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.

The Tearoom

I got a bit morally stuck wanting to tweet about an article, so instead I decided to write a short blogpost about it.

Robert Yang’s work tends to include powerful commentary on and about sexuality and gay life, and touches upon topics that in many cultures and countries might be classed as inappropriate. On my Twitter, I tend to avoid topics of sexuality due to the wide and worldwide variety of cultural perspectives about the appropriateness of sex and sexuality in the public sphere or outside of the family sphere. That Robert Yang’s work happens to touch on gay sexuality is not part of this consideration – I believe that if sex is considered an appropriate public topic in a culture, gay sex should not be an exception.

As a game designer and developer, I would strongly recommend reading the following phenomenal article by Jeffrey Matulef on Robert Yang’s The Tearoom, which uses the ubiquity of guns in games to try and sidestep censorship rules about nudity on Twitch.tv. It also uses publicly available statistics and the form of quitting a game as a mechanic to provide powerful statements about the topic of homophobic laws in the United States of 1962.

Twitter’s ability to reach people around the world remains a forever mystifying puzzle of personal moral judgments and considerations.


The perfect apology

I read this apology for an Islamophobic post from a British game company owner on Kotaku today.  I got angry. I wrote an inline response. The bold parts are the apology’s original text. My responses are the rest of it. Yes, this lay-out is half-copied from the amazing nodontdie.com (which you should read) because I couldn’t come up with another one this fast.


If you’re trying to apologize, start by identifying who is apologizing, and what you’re apologizing for.

“I want to apologise for the Facebook post that I put out on Saturday in the aftermath of the horrific London terrorist attack.”

Perfect! In a great apology, this is where you stop. You did something bad, and you apologize for it. No conditions, no shifting blame. At this point, you could opt to speak to solutions to avoid this problem in the future. Solutions speak louder than words.

Whatever you do, do not make the apology into an accusation by saying you were just misunderstood by other people, and they’re the ones really at fault for missing your point. You should never suggest that what you did in no way was offensive.

“I was trying to air my views on extremist Muslims and it seems my comments may have been misinterpreted by some people and caused offence.”

Yeah, exactly that. Don’t do that. Really the only way to make this more of a faux-apology is by saying you’re only apologize to those who were offended, instead of apologizing for your actions in general.

“I am so sorry to anyone who was offended by my words – I was trying to voice an opinion on the minority group of Muslims who use their religion as an excuse for terrorism.

It’s going to be hard to recover from this one, unless you use the word ‘sincerely’.

“It was a knee-jerk reaction and I sincerely apologise.”

Phew. I guess that’s it! That’s not great, but it’s also not goo- oh? There’s more? Oh dear.

“For the record, [My Company] is one of the most diverse companies in the industry and I have championed equal opportunities and equality for all since I started out in 1994.”

Copyright champion of equal opportunity 1994-2017. All rights reserved except if you’re Muslim, then please leave the country.

“Anyone who knows me personally will vouch that I don’t have a racist bone in my body.”

Bones aren’t racist. People are racist. Actions are racist. Your post was racist, because despite you saying ‘Muslims’, what you mean is ‘Arab muslims’ and ‘Asian muslims’. I’m sure your post didn’t mean that Cockney-accented white guy at the bus station in a hip t-shirt and short jeans that happens to go to mosque twice a year for the holidays and say ‘Salaam’ to their parents on the phone.

“When we see innocent people slaughtered like we have in Manchester, London and other places around the world during the last few weeks, it is hard not to get angry and lash out.”

I got angry and lashed out too, and for some reason my post wasn’t removed from social media for hate speech, and there’s also no news articles describing them. Maybe it was because I didn’t call for 1.6 billion people to not have access to a country. Maybe it was because I didn’t call for the removal of people that might have fled to the UK away from terrorism. Maybe because I didn’t attack the religion or identity of the people that suffer most at the hands of terrorists globally. Maybe it was because my anger didn’t focus on British-born citizens that have no connection to socio-political terrorism on the other side of the planet. Maybe it was because I blamed terrorism instead of religion. I’m sure the exact reason you got trouble and I did not will remain a mystery to you.

“But I realise we all have different views,…”

We all have different views: not everyone is a Islamophobe and thinks it’s a good idea to air those views on Facebook while also being in charge of a company and its hiring, that is true.

“…and I will certainly not be writing any of mine on my personal social media account in the future.”

This sentence here reveals that the apology isn’t so much an apology for what he did, but an apology for getting in trouble. If your solution to saying something bad is ‘I won’t say it in public‘, that reveals a lot about what regrets you actually have. I guess “I’ll be an Islamophobe behind closed doors” might seem a solution, in that case.

I understand that being thrust into the spotlight for a mistake, a momentary lapse of judgement, or an unfortunate phrasing is incredibly scary. At Vlambeer, we’ve been on the receiving end of tons of criticism, and it never stops being scary. It never gets easier. But apologizing for messing up isn’t a hard thing to do if you’re actually sorry.

