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Nuclear Throne's Vlambeer: "If The Customer Was Always Right I Wouldn't Have A Job"

Rockstars, not having the answers, a brutal games industry and acknowledging mistakes

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When I meet Vlambeer’s Rami Ismail, it’s in the middle of the annual Develop conference in Brighton. He’s a striking figure in a sea that’s half middle-aged businessmen and half wide-eyed, unshaven young developers in t-shirts: improbably tall, wearing a leather jacket on a hot summer’s day, hair everywhere, and a mile-a-minute patter that conveys extreme confidence without evident arrogance. He’s nearing the end of Ramadan, which means he hasn’t eaten during the day for several weeks, but has the energy and enthusiasm of someone about to climb Everest. Like his company’s offbeat action games and his often highly outspoken social media style or not, it is little surprise that this guy became so successful – though of course the raw, joyful appeal of games including Nuclear Throne, Super Crate Box, Luftrausers and Ridiculous Fishing went a long way towards that.

But would the confidence and conviction that he has when he wades headlong into the gaming issues of the day or, as he does in his keynote Develop speech the next day, declare that listening to one’s customers is not necessarily the best policy, be there if he didn’t already have the safety net of that success? In the unedited transcript below, we talk about that, about his feelings towards his own customers, indie ‘luck’, why games want rockstars, Ubisoft’s women characters controversy and why he doesn’t feel he can tell anyone else how to be successful.


Photo by Dan Griliopoulos/Develop Conference

RPS: What are you planning for your talk tomorrow?

Rami I don’t tend to write my talks, I just tend to do talks. And I realised today that I’ve heard a lot of talks but I don’t often hear people talk about customers. You have to manage expections, you have to take care of community but be strict with them and nobody really tells you how. So I wanted to give some examples of that. Half of my talk I wanted to be ‘fuck yeah customers’ and half of it be like ‘fuck customers.’ And I want to be in the middle, because in the end that’s why we’re independent. We don’t want to make what people want .We just want to make what we want to make.

It’s a thing that pisses me off infinitely is when game developers go like ‘yeah, I want to make the game that I want to play.’ It’s such a weird thing, because you’r the only one who won’t be able to play it. If you’re making the game you want to play you’re doing something terribly wrong or you have a severe misunderstanding of how game development works. 

RPS: Yeah, I’m not sure how you reconcile that with wincing at everything that didn’t work out how you wanted.

Rami:  Yeah, you’re like ‘this is broken’ or you know everything that’s going to happen. So when people make a big narrative game and are like “this is the game I want to play” I’m “that’s so saaad. I feel so sorry for you.”

RPS: ‘The only story that works for you is your own story’

Rami: Exactly. So we don’t do that. We make the games we want to make. Part of that is also not listening to consumers or customers. But we’re also very known through Nuclear Throne for listening to our customers, but I think we very clearly setup expectations of what we would listen to and how we would do that. We’ve just, as an industry, been so poor at teaching consumers, customers how this industry works.

So Nuclear Throne is made in Gamemaker and people still come to us every now and then and say ‘why isn’t there a build on PlayStation?’ We say ‘well, we’re working on that, but it’s not done yet. It’s gonna take a lot of time.’ They’re like ‘well can’t you just click a button in Unity?’ We’re “no, it’s Gamemaker” and they’re “why don’t you make it Unity then?” That kind of moment is terrifying to me, because when people make a movie nobody knows exactly what goes into the movie but there’s an understanding that it takes time to shoot, it takes time to edit, it takes time to get ready, it takes time to distribute, there’s marketing campaigns… There’s this well-defined roles: a director, a producer… Sure, not everybody knows what a director does versus what a producer does, but you’ve got the actors, the public facing parts of movies, and people know that. Ask somebody ten years ago what Cliff Bleszinski’s role was and nobody would be able to tell you.

RPS: One of my colleagues (Adam) the other day was saying that what games don’t have that movies do is this ability to send a whole different bunch of people forwards to promote their thing. The actors promote it, maybe the director does a bit, but games send the people who have been behind the scenes and they end up representing the whole project.

 Rami: Yeah, and we could do that. With Nuclear Throne, whenever we do a group talk it’s always the team. It’s our musician, it’s our programmer, it’s me, the guy who does the promo art… We get the team out there because we want to show people ‘hey, this is how a videogame gets made.’ We don’t do that. That creates a lot of weird tension and weird expectation. You see it everywhere. You see it on Kickstarter, you see it on forums, you see it with sales… It sort of goes through everywhere. It seems like such a big issue, but I’ve never heard a talk about it. So I thought maybe I’ll talk about that this time. I need to figure out if I can do a good talk about that, given I’ve got sixteen hours of preparation time.

