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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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RPS: Well, our industry spent 20 years only presenting itself as corporations who were incapable of error. 

Rami: I think we’ve been trying to present ourselves as perfect. Like, the games industry does not make mistakes. If something is wrong, there’s a plan, there’s a thing. Or technology is the best ever. Have you ever seen a camera present itself as so easy that you just press a button and the movie is done? Not a single thing in the history of movie-making every claimed that. But you look at the way that Unreal or Unity presents itself and it’s literally that. ‘You want to make a game for PlayStation? Just hit the button.’ Or motion capture always pisses me off infinitely. You see someone in a motion capture suit covered in ping-pong balls, then you see the 3D model doing the exact same thing and… No, you get that data, you put it into a program, somebody cleans it up, you rig the model, you apply it, you do the weighing, all that and then eventually it looks like that. But we just go “oh there you go.” And of course people are upset that a game takes three years to make, because you show them that stuff.

For example, the whole Ubisoft controversy about female characters back in the day, ‘oh it’s too much work.’ Yes, it was too much work at that point. 

RPS: But it wouldn’t have been if they’d thought to include it much earlier.

Rami: The problem there was that they should have made that decision right at the start, but yes, at that point in the process you can’t just go ‘do more motion capture, apply that data to a different character, weigh it again, texture it again, skin it again…’” Yes, you could presumably do that, but not with the QA and the process and all the stuff that you would need in the game. You can’t in the last week just switch. It doesn’t work like that. That’s frustrating to hear, but it’s kind of ridiculous that it’s frustrating. Nobody expects to do that in a movie. ‘Jar-Jar Binks didn’t test very well, can we just make him a green elephant?’ That’s not how it works. Obviously there are other issues, the context of that issue is a lot more sensitive than that, but purely from a technological standpoint it’s strange that there’s so much backlash to somebody saying that they can’t last-minute change this thing. 

RPS: But again there was that thing where they presented themselves as this machine-like corporation that was perfect. “This was a seamless decision that we made” rather than “you’re right, we should have thought about that”.

Rami:  Yeah, “we fucked up, sorry about that, we’re people, we didn’t think this through.” Like the Deus Ex: Mankind Divided thing with ‘mechanical apartheid’ was super-interesting. One of the developers goes and throws this fit on Reddit and then Square-Enix writes this perfectly-worded response. I’m just like, “that’s a response.” You go like, “ok listen, we understand that this is a sensitive thing, we have a team of people looking at this and we will review it, and we’ll see what we do. This is not a decision we made lightly.” Honestly, I don’t really believe that somebody comes up with a term like that by accident. There’s a reason for that term, and I feel like if a game wants to tackle mechanical apartheid then a game should be able to tackle the term mechanical apartheid. 

RPS: I guess people can very easily  come to believe there is a greater importance to their own project. I can well imagine a team of six people in a room going ‘we’re gonna make a really good statement here’ and maybe forgetting that outwardly it’s a game about a man with swords in his elbows.

Rami: That’s it, and then the blowback comes and one of the things you could just do is say ‘OK listen, we thought this through but apparently we need to think a bit more or bring aboard some other people to help us’. That’s fine, but we’re so scared of doing the wrong thing. We’re so scared of fucking up. 

I gave a talk the other day where I talked about mistakes, and one of the first things I mentioned was three mistakes we made when we started Vlambeer. Looking back at the total cost of those mistakes, it comes to about $1.3 million. 

RPS: Jesus Christ.

Rami: That sounds terrifying. But I made those mistakes, I might as well own up to them, right? 

RPS: But you don’t have to go back to your shareholders or board members and say ‘please don’t sell your shares’

Rami: Exactly, and that’s where the issue comes in. A lot of this is about treating customers as purely customers, and not as responsible human beings. That doesn’t work well but then also treating customers like 100%  unique snowflakes doesn’t work either. You need to run a business but you need to find that balance, somewhere in the middle. And nobody ever talks about the balance. ‘The customer is king.’ Well, that’s a great way to run your company straight into the ground.” If the customer was always right then what would my job be? Is it just like ‘make more Minecraft?’ I could make more Minecraft, I could presumably do that. Zombie survivor Minecraft. 