If you ever find yourself writing an apology (and if you gain any visibility, you likely will have to, at some point), here are four basic things you should know:

  1. Take some time away from the internet before writing an apology. There’s often a false sense of hurry instilled into you by the panic, but the honest truth is that a genuine apology takes time and clarity of mind. It requires you to truly understand what the complaint is, and it’s hard to do that when you’re in a defensive mode.
  2. Try mentally re-contextualising your apology to stepping on someone’s toes. If the apology you wrote comes down to ‘If me stepping on your toes hurt you, I am sorry. There’s many toes in the world, and I don’t step on most of them. Your toes might’ve misunderstood that I stepped on them, I was trying to cover them from rain. Maybe your toes shouldn’t have been where I put my foot down.‘, you should probably reconsider what you’re writing.
  3. A short and direct apology is the strongest apology you can make. Instead of focusing on your own defense, focus on what your future action are going to be, or what you have learned, and how you will avoid similar incidents in the future.
  4. Posting an apology does not mean that anyone has to accept your apology, or that the criticism will fade. An apology is not written to make bad things happening to you because of bad things you did go away. An apology is not a defense. An apology is you taking responsibility for the bad thing you did, and showing that you genuinely understand why what you did was bad.


As a Muslim video-game developer, I no longer feel the US is open for business

When I was a kid dreaming of being a game developer, I hoped that in the future I’d be joining a large studio and working on a blockbuster title. Things didn’t quite pan out that way. After leaving university with a fellow student, I am now the co-founder of my own company, Vlambeer, renowned for successful game releases such as Nuclear Throne and Ridiculous Fishing.

I was born in the Netherlands, the son of an Egyptian immigrant and a Dutch mother, and was raised as a proud Muslim. For the past years, much of my travel to the United States has led to secondary selection, investigation, or interrogation. For all 100 flights I took in 2014, I jokingly created a website that kept track of whether my boarding passes were marked for “random checks” before even reaching airport security. For many of the 1.6 billion Muslims across the world, whether they’re born in the western world or not, this is a recognisable issue with air travel. Many of my Muslim friends calculate an extra 30 minute delay for boarding and transfers.

The video game industry is one of the world’s most important creative sectors, generating $90bn a year in revenue, more than either movies and music – and it is strongly US-centric. While large game development pockets exist in the UK, north-western Europe and Asia, most of the largest companies, industry events, and industry press are centred around the coasts of the United States. For most developers around the world, their shot at success lays at the yearly Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, by far the largest gathering of industry professionals and knowledge in the world.

My studio has diverted significant resources towards helping fellow and aspiring game developers in emergent territories around the world. I often travel to speak to students, help coordinate communities, and guide opportunities for developers with potential. I spent a few days in 2015 researching what the relative costs to visit the Game Developers Conference would be. The results were shocking – for an Iranian game developer, going to GDC was the equivalent of £4,000. For someone from the Central African Republic with an average salary, the costs were the Western equivalent a staggering £120,000. For many enthusiasts around the world, visiting the Game Developers Conference is something they can afford maybe once or twice in their life – if at all.

When Donald Trump signed the executive order effectively banning Muslims from seven countries without any prior warning, the scene at many US airports was one of chaos and confusion. Muslims who boarded their plane in their country of departure with a valid visa and no reason to be turned back landed in violation of an order that didn’t exist when they boarded. Many Muslims were unnecessarily and illegally detained, or coerced to sign away their green cards. Muslims from countries not even on the list were turned away.

As one of the few visible Muslims in the games industry, I frequently talk about my experiences on the road with fellow Muslim developers who are flying to the US for the first time. In the wake of the executive order, many that spent years of their savings on the trip to San Francisco have learned that they won’t be allowed into the country any more. Even if they’d be allowed into the US, many are afraid of anti-Muslim sentiment from a population that can elect a president like Donald Trump, especially in the country with the highest homicide rate with guns in the Western world.

Many other Muslim game developers that live in the US – or even non-Muslims who only hold dual citizenship with a majority-Muslim country they’ve rarely if ever visited – are now stuck in the United States with no way to visit family or friends abroad. With many highly talented engineers coming from Middle Eastern countries, this not only limits the available talent pool, but also effectively prohibits travel for many workers in the US games industry.

Some game companies have started to speak up, with smaller studios taking the lead over the weekend. Mobile games company Dots placed a message at the start of its popular Dots games that allows players to donate to the ACLU for their opposition of the Muslim Ban. Other independent developers, including my own studio, donated parts or all of their revenue to the ACLU for a specific amount of time, raising tens of thousands of dollars in the process. Just today, larger studios and game developers have started to release statements criticising the executive order, reminding gamers around the world (and there are 1.2 billion of them) that the games that they love are made by people of all races, religions, and nationalities – including Libyans, Somalians, Yemenites, Iraqi’s, Iranians, Sudanese, and Syrians.

When I started travelling on my own back in 2010, my mother would frequently check in to see whether I was safe. After many years of travel, she stopped doing that unless I visited countries the Dutch government had a negative travel advisory for, often countries that are unstable, at war, or at risk of terrorist attacks. For the first time in years, she messaged me last week to check in whether I was safe, because I was in the US.


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.


The Industry, the Union, and the Strike

“We spent 19 months trying to come to an agreement on this contract. That’s the longest negotiation in SAG-AFTRA’s history. We did not take going on strike lightly. We really tried to compromise and come up with an agreement that would be fair. But after 19 months of not being able to put safer working conditions in the contract and being unable to share in the prosperity of wildly successful games, we felt we had no choice but to strike.”

Crispin Freeman is a voice actor. He’s currently not allowed to work for a large range of AAA games studios because the union that represents him and most professional voice actors in the games industry, SAG-AFTRA, has called for a strike.

