Rami Ismail (ramiismail.com)                             

Event Schedule

Biography

Rami Ismail is the Business & Development Guy at Vlambeer, a Dutch independent game studio known best for Nuclear Throne, Ridiculous Fishing, Super Crate Box, LUFTRAUSERS, GUN GODZ, Serious Sam: The Random Encounter & Radical Fishing.

Through his work at Vlambeer, Rami has come to realize that the marketing & business facets of many independent game developers could use some help. As such, he created the free presskit-creation tool presskit() and is working on side projects such as distribute() and gamedev.world.

Believing sharing knowledge openly is the cornerstone of independent development, Rami has spoken on a variety of subjects at dozens of game events around the world, ranging from the Game Developers Conference to Fantastic Arcade & from University seminars to incubator mentorship.

He is a avid opponent of game cloning after Vlambeer's Radical Fishing got cloned. He is also a proponent of searching for new, beautiful things in places no-one is looking for them and thus organized Fuck This Jam, a gamejam focused around making a game in a genre you hate. Rami also worked closely with the Indie MEGABOOTH team to enable indie studios to showcase at the larger game conventions, runs the #1reasontobe panel at GDC, and helps as an advisor on events such as Devcom, Train Jam, PocketGamer, and NASSCOM GDC.

Rami has received several awards and recognitions for his work promoting game development around the world, including the IndieCade Game Changer award for the decennial jubileum of the festival.

 
 
 

RAMI IS CURRENTLY IN THE NETHERLANDS.
YOU CAN REACH HIM AT RAMI@VLAMBEER.COM, , , OR BY CALLING +31 (0) 621206363.

Introducing: The Playground

Years ago, I was involved in the early days of the Indie MEGABOOTH. I am extremely proud to see what it has grown into since I left the initiative to work on other projects, but some of the early ideals of the initiative stuck with me ever since. The idea was – and to this day remains – that creators that stand together stand stronger. This same mantra made Humble Bundle to what it is, and that mentality is what supports networks like Fig, itch.io, Indie Fund, Patreon, and many others.

Over the past few years, game development has become increasingly competitive. As a response to the race-to-the-top in terms of social reach, PR, and marketing efforts often required to launch a successful game, boutique publishers have popped up around the industry. They do phenomenal work – we’ve worked with Devolver Digital, and I’ve advised, scouted for, am friends with, or keep good contact with teams like Raw Fury, Team 17, tinyBuild, Paradox, and many others. Like MEGABOOTH, most of these indie publishers offer a valuable service, and they’re a net gain for our industry.

Regardless, the truth remains that every good thing has a downside. Anything that accelerates or otherwise increases the chances of success, unless it is limitless, free, and readily available, will eventually leave the playing field less equal.

Between the rise of indie publishers and these enormous ‘combined booths’, showcasing at major trade shows has become increasingly difficult for mid-size creators that sit in the awkward spot between “don’t want to take a valuable spot at Indie MEGABOOTH that another, smaller, creator could use much more than we do” and “not quite big enough to financially be able to go up against indie publishers in terms of booth size and content”. Some developers don’t feel like they quite fit or want to be ‘indie’ anymore, some developers would rather not have their expo schedule be dependent on secondary selection processes, and some did not or would rather not work with a publisher for a project.

For Vlambeer, we noticed that it was getting really hard to get any attention on larger show floors. Don’t get me wrong – as long as we can afford a booth, we will always be there with a booth to hang out with our fans and supporters – they always manage to find us somewhere in the myriad hallways. But the reality remains that part of the reason we’re capable of investing in a show like PAX is that it introduces new people to our work – and the effectiveness of shows like PAX for mid-sized developers has rapidly been dropping against the more funded, more spectacular, and more sizeable offerings of larger publishers and combined booths.

That’s why Vlambeer will not be showcasing at PAX West by ourselves this year. We’ve reached out to a group of our close friends in this industry with the idea to collaborate at showcase events, and together, we’re launching a new initiative called The Playground.

The Playground is a pilot – a way for us, four crews of friends that run mid-sized games studios, to work together and do bigger, more interesting things at shows than we could possibly hope to achieve apart. Vlambeer, combined with the whimsical and personal and lovely tones of Finji, the clever and challenging experiences of Dan Adelman’s collection of games, and the high-quality merchandise services of IndieBox, hopes that we can create a location at PAX and other showcases that is not tied to anything but the friendship of a group of creators that admires each others’ work.

