Interviewing Mike Bithell: John Wick Hex, Crunch, the Epic Games Store and More
John Wick Hex by Mike Bithell and Bithell Games is, undeniably, one of the best movie or tv titles in a very long time. Why? There could be a number of reasons, from something as simple as having a great developer to the IP owners trusting the developer to make a title that they are wanting to make, just offering advice where possible. This was seemingly the case with John Wick Hex.
During a recent talk at the Yorkshire Games Festival, Mike Bithell spoke about the development of the game, at one point talking about how it moved from a turn-based strategy to the melding of real-time and turn-based that was eventually released - this move thanks to a higher-up at Lionsgate asking a simple question like, "Why is John just standing there, letting people shoot at him?".
It was an interesting talk, particularly with a proposed idea of a 'fair trade' badge for games that are made with no crunch at all. Following the talk, I was able to chat to Mike himself about John Wick Hex, aspects surrounding the game like the Epic Games Store launch, crunch within games and the future of Bithell Games. Here's our chat in full:
Chris Wray: Hey! So, for the tape let's introduce ourselves. I'm Chris from Wccftech.
Mike Bithell: I'm Mike from... Mike! [laughs]
CW: [laughs] That you are. Really enjoyed your talk about John Wick Hex and a number of questions have already been asked by the audience, but I'll ask a few again. How exactly did you get started on John Wick Hex?
MB: So it was basically the whims of a few different big companies. Good Shepherd and Lionsgate were talking about doing something with John Wick. I think they'd gone to a bunch of studios that make like triple-A or third-person stuff and either it wasn't interesting enough or it didn't fit with what they wanted to do. They hired a producer called Ben Andac who was a good friend of mine, who said, "Well, we should make weird stuff. We should bring in a weird person".
Me and Ben went to the cinema and saw an action movie. When we came out and were chatting about the film, I was like "Yeah, it's good but it's not great". He's like "You know what was a great film, John Wick". I said, "Yeah, that was brilliant". He was like "What do you do with a game? If there was a game of John Wick, what would you do?". I said, "Well, shooter obviously, but that's kind of boring. You probably do something with strategy". "You should do that", he said. Then I said, "yeah, I should do that". Then he said "no, I'm producing John Wick now. Can you please pitch me that idea and that's what we'll do".
Basically, I was tricked into it.
CW: That's not a bad idea to get tricked into. So, did you take any inspiration from other titles when you started making it? You've spoken about how originally you worked on it as just a turn-based game, then making the game as it is with the whole melding of turn-based and real-time. There are other games that used a similar style, for example, Jagged Alliance has a stop and start sort of gameplay. Were there any inspirations from other titles during development?
MB: Yeah, I think the weirdest one was Mass Effect, you know the kind way you can play that, kind of that stop-start way. That was one I kept going back to, big fan of that. It's quite cool, at E3 the guy who designed that actually came and played our game and was quite into it, which is cool.
Other than that, most of our influences were more turn-based. So more like XCOM and Mario + Rabbids, but just kind of trying to figure out how we can John Wickify those. We came from that angle. There's nothing quite like what we did, we didn't want to get tied into something that was almost what we wanted to do, but not quite. When you start making a game that's about that stop-start kind of real-time thing, there's just so many weird cases and complexities to making that work and understandable for the player.
CW: Excellent. So how was it different working on Thomas Was Alone and titles like that and then going to a franchise like John Wick? It must have been a big difference from one style to the other?
MB: I think it's always surprising how much is shared between different games, in terms of their production. So what Sabrina was talking about earlier with the production process at King, that's basically how we do it. We just don't do the data science because we just can't afford to [laughs].
The production of games is relatively similar. Where it gets interesting and different, obviously, is in that collaboration. That's why it's what I spoke about to is the thing I talk about because when you're making Thomas Was Alone, I don't have to answer to anybody or talk to anyone about it, I just do whatever I want. That's both amazing but also limiting. I'm limited to what I can come up with and how I think. When you're working with literally the best people in the world at a thing, you can get really good feedback and information that you can utilise to make, hopefully, cool stuff.