When I first meet Freeman, the strike is still a distant rumor, a hypothetical last resort. We’re in a little restaurant in Los Angeles during the 2016 IndieCade festival. The restaurant is closing in under an hour, but none of us really have the time to spend more than an hour chatting tonight anyway. Freeman has come to meet me to talk about my concerns regarding a contract for independent developers that I’ve read a draft of.

Sarah Elmaleh is the one who set up the meeting between Freeman and myself in response to some of my concerns. Elmaleh is a New York-born SAG-AFTRA voice actress that moved to Los Angeles recently to further her craft of voice acting in videogames. She is a common presence at independent games festival around the United States, and her unbridled love for independent games shows in her portfolio, which boasts games like Gone Home and Galak-Z. It also makes her a natural bridge between voice actors and independent game developers.

Months earlier, Elmaleh had introduced me to Jennifer Hale, one of the most prominent and prolific voice actresses in games. Hale is a central figure in SAG-AFTRA’s Interactive board, the board that deals with games and other interactive media, and she wanted to talk about the idea of introducing a contract specifically for independent game developers – a contract that would allow independent creators easier access to union talent.

But after 19 months of not being able to put safer working conditions in the contract and being unable to share in the prosperity of wildly successful games, we felt we had no choice but to strike.

The indie contract is supposed to exist as an amendment to the ‘main’ SAG-AFTRA Interactive contract that governs work between union actors and AAA games studios. The problem is that ‘main’ SAG-AFTRA Interactive contract doesn’t exist yet because SAG-AFTRA and the AAA games companies can’t reach an agreement on it.

When SAG-AFTRA first reached out to me to talk about the Low Budget Contract, it had been negotiating the ‘main’ contract for a year. It had been a few months since 96% of SAG-AFTRA members voted in a referendum to authorize the union’s board to call for a strike if necessary. The news of the authorization sent ripples through the games industry. The games industry is remarkable in that it has no unions of its own, and the idea of a union strike that could affect the games industry was something that sent many fans and developers reeling.

The response to the news that the SAG-AFTRA strike was actually starting in early October was far more vehement.

The discussion is particularly vehement for not just for the lack of unions in the games industry, but also because of the concept of profit sharing. A core disagreement in the negotiations is that voice actors have asked that if a game performs very well, their efforts get recognized through a monetary bonus. Only very few people in the industry have such a privilege, and many are upset that the voice actors would ask for such bonuses if programmers, artists and designers that work on games for many years do not receive them.

Thus, there are generally two separate issues with two sides in the discussion, and they’re intertwined in a way that makes the whole situation both morally complex and frustratingly political: you can be in favor of the demands of SAG-AFTRA, or you can be against the demands of SAG-AFTRA. Separately, you can find the idea of unions unfit for the games industry, or you can find the idea of unions a boon for the games industry.

As a developer, I felt it’s easy to find perspective on the games’ industry side of the discussion, but it’s a lot harder to find good perspective from the voice actors’ position. I decided to ask the people I met through my talks with SAG-AFTRA some questions about voice acting, and why the union had called for a strike.

I love pondering things like how ‘death by fire’ must involve more than just searing, spreading pain, but also emotions like horror, panic and outrage?

“The human voice is powerful”, starts Elmaleh when asked what voice acting does for a game. “We respond to it with instinctive empathy, and I reckon it’s that singular authenticity in these synthetic environments, the fact that it’s probably the one unsimulated piece in the mix that makes it an effective and efficient tool for developers.”

“You’re asked to give weight and humanity to some highly abstract and granular prompts: ‘die by fire’ is the classic and probably most vocally stressful in one go. I love pondering things like how ‘death by fire’ must involve more than just searing, spreading pain, but also emotions like horror, panic and outrage? Character lives in all these exclamations as well as traditional dialogue, and it’s such a special joy to discover and refine it there. Then there’s ‘drop from 30 feet up, losing 2/3 of your health – no, just the landing part, it has to be isolated because the entire jump is going to be pieced together in the engine.”. Sensing my amusement, she added, “There’s also ‘get sniped in the head’, which doesn’t make an actual sound in life.”

The producers have said that it’s impossible for them to share with us the name of the game they are asking us to work on, even if we sign non-disclosure agreements before we come to work.

“Voice acting is actually one of the most challenging types of acting I know of.”, Freeman says, “As a voice actor, you are regularly asked to walk into an isolation booth, you are handed a script you’ve never seen before, you are given the most rudimentary description of your character and the story you’re working on, and then you’re expected to deliver nuanced, believable performances with almost no context and no physical cues around you like a set or costumes to help you understand the nature of the project.”

It quickly becomes clear that the games industry is notorious for its secrecy. The industry keeps asking performers to come in entirely blind, and create characters, personalities, accents, inflections and voices on the fly with no information about the game.

“You rarely get scripts in advance, plus a lot of project information can be obscured, so you’re essentially hired to cold-read. I’ve shown up having no idea what I’m reading before, and it turns out I have to make up a handful of completely different-sounding characters on the spot and/or whip out an accent. And it’s 100% you on the spot, giving this output for several hours due to scheduling and cost efficiency, so it takes stamina and focus”, says Elmaleh.