We’re not sure where it’s going to end up, or how it’s going to evolve, but we do know we look forward to seeing what we can achieve together. If things pan out, we’ll be bringing The Playground to future shows – growing it, and hopefully figuring out ways to combine our strengths as creators into unique and fun experiences at the shows we bring it to. If you’re visiting PAX West, do come visit us at booth #6111, and come say hi!


Games Discussion: Mario Kart 8 Deluxe

Yakuza-0 is the latest and sixth major installment in the beloved Japanese Yakuza series, but unlike EA’s FIFA or NHL games, the story being told is not chronological. Yakuza-0 is a prequel, more like the similarly named Resident Evil Zero, and tells the story of events before the original Yakuza game – while failing to reach the levels of horror Resident Evil so effortlessly creates.

In Yakuza-0, players assume the dual perspectives of series protagonists Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima, two yakuza members that have found themselves embroiled in a political conflict larger than either of them. In that regard, the game vaguely echoes games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, where players assume multiple character to learn different sides of the same story. Obviously, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 had some powerful moments, and Yakuza-0 never quite reaches the dramatic heights of blowing up the International Space Station.

The gameplay itself is very similar to Saints Row: The Third, although you can’t beat up random people, use weapons freely, or steal any sort of vehicle. Most of the time you spend in the game is spent walking around, something that honestly has been perfected since Vanquish, but somehow ends up feeling sluggish without the rocket boost in Yakuza-0. Frequently, but not as frequent as in, say, the beautiful and overwhelming chaos of Dynasty Warriors, the player has to deal with fighting enemies.

Fighting in Yakuza-0 never quite reaches the depth and complexity of the giants in the genre, such as Super Street Fighter IV. Players can use punches, kicks, grabs, and basic combos, and while both characters have different stances and styles to introduce some variety, the Yakuza-0 cast can’t begin to rival the cast of League of Legends, Overwatch, or Super Smash Brothers Brawl. With few exceptions the protagonists fight barehanded, and that might be for the best, as the swordplay can’t hold a candle to this years’ For Honor, and the gunplay falls miles short of games such as 2016’s DOOM. There is also one point in the game where Kiryu has to make a jump from a balcony through a window, and it’s a shame that this one sequence did not heed the lessons about jumping and jump feel from a game like Super Mario Bros.

A cool detail is that while fighting, attacks will make money fall out of enemies, which looks really cool. Unlike Grand Theft Auto 5, the money falling out of enemies isn’t interactive, and is merely a visual effect. Money is used to buy items and upgrade your character, and the upgrade system allows for a good amount of skill personalisation. While not nearly as in-depth as Sword of the Stars 2, the game allows for some strategic planning in expanding your tech tree.

The story is complex and engaging, and there’s an incredible amount of content, although there is probably more content in a game like Persona 5, and more engaging story complexity in games series like Kingdom Hearts. Kiryu and Majima are charming and well-rounded protagonists, but their facial animation falls flat compared to Nathan Drake’s in Uncharted 4, or the characters in Battlefield 1. Yakuza-0, for a game this dependent on cutscenes, never manages to have cutscenes as cinematic as Alan Wake, nor as many as most Metal Gear Solid games.

There’s a lot of freedom in Yakuza-0, and a lot of different things to do. While you’ll never have the freedom that a game like Zelda: Breath of the Wild offers in term of exploration, there are an enormous amount of sidequests, side-activities, and other distractions. There’s a business simulator that falls short of reaching the depth of Sim City or Civilisation V, and a karaoke minigame that, despite being solid, can’t quite be as good as Parappa the Rapper or Rock Band 4. Regardless, distractions are everywhere, but not quite as common (or explosive) as Just Cause 3’s distractions. The sidequests, while less numerous than in World of Warcraft, offer some respite from the main story, and end up giving the game an enormous amount of flair – sadly, these side stories aren’t even close to being as fleshed out as Chrono Trigger’s story. The huge variety of meals available in the game as health restoration needs to be emphasized, although food isn’t as varied or as well-rendered in Final Fantasy XV. The love for the culture beyond food is also obvious, as the game takes tremendous effort to painstakingly rebuild parts of 1988 Tokyo and Osaka. The results fall short of being as impressive as Assassins Creed reconstruction of ancient cities, they’re convincing enough. Some additional locations exist to flesh out the world of Yakuza-0 a bit more, and while that helps, it never reaches the location variety of Destiny or Mass Effect: Andromeda.

