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February 26, 2014
9 Min Read
Talking with Rami Ismail over the internet, there is the constant, familiar sound of a digitized water drop -- the sound of people Skype-messaging him, throughout our conversation. He tells me that it's other game developers pinging him, most asking for advice. "Rami, I need your superpowers!", messages one unnamed game developer. Perhaps it's hyperbolic to call Ismail the Superman of indie game development, but consider this: He hears the cries of fellow indies, he feels a sincere obligation to help them, and he lends a hand. He swoops in and saves them (or at least gives them advice) through Skype, through his speeches, through his emails. A constant world traveler who's also tweeting and blogging, he emanates a sense of omnipresence. Ok, so if calling Ismail "Superman" is overstating his importance or abilities, calling him one of the most important figures in game development is not. He's one-half of the two-man Dutch development team Vlambeer, and along with game designer Jan Willem Nijman (a.k.a. "J.W."), they are makers of excellent action games including Super Crate Box, Nuclear Throne and Luftrausers. But his calling goes beyond making good games. "One of the cornerstones of 'indie' has been sharing and collaborating and working together," he says. "So I just decided to do that exact thing."
"One of the cornerstones of 'indie' has been sharing and collaborating and working together."
Ismail, somehow, does find time to actually make games, as the programmer at Vlambeer. But when he's preaching the good word about game development outside of his studio, most of Ismail's advocacy isn't focused on programming or actually making games. His efforts largely have to do with educating indies about the business side of being indie. Developers, so focused on making games and so short on people power, just don't have much time to think about the vastly important aspects of actually selling games and marketing them. As the Skype messages flow in and as the unread email piles up, even just during our short chat, Ismail admits that things can get hectic. But there's a calm about him even when he's talking how busy he gets with his job. He chose this path, and he's passionate about it. Lifting up others outside of Vlambeer lifts up the entire indie space -- that's what he believes. "The big thing that I realized through Vlambeer is that I care a lot about video games. I care a lot about the people who want to make video games," he says. "I came to the realization that it's about [caring about games] and not just about making a specific kind of game with Vlambeer. I care about making sure that everybody can make games. If I'm indeed filling a role that not a lot of people are filling, then I should probably try to make my skills available to everybody who needs them." Ismail has no formal business training, but he is a programmer. He sees business and marketing as systems that he can optimize against, like code. His free presskit() tool, which streamlines the process of making press pages for developers' video games, is how he approached one of his major problems (not having enough time to help every indie on the planet). He says his goal is to become "obsolete," in the sense he's given developers in need all the tools and knowledge they could possibly need to be self-sustaining -- that his personal, direct services would no longer be necessary. That time likely won't come any time soon, thanks to the inherent complexity of making and selling games as an indie developer.
Mistakes indies make
Ismail interacts with indies all over the world, and each community has its own idiosyncrasies. But across all regions, Ismail does see mistakes that indies often make. One of the big mistakes is a basic misunderstanding of the cost of overhead, or of money in general. "A lot of indie studios start out with more people than they probably should have in the company," he says. "A lot of people tend to think about money in terms of being students, I guess, which is a position in which a lot of indies start. They think in terms of salary." Instead of thinking in terms of making games for a salary, indies should think more in terms of time. "How much time do I have, with this money, with the people I have, with the office I’m renting, the cost of marketing. How much time do I have?"
"People think of the press as an all-eating monster that will devour your soul. A lot of indies are terrified of press."