 I’ve thought the issue through, and I’ve been discussing this with people around the world for two or three years, so I know what my feelings are, I just need to figure out if I can communicate it clearly. This is good exercise.

Here’s how the aforementioned talk came out.

RPS: It’s a weird conference for that. This conference is about making money, and making money as quickly as possible then pulling it out and going on to the next thing. 

Rami: It’s a very interesting part of investor culture, that kind of attitude. But I think there are enough people here who are not here for that. I saw part of the blowback to Randy Pitchford’s talk this morning. It’s interesting because he did point at some of the things I want to talk about, which is going to make it extra interesting for me to do my talk tomorrow. The point is it doesn’t really matter to me whether that’s what people want to hear. That’s exactly what my talk is about. It doesn’t necessarily matter. Someone needs to say this, say ‘listen, it’s fine for us to appreciate our customers, it’s good for us to celebrate our customers, it’s good for us to listen, to be open, to be talk, but there’s also a line.’ There’s a point where we need to be ‘no, that is wrong. You’re just wrong. Your understanding of this is false, and it’s false for these reasons.’ We’re scared of that because we’ve traditionally been very pandering to those audiences, but I think it’s time for us to treat them like adults.

RPS: You’re in an enviable situation in terms of doing that because you argued against GamerGate and took a strong side in other controversies – you told potential customers not to act a certain way and you survived it. So you already know you can survive pushing back. That might not be true for everyone.

Rami: Yeah, and the weird thing is we did already that. We’ve done that  before with Nuclear Throne, when things started people are asking us ‘it’s early access, if we give you feedback then you’ll listen to it?’ And we were “hell no, this is our videogame. If you think that you’re twelve dollars buys you a share in the development of this proejct then you’ve got it all wrong and I’ll happily refund you your money.’ And we’ve done it a couple a times, when people were ‘well, if I don’t have influence on this project then why would I….” You don’t have influence in this project. We’re making this game.

Photo by Tommy Rousse, used under CC-BY license.

RPS: But again, you’re making that decision from a position of already being successful. You can probably afford to take a big hit on this game if that style backfired.

Rami: Yes and no. As the studio grows your responsibilities grow as well. Plus, yyou know, being more visible, any faux pas is a lot more visible too. We’ve always tried to treat the people who play our games as if they are game developers, as if they are aspiring game developers like we were back in the days. We explain to people this is how things are, these are the technical situations that we’re dealing with.

Luftrausers has a broken trophy [on PlayStation], has had it for the past year, and every time someone comes to us we apologise for that because, yes, that is a fuck-up, but then we also tell them ‘listen, we are two-guy studio, we are focused 100% on Nuclear Throne right now, we don’t have the time to fix it. We promise as soon as Nuclear Throne is done, first thing we’re going to find out how this happened and how we can fix it.” And we have problems with Super Crate Box, we have problems with Ridiculous Fishing, we have problems with a bunch of our games, but we just keep explaining ‘this is the issue.’ But someone on Reddit will get impatient, they’ll send an angry threat, and I’ll just jump in there and do the same explanation again. “Yes, we fucked up, but what you’re asking now is not a thing that is possible given the situation right now.” And it turns out a lot of people just appreciate that.

RPS: Is it not something where you could pay someone to go fix it for you?

Rami: I think you could, but I think it’s a situation where it’s somebody who actually works on the game means a lot for people. I think part of our industry yearns for the rockstars. Part of our consumer base still years for the equivalent of a Peter Jackson or an Orlando Bloom. The big stars, and the indie stars. 

RPS: You believe customers want to define the games they play by the people who make them?

Rami: By people, yeah. We’ve been so big on defining our products by technology, by the project itself, by the protagonist, by the world, but not by the people. I think part of that backfires in spectacular ways because now it turns out that people make videogames. And a lot of people are very shocked by that, that you can’t just shout and people and send them death threats because they changed the numbers on a Call of Duty gun. It’s terrifying that our industry hasn’t figured that out yet. 

On page two – “this industry wants to be perfect”, and the response to women characters in Assassin’s Creed and Deus Ex’s mechanical apartheid.

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Alec Meer

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Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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