In the end, Yakuza-0 ends up being a great entry point for people trying to join the series, with new gameplay elements and at the start of the story, just like Halo: Reach was a great entry point for people looking to start on the Halo series. So although Yakuza-0 is not a bad game, I felt a lot of the agency in the pocket racer mini-game fell short, and ultimately do think that when it comes to power-up enabled party kart racing on the Nintendo Switch, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is the better game.

Obviously, Yakuza-0 and Mario Kart 8: Deluxe are both good games. This article is merely an expression of my frustration with how many online discussions about games and game elements seems to devolve into a competitive comparison with other games or media in or outside of the franchise. In many cases, tremendous value and emphasis is placed upon whether a game does something ‘better’ than other games, and even in a single franchise, such comparisons are often useless and unnecessary. While I appreciate the need for comparative examination and analysis, it would be useful to consider the (over-)use of such in game descriptions on the overall discourse surrounding our media. There’s no need to establish a pecking order where none is needed, not of games, business models, genres, platforms, mechanics, or otherwise. If the only addition you have to a conversation is how you feel another game did something better or worse, maybe simply watch the conversation unfold without that opinion injected into it.


Fear your customer

I run a creative business. In fact, I make entertainment. One of the most common discussions I face on social media is the idea that I should not put politics into my work, and that I should not use my platform to talk about politics. I should not talk about politics because my purpose is to entertain, to distract, to make my entire existence a function of my job.

Making games isn’t what I am. It’s what I do. What I do is game development, but despite the fact that most of my life so far has been focused around that, it is only a tiny part of what I am. I’m Dutch-Egyptian, a fiancé, a socialist, an airplane enthusiast, an avid reader, a pop culture consumer, a gadget lover, a traveler, someone who likes cooking, but hates the dishes. I couldn’t tie my shoelaces if my life depended on it, but I run an indie games studio that has reached million of people across the world. I am someone who will happily travel across the Atlantic to talk to a dozen enthusiasts in South America starting a development community, but who loathes walking six minutes to the supermarket unless I really have to.

My job does not regulate what I can do outside of my work. A sold copy of my game doesn’t entitle someone to anything beyond a functioning game. A sold copy of my game definitely does not exclude me from any type of political thought, or any other opinion about the real world. A customer at a fast-food chain can’t tell an employee what to do when they’re at home, and they’re only entitled to the french fries they ordered.

At the crux of the argument that I shouldn’t post political content is a simple notion: the idea that my customers are somehow leverage against me. That I should be careful to not lose them by being myself too honestly, or too bluntly. That my work should cater to them, and that my existence depends on their grace and acceptance of me as a whole. I should be afraid of them, and that fear should guide me.

Here’s the thing: I don’t fear my audience. They’re not leverage. The notion that some random people on the internet can tell me what ‘my audience’ wants from me is preposterous. Every time we’ve had a boycott announced against us our sales have gone up. I love my audience. They’re the greatest audience I’ve ever had the privilege of working for – they’re passionate but polite, they’re curious and understanding, and they tend to ask rather than shout. 

Fear doesn’t produce the best work one can create. Not in art, not in games, not in marketing, and not on social media.


IndieCade Awards 2016

Last week I visited the annual IndieCade Festival, which was an absolute delight. I had the opportunity to check out some of the many phenomenal games on display – Wheels of Aurelia, Replica, Bad News, Beglitched, Killbox and Elsinore, just to name a few – and catch up with a lot of the local community. I was also asked to announce the winner of the IndieCade 2016 Grand Jury award. With that comes the ability to say a few words. My short speech was as follows:

It’s my firm belief that every game is important to our medium, and that every game that exists is both a miracle and a part of our collective history. So when the description says the winning game is a true work of passion, I say every game is. When the description says a game contributes to the cultivation of artistry in games, I remember that my original inspiration for making games was a coding tutorial for QBASIC from the eighties.