Ismail says indies need to stop thinking of money so arbitrarily, assuming that if their bank statement has a number followed by a certain amount of zeroes, that their businesses will be viable indefinitely. Instead, think about when time -- i.e. money -- will run out, and plan against that. With Vlambeer being just two people, Ismail practices what he preaches about being conscious about overhead and costs. Another common mistake Ismail sees indies make has to do with the press. "People think of the press as an all-eating monster that will devour your soul," he says. "A lot of indies are terrified of press." Indies are afraid of possible issues such as sending early builds that might get torn apart in the media, he says; that if the press doesn't respond to a press release, the media hates them. "There's a lot of fear that usually comes from just not understanding how things work," he says. "As game designers, not making assumptions, and understanding empathy are big parts of what we do in the first place. I would like to see more indies extend those same values to how they deal with press and business. [Working with press] is exactly like designing a system for a video game." Indie game developers are also too reluctant to collaborate and share with one another, Ismail adds. Developers should try to share with one another, as much as possible, how they make games, how they sell and market games. "A lot of indies are scared about opening up on a lot of things. Some of these are business-related problems, which is reasonable, but in many ways, there are a lot of things that are not O.K., that we can fix, just by being open about them." Ismail uses the example of the publicized tiff Vlambeer had with Microsoft over Xbox One's launch parity. "That is a bad rule. It is a problematic rule, because it effectively forces Sony to create a similar rule, if enough indies just go with it. It'd be awful, because it'd mean you can't launch on one [platform] before the other. If indies are not aware that that rule is problematic, then you might up in a situation where Microsoft is getting exclusives, with worse terms." "I think the indie scene nowadays is large enough to take a stand against something like that," he says.
Throughout our conversation, we say that term -- "indie" -- over and over again. At one point, Ismail mentioned it, and said he doesn't really care about the answer to the aging question, "What is indie?" But he says there is still a distinction, one that is great enough as not to throw out the term just yet. "The difference is, if we ['indies'] screw something up, we eat noodles. If they [traditional large-scale developers] screw something up, 300 people might default on their mortgages," he says.
"The difference is, if we screw something up, we eat noodles. If they screw something up, 300 people might default on their mortgages."
Ismail was recently in Las Vegas to speak at the DICE Summit, a game industry event known to cater mainly to the traditional, big publisher, big business crowd. But even though he felt out of his element (he describes Vegas as "In-App Purchase City"), and among game developers who were not in his usual circle, he was able to find common ground where labels such as "indie" and "triple-A" faded away, at least for a little while. "I think, effectively, we're the same type of person. When I sit down with Randy Pitchford or Warren Spector, or anybody [in triple-A] we would automatically connect on all the shared experience we've had, or the same passion for the media we have, or the creative urges, the things we want to do. Those were all pretty much identical." The difference is that forces -- responsibilities -- come into the game-making equation; broad market forces and responsibilities to employees that Vlambeer doesn't really need to address, that larger corporations must confront and react to. This modifies and influences the way that studios approach game creation. "[Las Vegas] was not my place, it was way overwhelming. But these were still game developers. These were still people I could connect with on a really simple, honest level, which was fun," he says.
An army of Vlambeers
Even though Ismail is able to connect to game developers from different spaces and "scenes," he's still committed to Vlambeer's format: Two people -- a programmer, a designer -- who are "polar opposites," making video games. "Since we're only two people, there's no way to win an argument by vote," he says. "The only way to win an argument is by arguing. That's at the core of a lot of what we do. … We have to agree on something, and that's the only way something goes into our games. I don’t know how to scale that. I don't think you can."
"You can give back. And that takes time, but it is worth it."
I ask what he'd do with a team of 50 people. He says he'd just break the group up into 25 teams, an army of Vlambeers. Pairs of people doing their own thing, disagreeing and agreeing and making "small" games they believe in. Meanwhile, during the course of our chat, about 20 or 30 people -- people whom Ismail says he doesn't really know that well -- are Skyping him, asking for help on angling pitches to press, or for advice on their business strategies. At the moment, he's doing the interview at Boston-area Firehose Games, and developer friends are trying to draw him away. Everyone's demanding his attention, in person and over the internet, but he seems comfortable in the role. And there's nothing that indicates he's putting himself "out there" because of some underlying arrogance. He's sincere, and he really loves making video games, and like-minded people are naturally drawn to that. "You can give back," he says. "And that takes time, but it is worth it. It's not 'worth it' necessarily for yourself directly, although it does end up helping you. It is good for the medium. We all started making games because we care about video games, I hope." Front page photo by Sebastiaan ter Burg.
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