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Rami Ismail Posts

Crunching

Crunch has some advantages that are hard to replicate during ‘normal workdays’. Working with a group of people for a concentrated amount of time towards a well-defined goal and deadline has effects similar to a game jam: it allows for rapid iteration, you can keep focused on the task of meeting the deadline for an extended period of time and with the defined deadline, decisions are a lot easier to force – which can then be iterated upon further if necessary.

With a well-timed crunch, you can get a project past a bump, you can advance a project at a rapid pace and in doing so, motivate yourself and your team.

On the other hand, extended crunch does affect your concentration and your ability to think clearly. It is unhealthy to be working for extended amounts of time straight and as the crunch starts to last longer, the advantages lessen disproportionally to the damage crunch can potentially do to the human psyche.

When Vlambeer was having a rough time, right after the cloning debacle, we’d work late every day of the week and fool ourselves into thinking we took enough time off by working at home one day of the week. Obviously, we did not get anything done regardless of how long we stared at our screen apathically. We learned that the danger of romanticizing crunch is that the advantages to a short crunch seem so easily reproducible that it seems like a good idea to crunch for an extended period.

The decay of mental capabilities during crunch is not a linear one. If you crunch for a long time, you’ll eventually reach a point in which the advantages of the crunch have been negated, leading to potential stagnation on the project. Stagnation is always hurtful for motivation. Not having a life outside of work due to crunch won’t help with that. To add insult to injury, the ratio of crunch time versus recovery time shifts towards longer recovery time as a crunch progresses.

On the other hand, the past week we’ve successfully crunched a week on LUFTRAUSERS, culminating in pulling an all-nighter to meet the Independent Games Festival submission deadline. When we went home, we discussed that the crunch actually made us feel better instead of worse. We realized this crunch had been short, focused and without annoyances or distractions.

It helped that both the project artists, Paul Veer and Roy Nathan de Groot and the musician, KOZILEK, had been working ahead. We didn’t need to wait for any assets to be created and as such, our reliance on the creation of external assets was none. We also kept external distractions to a minimum. We locked the door, killed the phone and discussed no other projects or work.

Obviously, we’re still learning and growing – but the way I look at it now is that crunch can be a good thing. Sure, there are a lot of conditions for it to be a good thing and it absolutely has to be something you want to do. It should have a well-defined target, well-defined participants and a well-defined duration. It should not be part of normal production, but it can be used effectively to either reach a specific goal or to solve a problem with a project.

Most importantly, take time off when crunch is over.

 

CLOP

Like any other Bennett Foddy game, CLOP makes me want to strangle him. In a good, friendly, amicable way.

Although I imagine I’d need five hands and impeccable timing to actually have a shot at that.

The serving order of grandmas breakfast

My now 94-year old grandma told me a story when I was a kid. The story always stuck with me, because I used to think the answer to it was unsettling. She had 12 kids and every morning she’d make breakfast for them. She’d explain how she had different groups of children with different needs, always one or two too young for school, some of the kids attending elementary school, several going to high school, one of them in university. She had babies, boys and girls and men and women.  One of those kids was my mother.

Every morning, she’d wake up early and make breakfast for everyone. She once asked me: “Do you know for whom I made breakfast first?”

Vlambeer started back in 2010, but by then I had run my fair share of larger projects. These were projects with all the fancy tools and methodologies, things called Trac, SVN or Scrum. I knew how to structure a project for a group of people. Some of those projects failed, some of them succeeded and released. Either way, that was my reality for almost six years before I started working with Jan Willem.

In that period, things happened and lessons were learned. That typical Abe Lincoln beard I sport? I have it because age was a serious disadvantage during negotiations before I turned twenty or so. And the time when I was trying to run a twenty-one person team, I figured out Miller’s Law, the rule of seven (plus or minus two). When I was working on another project, someone asked me why the team consisted of only four people and not attempting to grow, I learned to contest that companies don’t need to grow to increase in value in this day and age.

All those years, I was learning business sense. At some point, if I would’ve shaven my beard off, I think I could’ve infiltrated a business school and pretended to have been a student there for years without any troubles. Alas, those were not my ambitions.

