Rami Ismail has traveled the world, speaking at game conferences to carry messages of inspiration and practical advice for the world’s indie game developers. He is a role model on both the business and creative side of running an indie game studio — as one half of the leadership of Vlambeer, the Dutch studio that made indie hits such as Nuclear Throne and Ridiculous Fishing.
And he received the prestigious Ambassador award at the Game Developers Conference this year for his work advocating for independent developers and educating people about diversity and the depiction of Muslims in video games.
Ismail moderated several talks and gave a speech at the recent Gamelab event in Barcelona. I interviewed him about his leadership role among indie developers. We talked about the competitive situation for indies, as well as the future games that Vlambeer is working on.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: We heard a lot of the triple-A people talking about their problems here. Amy Hennig. Angie Smets. Are there things you see in it that might be applicable to indies, or do indies have their own set of issues?
Rami Ismail: There are some lessons for indies. It’s interesting because in many ways, I think triple-A is running into the issues that indies are having rather than the other way around.
The main problem a lot of triple-A has is just a certain constriction and consolidation of the industry. There’s fewer game studios making fewer games, and of those games, more people are playing fewer different games for more hours. All of that together puts this pressure on triple-A where they have to find ways to make more money from a single game while also somehow balancing between creating a product and creating a service. There’s definitely a segment of the triple-A demographic that prefers their games as a game, and then, there’s a segment that prefers games as a service.
It seems like triple-A has to make a conscious choice between one or the other at this point. You can’t do what a lot of games have tried to do, where it’s a product with microtransactions. Certain standards are now OK and certain standards are now not OK. With every game that gets made, whether it’s [Star Wars Battlefront] or Fortnite, we draw the lines a little more. But we also draw them a little tighter.
For indies, one of the challenges triple-A faces that we do as well — it’s actually a result of the opposite. Instead of a constriction, indie has seen an explosion of how many people make games. But similarly, we’ve seen that more people play fewer games. We, too, compete with Fortnite and Overwatch, with these bigger games that people play for more time. For indies, this is a development that’s been there for a while.
Looking at triple-A, a lot of indies are finding that the games as a service model might not be that bad, and I don’t mean in the form of early access, but in the form of an online service that’s continuously updated, that’s a persistent world or a sandbox. I feel a lot of indies are trying to apply that open world, online, persistent switch. A few of us can do it. The rest of us are fighting over whatever audience is left.
GamesBeat: I thought it was interesting that the thing they seem to share in common, some of these really ambitious indies, is that it’s easier to get a Ph.D than it is to ship a game. [Horizon: Zero Dawn] was seven years. The Witness was seven years. He’s talking about 20 years [to complete one of his next games] now.
Ismail: A lot of the ambitious indie games take seven or eight years. Games like Fez, Gorogoa. There are games that take four or five years. Through the commercialization of indie, we’ve seen a lot more streamlined efforts to make games. Games don’t take seven years anymore. A game that starts now — every indie has heard the talk. Don’t take too much risk. Don’t over scope. Make sure you can make your games in two or three years. We’ve professionalized.
In a weird way, we’ve ended up in the same arms race that triple-A did in the ‘80s. More focused games. We’ve figured out the things indies are good at. We’re good at roguelikes and platformers. We’re good at narrative, visual-novel style titles. We honed them, the same way shooters were honed by triple-A back in the day. It’s quite fascinating to see for me, honestly, this focusing of indie. Obviously, the beautiful thing is that anybody can make a game, but you’re definitely starting to feel the effect of the market on what gets made. What you see ends up falling in about three or four genres.
GamesBeat: What we see everyone getting excited about in the venture community — like esports and blockchain — do you see any bearing for that on the indie community?
Ismail: It is and it isn’t. There’s always going to be a creative mind who plays with that stuff. The most interesting crypto game is going to be an indie game. The most interesting esports game is going to come from indie games. And then, a big studio will take the idea and walk away with it. You see that with [PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG)], which for all intents and purposes was an indie game when it started. You’ll see it over time again and again. If an indie strikes something creatively, somebody else is going to do it better. That’s the cycle.
