Thomas was alone, but Mike Bithell’s crew has grown since his 2012 breakout hit. The developer hasn’t rested on his laurels, however, and has taken to smaller-scale experimental development.
Bithell’s latest release is Quarantine Circular, a follow-up to last August’s Subsurface Circular in more ways than one. Like its predecessor, Bithell snuck Quarantine onto the market without warning. The technique seems to be paying off - despite its shortness, only two percent of buyers refunded Subsurface on Steam.
We caught up with Bithell to chat about finding success on Steam through experimental projects.
How has the launch period for Quarantine Circular gone overall?
Really great. Players are into it, they're buying it, and nothing's broken. We're just settling in for that long tail now, following pretty much the same path as Subsurface Circular.
Subsurface and Quarantine Circular are both under two hours long. Has Steam’s refund time-limit been a concern, and should developers of short games be worried?
It's a consideration for sure, and before Subsurface Circular I was certainly concerned that players might be tempted to refund once they completed. The reality with Subsurface Circular was that players proved they would stick with the game and valued our hard work.. a two per cent refund rate, which is completely reasonable.
Going into Quarantine Circular, I was, of course, unsure whether Subsurface was a fluke or a repeatable event, and so far, we've kept to that two per cent refund rate, meaning players are still onboard for these shorter experiences from us.
I'm cautious about overstating the application of this data point to other devs. Our reputation and the budget of our games means other developers' mileage may vary, but it does demonstrate that it's at least one possible approach.
As a follow-up to previous work rather than a completely stand-alone title, QC is a first for you. Did working with an established format change the way you developed and marketed the game?
It certainly changed the way we developed. With 90 per cent of the underlying structure in place, me and my team's work focused on how we could tell a new story with additional features and refinements of what had gone before. I dug the idea of building on the first game's creative ideas, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel.
What did you and the team learn from Subsurface, and what important takeaways can you see having put out two of these now?
We learnt a lot, myself on the writing side, and my team on the code, art and audio. More generally, I think we've added some new skills to our repertoire, and brought in a bunch of new players for our future projects.
You’ve very much doubled-down on these short games - what led you towards doing so?
With Subsurface Circular, it was about experimentation, attempting to make a game that stretched our skills beyond what our previous work had focused on. With Quarantine Circular I wanted to improve on some of those ideas and experiment further. I wouldn't necessarily call it a double-down, as we're still very much playing with bigger and indeed even smaller ideas. Basically, we make the games we want to make, and are very lucky to have been given that opportunity by the universe.
What’s the reasoning behind the “and it’s out now” sudden game releases? It appears to fly completely in the face of more reliable indie marketing conventions.
I'm not sure any marketing convention can be described as 'reliable', everything is a risk and you can't underestimate the role chance plays. For us, we knew we were making small games that could actually underwhelm people if hype had time to take root. The principal goal was to be honest and upfront with the audience. We also knew we could drum up a reasonable amount of exposure at launch via social media, youtube and press without a run-up.
I'm always going to try and mix up the way I talk about our games to the audience, because every game we make is so different, and the landscape out there changes very rapidly.”