Starting Vlambeer changed everything. Trac adds more overhead than efficiency to a two-man team, Scrum almost feels ludicrous at this size. SVN isn’t compatible nor efficient with the tools Jan Willem uses. Like with our game designs, we didn’t feel it was appropriate to see how other companies did it: we wanted to come up with the optimal management solution to Vlambeer. We tried to make it as nimble, lean and adaptable as we wanted Vlambeer to be. The brilliant solution we came up with was basically abandoning all tools for planning or management.

Over the span of a year, we released Radical Fishing, Super Crate Box, we made a deal with Adult Swim to release Dinosaur Zookeeper and started negotiating about releasing Steam games. We gathered a kickass team for a Radical Fishing sequel on iOS, Ridiculous Fishing. We cut a deal to do Serious Sam: The Random Encounter.

The system was working – no micromanagement, just the large goals at not-too-permanent deadlines. Vlambeer was a machine – we worked long hours, we worked as hard as we could and we juggled several projects at once. I did both programming on some games and I took care of all the business – the legal, financial, negotiations, contacts and marketing aspects – answering interviews, taking care of our Twitter, Facebook and blog. Oftentimes, my computer would switch off around 6AM and I’d wake up around 10AM. Things worked.

We were asked to make a small game for Venus Patrol, so we started work on GUN GODZ. Super Crate Box was oft requested on iOS, so we reached out to Halfbot to start on that.

At that point things came crashing down. A small San Francisco Bay Area company announced a clone of Radical Fishing and rushed to the market before we could release Ridiculous Fishing. We were demotivated, but I was happy that the whole debate got so much attention. We had the perfect chance to make an important point about creativity and morality, but I couldn’t juggle handling that and doing development. After talking to Jan Willem, we decided that he would continue developing The Random Encounter and I would handle the cloning thing.

All our other projects went on the backburner for those three months, almost a year ago, but the deadlines on those projects weren’t shifting. Venus Patrol was going to launch at one point. Serious Sam: The Random Encounter needed to be done before Serious Sam 3: BFE released. Super Crate Box iOS had to release before someone else thought to pull a ‘Ninja’ on Super Crate Box as well. Naturally, by the time Serious Sam was done, Jan Willem was overworked and I was devastated. In the GUN GODZ postmortem, we wrote:

Gun Godz happened right in the wake of a cloning controversy, in which our game Radical Fishing was cloned and rushed to the App Store by some San Francisco company. That entire episode demotivated us, putting our own iOS version of Radical Fishing, Ridiculous Fishing, on hold. Sadly, that demotivation echoed through in our other projects, delaying Super Crate Box iOS, Serious Sam: The Random Encounter and Gun Godz.

As things started to pick up again and our motivation started returning, we were suddenly working on four big projects at once. That turned out to be too much.

By the time we handled everything, we were overworked, overstressed and exhausted. Vlambeer felt like it was in the spotlights: interviews, questions, requests for advice and ‘collaboration opportunities’ kept coming in. Jan Willem was suffering from increasing amounts of migraine episodes. I woke up as tired as I went to bed. We lost velocity and our creative output took a nosedive steep enough to be useful for a zero-gravity training.

A few months later, we felt some energy returning to us. We discussed the situation and realized that somewhere before the clone hit, we had dropped the ball. By not having any planning beyond some distant goals, we had nothing to fall back on for overview when we lost our momentum. We hadn’t been prepared for losing velocity or motivation.

We needed to figure this out quickly, because at that point we were considering calling it quits. We basically halted everything we were doing and took two weeks off. Our Twitter went silent. Facebook wasn’t updated. Only the most important emails were replied to. We worked a bit on LUFTRAUSERS and we started to try and figure out what the things were that were most tiring. Jan Willem decided all the travelling to conventions and working late were the things that were keeping him tired. I love the conventions and the energy there and I have no problems with working late, so that wasn’t my problem.

It took me a while before I realized that managing the company consisted out of numerous tiny tasks and those tasks took more energy to remember than to actually do.

So, I set out to find a good planning tool to dump all that data into. Slowly, I browsed for my old and trusted tools. Trac, Pivotal, Git, SVN, I implemented all of them and they all felt bloated compared to the lawless lands we were living in. These were tools meant for large endeavors, and they were unfit to our workflow. These were the tools for the teams I used to work in and manage.

