Interview with Mike Bithell on John Wick Hex – Working With Lionsgate Is “Like Disneyland”
John Wick Hex has finally arrived for all of us to play and it's great. While we were at Gamescom trying the game we sat down with Mike Bithell and he graciously gave us some time to talk about John Wick Hex, his experience working with Lionsgate studios, his career and studio to this point, and more.
Despite it being the third day of Gamescom and the business area being plunged into a miasma of exhaustion, Mike was still one of the chirpiest and friendliest faces I had the pleasure of speaking to during the event, despite the fact even he admitted that he was feeling the strain of the con experience.
Even with the game already out now, our chat remains an intriguing retrospective on John Wick Hex's development and the creative process of Mike Bithell (who you might already know for the likes of Thomas Was Alone, Volume, Subsurface Circular, Quarantine Circular).
I remember seeing your tweets when John Wick Hex was first announced. I know you were excited about taking on like a big media franchise like John Wick. How has that experience been so far?
Mike Bithell: Really great. It was very cool. The first year I couldn't talk about it, which sucked. I told a few mates down the pub. Sorry, Ben. Ben's the producer. And one of my best mates as well, so I told him, but it was all right. It was great. The collaboration has been phenomenal. Yeah, I genuinely couldn't have asked for a better experience. The way we've been able to work with the films guys... I think people think a licensed game, you do it, you get the logo, you get to be able to say you're making John Wick, but actually the key thing here is the people that come with the logo, you get all the support and help from the people who actually make these movies, and made these movies that people love. And that's made us make a better game than if we had just made something like John Wick as a game. By getting those people involved and having their input we've actually made some things even better than we would on our own, which is great.
Was there a lot of pressure to translate the action of John Wick into a slow-paced strategy game?
MB: No, no. Well, it was obviously the only idea I had, the third-person shooter idea came up, obviously, as an idea very early on, for me, it was like the publisher and Lionsgate had actually already had pitches for that kind of game and it felt like; "We can do better than that, do something more interesting." For me, that was always an obvious answer, but one that led to a game that was nowhere near as John Wick as I wanted to make. In terms of the action of the series, there is always tactics, the joy of watching John Wick movie is seeing him act on all of these clever decisions, like throwing the gun, picking a gun up, shooting someone, all those happy accidents, and moments, are what make the franchise and if you're making a third-person shooter where you're circle-strafing, you're not having that experience. So we knew it was something that was a bit different and was going to surprise people. But for me, it was the only way to do it right.
How long have you been working on John Wick Hex now?
MB: Well, over a year now. I can't recall the exact dates. But well over a year.
When it came to the art style and other decisions, was it difficult to talk to the movie studios to get them to agree to things?
MB: It was surprisingly straightforward, to be honest, I'm quoting a YouTuber, I like, but surprisingly, straightforward, barely an inconvenience. It was very easy. Basically, we went in very early on and said; "We don't want to make a John Wick movie, we want to make an adaptation." There's actually has been a John Wick comic since we started that released which made a lot of different choices than we did, aesthetically. Like, what would that be? How could that work out? How do we adapt this world into a different medium? And yeah, our initial pitch was a document, it was the John Wick Hex shade of pink. It was the cartoon image of John Wick, looking badass, and then a little prototype of some of these mechanics. And that was what honestly sold them on the idea. So they were there with us from day one. And then, of course, you iterate and tweak. But honestly, this is a collaboration, it wasn't like a traditional approvals process, it was just lots and lots and lots of conversations. Me and Ben fly to LA, like, once every month, once every five weeks, which is very tiring. You go over, you have a bunch of meetings with all the different people and show them what you're up to. And just organically you just have a lot of conversations. And you're at a point where you're so invested and everyone else around you is so invested in both the game, but also understand what the movie is, that you don't pitch a bad idea. You pitch the idea that's correct that you know people are really into. So we just continued from there. This build is about three months out of date. Now, as always happens with games, in the last month just all of the visuals really hit where we want to be stylization wise. We can't wait to share with people where we're at.
How does it feel to be at this point in your game development journey? Not just on John Wick Hex, but from Thomas Was Alone to now, that's a hell of a roller coaster.
MB: It is. It's weird, it catches me off guard. What's weird is my Apple TV has absolutely accurately identified me as someone who would be into a John Wick movie. So it advertises me John Wick all the time. And I remember when John Wick 3 came out, and there were bus adverts and everything, and I keep catching myself having that animal reaction of seeing a John Wick Hex ad and saying; "I like John Wick, I should preorder that," and then pausing and thinking; "I'm working on that!" In the case of the DVD, there are special features about this game on the DVD of the movie. It's like we've inserted ourselves completely into this universe, which is great. So I keep catching myself with the John Wick thing, but in terms of the larger career stuff, it's amazing. I've been very, very lucky. Several times. And I've got an amazing team, some of whom have been with me since Thomas Was Alone, and lots of people who came into work on Volume, which was the one where a lot of people joined. And since then just lots of new talent and people, there are folks working on John Wick and it's their first ever game. That's so cool to me, I'm so excited that we're able to give them something so interesting to work on, and that, frankly, they've made so much more exciting thanks to their efforts.
What's the storyline of John Wick Hex like? Is it about killing a dog? Or rather, um, avenging a dog?
MB: It's about neither of those things. The idea of making a John Wick game where the point is to kill the dog would be subversive and interesting. No, it's a prequel, so John Wick in the movie is retired. He's out of that life. And then, as you said, something unfortunate happens to a puppy. And he's back in the game. Ours is set before that. So it's a prequel, it's before he falls in love and leaves his old life behind, he's in his old life. And that gives us some cool opportunities to give some backstory to this universe, to show some characters from the movies, those people who have been the voices of the movies for so long. So yeah, there's some good narrative opportunities that I've enjoyed, very much enjoyed the style. You mentioned Volume earlier, that kind of conspiratorial, shady underworld stuff is very much my bag, so being able to do some John Wick stuff with that. And that's something we've been able to explore and work with the folks at Lionsgate to add interesting little elements to enjoy for fans.
I'm assuming the story approval process has been just as smooth?
MB: The exact same process. Someone asked me how script approval works, and I am genuinely not sure I remember us ever actually getting approval. I think there was just a day where I was in the recording studio with Ian McShane and no one stopped me. Of course, these guys, they're making sure that we get this right. They know what their franchise is, they know what this world is. But, as I said, it's much more organic. It's much more just a natural conversation. We got our draft stuff, there's lots of rewrites, lots of notes coming in. You know, they make suggestions, we do some of them that we agree with, we do some that we want to approach in a different way. And ultimately that builds up and then yeah, it just kind of comes together. It was a collaboration. It's not two castles yelling and sending messages to each other, it's just one magic happy castle. It's like Disneyland.
That's the quote. That's going at the top of the article.
MB: I have a problem. I'm obsessed with Disneyland, so that would be perfect.
Is there anything else that I should know about John Wick Hex?
MB: I'm excited to see how how the audience eventually reacts to it.
Fantastic. Thank you so much Mike!