Randy Pitchford [passing by]: Zombies!

[The two developers swap a few notes]

Rami: Ok, yeah. If the customer was always right I wouldn’t have a job. The point is that we create stuff, and we don’t know whether it works. That’s the whole point of this. That’s the whole point of any creative venture. You’re not going from A to B, you’re going from A to question mark, and fuck if I know whether it works.

RPS: If Super Crate Box and Ridiculous Fishing hadn’t been as popular as they were, could you be saying these same things? How much is your position based on being safe already?

Rami: No, I think this is what we started with. Super Crate Box was kind of a weird game, it wasn’t what people were looking for at the time. It’s coming out right at the time of Super Meat Boy, which we didn’t know. We didn’t realise that was happening. But what I do very strongly remember everyone saying was that this should be a paid game, and we like ‘no, listen, it’s gonna be freeware, and we have this reason for it, and we don’t care.’ People wanted to give us money and we were like ‘no’, we didn’t want people to give us money, we wanted them to send the game to their friends or something.

I’ve done games before, people forget that before Vlambeer I worked on a bunch of independent space sims which didn’t do very well, but I had those same beliefs at that point, that as a designer you’re an auteur. You make these things and you believe in those things, and yes you want to balance it with who’s going to play it because that’s at the core of this medium. But Vlambeer is specifically set up to let me deal with the people who want stuff and let JW (Jan Willem Nijman) be as far away as possible. He reads the forums and he takes that feedback, that’s his job as a designer, he takes all that feedback and filters it and he figures out what he wants to use and what fits with his vision, what’s the reality, and I just deal with the complaints and questions and all that. It’s completely separate and I think people don’t really realise that. If I acknowledge something I may choose to take it to JW and be like ‘hey listen, everybody’s saying this’ and he might be like “oh, I don’t care, that’s the opposite of what I want to achieve with this.” And that’s what makes Vlambeer games Vlambeer games, right? 

If you don’t have that thing that makes your game your game you’re going to be in trouble anyway. The industry’s brutal right now. We’re doing this lovely dance where – and this is one of my favourite things the last few months – all the mobile companies are jumping ship because mobile doesn’t earn enough. User acquisition is too high, earnings are too low, it’s hard to get discovered, so they all jump to PC. And now on PC you’ve got the indies and the PC companies saying ‘we’ve been here for a while, the budget is too high for the  chance of discoverability on Steam, so we’re going to go to a platform with less clutter’, so they go to console. On console you see all these big console companies saying ‘listen, console’s expensive and and it’s hard and unwieldy to make games, so we’re going to go and make smaller games, we’re going to do a Fallout Shelter and go on mobile.’ So we’re all dancing. 

Literally every part of the industry right now is really, really hard. Everything is hard. I have a strong belief in staying wherever the hell we are and just getting better and better at it, because sure we could try and do something else, pivot, or we could just do what we’re good at. If you don’t have that thing that makes your game your game, you don’t have a flavour to your thing, if you don’t dare to make something for somebody instead of for everybody, then it’s not going to work. Minecraft wasn’t made to be for everybody, it was made to be a block game. 

Sure, there’s always going to be an element of luck. If you’re asking me would I have said these exact same things without success, I don’t know. But is this the attitude we’ve had since the start? Yes, absolutely, I just wouldn’t have been able to vocalise it, and I wouldn’t have been as certain about it. Of course, for everybody there’s nuance to this. For some people it’s going to work out perfectly, to do only this or to listen to their customers all the time, and that’s great. That’s a very unique case, I’ve never seen any business do well only listening to its customers. Even Wikipedia has to be ‘listen guys, need you to not do that.’ 

RPS: You’ve been a sort of unofficial spokesperson and rolemodel for part of the industry for a while now… 

Rami: That’s terrifying, yeah. 

