Tom Francis quit his job a week after releasing his first game. A writer at PC Gamer, Francis had been working on Gunpoint in his spare time for two and a half years, before taking a three-month sabbatical to finish it off. He only needed two. "Enough time for me to see that the sales were good enough so I didn't need to go back to my job," he recalls. "And then I handed in my notice."
An interest in making games that had begun several years before as "a 50,000-word design document about a space assassination game" had finally come to fruition. Gunpoint was a hit: this thrillingly free-form stealth-puzzler won critical acclaim and made enough money for Francis to pursue game development full time. To describe it as an instant success would belie the years of work that had been poured into its creation, but was he prepared to strike gold with his first game?
"I was very surprised," he admits. "I did have some hopes for it, and a lot of my friends are games journalists and they kept telling me it was really exciting to them and they thought it would do well. And they know what they're talking about. So I was trying not to listen to them, but in the back of my head I was thinking, well, it might get some attention and people might like it. It might sell some copies."
Francis says that pre-order figures were roughly in line with expectations, and with a playable demo, he didn't anticipate much difference from the game's launch.
"It was already available to play and available to buy so I figured that the sales we'd have that week would be about what we could expect, which was my best-case scenario already. And then when it was properly out and all the reviews went live and all the Let's Plays and YouTube went live, it just completely skyrocketed to ten times what my best hope was. I really, really didn't think that was possible. That was well outside my scope for what could happen."
Mike Bithell had been working in games for a little longer than Francis when he decided to strike out alone, having conceived Thomas Was Alone during a game jam at former employer Blitz Games. He was similarly taken aback when his game became a hit, albeit for very different reasons.
"I wasn't known, I wasn't a name. And the game itself wasn't that exciting-looking"
"I wasn't known, I wasn't a name. And the game itself wasn't that exciting-looking," he says today. "I had no illusions. If you see a screenshot of Thomas Was Alone, it's some rectangles, you know? So then, and rightly so, if you look at a lot of the early coverage of the game, a lot of it was sarcastic - like 'this game looks crap' kind of coverage." He laughs at the memory. "Rock Paper Shotgun I remember in particular, they just took the mick out of it. Which at the time was... Obviously, I was getting on with it and hoping that people would like it in the end, but it was a very difficult feeling because there was no expectation. Really, everyone was expecting the game to be a bit rubbish.
"So, the only thing I could do was prove them wrong and that's a nice heroic narrative to tell yourself, right?"
Bithell certainly did prove the doubters wrong. The success of Thomas Was Alone meant he now had the luxury of a larger budget for a more expansive, ambitious second game – but one that still plays to his evident strengths in crafting engaging narratives.
"It's an increase in scale but, yeah, I think that kind of storytelling through writing and actors is something that I'd like to explore and especially, as it's one of the more expensive elements of production – if my games continue to do well – it's something that I'm going to be able to expand on the way that's perhaps not available to people starting out."
Volume is a stealth game inspired by the original Metal Gear Solid, as well as a contemporary retelling of the Robin Hood myth. For Bithell, it's an opportunity to prove that Thomas Was Alone was no one-off, though he's fully aware that the stakes are now much higher.
"It just means that now we have to try and make it so that it's not embarrassing," he explains. "To make a game that people feel lives up to their expectations. It was a big push to get everything a bit prettier, everything a bit bigger, everything a bit more special. And also to spend the money! I can look at all the cash that Thomas Was Alone made and go, 'Well, I'm going to die at some point so I don't need to keep this money. I can spend this money making something really cool and interesting.' And that's part of it, you know?"
"I share stuff quite a lot, and part of that is showing off, obviously"
Gunpoint's impressive sales, meanwhile, have afforded Francis the time and freedom to experiment. He's currently working on Heat Signature ("a game about sneaking aboard randomly generated spaceships") but recently found the time to complete and release Floating Point, a game where players use momentum to swing between hovering platforms.