“Your imagination has to be working over time to fill in all of those gaps. On top of that, you only have your voice to work with so all of your acting ability has to be channelled through that one avenue. In addition, voice actors are often expected to play multiple characters. This means that you not only have to pull all these rabbits out of your hat for one character, but you have to have the flexibility to understand the psychology of hundreds of different types of characters and be able to modify your voice in order to sound like them as well.”

“Our members are frustrated with that lack of transparency.”, explains Jennifer Hale, a prominent voice actress known for the voice of the female protagonist in the popular games trilogy Mass Effect. “We had four main topics that needed addressing, and transparency is one of them.”

“We are often asked as actors to work on projects when we have no idea what we are working on or what the name of the project is. The producers have said that it’s impossible for them to share with us the name of the game they are asking us to work on, even if we sign non-disclosure agreements before we come to work.” adds Freeman. “I don’t know anyone who would be comfortable going to work on something and not knowing what they’re working on.”

After screaming “Grenade!” at the top of our lungs for 4 hours, some of our members have bled from the throat, passed out, even vomited in the booth.

“The second of the four main negotiation topics is that our members are worried about their vocal health”, says Hale. Asked about vocal stress, Freeman elaborates: “Video game voice acting is far and away the most aggressive and damaging type of voice over work that we are called upon to do. The standard length for a voice over session in games is 4 hours. After screaming “Grenade!” at the top of our lungs for 4 hours, some of our members have bled from the throat, passed out, even vomited in the booth. Not all video game voice acting requires those kind of extreme vocalizations, but we asked that when a game calls for that kind of vocally stressful work that we limit those sessions to 2 hours”. The two hour limit for vocally stressful sessions does prominently feature in the SAG-AFTRA communication of why the union is striking. “We were told that was unacceptable.”

Voice actors are increasingly asked to perform motion capture or performance capture too. Hale explains: “Mocap is when performers provide movement for characters in a game. Sometimes, they perform to prerecorded dialogue, and, other times, they create movement cycles for non-player characters. Performance capture is when I show up to a stage and get dressed up in a MoCap suit, plus headgear that has a camera attached to it— like in the movie Avatar. For ‘PCap’, I memorize my lines, perform with other actors, and everything about my performance is digitized”. She adds that there are serious concerns amongst union members regarding how the industry ensures their safety during these capture sessions. “The third main topic in these negotiations is that a lot of our members worried about their safety on the capture stage.“

“Unfortunately, the game producers don’t always hire a stunt coordinator for motion capture sessions in order to make sure that performers are safe.”, Freeman says, “We don’t want normal actors to be called upon to do the kind of stressful or dangerous activities on the mocap stage that would qualify as stunts and that should be done by professional stunt performers. We’ve had actors who’ve had no stunt training swinging from the rafters in unsafe conditions. And yet, the producers are saying they can’t accept our stunt coordinator proposal in the contract and that we should just ‘trust them’. Unfortunately, we have too many actors who have gotten hurt.”

The producers are saying they can’t accept our stunt coordinator proposal in the contract and that we should just ‘trust them’. Unfortunately, we have too many actors who have gotten hurt.

“The fourth concern is that our members are upset that the games contract does not offer any secondary payment structures. This contract is the only one of the SAG-AFTRA contracts with this shortcoming. Every other contract we work under as actors pays us each time our performance is used. It’s a standard practice and one that actors who came before us fought for.”

Hale explains that despite it being a standard practice, the union is not asking for residuals from game developers “Residuals pay an actor each and every time her performance is used. The idea is that my performance is my IP. If you use my IP to make any money for your company, it’s fair that you should share some of that money with me”. She continues, “Our proposed secondary payment structure for AAA video game titles is different. It only triggers if your game is a blockbuster.”

Freeman elaborated: “If a game sold over 2 million copies, the performers would get a small payment. Last year, it would only have applied to 3 games: Grand Theft Auto, Star Wars: Battlefront and Call of Duty. These are the blockbuster games in the industry that gross hundreds of millions of dollars.”

“It also only covers the first four sessions that an actor works.”, Hale added. “It’s based on a shared prosperity model and allows for a small payment -25% of a session fee- for games that sell 2 million units. It triggers again at 4, 6 and 8 million units, then it stops. It also only covers the first four sessions that an actor works.”

Asked how much 25% of a session fee might look in practice, Freeman explained: “So the most an actor would be paid after 2 million unit sales, no matter how many sessions they worked on the game, is one more session fee. An actor who worked only one session on a game would get an additional payment of only $206 if the game sold more than 2 million copies. If they worked 4 or more sessions on that same game, the most they would ever receive is one more session fee which is a total of $3300 after 8 million units sold.”

It seemed absurd to me that these negotiations were stuck over what is effectively payments of $825.50 per 2 million units sold, so I asked for confirmation on those numbers. Hale answers: “Currently scale is $825.50 for four hours of vocal recording in the booth or eight hours of performance on a performance capture stage”. 

“Scale refers to the minimum payment an actor will make working on any given project, whether that’s in video games, animation, on-camera, or any other medium. It exists to help new actors avoid being taken advantage of by unscrupulous labor practices. A-list on camera celebrities almost always negotiate their own contracts with producers that are different from union contract minimums, but the vast majority of voice actors tend to work for scale in the world of video games.”, Freeman adds.

That unwillingness to compromise with us on this issue is the main reason we are striking against them.