For Vlambeer, they felt like they would add workload instead of reducing it. I worked on a custom-made tool for a while, but ended up discarding it because making it cost me more energy than I could spare. In the end, we settled on a GTD-implementation called Remember the Milk.

I cleaned up the office while Jan Willem was away for a music festival in Germany. I threw a lot of stuff away, gave all the amazing fan art and items a nice spot for us to look at when we’re feeling a bit down, bought some organizers for all the paperwork that I had lying around. I’ve always preferred chaos as inspiration for creativity, but I needed order for my managing tasks.

We bought a few large sheets of paper and drew calendars on them for the next few months to complement Google Calendar. Slowly, it was starting to feel like we were in control of Vlambeer again. We even reinstated the rule that both of us must make a poster for the office walls every week. We agreed to schedule some blogposts. We want to have more life on our Twitter, more blogposts, more fun news to announce. We started jamming on tiny games again. Things started moving again.

There’s a lot of things I need to rebuild a bit because of the time we spent figuring this out, but I’m glad we did it. If we hadn’t, there might not have been a Vlambeer anymore.

“You know for whom I made breakfast first?”, my grandma smiled knowingly. “Myself, and I’d eat it before I’d start preparing the other breakfasts.” I used to think that answer was weird. Grandma always seemed like a caring, selfless old lady that had spent most of her life taking care of her loved ones. At some point, I remember thinking it was selfish and ego-centrical. Now I realize that if you don’t care for your own well-being first and foremost, you won’t be able to make breakfast for the people you care most about.

OUYA

OUYA is supposedly going to revolutionize the console market, with beautiful words as ‘disrupt’ and 101 Call To Action lines as ‘you’re the signal to the world’. To be fair, a Kickstarter that garners 4 million dollars in a few days has an air of being something really important. I think OUYA could be really important and as such, I think it’s worth supporting. There are some problems, though.

Someone pointed out to me that at this point, about 38,000 OUYA’s have been sold. Some quick searching learns that the Xbox, Playstation & Wii are each at 50 million consoles sold or more. Of course, those have been around for more than a decade, but 50,000 consoles sold isn’t even going to make a dent.


At this point, developing for AirPlay through Apple TV is a better idea for developers in terms of certainty, with Apple TV selling 1.5 million units last year. Their SDK is mature(-ish, ahem), the store architecture is pretty solid and has consistently produced sales for a lot of projects. Apple TV’s hardware is powerful enough to show graphics that are crisp on a HD television.

OUYA, on the other hand, has not even 10% of that. Not in terms of userbase, not in terms of SDK, architecture or hardware. Not to mention that Android is clumsy, even though Unitys involvement might offset that. OUYA’s lower requirements in terms of gatekeeping are great, although that always brings the potential for XBLIG/Android-esque mess. What OUYA promises instead is a console in a world in which consoles have been ‘degraded’ to NetFlix-enabled home appliances. They promise a controller that is an actual controller, instead of a combination of jumping around, making awkard gestures while shouting voice control.


Despite all the uncertainty, I think OUYA is worth supporting, so I did reach out to them for a quick introduction. I am fully aware that OUYA might be a tiny platform with an extremely low revenue potential, but I do not think that is why anyone’d release a game on OUYA. If I were to release something, it’d be because I think the platform is – together with Steam Greenlight and before it, the App Store and Steam itself – part of a trend that opens up increasing amount of platforms to independent development .

At this point, there’s little sensible to say about the OUYA. Even the creators seem to acknowledge that, as the Kickstarter page is filled with ‘will be’, while developer quotes all mention ‘the potential’.

I’m skeptical, but nevertheless, I’ll grab the popcorn for when the promised delivery date rolls around.

How much will your first indie game make?

The above question has been flying around a lot the last few weeks and it is one I get asked quite often. The hopes are that a first game will earn you tens of thousands of dollars, but realism (and Andy Moore) says it’ll more likely be either nothing or not even a thousand dollars.

I’d say it’s unknowable. Going indie commercially is always a bit of a gamble & while I’ve seen it work out for some people, I’ve seen it fail horribly for others. Going indie commercially means that besides knowing how to make good games, you know how to sell games and how to run a game studio or company.

