Mike Bithell

Rectangles are easy: the hidden difficulties of creating “simple” games

Rectangles are easy: the hidden difficulties of creating “simple” games

Ben's note: Hello! Mike Bithell and I were having a conversation about how “hard” or “easy” it is to make a game like Thomas Was Alone, and his insight into the development process was interesting. Whenever that happens I like to hold up my hand, politely leave the conversation, and ask him to write it down so I can share it with my readers. Enjoy!

Hi, my name's Mike and I made a game called Thomas Was Alone. It was pretty good. It's came out nearly a year ago, and is now on a slightly embarrassing number of different platforms. In fact, it's been purchased by over half a million people, a number massively skewed by its inclusion in the current Humble Bundle. Because of the game's success, I can make anything I want next, and I am. This is obviously awesome.

The biggest criticism I've seen on the internet of the game, after those stacking levels, my apologies, is its simplicity. A lot of people have complained that it's a bit like a flash game. That I used rectangles for my art because it was easy. Some slightly crueler people have described it as lazy. I worked insanely hard and made a lot of sacrifices around a full time job to make it, so it's hard not to be frustrated by these comments, but at the same time, there's a grain of truth to them.

Not the lazy bit, I work silly hours. I'm writing this at 11pm.

But there's something to the comments on the game not being very technically advanced. It isn't. It was made in the free version of Unity by a non-coder getting by on tutorials and the odd query of experts on Twitter. It was, from a technical point of view, relatively easy to make.

And that's staggering to me.

Games are becoming easy to make. You might not be able to make an RPG, but I bet you could make a rectangle jump on another rectangle if you read up on it and grabbed Unity. I bet you could set up a win condition so that when the rectangles reach their exit, the game moves on to the next level. It's a hop, skip and a jump from there to getting some music playing, and a bit of narration adding meaning to all the jumping.

If a full-on game engine like Unity doesn't appeal, then you can do fantastic things in Twine. It's amazing how many have managed to wield it for amazing new experiences. We're not quite at the point where making a game is as easy as using a paintbrush in Photoshop, or typing a line of text in Word, but we're getting there. Of course, just like Photoshop or Word, knowing where the buttons are only makes creation straightforward from a technical point of view. You won't become a great artist or writer overnight. That takes failure, learning and time. Asking a hero what software they use will yield no useful information.

And if you do make something good, there's a lot of work to do, platform integration, bug fixing, contracts, PR (oh, so much PR), porting and about a million other tasks. They're all hard, but you'll learn, because you'll have to. And you'll whine about it to friends, who will tell you to grow up, because “boo hoo, your dreams all came true”.

If you look at indie games and think they look easy to make, or accessible to produce, you're right. They are. The difficulty lies in making them well. If their simplicity frustrates you, or you think you could do better, then you should absolutely do so. Many of the greatest artists and entertainers of the ages were driven by a desire to do better than those who went before.

Thomas Was Alone started with me looking at indie games and thinking “I could do that”. It is my absolute hope that someone out there looks at my game and thinks the exact same thing.

Rectangles are easy.