“The producers gave us many reasons why they could not accommodate this shared prosperity structure. We were told that the game companies do not work like entertainment companies, but instead function more like silicon valley companies. In their opinion, silicon valley doesn’t share their prosperity so they shouldn’t either.”, Freeman continues, “Or that the accounting would be too complicated. Instead they offered an upfront payment structure where they would pay small bonuses in the amount of $50 or $100 every time an actor would come into work. Their system seemed strange to us since it was going to cost them more money and wasn’t tied to the success of a game.”

“We understand that some companies may want to be free of the extra HR hassle”, Hale adds. “We were okay with that as long as the option exists for developers to choose backend payments, if they wish.”

Freeman collaborates the story: “We were willing to accept their upfront payment structure as an option, as long as the producers were willing to allow our option to exist in the contract as well as an alternative. We knew there would be producers who would rather not pay more up front, but instead only share their prosperity once a game was wildly successful. We told the producers we were negotiating with that if they used their upfront payment scheme on a game, that they would never be responsible for any backend payments. They categorically refused to allow our shared prosperity clause even to exist as an option in the contract, even though it was an option they would never have to invoke.”

“That unwillingness to compromise with us on this issue is the main reason we are striking against them. We offered a win-win and they just wanted to win.”, Hale adds. Crispin agrees: “When they took away our ability to give producers choices about how to compensate their actors, they made it impossible for us to come to an agreement.”

I think that’s probably what scares the game publishers the most, that if they give they treat the actors fairly, they’ll have to treat everyone fairly.

Asked about the controversy in the industry surrounding the strike, all three voice actors are clearly distraught by the framing of the ‘actors-versus-the-industry’ narrative that has been prevalent. Hale: “This isn’t a battle between developers and actors. The truth is that we need to work together not only to create fair and equitable working conditions for all of us, but, most importantly, to create the best games on the planet.”

“Developers deserve far better treatment than they often get in the current climate of the industry”, Freeman adds, “I’m aware of the perpetual crunch and the punishing schedules developers work under with no overtime compensation. We are all collaborators in this fantastic medium. We all deserve safe working conditions, more respect for our contributions and to share in the prosperity of these games. We love working with our developer colleagues and we think developers should share in the prosperity of games. It’s common practice for people working at a company to get a bonus if the company does particularly well. The problem is that developers don’t yet have a union to help them in their negotiations with employers. Actors do.” 

Freeman theorizes, “If the actors are able to get some kind of secondary payment on successful games, then that sets a precedent for other game employees to get the same. I think that’s probably what scares the game publishers the most, that if they give they treat the actors fairly, they’ll have to treat everyone fairly.”

Elmaleh shares that suspicion: “Developers are as much my chosen family as actors, and I would wholeheartedly support them in advocating for themselves. It’s all a struggle to assert industry-wide best practices for the sake of our health and livelihood, so we can keep being part of creating games as sustainably as possible. Successful collective action that achieves these things could create some powerful precedent for all who make games.”

A quote given to the Financial Times by Howard Fabrick, a lawyer that negotiated on behalf of the game companies opposing SAG-AFTRA’s demands in negotiations for the previous version of the 2005 contract, confirms that this is definitely part of the reason the secondary payments won’t even be allowed as an option in the contract. ““That would set a precedent for hundreds of other people who created a game to say, ‘What about us?’” Fabrick said.

Hale surmises that this is exactly why unions like SAG-AFTRA exist in the first place. “Once upon a time, actors were controlled by the studios they worked for: they worked 15 hour days, seven days a week for wages that were just barely enough to live on. Meanwhile, the studio heads were getting filthy rich off of the new technology of moving pictures. Sound familiar?”

Indeed, reports by the games industry largest representative, the Independent Game Developer Associations, show that the games industry in 2016 does cope with high levels of burnout and turnover, unpaid overtime, expectations of crunch and low job security. Stories of large numbers of employees major companies being laid off for ‘restructuring’ frequently follow highly successful game releases.

“Eventually, some actors decided to stick their necks out and organize for better working conditions and, many years later, for a participation in the enormous profits that the studios were making. SAG-AFTRA provides qualified and talented performers to the entertainment industry, makes sure they are paid fairly and have quality healthcare and retirement benefits.“, Hale concludes.

Asked if there’s anything he would like to tell people reading this article, Freeman is clear, “Most of this debate will be litigated in social media and other media outlets. Give critics the facts. Don’t allow people to speculate or spread false information. Forward them links to websites like SAG-AFTRA’s where there are detailed explanations of which companies are being struck and which are not. Send them to http://www.gameactorsforall.com where they can listen to Steve Blum, the voice actor who holds the world record for being in the most games, talk about the dangerous and unfair situations he’s found himself in while trying to help games be as successful as possible.”

“The original union contract for games was developed in the mid 1990’s when games that used actors were few in number and experimental in nature. After 20 years, games have grown into an entertainment juggernaut. It’s time the publishers grew up and started treating the people working on interactive entertainment fairly.”

The Low Budget Contract I worked on with all three of the voice actors in the article is available now for your review. As long as the industry and SAG-AFTRA can’t come to an agreement, the contract the Low Budget Contract is an amendment to doesn’t exist. That said, you can already get in touch with SAG-AFTRA if you have any questions, and potentially negotiate a deal using an older SAG-AFTRA contract as base for the amendments. I will post about the Low Budget Contract is a ‘full package deal’.


