This year’s GameCity festival saw a series of intriguing and enlightening interview events in which Mike Bithell, creator of square-shaped platformer Thomas Was Alone, asked a succession of industry luminaries the following question: WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH MY GAME?!

Well, he didn’t put it like that, but you get the picture. It was a sort of public post-mortem, designed to teach Mike a thing or to about game design – and the audience learned too. They were lovely events.

Anyway, we cornered Mike after the last one and said, “Hey Mike, do you think you could sum up all you’ve learned and write it up for us?” For some reason he didn’t say, “shove off, I’ve learned not to speak to scum like you, Stuart!” For some reason he said, “Yeah sure, next week okay?”

So yes, below is Mike telling us what he learned about game design at GameCity. Over to you, Mike!

Criticism is important. It’s really, really, mindbogglingly important. This year, I made a game called Thomas Was Alone. It’s a 2D minimalist platformer. It is quite good. 79 on metacritic. It is not perfect. In fact, I kind of hope it’s the worst indie game I ever make. So I want feedback. Fortunately, this is the Internet, so I get a lot. If you’ve got any, you can email me on mike at thomaswasalone dot com. It’s always appreciated.

So when the organisers of GameCity asked me to do a postmortem of the game, I had some ideas for stuff to talk about. I was also a little scared. I wasn’t sure I was qualified to really give advice at an event with a guest list like GameCity’s (He’s talking about me – Keith). I needed help. We came up with the idea of a series of onstage panels with legendary developers and experts. They would play my game, and I’d ask them what they thought. The results were better than I could possibly have hoped, and until the recordings are put up, I thought it’d be cool to note down my top piece of advice from each panel.Hopefully these are applicable to a lot of developers, they’re certainly useful to me.

Get them interested fast
Courtesy of Leigh Alexander and Brandon Boyer

This is one that is a big part of my commercial work, arguably even more so in social. But I think I might of underestimated its importance in an indie game. Brandon in particular had played the game’s demo, but it hadn’t held his attention amazingly well. And it’s a fair point. For the first 10 levels of the game you only have one character, which sort of misses the ‘point’ of the game. Also, I think a few of the tutorial bits might have outstayed their welcome, maybe even underestimated the audience. Something to consider for next time.

Stories should be satisfying
Courtesy of Antony Johnston and Kieron Gillen

These chaps gave me a ton of very cool and specific advice, I’ve got a big email of moment by moment feedback to get through once the dust has settled. But a theme emerged: the arcs of Thomas’ story might not have been as fully realised as possible. A couple of things built without payoff, a couple of characters might be superfluous. The story was ultimately written to serve gameplay, but maybe a couple of edits might have been in order. It’s enough to make me consider bringing in a writer to consult on my next hobby project.

I want to be like Martin Hollis when I grow up
Courtesy of Martin Hollis

Like many of my guests, Mr Hollis was a very short notice addition, and was a very cool guy for agreeing to talk to the idiot with the platforming game. He’s also a hero of mine, a pioneering designer who has evolved with every trend in game design and distribution. And he was awesome. He said very nice things about the game and made my evening, actively derailing any attempt I made to get critical feedback. If I ever achieve legendary status even approaching Martin’s, I really hope I’m at least half as generous, welcoming and good humoured as he is.

A background is a hell of a thing to waste
Courtesy of Adam Saltsman, Paul Veer and Sven Ruthner

The backgrounds for Thomas are randomised clouds of 2D shapes floating in parallax space. They’re there to imply depth, and to look vaguely pretty. It never occurred to me that I could use backgrounds in the game to tell my story, or to imply more interesting surroundings. I feel kind of stupid for that. These guys totally called it, and suggested some examples of how cool backgrounds, better thought out environment animations and more involved lighting could really boost atmosphere. I do some stuff with the pixel clouds later, but it’s too little, far too late. One to think on for future work.

Never underestimate the importance of even a subtle choice
Courtesy of Graeme Norgate

Once I’d stopped gushing about my love for Second Sight, Graeme had some interesting insights on the game, pointing out the success of the music and voice over (awesome work from my collaborators David Housden and Danny Wallace) and some issues surrounding the sound effects (less awesome work by me). The lesson in this for me was attention to detail. I’d made the jumps, lands and switch sounds in a free app, fiddling till they sounded ‘right’.. But they were weak when stacked up against great work from others. Really should have got a pro to do them for me.

I’m proud of the game, and very grateful to those who offered their time and experience to help me to pick apart its issues. I’m on a journey with my work, and it’s help like this that gives me momentum.

Thanks for reading, now go make something awesome. Then ask someone even more awesome to tell you what they think of it.