In that aspect, Vlambeer is also meant to help Jan Willem & me support ourselves financially. Since we’ve been faring well, we thought it was time to return the favor and hopefully inspire others. Back in 2011, the two of us at Vlambeer teamed up with friend & Dutch developer Laurens de Gier to organize a seminar for students following a Game Design & Development course.

The course was a three-week course which students could pick amongst several other seminars that month. It was called ‘Monetize that $hit‘ and we described the thing as a seminar in game design, game business and business in general. Students were required to sign up as a team that could fully produce a game, so at least the competencies of programming and design needed to be available in the team. Teams were also required to pick a ‘business guy’ and think about how they would get or produce any missing things – music and sound effects and trailers and the like.

When 15 students arrived on the first day of the seminar, we told them a short story. Our very first title – the title that financed Vlambeer – ‘Radical Fishing‘, was created in a few weeks. The game, after some negotiations, earned us exactly ten-thousand-and-one dollar. We basically told them everything they wanted and needed to know, sometimes referring to a talk by the same name I did a few months earlier.

We explained to them that the goal of the seminar would be to recreate that: students had to design a game, produce it and get to serious negotiations with any interested party. All of that had to be done within the seminar, or they’d fail the course. Failing the course would negatively affect their chances at passing the year, so that was anything but an empty threat. This seminar was going to be high stakes and that’s exactly how we needed it.

They’d have some additional time to iron out the kinks in terms of negotiations, and if they managed to sell the game, they’d get a ‘good’ grade. Failing to sell, but getting at least to some stage of negotiations would yield a ‘satisfactory’ grade.

We offered students a chance to walk out of the course with a ‘satisfactory’-grade at that point, just to make sure we only had motivated students. When nobody walked out, we started. Well, actually, we offered some pointers on sponsorships, compact feedback loops, some tips on negotiations, press, contracts and legalities. Besides that all we did is tell the students to start and to ask us anything.

The teams worked on their games for a few weeks. Then they polished, reached out to press and media and they negotiated with interested parties. Amounts that were discussed during the seminar started to show a divide – some of the games were talking thousands of dollars, some of the games hadn’t received a single offer.

When the dust cleared, things looked reasonably well. The above game, High Vaultage, sold for $5000, although they had some minor costs and ended up with a figure around $3.5K. Several other games didn’t sell, so we asked those students to reflect on why the games hadn’t sold. One of the teams had an art style that simply didn’t work out for sponsors, which is a story we’re quite familiar with through the original LUFTRAUSER. One of the teams had only one negotiating partner and lost them trying to negotiate. In the end, all of the commercially failed projects offered concise and realistic reflection on why the game didn’t sell, so we scored them the minimum for a passing grade.

In the end, the average selling price was $1600. One of the teams is forming a studio of their own, working on an amazing cowboy game as a potential first project. Several other students are still seriously considering starting independently after their graduation.

Sometimes, your first indie game is Fez and it sells over 100,000 copies. Quite often, it’ll make you no money at all. However, depending on the quality, your understanding of the audience and your ability to pitch, negotiate and sell, you should be able to make some money. Basically, how much your first indie will make is completely dependent on you, your game and the general situation at the time. You don’t control all the variables, but you do – in a significant way – influence quality, your pitch and your visibility.

As far as I’m concerned, that’s the only sensible thing to say about it.

On success, failure and ‘the scene’.


The above tweet about a Gamasutra Postmortem set off a bit of a discussion that I’ve been following with great interest. The postmortem discusses a game called Monkey Labour and how it sold seven units in total. A similar discussion happened a few weeks ago, when Andy Moore released Ice Burgers – a game he created in about a week, that moved on to do absolutely disastrous in terms of money.

A while ago, in an interview I argued that ‘indie games’ as a scene might be heading towards a bit of a ‘personality crisis’. On one hand, we have the increasingly polished and qualitative titles like Fez, Super Meat Boy, Braid and the upcoming Spelunky. These are all games that have had a production cycle of at least two years and required relatively monstrous amounts of resources. The result is a beautiful, finely tuned game.