CW: Granted, I can likely guess to the answer but what is the future for Bithell Games? What will you be working on next?
MB: I'm interested in what your guess is? Guess the future!
CW: I was more thinking you wouldn't be able to tell me! Still, I would imagine the success of john wick Hex - it's been well-received critically and sales figures, I don't know.
MB: And you won't by the end of this interview [laughs]
CW: [laughs] I wouldn't even ask - I know the answer is that it can't be disclosed! So, if I'm guessing, I would imagine the due to the past you may want to go to something a bit more how you started before jumping into something even larger than John Wick Hex. So that's what I would think.
MB: I'm sure they'll let me say when I'm allowed to say. [laughs]
So that's how you'd do it! Yeah, I mean, honestly, we're going to continue to surprise. I know what our next game is and that's going to surprise people. I think I know what the game after that is, that's gonna surprise people even more. We're going to keep bouncing around doing weird stuff. It's boring just doing the same thing. I love the "what the fuck" response on Twitter. I love the kind of "what?!" I love confusing people, that's exciting to me.
CW: Yeah, you don't want to be stuck in a niche where it's obvious what the next move is.
MB: Yeah, "obvious isn't the obvious move for them", that's more me, I want to do that. It infuriates lots of industry people when I talk to them. None of it fits a narrative and none of it's like, "oh, this logically led to this, not that". We just jump around a lot. But, we're lucky to be able to do that because people buy our games.
CW: That's why I was thinking you would jump from doing a big brand like John Wick to doing something low key, but still a Bithell game.
MB: Sounds like a great plan. I have nothing to say at this time, but that sounds like a great plan [laughs].
CW: Works for me, I'll write down my plan and we can work from there! So, John Wick Hex currently just out for the PC. Is there any timeline for console releases?
MB: Not that we've announced. I know our timeline but it's coming to - I think we've said "console or consoles", we've been very vague about that up until this point. That's what I'll say for now. We'll say more about that relatively soon.
CW: [laughs] Fair enough. Do you have any plans for Stadia, a potential Stadia release?
MB: I don't think I'm allowed to confirm or deny any single development because if I say no yes to that then you could say "how about Xbox?"
CW: [laughs] I don't think I would say that though mostly because with Stadia, I just class that as an offshoot of the PC.
MB: Stadia is cool, I like it, but I can't say much more about it. You're hitting every single thing I'm not allowed to talk about [laughs].
CW: [laughs] I'm sure I'll ask something you can answer! So, talking more on the game and the development. Were there any ideas you'd like to have incorporated into John Wick Hex? So, the third film was being shot while you were developing it, so possibly ideas from that.
MB: Certainly, aspects from the third move, such as including the horses or as I spoke about earlier, including cars and other cool things. I'm proud of the game we made, to be honest, but if I'm searching for it, yeah, it would be very cool to bring that sort of stuff in. Maybe we'll do a sequel or DLC one day.
CW: Yeah, an extra campaign - John Wick: The Drunk Years.
MB: [laughs] John Wick: The Drunk Years. I don't we'd be allowed to make that.
CW: You never know! Pitch it.
CW: So, one of the things you spoke about earlier and that caught my attention was when you said that you're a crunchless studio. So, talking about the industry in general, do you feel that the industry would be better off and that crunchless studios the way forward?
MB: I think so. I think it's the responsibility of people who own studios to run them without hurting the people who work with them. It's the Hippocratic Oath, right? "First do no harm". I think that should be managerial oath as well. Yeah, I think it's achievable. I think we should be doing it or just striving towards it. We can get rid of it and that what I want to see people do. So yeah, I think it's something that people are becoming more and more conscious of. It's something we're talking about more, I'm hoping that leads to more people doing the right thing.
CW: Couldn't agree more. What do you see as the major cause behind crunch? Would you say it's feature creep, under-estimation of certain tasks or something else in particular?
MB: It's just time, it's always time. It's anything that could lead to a lack of time. So it can be feature creep. It can be over scoping upfront, so you're making a game that needs four years but you've only got three from day one. It can be tied to not predicting how hard something would be, how long something would be or how challenging something would be. it can honestly be lots of things, but ultimately, it's a time management issue. There are things you can do to make that better.
