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Rami Ismail is one of the most visible independent game developers in the world. The cofounder of Utrecht, Netherlands-based Vlambeer is trying to use that fame to give back to the indie community and do good. But he has found that doing good isn’t always easy.
Vlambeer’s games have a signature style, and fans have supported it all the way. Five years ago, Ismail and Jan Willem Nijman started the company. Their hits include Super Crate Box (2010), Serious Sam: The Random Encounter (2011), Gun Godz (2012), Ridiculous Fishing (2013), Luftrausers (2014), and Nuclear Throne (2014). The company is still just two people, with a lot of contractors who do work on a freelance basis. A common theme for their work is pixelated art and lots of guns in a kind of bullet hell.
I caught up with Ismail at the IGDA Leadership Summit, where he spoke on the big lessons of being a successful indie and how to do good. He brought up an example of how he dropped out of school and still became a successful game developer. He gave that advice at a talk in South Africa, and a teacher immediately scolded him about wrecking the lives of students, who don’t have as many options as Ismail did. Ismail realized his error and talked about how he learned from that experience.
From that experience, Ismail said he is thinking more about his good intentions, and he is being transparent about it.
“I never thought of myself as a leader,” he said. “I mostly felt I didn’t want the responsibility.”
We talked about that, as well as Vlambeer’s gun-crazed style, the health of the indie game movement, the company’s latest effort, Nuclear Throne, and even the gamer rage movement known as Gamergate, which Ismail has been outspoken about.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: You’re an interesting storyteller. I thought that was a little ironic, given that you don’t seem to like telling stories in your games.
Rami Ismail: I do like games as a narrative medium. I like them for storytelling. I’m just bad at making games that tell stories. If you look at Ridiculous Fishing, we tried to put a story in there, but it’s after the credits. You get a retroactive explanation for why you were playing the game. I love telling stories, but I’m better at telling stories in words than I am in games. I’m looking forward to Metal Gear Solid V, but I love Destiny for the story being more of a dressing for the world than a justification for everything that happens.
GamesBeat: How did you guys fall into that mode of focusing on moment-to-moment gameplay?
Ismail: A big part of that is my colleague, JW. Since he was 13 he’s been making short, snappy arcade games. He’s focused on making games in game jams – 30 minutes, three hours. Make a game about a dog chasing a car before 6PM. When I met him, I thought most of the stuff he made was terrible. But he made 300 things a year. There was bound to be something there. That taught him how to do very short, very positive, very satisfying feedback loops. What a lot of people identify as the heart of a Vlambeer game.
What I learned to do in my career as an aspiring game developer was how to make a game, how to finish a game, how to communicate within a game, how to make sure it feels like a real product. Those two things ended up complementing each other. But since JW does the core design, that’s what Vlambeer usually goes with. Every now and then we break away from that, though. It’s fun to do that sometimes.
GamesBeat: This also fits with what you can do as an indie, right? You can’t necessarily have a team of 50 3D artists at work for you.
Ismail: We like to think of ourselves as a networked organization. The core company is these two people. Then we have freelancers around the world. We try to make sure they’re very happy about working with us whenever we can.
That, too, has been a learning process. I’m a programmer. I’m not a businessman. I learned to do the business of game development as I messed up 100 different things. But yeah, our game teams are generally four to six people. That’s turned out to be a good, sustainable size. At its largest, Vlambeer had 15 people working worldwide. I thought that was pretty cool.
GamesBeat: This kind of game, the art style here, has exploded over the last few years. We’ve seen a revival.
Ismail: It’s interesting. Especially with pixel art—it’s the most honest way of just playing a video game, I think. It’s binary, made by computers. Things overlap or they don’t. For a game like one of ours, it wouldn’t be nice if you had a soft, blended sprite that pseudo-hits your character and it might detect or not. You want that honesty. This is a direct representation of the systems underneath it.
I also think that pixel art is in a receding phase, though. At this point, low poly (polygon) art seems to be a big thing. I don’t think that means we’ll move to it, because I have a thing about jumping on something where the grass looks greener. The industry is always doing that. Mobile companies are going PC. PC companies are going console. Console companies are going mobile. They’re just doing a little dance that makes no sense. We’re going to stick to what we’re good at and get better at it. We’ve identified our players. There are people who like what we do. We’ll make sure that group grows and that they keep liking Vlambeer.
GamesBeat: Are you surprised that you’ve made it five years?
Ismail: Absolutely. When we started this I just hoped I wouldn’t live in a cardboard box after five years. I don’t think JW or I ever thought about the reality of this ridiculous dropout idea ever being a real thing. It’s been a roller coaster, a little mine cart on tracks. You’re pushing it and then it suddenly starts going. Now we’ve let go and we’re just running after it. It feels like we’ve been running after it for five years. We don’t know where it’s going.
Just the fact that we’re celebrating five years—I think the only thing we said to each other was, “Wow, we didn’t expect that.” It continues to be overwhelming that so many people have given us their trust and support and enthusiasm.
GamesBeat: Your productivity, even for an indie, is way up there.
Ismail: We’re good at working smart. We’re good at making things in such a way that they do what they have to do and do it really well. Another part is, we allow ourselves to take breaks. We can go into full-on crunch-like work mode – which isn’t healthy, and we know that – for a week or two weeks. We’ll do that one thing that needs to happen and do it well. But immediately after that we’ll take a week off.
We have a rule that if one of us tells the other that they need a break, that’s the end of the conversation. Take your break. Go visit a little cottage or something and do what you need to do.
GamesBeat: It seems like your idea of taking a break is to go look at the rest of the industry and figure what you want to do next.
Ismail: For me it is, yeah. This industry has given me so much. I know it’s given so many people around the world so much. For all the terrible stuff that happens on the internet and everywhere else, gamers—I was at PAX last week. The atmosphere and the love for the medium and the enthusiasm—I want games to be the best thing they can be. This industry has so much potential, so much power, so much beauty in it.
Being able to travel around the world—I’m going to four countries on four continents in the next 10 days. I’m going to cross the equator four times. I’ll cross the Atlantic Ocean twice. All I can think about is how exciting it’s going to be to talk the developers in Argentina about the things they’re working on. Last time I was there, it was super exciting to see how different things are. A few days later I’ll be in Helsinki, where I can catch up with the mobile games industry. Then straight to Johannesburg, talking to a bunch of students I’ve been mentoring for three years now.
All these things are happening and they energize me. I can see we’re going somewhere. The future is a nicer place. Not that today is so terrible. We should be proud of our medium. But there are things we can improve.