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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.”

Ismail has also been active supporting indies with the Indie Press Kit, DoDistribute, DoToolKit, and GameDev.world.

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.

Nuclear Throne

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.

Ridiculous Fishing is one of the best tilt-controlled mobile games.

Above: Ridiculous Fishing is one of the best tilt-controlled mobile games.

Image Credit: Google Play

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.

Rami Ismail, speaking at the IGDA Leadership Summit.

Above: Rami Ismail speaks at the IGDA Leadership Summit.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

GamesBeat: What is the outlook you pick up from all the traveling you do? I was just reading an article about whether we’re going to have a triple-A and indie future, or whether there’s some sort of “indiepocalypse” coming.

Ismail: Here’s the strange thing. I think both of those are incorrect. What’s happening is, we used to have this niche, the mid-budget games. You’d have a Wipeout, and then you’d have the cheap knockoff called Killer Loop, and then you’d have another game that was the 2D version someone made in their bedroom. That middle section fell away because at some point, indie got really good at being indie. Triple-A was just too expensive to compete with. That entire segment, the ground caved away underneath it.

Indie has slowly been filling that up. That original niche is just getting filled again. Those niches never disappeared – they were always there – and the indie audience has been growing. But the number of games in that niche has been growing very rapidly as well. We might be a point where there’s too much stuff. Really, it’s always been the case that too much stuff is being made, but it’s more obvious now.

On the triple-A side you have the opposite problem. There’s almost not enough games being made for that audience, because making those games is so risky. The finances don’t add up. We’ve been making triple-A games for what, 20 or 30 years now? The budgets have been going up exponentially and the price of a game is still almost exactly the same. Probably cheaper if you correct for inflation, compared to 20 years ago.

That middle niche, what a lot of people call “double-A” or “triple-indie,” it’s underserved, because that segment of the market dropped out for a while. A lot of people are saying that’s where to go now. But the honest reality is, if that niche starts growing, in three or five years we’ll have the same situation there. Studios like us, like Capybara, we’ll have to figure out what to do with it. I don’t think anything is going to implode. It’ll just be harder to get started.

GamesBeat: I’d guess you’ve gotten plenty of business advice, people telling you to take your success and scale up.

Ismail: We’ve heard a lot of that. It’s terrifying. I think it’s a very poor idea. Partially because of who we are. If your company is sustainable and does well and has its thing—for me the challenge is seeing how far you can kick that. There will be a point where JW and I look at Vlambeer and say, “OK, we’ve done that. We’ve said what we want to say, made what we want to make, and now we’ll see what else is out there.”

Vlambeer as it is now has a relevance to the games industry and games in general. As long as that’s there, there’s room to explore. Scaling up is not an interest of mine. The additional responsibility would cripple Vlambeer’s ability to do the ridiculous stuff we’re doing. That’s core to Vlambeer, that we do ridiculous things.

GamesBeat: You had something to say about the Dutch government and its 10 million euros that it wanted to invest in games.

Ismail: It never happened. I don’t know if my article had anything to do with that.

Super Crate Box

Above: Real American heroes!

Image Credit: Vlambeer

GamesBeat: It creates a problem for those potential investors. Where do they put their money if they do want to support indies?

Ismail: That fund, to me, was kind of laughable. If you’re going to run an investment fund that’s supposed to attract investors, and the amount of money you’re getting is five million plus five million from the government, 10 million, that’s nothing. Is Supercell going to come to the Netherlands for a day and a half for that? What was the point?

You can look at smaller investments, but on that level the current infrastructure in the Netherlands is just terrible. Investing in the Netherlands, I can see how that’s not an idea a lot of people are excited about — because of the way the country is structured, because of the way the economy is structured. It’s a bad idea. I say that as a Dutch person. There’s a lot of room for improvement.

You see the industry trying to figure this out. You see initiatives like Fig trying to find a way to do that. For a lot of independents, I think investing in independents is a very strange idea. The indies aren’t ready for it. It’s not so much the investors that are the problem. It’s just that the business model most indies go after isn’t compatible with large-scale investment, the startup model, stuff like that.

There’s room for something. Fig proves that there’s a need and a demand for that. We’re just going to have to mess around a while and figure out what works. I don’t know if Fig is the solution. It’s an interesting experiment. We’ll see. I know there’s a lot of interest from investors in indie games, because I’m constantly getting proposals from investors. There’s a future there. We just have to figure it out.

GamesBeat: You talked about that responsibility you feel as a leader. When people come and ask you for advice, what do you say?

Ismail: If they ask me how to get in the games industry, the answer is the most simple answer you can think of. Make games. Depending on the person and their situation, I try to see if there’s more I can say that will help them or steer them in a certain direction, but it’s a similar response to when I go to emerging territories, places where the industry is just taking hold. I’m careful not to steer. If I do, I’m going to turn an entire community that would culturally grow in a specific direction into another direction. That can be dangerous.

Very often the way a company is structured reflects the culture they’re in and the way business works in those countries. You have to be careful with that. Usually when people ask me questions like that, I need something more specific, a more specific explanation of what they want. The situation in, say, Uruguay is very different from the situation in Finland or Egypt or Lebanon.

GamesBeat: Like you said about quitting school. Quitting school in Johannesburg–

Ismail: –is a terrible idea! I’m so happy they basically shouted at me that I’d just fucked up. I’d never thought about it that way. But realizing that my words have the power to make somebody drop out of school and throw away a chance at a good life—That’s terrifying. I never thought about that, and you have to. You have to take responsibility.

Super Crate Box

GamesBeat: To be able to tell that story is a reminder.

Ismail: The other thing, when it comes to what direction to take your company in, the honest answer is that there is no good answer. Every part of the industry right now is terrible. As a business case, every part of the industry is not a good place.

