have power in the film industry are now people who grew up playing in arcades or had a console at home, and therefore they want good games. They don’t just want to slap the logo on something and make some money; they want legacy, they want stuff that’s gonna be written about positively. With John Wick, they knew that Hex was interesting enough to be newsworthy even without the IP, so a big thing for them was this is positively going to help the brand.

And it did – they got lots and lots of positive… I remember being in meetings with executives and an assistant running in with Variety, and they’d done a positive write-up, then showing that to their boss, and they were just excited because they’re seeing all this goodwill and positivity. So yeah, it was nice to be able to have that shared with them.

It strikes me as well that we don’t see many game licenses based on films anymore.

Generally not on console and PC: they’ve all gone to mobile, because that’s where the big mainstream audience is, and that’s 100% valid. Like, if you want a Marvel video game, good news, there’s one released every month on mobile. That’s fine, because that’s where the audience is now, and I think that’s fair enough. If I was a license holder, I’d go where the money was, that’s absolutely valid.

I think what John Wick Hex demonstrates in a really interesting way is that you might not be going after the billions of dollars on mobile, but if you make something interesting and weird, you can have an out-sized impact. And that has its own benefits, and John Wick gets a boost from that relationship. So it’s, you know, a very small one, obviously, compared to the success of the films, but it’s a nice, virtuous circle.

Like you say, it generates a lot of positive coverage for you and the film.

Yeah, so all of us do well out of that relationship, and obviously that’s the kind of working relationship I like to have with publishers and license holders, I want all of us to benefit. Often, as the pretentious indie in the equation, I’m benefiting most because they’re letting me play with the cool toys, but yeah.

It’s still quite unusual, the idea of getting a kind of indie game developer with such a big film license. Do you think that’s something we’re going to see more of?

I hope so. I think we’ve kind of acted as a good test case, we’ve shown that you can do that, make decent money, get good, positive reviews, and have positive coverage in general. We’ve provided a template, and I know, for example, a chap at the publisher, they’ve spoken in public about, you know, we want to do more of this kind of thing. It’s always very cool as a developer when the publisher changes their strategy based on your game being quite successful – that’s always a sign that things are going OK! So I think it’s gonna continue, I think there’s gonna be more of that kind of thing.

One thing that struck me about the potential drawback to that is the risks are raised quite a bit when you’re dealing with licensed properties.

Do you think so?

Well, in terms of actually paying for the license, you know.

Well that can be worked on, like there’s lots of different structures you can go with in terms of the costs of that. I’d say that a lot of the risks disappear, right? Coverage: I can get press if I’m promoting John Wick at E3. People are going to come by and play it, because they know that their audience will click on a link, there’s going to be interest in seeing what a John Wick game is, so there’s actually a lot of risk mitigation in that. And also that goes for sales, right? Like our game is released, I don’t have to teach you what our game is, you’re going to see a word you recognize and that has value. That’s why there are so many remakes. So there’s actually a lot of risk that comes down because of that relationship. But you know, there’s challenges to it. But I think generally it’s actually a bit less risky.

So would you suggest other indies should directly approach license holders? It sounds like your publisher organized this one for you, but is this something that…

Yeah, I think so. Weirder things have worked. Like we’ve looked into licensed stuff before, and we’ve had relationships, and we talked to people, so I think you can just reach out. Often, the license holder maybe is looking for a studio with a reputation. If you’re an indie studio that’s had a couple of games that have been successful and you can link to some articles, you know, good reviews on major websites, then I think people will be surprised by what you can get by being cheeky. I’ve built a pretty good career out of just being a bit cheeky, and asking for things I probably shouldn’t be asking for.

I was just thinking in terms of licences, you dropped dark hints that you might be working on some other IPs.

I mean, it’s a possibility. It worked for us. I think there’s a possibility we’d do it again. Like, we’re not doing that again yet, but I can definitely see it as something we would consider in the future.

One thing that really perked my ears up [in the talk], because it’s something that a lot of people are talking about at the moment, is running a crunchless studio.

Yes, everyone’s wanted to talk to me about that. It’s a good thing to talk about.

It’s a big topic. And of course, this week Dan Houser stepped down, and he famously said he was working hundred-hour weeks, and having his team work hundred-hour weeks. And you said that kind of crunch culture is taken for granted, like it’s just seen as normal, but you don’t think that has to be the case.

I don’t think it has to be. I think we as an industry do assume that crunch is just how games are made, and I think it’s the job of people like me who really don’t want to crunch, and don’t want our teams to have to crunch, to demonstrate in frankly the only way possible, which is to make and ship successful games that you don’t have to crunch.

Except me, because I own the studio, so I crunch, that’s fair enough. It’s crunchless from an employee point of view. If you own a company, it’s OK… if your name is the literal name of the company, then fair enough, you can work over.

It’s a myth, we don’t have to do it. We can choose to not do it. So yeah, that’s what we do, that’s why I’m vocal about it, because I want people to look at our work and go: ‘Oh, you can make a game like that, and no one works weekends.’

But then I would bring you up on that and say that there’s also the fact of leading by example.

That’s true. That’s true. And there is a core hypocrisy there that I definitely work on. I’ve talked to my team a lot about it in terms of like, yeah, it’s something that we impose, but it’s also very important actually reiterating [it] a lot and saying ‘you will not impress me by doing too much work’. And yes, definitely on my own, I’m working on that. I’ve started not working evenings, which is a big step for me. So I’m getting better.

OK, just one more question. So in practical terms, how does that work, how do you actually not crunch?

Project management. So it’s just about time management, it’s making sure that you schedule appropriately, that you’re learning how long it takes your team to do certain tasks, and planning accordingly. And then it’s also about allowing yourself failure, you know.

In the presentation, I talked about how we kind of course-corrected a few months in, when we’d made one kind of game, and [decided] actually we need to do something a bit different here. If we hadn’t planned for it, that would have triggered crunch, because we’d have more work to do and we’d be in trouble. But when I’m scheduling a project, I add months and months, and lots of budget to cover those months, because I assume there will be something like that where I’ll have to change course. And if you go in making those assumptions and making smart choices, then you can absorb it, and we did. John Wick came out, and no one crunched. Except me! And I’m working on that last caveat.

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