It sounds upsetting, but when you think about it, it’s not like we have to say, “Poor PUBG.” The game still does well. It’s a cultural phenomenon. Now, there’s Fortnite. Is that questionable, on the other side? A little. Is it a different game? Yes. Even PUBG had to admit that. I guess the lawsuit wasn’t going to be a thing.
Indies are always going to be at the forefront of any technology that’s weird or interesting. They did it with VR. One or two indies will get big through that, and it’ll be good to see. Every time there’s a new segment of the industry to compete and create in, indies will be there first, just because we can.
GamesBeat: There’s a trend among the triple-A guys to team up with indies — like the Unravel thing at EA. Take-Two has their new label. Do you have any observations on how well that’s going?
Ismail: It’s the constriction thing, right? They’re hedging their bets. They’re making sure they can take creative risks in smaller ways. People now accept indie titles — what do you call it? The 505 Games level of polish?
GamesBeat: Or Annapurna.
Ismail: Yeah, Annapurna, 505, that level. That’s accepted as part of mainstream games. That’s not, “Oh, it’s an indie game.” Those are video games, period. A lot of publishers are capitalizing on that with their reduced portfolios, with fewer game releases each year. They’re using indie to fill those gaps and keep a flow coming and to see what IP might be interesting to build on, whether it’s Life is Strange or Josef Fares’s games or Unravel. They’re playing with these games to figure out what could work as a bigger investment.
At the same time, it’s a good way of getting creative talent on board. You know that the talent already has leadership qualities. You know they can ship a game. It’s a relatively low-risk investment. If you think about it, a game like those I just mentioned, they’re not $20 million, $30 million investments. They’re [$5 million to $10 million]. For a larger publisher, that’s brilliant.
From what I’ve heard, the deals have been good. Publishers have generally been nice. They don’t seem to get in the way all that much. It’s not in their best interest to get in the way. They know it’s not their kind of game. They know they’re not good at this. I’m excited about the hybrid, though. I’m excited about seeing indie studios tackle that [$5 million to $10 million] gap in the industry, where it’s not quite big enough to be triple-A and not small enough to be indie.
It’s traditionally been a hard segment to get funding. It’s surprisingly easy in games to get a $2 million budget or a $25 million budget. It’s really hard to get [$5 million to $10 million]. It doesn’t fit anyone’s portfolio. Seeing that space open up for studios like Capybara — those studios have a lot of opportunities to grow and tackle bigger, riskier projects. That’s exciting. If that means “EA Indie Games” needs to stop sounding like a paradox to me, that’s fine.
GamesBeat: Were there any highlights from the talks you supervised that caught your interest?
Ismail: It’s Gamelab, so it’s a super wide variety of talks. I obviously had my fireside chat with [Studio MDHR producer] Maja Moldenhauer, which was fascinating. Cuphead is one of those strange fairy tale journeys that really shouldn’t exist but it does. It was interesting because so much has been said about the art and the design, and I was really just curious about the people. How do you, as a studio without any contacts, weather all of the challenges that making a game like that, with those expectations, throws at you?
In many ways it evokes No Man’s Sky. It’s a game that, out of nowhere, had attention and hype, and it could have gone every way. For them, it ended up going the right way.
GamesBeat: She tweeted that Angie Smets is her hero.
Ismail: I can imagine. Angie is one of the best producers — maybe the best producer in the games industry. Maja just seems — she’s incredibly capable at her job. Immediately, there’s no question about it. It was a pleasure getting to talk to somebody who’s so eloquent and sharp and witty. And clearly just in good spirits from what she does. She enjoys what she does. She’s figured out a way to make it work with these brothers.