If you’re going full indie, there’s never been a lot money in indie. You can’t compete with most of the double-As, with Sony and Microsoft and Steam going after indies. All those systems are built for indies the size of Vlambeer and up. In that double-A space, it’s a graphics race, a production value race. A lot of indies can’t sustain that without a good niche. If you’re not already there, the jump from starting to getting there is practically impossible. Triple-A is just a mess. It’s all bad.

What direction should you take your company? Whatever place feels most right to you. Then it’s a coin flip, being in the right place at the right time with a good product, having your marketing down. The baseline is having everything perfect. Then it’s a coin flip.

Rami Ismail of Vlambeer talking at the IGDA Leadership Summit.

Above: Rami Ismail of Vlambeer talks at the IGDA Leadership Summit.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

GamesBeat: Then there’s Gamergate.

Ismail: Then there’s Gamergate, which is obviously still a huge issue. It’s one of those things where—it’s frustrating. It’s extra frustrating because the shield of ethics in journalism—I want that. I support ethics in journalism. That’s a very important thing. But it’s just not what they’re talking about.

I remember when Patreon was starting to become a thing. I like a lot of people writing quality content. Some of them were asking, “Hey, can you fund my Patreon?” And I was wondering, as a developer, should I do that? Should I fund a writer? I went to Patreon and said, “Is there any way for me to pledge to someone without them knowing my identity?” So I could support them without creating a conflict of interest. This was a year, two years before Gamergate started.

Everyone in the industry is always talking about these issues and trying to figure out how can do these things better. There always problems, always issues, always things we can fix. Metacritic is a huge one that continues to be an issue in the games industry. I want to talk about those things. Instead what I see is still the same issues, still doxxing, still harassment, still terrible stuff.

I feel like the good thing is, a lot of people who traditionally have sided with Gamergate have caught on to the fact that a lot of it is just nonsense. A lot of it is just anger and fear. A lot of it has been used as a vehicle to win fame for a bunch of people who saw an opportunity to grab an audience. I think a lot of people realize that now. A lot more people try to engage with me as a person, instead of a Gamergater. At that point it’s a lot easier to have a conversation. I desperately want to have conversations, because I think a lot of these people are trying to be good people. They are good people. If I were younger–

Luftrausers

Above: You’re the sole pilot against an increasing wave of threats in Luftrausers.

Image Credit: Devolver Digital

GamesBeat: It’s that consequence you mentioned, causing a lot of hate to flow at one time.

Ismail: Exactly. If they have concerns about ethics in journalism, there are so many positive ways of addressing that and talking about that. Let’s talk about it. But you see that a lot of the more core figures, they don’t care.

GamesBeat: You’re in this interesting position, being able to talk about it because you’re an indie, and being a core game-maker, which won you respect and credibility as well. And a Muslim, which gives you an interesting perspective on diversity.

Ismail: With Gamergate specifically, it’s a funny thing. The Muslim thing is the thing they always go after. That emphasizes what the core of that movement is really about. It’s not about ethics in journalism. If it is, why would anybody talk to me? I’m not a journalist. I don’t do journalism. I make games. But it has put me in a strange spot. It’s a very privileged spot.

One of the funniest things I keep coming across is people who are really angry that I make games they like, but say stuff they don’t like. People say, “Games shouldn’t be politicized! You shouldn’t talk about politics!” Then they take out their dislike of my personal politics – which are my own – on their appreciation of my work, my games.

By the way, Nuclear Throne is full of diverse characters. We have men and women. The only human character is a black woman. We have a non-gendered, non-binary characters. We have all sorts of characters. You can look at Nuclear Throne and nobody is bothered by that. The only people who are bothered are people who were already bothered by us, who don’t want anything that’s not their specific thing to be in there.

The industry is in a pretty good place right now as far as diversity. It’s growing. If you look at E3 this year, you can see things getting better. What drove that home for me is, outrage in feminism is usually a necessity if you’re going to make your voice heard at all about something important. When E3 happened, there was all of E3, and then there was the trailer announcement for the new Hitman game.

Now, in Hitman games women are very often objectified, whether it’s in the environment or the storytelling, because it’s a world that’s dark and gritty and not friendly to women in general. I checked on Twitter to see if there was any anger about this, because I felt—Because of the context of it, because of Microsoft’s press conference only having women protagonists in their marketing for the first 30 minutes of the press conference, it felt more like an outlier. It felt like getting angry about it made less sense to me. I’m not saying that it doesn’t make sense to get angry about it, but the context is so important. I think that context is very slowly changing.

A large part of that, we have to thank all the feminist voices that have gone from obscurity and putting themselves at tremendous risk in their work for the past years to fix this. It’s happening. I always laugh at the idea that Anita Sarkeesian hasn’t changed anything. She started, what, three years ago? This E3, suddenly, you see all of this change in how people talk about things, how people market things. It’s there. Last year was already better, and the year before that. It has an impact. That’s how long it takes to make a video game – about three years. All the stuff that started three years ago is having an impact on the industry now.

I feel hopeful. But then of course we have new issues. Or not new, exactly. We have the issues that have been dormant because there are no good ways for the voices talking about it to reach the mainstream.

GamesBeat: You have Nuclear Throne and you have a lot of other things to talk about. It seems like you’ve found more than one way to lead.

Ismail: It’s important. Like I said in my talk, you need to not just do. You need to do and tell. You need to create a context in which people can talk about why you do certain things. That’s core to the accountability you need if you’re a visible person. Just doing isn’t enough. You need to explain why this is relevant. You need to create a way for people to understand why that’s true.

The changes are so gradual. But the changes have happened. It’s not reversible. You can’t go back to a place where games are mostly played by men. The industry has changed. The audience has changed. That’s a very positive thing. I hope that continues in the future.

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