Patch The Process

No Man’s Sky didn’t send out review builds because the game wasn’t done. No Man’s Sky gets leaked by resellers breaking street date. Polygon, Kotaku, and numerous streamers obtain a copy before release date and play it. No Man’s Sky developer and the platform holder both say the game isn’t final. No Man’s Sky developers shows changelist for the Day 1 patch to stop this nonsensical discussion about a build that wasn’t meant for the public. News hits No Man’s Sky is getting a ‘huge’ Day 1 patch that’s going to fix many of the issues.

I want to talk about Day 1 patches, but I don’t want to talk about No Man’s Sky. Since this is ‘controversial’ at the moment, I want to emphasize that I am not affiliated with No Man’s Sky. I’m not attacking nor defending No Man’s Sky. I’m not speaking on their behalf, nor do I have any insight into their process. This post isn’t even about No Man’s Sky. I’m just going to use No Man’s Sky as an hypothetical example, but this could apply to pretty much every single game that’s available today, whether it’s digital or physical. You also need to realize a lot of what I’m about to discuss cannot be discussed by a developer during the development process for various reasons, including legal contracts we have to sign to be allowed to release a game. This is also the reason I have to be vague about the details, and each of my statements is not about any specific console manufacturer or platform holder but sort of about all of them and none of them at once. Most of these things have been mentioned before in public discourse in some form or another, and I have to emphasize the examples aren’t from any one specific console manufacturer either, and might be hypothetical, modified or altered to avoid mentioning things too specifically. This is pretty much the most transparent I can be while staying without breaking NDA’s I’ve signed to be allowed to publish on all major console platforms.

There’s two things that are relevant here:

  1. Consoles are platforms and devices that come with an expectation of quality, and as such have systems in place to ensure that quality.
  2. Developers are creatives working on a commercial schedule, leading to the ancient and never-broken rule that a developer will always be two weeks late for their deadline – no matter how big or small the deadline is.

When you make a game for console – no matter which one – you have to realize the systems developers and platform holders are dealing with weren’t built for 2016. These systems are legacy systems, built upon legacy systems, built upon legacy systems. It’s like the system you are or were forced to use at your day job, if you’ve ever worked in retail, stock or booking systems, or at any checkout. Many of these systems interface closely with bureaucracy and console technology, and instead of radically changing how systems work between generations and breaking everything at a console launch, console platforms tend to try and not break things that work. As such, many of these systems are unwieldy, complicated, intricate and really built for teams that can afford to hire more people to read the manual and figure out the systems. These systems come from an age before indie, and some of the manual pages still refer to mailing copies by postal mail. Despite that, the console creators and their teams all work super hard to ensure developers have a smooth process, improving their systems where possible without touching the legacy foundation, and ensuring players get a functional game.

The most egregious example of this is called ‘certification’. On computer platforms, stores like Steam, Humble, GOG and itch.io have decided that developers just have to deal with the fallout of releasing a broken product themselves, and thus allow you to push a product or patch at any point whatsoever (they often do a pre-release check of your store page, though!). Consoles on the other hand, come from the ‘Seal of Quality’ mindset. To ensure that quality, they use a system called ‘certification’, or FQA, or TRC, or TCR, or some other random acronym that refers to something technical and a checklist. Devs like to call this quality assurance process ‘cert’, and no matter what developer you ask, you’ll find most developers understand why it exists, and we all really appreciate all the people working super hard to ensure our games are working right, but we tend to all hate ‘cert’. What you have to imagine when it comes to cert, is a giant book of checkboxes. There’s an absurd amount of them, and they could be different not only per platform, but per territory (for example, a European build has different certification rules than a US one, requiring differences between the two), and sometimes even between a patch, a DLC, and a release version.

Some of these make a lot of sense (don’t crash), and some of these are reasonable (if you leave the main menu open for 24 hours, is the game still smooth?), and some of them sound obscene (if you rapidly plug and unplug the controller, does the game know what to do?). Some of these are enlightening (your game needs to figure out what controller the player is assigned to, thus requiring the ‘Press [button] to start’ screen only console games still have), and some of them are just headaches (don’t put UI in the outer 10% of the screen, unless you use one of those ‘how big is your screen’ interfaces). Some are legal (is any form of parental control activated or is the profile under the allowed age for gameplay? if so, did you disable the required functionality?), and some can make you desperate (the console can not have had firmware updates between your release build and the patch). Did you know consoles don’t necessarily pause your game for you when players switch to other interfaces? You have to do that yourself.

Anyway, certification is a big thing. The process for it is also a big thing. In most cases, you have to fill out a weirdly complex form for your submission, and then ‘book a slot’ of sorts, or wait until you get an OK to submit your game. Since the people testing games aren’t infinite, you need to let people know when you’re submitting your build. So you check which dates are available, and usually there’s a free slot a few days from today. If your build isn’t in a certain amount of time ahead of that, your slot can be lost, and you’ll have to ‘book’ a new one. When the slot starts, and your game goes into certification, there’s a variety of reasons your submission can be rejected, in which case your slot can be lost too. Then, the teams start testing, and they report certification violations to you. In many cases, your violations are graded along a scale from ‘Must Fix’ or ‘Fix This’ to ‘Suggestion’ or ‘Whatever really’. If any of them exceed a certain level, your submission fails, and you have to start from square one and fill out the form, find a free day to book a slot or wait until certification starts, and submit a new build.

