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.
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.
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.