CW: So, it can simply be a case of poor scheduling.
MB: They all come down to scheduling, but it can be different kinds of scheduling problems. Like I said earlier, it can be that you're planning around crunch or intentionally putting crunch into your schedule, for example, which can be very dangerous.
CW: So, how long was the development cycle of John Wick Hex?
MB: It was about a year and a half, I think. I'd have to look at the dates, I think a year and a half to two years. Plus there's a lot of pre-production, probably two years.
CW: Okay, from pre-production to release, excellent. So, a little offshoot and something with some controversy, the launch on the Epic Games Store - did you have any feedback from that, any people unhappy over it?
MB: Yeah, no, we didn't get anything really. Yeah, I wish there was some drama to talk about, but it didn't seem to get much negativity.
CW: Interesting. You'll have seen from different games, ones that have had backlash when launching on Epic.
MB: I think people got it, I think people liked the game on Epic store. I think people were also aware that it's a timed exclusive so it's coming out elsewhere later. We said that up front, I think, which probably helps.
CW: Yeah, that certainly always helps. So, was it a decision made by yourselves or by Good Shepherd as the publisher?
MB: We all own that decision. So us, Good Shepherd and Lionsgate. I take responsibility for everything we do.
CW: I've got no issues. Personally, I like the Epic Games Store.
MB: Genuinely, Epic Games Store is brilliant as a system to be working with. It's fantastic. The way you upload, the way you put your game on there. It's got lovely control for the developers.
CW: So the back end of Epic is actually really good?
MB: Like surprisingly good, it's a really pleasant experience.
CW: I do think sometimes that's something that Epic could do with getting that out more.
MB: Well, I mean do players care? Do players care if our lives are easier? I'm not sure they do. Maybe I'm cynical, but I don't think it's... I don't care how easy it is for a cinema to put a new film on.
CW: Yeah, to to a large extent I'd agree with you. But I mean, say in the same lines of the whole crunch issue, players are becoming more aware of the people behind the games.
MB: That's true. That's a good thing for all of us because the players are holding game developers to a higher standard and publishers to a higher standard in terms of treatment of staff, which is all good. I want my fair trade sticker!
CW: We'll design one for you.
MB: [laughs] if you could just design the entire process by which that's not massively, wrongly used, that'd be great as well.
CW: I... well [laughs].
MB: [laughs] I think it's one of those ideas that seems really simple and cool. Then you think about it and you realise it would take a lot of work.
CW: Yeah. How can you determine that the game wasn't essentially wasn't battery farmed?
MB: Yeah, exactly.
CW: Let's just have me investigate every studio!
MB: You'd have to have a lot of lines in the sand.
CW: Yeah, certainly. So, you can't really talk particularly about any of the games coming up, but will there be any surprises in genres? Are you going to look into branching out into different genres?
MB: We've always jumped into different genres, so it's the same thing again. We don't really do the same thing twice, except Quarantine Circular, which was kind of a sequel. But yeah, we'll continue to jump around, be surprising. Whatever's in your head, that's not what we're making [laughs].
CW: You never know!
MB: [laughs] It would be amazing if you then replied with "Well, actually Mike, I think you're making 'blah, blah, blah'" and got it completely right. That'd be amazing. So what do you think I'm making, Chris?
CW: Uh, oh...
MB: [laughs] now that is interesting!
CW: Now you have put me on the spot!
MB: Dating simulator would be cool.
CW: It would be cool!
MB: Yeah [laughs]. Go on, give me a real one. I'm not gonna tell you if you're right though, you're not going to get a scoop - I'm just interested what you think [laughs]
CW: [laughs] I'm not bothered about a scoop, this is just interesting. Since you're going to carry on branching out, I wouldn't be surprised if you made an RPG with a space-simulator feel, a mixture of Elite and Mass Effect.
MB: That sounds like a cool game. Definitely not what I'm making, but it sounds like a cool game.
CW: It is a dating simulator, I was right the first time!
MB: You got it right, yeah [laughs]
CW: It's been a pleasure, thanks for talking with me
MB: That's cool, thank you.