Some of the certification problems are impossible to avoid. Developers can’t control when consoles update their firmware, and when engines shift their support for firmware. In those cases, developers can request an exception to a rule. This is a bureaucratic process, and it can require negotiating, a formal request, and formal permission. It takes time. Then, when you get an exception, for most platforms you often need to fill out on the submission form how, where, and from who you got that exception when you submit again.

Did I mention all of this is poorly documented? One console has a field that says ‘assets file’. It doesn’t mention what the assets file is, nor what it does, or what these assets are. If you don’t add the file, it can’t process your submission. If you add it, but it isn’t ‘right’, your build can fail. You lose a week. If there’s a checkbox somewhere in the hundreds or thousands of obscure rules that you missed, you lose a week. If there’s something that’s subtly different between Europe and America, you lose a week. What I’m trying to say is that certification could take a week, and in the worst cases, it could take months. From personal experiences, I can say that it can make developers cry. It could delay your game. At the end, though, the game that launches checks every checkbox. You’ve got your proverbial “Seal of Quality”. Your game is allowed to launch.

Now, I’m not saying No Man’s Sky did this, but in most cases, developers with a launch date need to make sure they can hit that launch date. We start submitting certification builds somewhat early, in the hopes that one of them gets the check mark that says ‘you’re good to negotiate a launch day’. Certification is technical – it doesn’t bother with what the game is, it just concerns itself with whether it works technically. It checks whether the boxes are checked. You can market a dark gritty murder game titled Dark Horses, and submit a pony farm tycoon game, and as long as the name on the form matches the name of the game, they would not object.

So – since development is messy and unpredictable – if you’ve got a build that’s ‘pretty much done’ and it works, and you can get it through certification, that’s a good sign for your final build. So you submit it, it goes through cert, and you stage it for download and launch. For disc games, the game needs to go through certification in time to be printed, boxed and distributed. At that point, developers are usually still one to three months from release, which tends to mean you need one and a half to three and a half months to get the game done, and then you still need to keep in mind that unpredictable amount of time you’ll spend in certification. A day 1 patch is technically still submitted at least one week from launch, but until it actually goes through certification, it can’t be made available to the public.

Knowing that, it should be easy to see why Day 1 patches are often “huge”. For a game that goes on disc, the ‘gold’ build that went through certification is one to three months old by the time the game launches. That gives developers half a month to two and a half a month to do a month and a half to three and a half months’ worth of work to make the game ‘perfect’ while still hitting the release date with the patch. If your studio is huge, you probably have an internal QA department that (for good reason) slows things down internally, but if your studio is nimble and small, you can change enormous portions of the game in that span of time.

So in the hypothetical example of No Man’s Sky, when No Man’s Sky launches, for most people, it’ll launch into the intended experience thanks to the Day 1 Patch. That build is as close to what the developers envisioned as they worked, learned and improved upon that vision. That’s No Man’s Sky. The version that is on the disc, however, is months old. The only way to avoid that kind of thing is to not launch on disc.

One could argue that developers then, should make certain that a game is perfect when they submit it to disc, which is not an invalid stance. It’s just an impractical stance. If you’ve got months to improve upon a game that went through cert, do you think you would leave those months? Do you think audiences would appreciate a developer just kind of doing nothing for three months? Can you imagine the Kickstarter outrage if a developer, three months from launch, posted ‘we’re done, it’s good, we’re not touching it again until you get to play in three months’? Anybody arguing that a game should be done when it goes ‘gold’ is living in the 90s.

Developers care about the games they make, and we’re trying to make the best game we can for our players. We’ll take every opportunity we can get for that. If consoles operated like Steam did, No Man’s Sky wouldn’t have a Day 1 Patch, because the build you’d download and play when it comes out would’ve been submitted comfortably a few days before launch. Day 1 Patches aren’t necessarily a failure on the developers or the platforms side, they the result of people that care about what they make, trying to deliver the game the audience expects by the date they expect it, while everybody involved is struggling with outdated systems on cutting-edge technology. Everyone is trying their hardest. Nobody is doing anything wrong. The developer isn’t lazy. The platforms aren’t malicious. Day 1 patches are simply a patch to a submission system that’s old and convoluted.


Beautiful Things

Last week, I visited Tel Aviv to speak at GameIS, an independent games event run by a group of indies and volunteers from the Israeli games industry. It was a phenomenal event, filled with inspiring, aspiring and creative individuals. The event felt vibrant, and was full of interesting projects.

Given my political views in favor of a Palestinian state, and my heritage as an Egyptian Arab, I was not surprised to spend 6 or 7 hours of my two-day visit to Israel in security at Ben Gurion Airport. While I’m used to spending time in security, this was the first time I ever spent more than a quarter of a visit in a ‘suspect booth’.

Since my visit to Israel, I’ve had a few disappointed people from around the world reach out to me regarding the visit. People have pointed out that I should’ve taken note of the BDS Movement, an international movement to boycott, divest and sanction Israeli businesses and end international support for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and to pressure Israel to comply with International Law.

Global politics are inherently intricate and complicated, and while I am against Israel’s economical and frequently violent oppression of the Palestinian people and state, I am not against Israel or the Israelis per se. I am against the politics of Israel, just as I am against many of the global politics of the United States, but also those of many other countries.