 

Every game is part of the ever widening history of our medium, sometimes improving and inspiring, sometimes comfortable and sometimes foreign, sometimes cliche and recognizable, sometimes rebellious and revolutionary.

 

Every game that you saw here this evening evoked something, somehow, that made us fall in love with games, that honors the foundations we build on, and gives us fresh hope for the future of our medium.

 

The Grand Prize, then, is the award for the game that exceeded the categories, that was found to evoke that feeling you can’t quite catch in words, the feeling that this game is something momentous in the history of this medium, something we can look to as we look to the future, and something that – when we’re in that future – can hold onto as a foundation.

When I opened the envelope, I was delighted to learn and announce that the winner of the award was the phenomenal 1979: Revolution by former Rockstar developer Navid Khonsari of iNK Stories, a Iranian-Canadian game developer. What’s notable is that, when I penned the speech, I was not aware of the winner – so while the speech mentions history, revolution, rebellion and foreignness, I did not know that the game I was about to announce fulfilled all of those hopes I have for this medium – that IndieCade lived up to every expectation I had of it as an curation and as an event, in such a way that I could write a speech perfectly befitting its winner even before knowing who won.

But after we walked of stage I realized that, in many ways, this was a momentous occasion in one more way: a Dutch-Egyptian developer handed out the Grand Prize of a major games event to an Iranian-Canadian developer, for the creation of a game about the history of a Middle-Eastern country.

So thank you, IndieCade, for being the place where that could happen.


A pitching masterclass through No Man’s Sky

Over the past few days, my constant No Man’s Sky ramblings on Twitter have led to a number of interviews from domestic and international press about the game. One thing that really caught me off-guard was just how hard it is to pitch No Man’s Sky. I decided to spend some time today looking at Hello Games’ pitch for No Man’s Sky, and came away rather impressed at the care and effort that must’ve gone into iterating the high-level concept pitch. This isn’t specifically about the expectation management, or the details or minutae of the game, but how the core of No Man’s Sky was communicated – the cumulative exploration of a procedural universe.

So here are the things you would probably try, that I’ve found to be ineffective:

  • Mentioning space exploration as a thematic, or referring to other space exploration themed media doesn’t work.
  • Explaining that the game is practically infinite, and allows for infinite exploration doesn’t work.
  • Comparing it to other media, say a movie, or a performer or musician, doesn’t work.
  • Explaining the disproportionate amount of content for its download size doesn’t work.
  • Explaining that thanks to the procedural generation, everything you see or encounter is unique to your game experience doesn’t work.

The main objections you should consider for each of these is ‘is there a context’ and ‘does anyone care?’. So one by one:

  • Mentioning a genre is not a powerful pitch, nor does it emphasize the strengths of the game. Comparing it to other media doesn’t work, because the general audience tends to assume games can be photorealistic, infinite, and capable of simulating reality rather well.
  • The general audience does not care that the universe is infinite, because many assume all games are infinite. I’ve mentioned this before, but most non-gaming people don’t directly assume Grand Theft Auto isn’t an infinite world beyond the city borders, and don’t realize a Call of Duty game takes place in a map rather than a country. The question of game world size doesn’t occur, because that’s an abstract idea that requires an understanding of game boundaries, and a context of game worlds.
  • To most people, games are not movies, music or any other such form of art. Comparing a digital piece of software to something where they see people perform will never work. A board-game or other physical game is the closest metaphor people would accept and understand – and those are woefully inappropriate to explain No Man’s Sky’s experience.
  • Apple famously stopped using Gb/Tb to discuss their storage space, and now uses a made-up statistic of ‘how many photos, songs or movies will fit on this device’. The average person does not understand data storage, data requirements and data limits. They just know when a device is full, and then generally assume it’s the devices fault.
  • Procedural generation is not something you can explain easily to someone without a basic understanding of deterministic mathematical models, or without an existing context for what it leads to, like seeding in other games.

So what remains? Well, it turns out Hello Games figured out a pretty impressive way of communicating the game’s core.