RPS: Have you seen any studios who’ve followed your advice across the years and it worked out for them – or otherwise? 

Rami: There’s this studio which worked on a game called Dog Sled Saga. They have a little sign in their office which says ‘what would Vlambeer do?’ That’s kind of weird, but I think it’s the best way that somebody can respond to the advice that we give. It’s not as an absolute but as a question. Not as a ‘this is the way it should be’ but ‘why is he saying that?’ I don’t really…

Disclosure: At this point one of the heads of a large game studio passes by with a tower of Dominos pizza boxes, greets Rami, then returns moments later to give him some garlic bread and potato wedges that he had spare. Rami is currently fasting for Ramadan, but doesn’t mention this out of politeness and accepts the food with thanks, which he then hands to me once the other gentleman is out of sight. I am ravenous after a day of running around, but feel that to eat the food in front of a fasting man while I am interviewing him would be sickeningly rude. I spend the rest of the interview haunted by the delicious smells of cheese and garlic, praying that the talk wraps up before the food turns cold. Spoiler: it does not. Develop is a bloody funny place.

Rami: Here’s the thing. I get really amused when I read a Gamasutra blog post that’s “I did all the things that the other Gamasutra blog post said and I didn’t become successful.” I’m like no, because by the time something is a Gamasutra article somebody tried it, they had the time to look at in hindsight, and anyone who’s paying attention in the industry has noticed that it’s working and is doing that as well. You also had the time to collect your thoughts and write an article about. By the time you read something on Gamasutra it’s too late. That thing doesn’t work any more.  Does that mean don’t read Gamasutra? No, it means absolutely read Gamasutra, but read it less as a ‘here’s an absolute way of becoming’ successful and more ‘what is the thought process that led to these decision?’ 

The talks I give and the advice is give is very much to think about why you do certain things. ‘Why?’ is the overarching question in everything I talk about. Why would you do that, why did we do that, why would you try to be Vlambeer? Vlambeer already exists: you’re not going to be Vlambeer. We’re Vlambeer. Part of that was luck, part of that was work, part of that was attitude, part of that was just sheer timing. I’ve often thought that if Vlambeer started today we wouldn’t stand a chance. Not in hell. 

RPS: No-one can predict the Steam charts right now.

Rami: That’s the thing. You take your shot and if it works it works, if it doesn’t… It’s a shame, and you can try again if you have the funds, if not you get a job and then you get a job. One of our artists on Ridiculous Fishing wrote a great article back in 2012 about not quitting your day job. I had a day job, well into the second year of Vlambeer. I sold computers: that was my side thing. I was actually really happy with that job because it taught me how to negotiate, which ended up being very useful later. 

People forget that stuff like Vlambeer started at some point. We’ve always been very happy to hide when we started, when we appeared. We like the idea that Vlambeer has always been this ubiquitous thing, that it was always there in the background radiation, but it hasn’t. This was a studio that was founded in 2010 when two students dropped out of university. One of them had a day job selling computers, one of them didn’t have expenses, just lived at home. Then we started and we ate noodles for six months, and that’s not even an exaggeration. Is that a good thing? I don’t know? It was probably very unhealthy, but we didn’t have a choice back then. We just kept doing things and the decisions we made were consistent enough that we could build a brand around it and with the right time and the right decisions, sometimes by pure luck, sometimes by believing in something, and all that together makes a Vlambeer.

That’s the weird thing. At the start the ratio of luck versus intentional choice seems a lot higher, but later on as soon as you’ve got some luck you can make choices. But before that, not really. You just roll a die and one to five is bad and six is good. 

RPS: But you get to a point where people pay attention to you, and then everything changes.

Rami: Yeah, and then you get to the point where people pay a lot of attention to you ,and then it sort of folds back in a weird way. The good thing about the visibility Vlambeer has is, if we see a problem with something, we can help fix it. We can speak out and our voice has weight. That’s cool.

RPS: And you’re big enough that your business isn’t going to fall apart because you’ve taken that risk and the heat?