On the other hand, you have tiny games like Glitch Tank, zaga-33, Ice Burgers and pretty much everything on Terry Cavanaghs freeindiegam.es repository or the Glorious Trainwrecks compilation. These games are raw, tend to be somewhat more exploratory or experimental. Some of them are good, some of them not so much & a lot of them are horribly bad. Most of them don’t make money, but then some of them do.

Three years ago I was unaware of most of the independent scene. The things I cooperated on were polished, commercially released games that, if things went smoothly, took six to twelve months to develop. When I first met my fellow Vlambeer, Jan Willem Nijman, we instantly disliked eachother. JW created what were – in my mind – crappy prototypes that would never have any value beyond a tiny niche and prided himself in creating those games in three hours. I like to think that in his mind I probably created things that were overly complex and ugly and mainstream.


It took a mutual dislike of our university to get us to start talking to each other. I showed him my work and what kind of things polish and some sense of business can add to a game. Jan Willem showed me dozens of prototypes he made, some of which he made in three hours. He showed me Strangers, The Gutter, If You Really Want It You Can Fly and Pro Killer Man and about three dozen of similar platform shooters. These ideas were rough and the execution was quite often terrible, but they had something to them I had never seen in games before. I was intrigued.


So when the time came for big choices, we decided to drop out of university, team up my business & development background with his design background and properly execute a prototype called ‘Crates From Hell’. Until that moment, I had grown to only play games like Evochron Alliance, Metal Gear Solid and Mass Effect. Back in 2008, 2009, the only indie games anyone would ‘incidentally’ run into were Braid, World of Goo and Castle Crashers. I had never heard of TIGSource, IndieGames.com or The Poppenkast. I made games and games make money. That was that.

Through starting Vlambeer, I was rapidly introduced to the many wonders of the indie scene. I had never heard of Cave Story, nor had I never played Flywrench, Nikujin, Space Funeral or Hero Core. They took me a lot of time to get into, but when I did they were all great games. I simply wasn’t completely convinced that these games had any impact on the world. They were amazing, but they felt inaccessible, unwieldy and unpolished.


When ‘Crates from Hell’ – which had been renamed to ‘Super Crate Box’ – was nominated for an Independent Games Festival award, the two of us at Vlambeer headed for San Francisco and I got to talk to all those amazing people working on games like these. Their goals in making games were so divergent and their methods for making them were as diverse as they were personal. More impressively, these people were inspiring each other with discussions, talks, 3 hour prototypes and game jams.

Working at Vlambeer for two years made me realize that, commercially seen, a lot of games are silly, strange and inaccessible. Some aren’t even ‘good’ in any sense of the word. Most of those won’t make money, or just enough to keep going. But nevertheless, these people were not taking the easy way out.


That’s why I fell in love with the indie scene. There’s room for every type of expression, for every type of game and there’s room to experiment with business models or without them. There’s room for people to make mistakes and learn from them – even though any aspiring indie developer can avoid many of those mistakes just by talking to other developers.

In my mind, there’s some value in every game that’s made. There’s value in any post-mortem posted online. There’s a lesson for everyone in every failure. There’s room for quality games and crappy games. There’s room for game jams and depth jams. There’s room for yet another Game Maker platform shooter and there’s room for Antichamber. There’s room for the business-savvy and room for those who are not. There’s room to try if a Minecraft will sell & there’s room to release a Cave Story or any other high-quality game for free. And when all is said and done, there’s the willingness to share experiences and to discuss and learn.

More than the games or the people, that mentality is what defines the scene for me.

Boston Indies Amsterdam Edition

When I was at PAX East in Boston for Vlambeer earlier this year, I met Eitan Glinert of Firehose Games and Kelly Wallick. Kelly is the organisatorial mastermind behind logistical nightmares involving lots of indies. If you recall ever hearing Eitans’ name, he made a few nice things, is the only adult male I know who uses the word ‘balderdash’ and then became notorious for the following video about GlitchHiker, which I worked on and presented at the Experimental Gameplay Sessions at GDC ’12.

OK, so maybe he didn’t get notorious for it, but either way, they decided to drop by Amsterdam for a few days, so I met up with Dutch game/installation designer Marc De Vreede and set out to have some drinks with them in the city center. Was great seeing them again & I’m really looking forward to meeting them again in Seattle for PAX Prime.