Vlambeer has only two people, but the Dutch indie game maker has managed to draw outsized attention to itself during its six years of making games.
Part of the reason is that Utrecht, Netherlands-based company has made one hit after another in the “bullet hell” genre of moment-to-moment action. It has produced hits like Ridiculous Fishing, Luftrausers, and Nuclear Throne.
But it has also drawn a lot of attention because of Rami Ismail, its outspoken cofounder and a thought leader for the game industry. Ismail has traveled the world as one of the big voices of the indie game industry, speaking at a wide range of conferences and speaking out on issues such as diversity, Muslim representation in games, Gamergate, and uncompensated “crunch time” in games.
He’s drawn a lot of Internet hate for his views, but he has been a voice of reason in some very intense discussions. I spoke to Ismail in a fireside chat at our GamesBeat Summit 2016 event last week. Our conversation covered topics like underdogs, what indies want from platform owners, seizing opportunities quickly, standing up to Internet bullies, and traveling the world to inspire indies.
“Anybody that’s outspoken in talking about diversity, talking about making the industry a better place is going to be a target there at some point, because they just want things to stay as they are,” he said. “And they won’t…. No, I don’t think so. For a lot of creators — anybody I see here is passionate about the games industry at large. Anybody here wants the games industry to be the best place it can be, to have the largest audience it can have, to have the biggest impact on the world it can have. Part of that is sometimes you have to speak up.”
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: You’ve been traveling around the world a lot as a sort of spokesman for the indie community.
Rami Ismail: You could say that, I guess? It’s an odd title to have, given that “indie” is short for “independent.”
GamesBeat: Tell us about Vlambeer.
Ismail: Vlambeer was founded six years ago. It’s an independent studio based in Utrecht, in the Netherlands. It was founded by me and a fellow university dropout. The first game we made was a freeware game that won a bunch of awards in the independent space and we grew from there. We’re probably best known for a game called Ridiculous Fishing, which won iOS Game of the Year in 2013. It’s about fishing with machineguns.
GamesBeat: It was one of my favorite games of that year.
Ismail: We did Luftrausers on PC and PlayStation, and we recently released Nuclear Throne, for which we livestreamed development every Tuesday and Thursday. We released it after two and a half years in Early Access on Steam and PlayStation.
GamesBeat: I don’t know what you call the genre exactly. Bullet hell? But you guys are very good at moment to moment gameplay.
Ismail: We like overwhelming our players with so much input that they have to get very good at the game to be able to play it properly.
GamesBeat: You’ve done this with very small teams and outsourcing.
Ismail: We like to think of ourselves as a network organization. The core company is just two people. Everyone else is distributed around the world, either freelance or just people we work with — partners or other companies. That’s worked well for us. We can adapt quickly, stay small, and stay agile. Whenever something happens in the industry we can be there first.
GamesBeat: What’s the secret to getting attention for a series of hits like yours?
Ismail: One good thing is being in places first, being places where nobody else is looking. For Nuclear Throne we livestreamed most of the development when nobody else was doing that yet. We showcased the creation of code and assets and built a community that way. For Ridiculous Fishing it was making that high-quality, super-polished, very positive free-to-play game without free-to-play. It was a premium game, but it was completely developed around the ideas of retention and engagement from free-to-play games. It just didn’t have the free-to-play mechanics.
GamesBeat: After livestreaming code creation, would you do that again?
Ismail: It turns out that a lot of game players are actually very into the industry on a higher level. Somebody in the intro noted that the games industry is rather unique in that a lot of gamers are very interested in how their entertainment gets made and the people who make it. Showing that live was very good for us.
GamesBeat: You’ve also been very outspoken. You’ve weighed in on Gamergate, crunch time, the representation of Muslims in games, diversity in games. How do you feel about representing the indie view on all these big issues?
Ismail: It’s important to realize that I represent one indie view on all of these things. But what resonates with a lot of independent developers is that it’s very open and very me. I like to say what I think, what I believe. Through my travels around the world I spend a lot of time flying. For those who don’t know me, I fly about once every three days. I was in Croatia two days and I’ll be in Singapore in a day and a half, visiting independent games communities around the world to talk to them and help establish themselves.
You just learn a lot about what’s happening that way, so I have some knowledge of what independent development is doing around the world. Not a lot of people have that perspective, and that’s given me the ability to say things on behalf of independent developers without them all getting really angry at me. That’s nice.
GamesBeat: People on Twitter get angry at you anyway.
