Indie Interview

Why Mike Bithell surprised us with his latest game Subsurface Circular

Why Mike Bithell surprised us with his latest game Subsurface Circular

Yesterday, following in the footsteps of Beyonce and Apple's Steve Jobs, indie hero Mike Bithell simultaneously announced and released his latest game.

Dubbed Subsurface Circular, the project is smaller in scope compared with Bithell's other games, such as Thomas Was Alone and Volume. And that is part of the reason why it was a surprise release. 

"There were a few factors behind this game," Bithell says.

"We knew it was a smaller project and that we were going to make it relatively quickly. We had a gap of six months where we wanted to make something while we were waiting for other things to click into place, which didn't leave us a massive amount of time to do press.

"More importantly, we knew that Subsurface Circular was smaller in scope and shorter in length. That meant it could go the other way and be overhyped. We could have ended up in a situation where people would see screenshots of it and start extrapolating out what the game could be. We knew it was a single session project, we knew that people could come up with stuff that wasn't going to be in there.

"That was a concern – we wanted to make sure we weren't screwing ourselves over.”

Alongside the smaller scale, Subsurface Circular comes with a price tag much lower than Bithell’s other releases.

“It was a scope thing," he says.

"We have done different prices – Thomas Was Alone was $10, Volume is $20, and this is normally $6, but has a discount that brings it sub-$5. I was looking at it and figured that with its scale, it definitely doesn't feel like it was Thomas Was Alone in terms of the size and duration of the game. It also didn't feel like it was something that was a freebie. $6 felt like a price that was equivalent to going to see a film. It was a nice number that wasn't too cheeky.

"It's vital with a game like this that people walk away happy because you only have a few hours to convince someone they've had a good time. It was important to me that everyone who finishes the game sits back in their chair, watches the credits roll, and feels good about what they played and the money they spent on it. That number felt like a reasonable price, while also not undercharging. The feedback has been great on that so far. We haven't had anyone criticise it in either direction just yet, which is great.”

Costing less than a pint at £3.83 (with launch discount) surely ties into the ‘and it’s out now’ type launch this game has had, one which should easily grab impulse buyers. 

“We want gamers to hear that from a friend and go pick it up,” he says.

“This isn't something that I want players to ponder purchasing for a few days. I want people to pick it up, play it and have a good time with it, then go tell some other people. I want that virality. Price does help with that.

"But if this game had been of the scope and scale of something like Thomas Was Alone or Volume, we would have absolutely priced it at that level. It's just because of the scope that it felt like the right price.”

Launch discounts were also something that came up in research by SteamSpy’s Sergey Galyonkin earlier this week. Galyonkin said that launch discounts are a bad idea, as you are relying on your most loyal fans to pick up your game Day One. By charging them less you are selling yourself short. But Bithell says he has good reason to launch with a slight discount.

“I can't speak to SteamSpy's data, but we have always done launch discounts and they have always helped us,” he says.

“They bring in people. Hopefully, there is a small stable of fans of our games, but much more common at launch are the people to whom you are new. To them, you're a new game, they don't know what it is, they don't know who you are.

"I don't think the average person booting up Steam has ever heard of me or my games – I really don't. There's an informed group of gamers who know about me, but that's not going to be a massive number.

“At launch, you are getting all these eye balls from the games press and so on. I don't want just my fans to buy it at launch, I want to hit a critical mass where the game has longevity, has a tail and people care about it. If I didn't do a launch discount, that more casual audience would just wait for a Steam Sale or when their friends have told them it's good.

"It goes back to that impulse thing – I want gamers to pick it up and play it because they want to be one of the first people to show up to the party.”

PCGamesInsider Contributing Editor

Alex Calvin is a freelance journalist who writes about the business of games. He started out at UK trade paper MCV in 2013 and left as deputy editor over three years later. In June 2017, he joined Steel Media as the editor for new site In October 2019 he left this full-time position at the company but still contributes to the site on a daily basis. He has also written for, VGC, Games London, The Observer/Guardian and Esquire UK.