"It started as a game jam entry for Ludum Dare," he says. "The theme was Beneath the Surface. And I actually didn't really plan to enter the game jam at all. I was just going to write up what game I would make if I was going to enter it. Because sometimes the interesting thing for me is solving the inspiration/design challenge of coming up with a game idea that would work that's based on the theme and trying to come up with a unique take on it."
Stealth may be the one element that ties Volume and Heat Signature together, but it's not the only point of similarity between Bithell and Francis. Both are strong advocates of sharing their ideas with the community: Francis regularly releases YouTube videos of his work during development, while Bithell uses Twitter and Vine to test the water with certain ideas.
"I share stuff quite a lot, and part of that is showing off, obviously," he says. "Part of it is promotion and just trying to get people just to keep talking about the game. But we can also put something out and then see what the reaction is to it, and that can inform the choices we make."
"I think it's become quite a habit for me," admits Francis, "and a very nice, positive feedback loop with everything I do including Gunpoint. It started with just doing blog posts where I would just describe what I'm working on and talk about troubles I'm having or successes I've had. And the very first post I did about Gunpoint, I explained in that post: I'm making a game and I'm going to start blogging about it because I want to firstly make it awkward for me to stop. So that if I ever lose motivation or if I feel like my natural motivation to work on this isn't there, I will be pressured into working on it because I'll feel worried about letting you down or just being embarrassed about having given up on this thing I told you I was going to make."
Despite both developers sharing their ideas online, neither is too concerned about anyone copying their work.
"Cloning is not something that's undertaken by creative people or intelligent people"
"Cloning is not something that's undertaken by creative people or intelligent people," says Bithell. "It's a lazy thing to do. I mean, if you're doing it because you want to learn how to code or just to get better, I think it's brilliant. God knows I've made some Pong clones in my time, you know? It's something everyone has to do to learn the craft. But no, if you're in the business of ripping off a game design idea and kind of putting it out there as your own, then you're probably a lazy person. And the great thing about lazy people is they don't tend to put much work into things when they're not sure of the money."
Above all else, both solo projects taught their makers important lessons about efficiency.
"A lot of the stuff that you assume has to be in a game, all the stuff that you assume will gain respect or just be a basic barrier is rubbish," says Bithell. "Basically, consistency is the important thing. Thomas Was Alone gets away with absolutely no art assets because I went and read a book on colour theory and I researched this and that and got the right scale of the right elements. With Thomas, I had no resources to make any art so I just made the best-looking rectangle game I could make. Whereas with Volume, it's like, 'okay, so I have a bit more money now so I can make a decent character model and maybe like an environment'. But I can't make 10 hours' worth of spaces you run through. You work up from what you have."
Francis' journalistic background, along with his first entry into Ludum Dare, Scanno Domini, prepared him for the heartbreak of cutting his own ideas.
"Even when you make a conservative plan, there's still going to be stuff in there that just doesn't pan out," he says. [Ludum Dare] made me happier to cut things and much more willing to do it, and able to face the idea of cutting some things that you've been very, very attached to. And [as a writer], I'd already taught myself a trick for cutting down articles to fit word counts." He found prioritising his work as he once had paragraphs in articles worked well in game development.
Following the success of their debuts, you might expect that Bithell and Francis would be feeling the pressure for their follow-ups. Yet both seem relaxed, and enthusiastic about the opportunities success has afforded them.
"My great advantage is not being a perfectionist at all," says Francis, modestly. "I'm well aware that I'm never going to make anything perfect and everything I do releases in a state where I know a hundred different things I could do to make it better. I'm much more interested in releasing something and it's just good enough, and then seeing where it goes."
Bithell, meanwhile, doesn't show any signs that he's nervous about how Volume is received; rather, he's eager to capitalise on his newfound fame. "I'm not arrogant enough to assume that anyone's waiting for the next Mike Bithell game. That's unlikely. But there's definitely a sense that right now, people listen to what I say and I have an audience who wants to hear more about my games and hear more from me."
"So, yeah, [I'll] use the opportunity while it's there, you know, while I'm flavour of the month. Take advantage of that. Because at the end of the day, I just want to make videogames."