Ismail: Yeah, but that’s Twitter. Whatever you say on Twitter, people get angry. I’ve been lucky. I’ve been at the center of controversy. Tim mentioned it was not a good idea to take on Microsoft, and I did that once. Indeed it’s not a very good idea. But like you said, Gamergate has been — I’m one of their favorites to attack nowadays, outside of their main targets that they’ve been going after for a long time. Anybody that’s outspoken in talking about diversity, talking about making the industry a better place is going to be a target there at some point, because they just want things to stay as they are. And they won’t.
GamesBeat: Would you say this distracts you from doing what you want to do?
Ismail: No, I don’t think so. For a lot of creators — anybody I see here is passionate about the games industry at large. Anybody here wants the games industry to be the best place it can be, to have the largest audience it can have, to have the biggest impact on the world it can have. Part of that is sometimes you have to speak up. Sometimes you have to talk to people and see what they’re doing and what’s happening.
I don’t look at it as a distraction. It helps me do the best job I can. It helps me pick projects in a way they’ll have the largest impact.
GamesBeat: How do you feel about the current state of platform owners, from an indie’s perspective?
Ismail: Xbox, PlayStation, stuff like that? The funny thing is they’ve been doing everything right, and it’s kind of backfired in a beautiful way. Independent creation is such a broad spectrum. You have people in their living room creating a game at night. Then you have bigger studios like Capybara that are effectively working with 20 to 40 people. Platforms have done really well to make sure that the process for those larger independent creators is really easy, but that’s burned the bridge a bit for anybody new coming out.
A lot of people say it’s easier than ever to make games, which I guess it’s true, but it’s probably harder than ever to bridge that opening gap. We’re losing a lot of talent in the new wave, the people coming up, that weren’t there back in 2010 when independent development still meant that you could start small and very slowly grow. Nowadays it’s a leap. If you don’t have a running start there’s no way you will make it. Greenlight is pretty much emblematic of that, but also programs like ID@Xbox. They do good work, but they also showcase that it’s hard to do something that includes every possible expression.
There’s work to be done. I don’t know what the solution is. There are beautiful platforms like itch.io now specifically catering to that smaller audience. They’ve had their first hits. Games on there have, for a small starting independent developer, have made more than $100,000. On a large scale that’s nothing, but for someone starting out it may give them a chance to make the leap.
GamesBeat: We have some folks here from Google, from Samsung, from all the other platforms. What more would you like?
Ismail: The main thing is understanding that independent creation is a very diverse, very difficult thing to communicate with. You need people actively reaching out to get that content, and that content can be very valuable. Somebody mentioned Minecraft before, which is really a once-in-a-generation game, but it might not be. Randomness is weird. There might be another Minecraft. There might be other big games coming out of the independent space.
You want to make sure that, whatever you do, the contracts and rules you have do not exclude creators from launching on other platforms. Launching on one platform at this point is financially devastating. And on top of that make sure your pipeline, your process, is not based on the idea that if somebody can’t deal with the legal paperwork, they’ll just hire a lawyer. An independent developer doesn’t have that money. They can’t hire a bookkeeper or lawyer to deal with that.
Keep things simple and accessible. Make sure you allow developers to publish anywhere. If you want to tie them to your platform, do it by offering such good service that they want to come back. We’ve been working with PlayStation a lot. The reason we’re launching on PlayStation first is because we love working with them every time. Independent developers can be relatively emotional, relatively personal about their business.
GamesBeat: Vlambeer has some interesting opportunities. You could become a bigger company. I’m sure people have approached you and offered to help build your empire. But you’ve stayed at two people. What do you think of all that opportunity?
Ismail: Every opportunity is worth looking at. At this point we’re very comfortable with where we are. Like I said, our burn rate is effectively zero. We’ve built our studio in such a way that we can hopefully retire not too far from now and move on from a very comfortable place. We’re not going to stop making games. We’ll do what we do. But we’ll be safe for a very long time. If we can reach that point, we might look into other stuff more.
GamesBeat: What roots do you want to remember as an independent developer?
Ismail: What’s important to me is that the games industry has given me a lot. My core tenet has always been that I should give more back to the industry than the industry’s given to me. I’ve been creating a lot of tools for independent developers and doing a lot of public speaking. Jan Willem Nijman, my co-founder, has also been working a lot on making sure that the way things are designed and communicating feedback. We pay our freelancers way over industry rates. That’s where we are and where we want to be. We want to be good people. If we can do that we’re pretty happy.
GamesBeat: “Do no evil.”
Ismail: Well, you can piss off the big platforms every now and then. Besides that, yeah. Do no evil to people who love you. Hold the other ones accountable.
GamesBeat: What’s your advice for underdogs?