I had a panel with John Baez from The Behemoth, which was interesting because we’ve never formally met. He gave a really good talk, in which he mostly reminded the audience — consisting of mostly indie developers — that they are the product. They shouldn’t be pitching to indie publishers. Indie publishers should be pitching to them. In a way, an indie publisher is just an aggregate of services: QA, marketing, PR, a bit of production, release management, stuff like that. All of these services you can technically hire and save money on because that’s less than 30 percent of the value of your game, which seems to be the default for a lot of these indie publishers. I think he reframed a lot of those thoughts for developers. That was really interesting to see.
Today, I have two panels. I’m going to do a panel with some of the foremost Spanish independent talent. We’ll have some award winners from yesterday and some people who’ve just made games or continue to try to make games in Spain. That’s going to be interesting because I know some of them. I’ve explicitly not read too much about where they are now or what they’re working on. I’ll be just as curious as the audience through that. And I have my own talk. I went through the alphabet, and for each letter, I found a word I wanted to talk about. We’re going to do the indie development dictionary.
I’m just excited to get some time to talk to the community here. The community here in Spain is stable enough and has been around long enough that the work I tend to in places is done here. There’s nothing I have to do to keep the community going or help out, but I really love the people here. It’s such a good community. Year after year, they feel stronger and more capable and more diverse and more experienced. They’re more self-organizing. It’s been a joy to come here every year.
GamesBeat: Do you have any news from Vlambeer, other than saying you don’t like your partner?
Ismail: It’s funny because, obviously, that remains true [laughs]. But it’s also — honestly, after two-and-a-half years since Nuclear Throne, where we’ve not really worked together, it’s a joy to be working together again. He did Minit. Even though I had no influence on Minit, no part in Minit, I’m incredibly proud of Minit because it shows me how much [Jan Willem (JW) Nijman] has grown during his time as Vlambeer. It’s shown me what a Vlambeer game looks like without me. Technically, it’s not a Vlambeer game — it’s JW — but JW and I are Vlambeer.
It’s taught me a lot, to see Minit. It’s an incredible game. It’s clearly not a Vlambeer game, and it’s fascinating. It does mean that somewhere, I’m important to that process. That’s fun to see. We’ve not worked separately for eight years. Everything we’ve worked on has been together. Seeing this one little side project has been reinvigorating for me. Now that Minit is done, we’re back together. We’re talking about prototypes, talking about games. We have a few things in preproduction and development.
There are Vlambeer games over the horizon. It’s very exciting to me. I’ve been going to conferences for two years now without any news. I miss being able to announce things, to talk about things, to speculate, to accidentally say release dates and regret all that. I miss that dance, the conversations, seeing the response on the Internet. I’m excited to have new stuff.
It’s not quite there where I can talk about it right now, which is a shame because we have so many little prototypes that could be interesting, from little top-down shooter projects to much larger spacefaring games. We have all sorts of prototypes in development right now. This is the part in the Vlambeer cycle where we’re just throwing ideas at a wall and seeing what excites both of us — not just as a project but as a project we have to create. It’s been nice.
GamesBeat: We talked a lot about the games you’ve played. Were there some that you felt were inspiring as far as what you’re doing now?
Ismail: Into the Breach was highly influential, obviously. The readability of that design, the complex information layered very well. It’s a game that we looked at, both of us, and we’re just infinitely inspired by it. The same way, back in the day, we were inspired by Spelunky. It doesn’t mean that a Vlambeer game is going to be a turn-based strategy game, but a lot of what they achieved with the game has been — I think for every indie developer, it’s been inspirational.
Beyond that, I don’t think there are many games that JW and I have both played. I’m currently enjoying Mario Tennis and Yoku’s Island Express. Going forward, I’ll probably have thoughts from those games that, in some form or shape, end up in what we’re going to make. The one thing I can say for Vlambeer is that what we’re going to make is probably going to be a bit smaller than Nuclear Throne. I think we need the palate cleanser. Nuclear Throne was too big. Ridiculous Fishing was too big. I’m just very excited to be making some smaller stuff.
Disclosure: The organizers of Gamelab paid my way to Barcelona. Our coverage remains objective.