So to those questioning my visit to Tel Aviv, I just want to emphasize that in a pursuit to make the world more just and fair, I refuse to dismiss or limit my support to creative individuals with no or little say in these matters. In my visit to Tel Aviv, I found many of the developers to be progressive and open-minded, and frustrated by the political situation.

I was born a third culture kid, too Dutch to be Egyptian, and too Egyptian to be Dutch, and the games industry is the first ‘country’ I’ve felt I belong to. I believe in the power of creativity and games to bring people together, and just like no one can help being born in Palestine, nobody can help being born in Israel.

If anything, I hope to visit Palestine and the independent creators making beautiful games there sometime soon. I hope to continue supporting game development in all forms in the Middle East, and the rest of the Arab world, the Muslim world, and everywhere else. In the meanwhile, I will continue to voice my discontent with the political situation of Israel regarding Palestine, but I will not stop supporting the Israeli individuals and studios dedicating their lives to making beautiful games.


Doctors

Being half-Egyptian, the ongoing and unstable political situation in Egypt is extremely worrying to me. This AP article has a great short description of what’s going on, but the quote I want to talk about is this one:

The standoff between policemen and doctors suggested that Egypt’s powerful security forces may have overstepped their limits by clashing with one of the country’s most respected professions. On Friday, the Arabic hashtag “support the doctors’ syndicate” was trending on Twitter in Egypt. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a prominent local rights group, said the doctors’ assault was “a reflection of the level of police abuse of authority these days.”

Many third-world countries around the world still have very strong connotations of family honor, and Egypt is no exception to that. In the mind of Egyptian parents, there are three professions that have status: a Doctor, a Lawyer or an Engineer. For women, being a Nurse or a Teacher are considered acceptable too. There’s tremendous pressure, whether imagined or real, for kids to adhere to those aspirations to ensure a good income and support their family and their future families. Game development can luckily be argued to fall under engineering, although it’s not always accepted as such, so most kids with aspirations there simply refer to it as pure computer science.

It’s a pressure I don’t really know an equivalent for in most Western culture, but the pressure is common enough that it’s become a meme (a م?) amongst kids of Arabic descent. With how powerful memes are in spreading local culture, it seems that there might be a push to more diverse jobs and more creative jobs, which – sadly – the economical and political situation in Egypt currently does seem to not afford. The Arab Spring was largely fueled by the internet, through memes and Facebook and digital communication, and the new Egyptian regime has learned from its predecessors mistakes. I’m anxiously looking forward to an election year, and while I’m fearful that’s when things go sour, I’m hopeful Al-Sisi will do the right thing.

If you’re interested in the Egyptian revolution of 2011, I can recommend the English-subtitled Netflix documentary الميدان, which powerfully shows an on-the-ground perspective of the Egyptian revolution from the perspective of Egyptians – people speaking Arabic, living in Cairo.


Strong & Weak

 Content warning: discusses Gamergate

One of the most fascinating political ‘public relations’-plays in the world is something I like to call ‘strong and weak’. It’s something I first noticed in the continuing coverage of the conflict in Israel & Palestine, but once you spot it it becomes very clear very quickly that it’s used in all sorts of political situations. It effectively is used as such: we are ready and capable of overcoming this obstacle, but this obstacle is impossible to overcome. It presents the user as both strong and weak at the same time, sometimes contradicting itself, but usually using two seperate perspectives to get the advantages of both.

In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is used by both sides to justify violence. The Israeli miltary forces effectively have to ensure to the world and themselves that they are extremely prepared, and surely will be the victor in any armed conflict. At the same time, they have to emphasize how vulnerable their position is, and that their defenses are easily penetrated by terrorists. The violent Palestinian factions that oppose Israel need to emphasize that they are capable of eradicating Israel, but also that they are fighting a foe that has superior weaponry and military. The reason is simple: people won’t follow a losing faction, but they’re more likely to have sympathy for a losing side. Nobody feels bad for the winner, and nobody celebrates the loser. You don’t want to be on the losing side, but you can’t make a difference for a winner anyway.

It’s a similar thing you could’ve spotted in Gamergate. First, they hated and attacked just one person. Then they got too big and loud and things weren’t just bad – they looked bad from a PR perspective (yes, everything that interacts with an audience has PR, including things like that) too. Then it was two people and they had room to grow louder again. They grew too big, and then it was half a dozen people. Then it was all the games media. Then it was all the social media. Then it was all mainstream media. Then it was a conspiracy that included the US government. Eventually they settled on a perceived global culture of political correctness. You can trace that development – they needed to appear strong enough to change things but also weak enough that you can make a difference. So as the harassment increased, and things started looking bad bad, they grew too big to need more support. So an extra threat got added. Conspiracies appeared. First they were small, and eventually the conspiracy theories included the US government.

It’s an interesting dynamic to keep in mind, and a fascinating one to look for. You can see it currently in US election rhetoric – mostly on the Republican side, but also on the Democratic side. You can find it in Islamophobia everywhere. It’s in every good Kickstarter pitch. We can make this a reality, but we don’t stand a chance. It’s a proven tactic, a subtle and powerful one. It’s is also a delicate one – go too far one way or the other and you need to escalate the opposite one.

Duality is an extremely powerful way of communicating with crowds, which behave very different from individuals. This strong-weak duality just happens to be an example that I’ve come to spot easily.