Rami: Hopefully not. But then on the other side, it means that if I say something off the cuff or something particularly stupid, that’s going to haunt me forever. 

RPS: Just a hint of what it’s like to be Notch.

Rami: Yeah. Aftter Vlambeer grew big I got a lot of respect for what it’s like to be a movie star. I walk into a games conference and I can’t go five steps without somebody saying hi, and I love that because I love being in the games industry, but I can walk out of the building and as soon as I leave this hotel and I’m just dude with overlong hair and a scruffy beard, so I’m fine. As a movie star, it doesn’t matter where you are because your looks and your acting is your product and the world sees it. I don’t know how people deal with that. 

RPS: Is a conference like this a parade of people asking you how to get rich?

Rami: The answer to that is ‘I don’t know.’ If you want me to tell you how we did what we did five yeras ago I’m the worst person to ask. I’m not there now. I can maybe tell you the things that I think will help you right now but usually they’re the mistakes that you should avoid at the halfway point, mistakes that we made when we should have known better but we didn’t because that information didn’t exist. I can’t help people make their first hit game. I can tell them to reach out to the press. Worst case you’re going to ignore the email and you’ll have forgotten about them in a week. Not even a week, maybe seconds.

RPS: There’s so much guilt about doing that though. So many emails, so many games, but it’s only a human brain here, there’s only so much I can stuff into it. 

Rami: Yeah, exactly, you have to make choices and that’s your job. That’s kind of thing: we all do our part in this and there are things that you should do independent of where you are. Thinking about why you’re making your game, what’s special about your game, how the game can stand out. This is the thing with luck. I say ‘luck’ but it’s a very dangerous word, because it doesn’t mean the same thing. Luck is you’re working on your game and you never talk to anyone about it, and then above your head an airplane crashes and a guy jumps out with a parachute but it doesn’t open, then he falls into a tree in your garden and veers back into your window and lands there and sees you, and says “I’m so lucky to be alive, I’ll give the $70 million I inherited from the lotto last week to you and I’ll make all of your wishes come true.” 

But then luck is also I worked really hard at making a game, at making sure it was special, I went to every event possible, I told everybody, I burned everything I had to get it going and now I’m here and this one person noticed it and it went viral, or it got mentioned in the press. Like Ridiculous Fishing, the only reason Luke Plunkett at Kotaku picked up on that was he was thinking about SEGA Bass Fishing. That’s luck as well. We don’t know how to distinguish between luck and luck. There’s pure luck and there’s creating opportunities and then being lucky through those opportunities.

So I can’t tell you the formula for success. I can tell you stupid things to do that would ruin your chances, but even then some people just get lucky, they do everything wrong and it just works out.  That’s just as valid an experience as the other one, it happens. There’s no way for anybody to say what works. Just if you send a press email make sure you spell check it, if you’re going to do community management learn how to do expectation management, but the honest answer is nobody has the answers.

RPS: But everybody wants someone else to tell them those answers.

Rami: What’s the saying? Knowing that you don’t know something is fine, but not knowing that you don’t know if when that becomes a problem. For a lot of people it’s hard to know that you don’t know. I never knew anything about community management, I just had to learn, and suddenly it turns out there’s this wealth of information out there I could have been reading, I just didn’t know about it. Accountancy, I didn’t know that. But suddenly I was a face at Vlambeer and now I’m whatever people call it. I didn’t get training on those things.

Please disagree with me. Come argue with me. Tell me that my talk was dumb, that you hated it, but tell my why. Because maybe you’re right. I don’t know. As long as I don’t give them the answer, because if I give them the answer I make a false promise. 

RPS: And then you’ll get the articles saying ‘I did everything Rami said and now I have to sell my internal organs’.

Rami: Yeah, exactly. Even telling you what went right for us is scary because there’s an implicit promise that this is how you get there, so I try to avoid that.

 

 

Nuclear Throne is available on Steam Early Access now (also available via Humble).

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