Ismail: The funny thing is that’s a question I get a lot, and you should absolutely not be asking me that. I’m probably one of the worst people to ask. Most people in this room are the worst people to ask as far as advice for underdogs, except for the basic ideas of fail fast, fail often, keep looking at opportunities. Everything else, we have to realize that we’re looking from a certain perspective at this industry and that perspective is not the perspective of an underdog. We’ll never see their opportunities because we don’t necessarily need them.
The thing about underdogs is they need opportunities. They look at Twitch. They look at esports. They look at the way the industry is moving and they see VR. They look at those opportunities because their company 100 percent depends on them. For us those are interesting venues, something to look at. I’m way more interested in learning from those underdogs about what they’re doing. I’m paying a lot of attention to where they’re moving. The ones that survive will have made the right choices.
It’s a good thing to keep looking at the underdogs, the new people. For people to whom I’m the underdog, I think it’s basically what I said already. This industry needs to hold itself and our audiences and our creators accountable for what they do, for creating a good environment. Part of that is going to be crucial if we want to grow our audiences, if we want to make this a global medium. Even though we like saying it’s a global medium, it’s not. We’re getting there, but I travel to a lot of places where there’s not a lot of video games.
GamesBeat: At GDC you had an interesting panel about Muslim representation in video games. How would you summarize the reaction to that? Is there anything you’d like to say to our audience here?
Ismail: It’s very similar to what I just said. The games industry, we like to think of it as global, but it’s not. Most games are made from a very western perspective, or in some cases a very specific Asian perspective, and that’s about it.
I’m Muslim. I was raised Muslim. I grew up in the Netherlands, but my dad is Egyptian. I have yet to play a game in which I don’t have to shoot me. Which is kind of odd. Usually when I’m shooting me the Arabic on the buildings isn’t Arabic, either. It just looks Arabic. Which, if you’re spending millions of dollars on ragdoll physics, it might be nice to hire somebody who can write Arabic. For some reason a lot of companies just don’t.
It’s not good, and not just because we could do better, but because it’s discouraging to a lot of people around the world. It excludes them from enjoying games. The Division is an interesting one, because it had Arabic right, but until games like that, the only games that supported Arabic properly were FIFA and maybe WALL-E. I have no idea why WALL-E, but that was it. Those were the games my nephew in Egypt could play. Besides that, he didn’t feel like part of the game industry. A lot of talent living in that part of the world probably feels the same way.
It’s not just Muslims. I went to Russia a few months ago and they basically laughed about every Call of Duty game ever. It’s painful. It doesn’t have to be that way. There’s a lot of opportunity there. Everyone agrees that the middle east is an amazing market now, that there’s a lot of money in the middle east. I don’t understand why game companies don’t spend money on localizing games for the Arabic market. Same goes for South America and a lot of other places. There’s always opportunity.
GamesBeat: We see a long-standing opposition between business people and creative people, developers. You’re the business half of your partnership. How do you feel about that?
Ismail: It’s a healthy conflict to have, an important conflict to have. We always have to balance. Games are an interesting medium because we haven’t reached a point yet where it’s so cheap to make a game that you can do it entirely without money involved. We might be getting there now with a lot of tools being free, but if you want to make a game full-time, or close to it, you need money. You need to earn money, be looking for money, or have another job. As long as that’s true the majority of games will be this interesting balance between making an artistic project and making something that will commercially succeed.
The way it works at Vlambeer is really simple. JW has veto power over every creative decision and I have veto power over everything else. It’s worked well for us. We don’t really like each other, so that helps. We respect each other. As long as there’s respect between the people doing the business and the people creating the games, that’s not an unhealthy conflict.
Question: Since you’ve traveled so frequently, what have you been doing to inspire young girls and women to take an interest in technology or inspire them through gaming?
Ismail: It’s a different challenge from country to country. Saudi Arabia is a very interesting challenge, because I can’t speak to women there. They have to be in a separate place from me. But in general what I try to do is make sure that if I speak at events, I don’t participate in all-male panels. If I go to schools, I let them know that I’d like to speak to girls as well as boys.
The problem is that a lot of what goes on in that space is very subtle. A lot of it is just the discouragement of a girl who wants to go into technology, and someone tells her that math might not be the right thing to focus on. That kind of stuff still happens too frequently. In a lot of places around the world the games industry is very small, too. Maybe it’s 12 people at the moment and 11 of them are men. You want to talk to people early about getting there, but it’s not always possible to do that directly.
It’s a struggle, but the industry is getting good at talking about it. In the Twitter conversation we had a few years back there was “one reason why,” reasons women didn’t feel welcome in the industry. But on the other side you had “one reason to be,” reasons women did feel welcome in the industry and inspired to be in the industry. We need to be telling both of those stories. This is a beautiful industry to work with. It has its issues. If we talk about both sides of the topic we should be in a good place in the future.