  • They properly identified that communicating the astronomical size of the game in terms of our own universe works. No Man’s Sky is a game in which there are 18 quintillion planets (wow, a number that sounds bigger than a trillion!). Even if a planet was discovered every second by a player, our own actual sun -not the one in the game!- would die before every player in the world combined would have seen them all (wow science). Not that they specifically avoided the term infinite, because infinite sounds videogame-y and doesn’t actually sound all that special. 18 quintillion sounds specific, and scientific.
  • They properly identified that emphasizing that even the developers of the game are shocked to see what can exist in the universe is evocative. In fact, they’ll mention, the developers haven’t seen all that’s available in the game – and they’re commonly excited to land on a planet to see something new (if even the creators are, it must be true). The developers didn’t create the planets, or the creatures on it, they instead programmed the laws of evolution and physics into the computer and let it simulate a universe (impressive!).
  • They properly identified that a top-down approach works really well in words, but bottom up works really well in visual. Their pitch starts with talking about the universe, and then goes down through planets and creatures, down to the elements (so much detail!). Their videos tend to start with the periodic makeup of a place, then a creature, then a planet, eventually zooming out to the universe. A universe isn’t a scale or mental model most people can grasp, but it is a thing that’s easy and impressive to show (so much scale!).

Note if you shuffle this around into three recognizable focus points, you also start seeing how these communicated back at the normal gaming demographic.

  • The ‘science’ in ‘science fiction’ and making it sound as scientific as possible: the game has its own periodic table, there are specifically 18 quintillion planets. Science fiction is clearly something the Hello Games’ crew is naturally excited about, and thus a great primary talking point. Also note the appeal to traditional gaming demographics’ geekdom here.
  • Scale in relation to our own universe, explained using the Apple method: it is statistically improbable for two people to reach the same planet, if a planet was discovered every second our own sun would die before we’d have seen them all. Note the ‘completion time’ wink at the normal game demographics here.
  • Uniqueness of the experience: even the developers themselves are surprised at what they find on new planets, and it is statistically improbable for two people to find the same planet. Note the implicit challenge to traditional gaming demographics here.

Looking at the challenges they faced in communicating the game to this many people of varying understanding, Hello Games’ No Man’s Sky core pitch is a little masterclass in explaining an abstract concept to the largest possible audience.

I also promise that there’s only one more No Man’s Sky post in my queue for now.


Red Barrels

Speaking of Firewatch yesterday, this tweet by the amazing Jane Ng went out a few days ago, and I had strong feelings about it. Jane Ng is an artist on Firewatch, which was made by the around 10-person strong San Francisco studio Campo Santo. A few months ago I gave this talk at Develop 2015, which should explain why.

My basic argument is that, unlike traditional wisdom says, actual honesty with your community is important to your community health, humanizes you as a developer and ensures audience expectations of games and game developers remain realistic. Our industry has pampered our users for far too long, while most of them are capable of acting like adults that can deal with a healthy dose of reality.

Those that don’t, don’t have to be part of your community. The transaction of buying a game entitles a player to the game, and not to participation in your community forums or discussions. They’re not entitled to you being nice just because they bought a product. You are not a hostage of the few dollars they spent on your game, ensuring that whatever nonsense they say, you should smile and nod. They spent those dollars on your game, not on you having to ensure they can shout in your forums.

I’ve started calling the traditional notion of community management the “Red Barrel” strategyWe’ve traditionally been taught that every member of the audience is a Red Barrel. If you touch it, it’s liable to explode and destroy you and everything audience Other Barrels around itself, some of which might be other Red Barrels. Any member of the audience can write a scathing review, drum up support on some online forum and cause you some discomfort – the metaphorical Red Barrel.

That traditional view implies we view our audience as things in the world without agency, though – Other Barrels. When you start considering them as player characters with full agency in a multiplayer simulation, the whole situation changes a lot. Now, we’ve got one player with a “Red Barrel” perk that might or might not self-detonate on being touched, and a lot of other players walking around. Just the notion that there might be players that self-detonate will shape every players behaviour, leading to all players having a healthy dose of distance, skepticism and pro-active aggression towards each other.

That’s why I prefer to honestly engage with posts like the one Jane responded to, or, metaphorically, engaging with any “Red Barrel” as soon as I’ve cleared the environment. At worst, you’ll find a Red Barrel, and it’ll detonate. That’ll cause you discomfort, but it’ll also let your community know Red Barrels will be taken care of and that you’ll engage with them as adults with full agency. At best, it turns out the player wasn’t a Red Barrel at all, and was just being conditioned by the potential presence of other Red Barrels. In that case, literally everybody wins.