Mike Bithell: My best meeting at the Develop Conference

Mike Bithell at GameCity

By Mike Bithell

July 15th 2013 at 3:40PM

The Thomas Was Alone developer reveals a surprising and insightful conversation from this year's Develop in Brighton

The conference, well, it kinda rocked for me this year.

The volunteer stewards kept recognising me. I got to hang out with a ton of awesome journos, devs and the charming as hell Pewdie. I won a hefty award. I ate doughnuts on a beach. It was a good three days. But one meeting stands out.

On the Wednesday morning, I wandered into the restaurant at the conference's venue bleary eyed. It was later than I'd like, and I knew I'd missed the Cerny keynote. I was gutted. I'm a bit of a Sony fan. I queued, surrounded by holidayers and pensioners, looking around for anyone I knew to chat with over buffet scrambled eggs and single serving jam sachets. Nobody. I was, alone.

Except I wasn't. In front of me in the queue stood a short, elderly lady, politely waiting her turn to be seated. We bonded, mocking the complexity of the breakfast buffet's seating arrangements, and the manager's insistence on precision. I think the manager may have overheard my giggling, as she came over and suggested that as we were 'getting along so well, maybe we'd like to sit together to take up less room'.

And so we did. I saw a couple of chuckling industry folks as we sat down for our breakfast date (and a fair few more nodding approval at me for keeping the lady company), but we got on well.

I went through the predictable small talk list when confronted by a woman of extended years. "Do you holiday in Brighton often?", "What do your children do?", "Have you met any interesting people on the coach trip?". We had a laugh, and I grew less and less concerned about missing the keynote.

And then she asked it, the question I fear from anyone over 50, the question that instantly turns me from 'charming young man' to 'peddler of filth and innocence corruption'.

"What do you do?"

I explained that I made games, not the ones with guns, but more artsy pretentious fare. She talked about her grandchildren's love of iPad games, but how she never could work them out, despite really enjoying animation growing up (she equated games to animation, which I liked). We chatted a bit about that, but then, conversation dried up. Searching, I tried a question that I was surprised hadn't occurred to me earlier.

"What did you do before retirement? Before having a family, I mean?"

"I programmed architectural simulations."

I was astonished. Turns out the woman I'd pigeonholed as an 'old lady' was creating programs to balance bridges and ensure scaffolding held up in the early 70s. She was a physics programmer.

At this point, I may have freaked her out a little with my enthusiasm. We chatted more about the systems she created before marriage and children whisked her off to the gender expectations of her day. She confided the many times she'd snuck out of the office to watch Popeye cartoons in the cinema. She was a fan of two things in her early 20s, programming and animation.

I leaned in, and in a staggered whisper I murmured, "If you'd been born 50 years later, you'd be an indie game developer like me".

She chuckled at this and nodded, we then had a ten minute conversation about how character move speeds in games are calculated. She promised to pay a bit more attention next time she watched her grandchildren playing games.

Best meeting ever. And a story to tell the next idiot who tells me women 'don't get' games programming.

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