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 “microtransaction” of buying a console

This morning, I made a tweet that I believed would make sense to everybody I ramble to about discussions being uninformed, but that is incredibly hard to follow if you’re not approaching the tweet from the developer-centric angle I’m talking from. As communication is a two-way street, I take full responsibility for any confusion, and for making my Twitter a hilarious mess of angry gamers. It remains absurd to me that I’m somehow thought to be shilling for exploitative microtransactions, especially since the tweet doesn’t actually contain any defence of microtransactions, and even more-so considering given Ridiculous Fishing staunch premium model, and my continued vocal opposition to exploitative microtransactions going as far back as 2011.

Regardless, the point I’m trying to make I feel is worth explaining, because while I am a vocal opponent of exploitative microtransactions, I am also a vocal opponent of incredibly uninformed but popular objections to exploitative microtransactions getting in the way of the industry figuring out real solutions regarding the topic.

The games I listed are ‘First Party Games’, ie. games made by studios owned by the same company that makes the hardware or platform. Nintendo is well-known for its focus on First Party – series like Zelda, Mario, Metroid, but similarly Microsoft has Gears of War and Forza, and PlayStation has Uncharted, Killzone, Horizon, and The Last Guardian. Steam, for example, has Half Life, Team Fortress, Left 4 Dead, Portal, and DOTA.

Even though these games are often highly successful, the purpose of these first party titles is not necessarily to make a profit. The purpose is to sell the platform – the console – by showing the audience what these platforms are capable of. As soon as a user has bought a game for the platform, after all, the platform-holder could make a profit through sale of any related hardware or accessories, but it will certainly make a profit on every game bought by that user thereafter, as platform-holders usually take a 29 to 31 percent cut of sales of any game sold on that platform, no matter who the developer is.

Consider that Steam, for a long time, let developers freely create as many keys as they wanted to give along with Humble Bundles. They’re not making a profit from the sale there, but they’re paying for server costs for downloads. The reason they do that is simple: if all your games are on Steam, you’ll buy your new games on Steam too. You stay locked in, they take a cut from every game you buy. If you buy a game on Steam occasionally, you’re self-subsidising that free Steam code. And it should not be surprising that Apple, with its billions of dollars shifting through the App Store, still thinks of the App Store as a selling point to convince you to buy an iPhone or iPad, rather than as the major revenue stream.

Such is the power of holding a platform: you could literally develop a game against a loss, and still end up making a profit through all the revenue you’ll make from selling other developers’ games.

Third Party Games is any game made by a studio independent from the platform. They can be published studios, be part of Ubisoft, Activision, EA, etc., or they can be fully independent. Either way, they don’t have that luxury. If the game, merchandise, licensing, DLC, microtransactions (cosmetic or not), subscriptions, or whatever the revenue model is, doesn’t return the investment and enough to invest into new products, the studio is done for. In some cases, if the projections for a project dip under profitable or profitable enough, publishers take the relatively small hit of the already invested capital rather than invest more.

My point is that a First Party Game can never be compared with Third Party Games in terms of how they handle monetisation. A First Party Game can return on its investment through console sales, or through the cut the platform takes from games sales on that console. A Third Party title will have to make its money through the game and any sales related to it.

For games made in countries with lower labour costs or with strong subsidies for digital industry, like CD PROJEKT’s The Witcher series growing into a behemoth, the risk is smaller (not to mention they own GOG, an actual games platform of their own). For smaller budget titles like NieR: Automata, games funded by other games doing well, the risk is smaller. For the Star Wars: Battlefront II‘s of this world, it just takes a look at Bethesda’s relatively disappointing Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus sales to understand a lot of Third Party Studios feel forced to be experimenting with alternative revenue streams now.

But Mario? It already got a little “microtransaction” out of you. You’ve already paid some dollars when you bought the Switch, and you paid some extra dollars to Nintendo through their revenue cut when you bought Rocket League, and some more when you bought Stardew Valley, and some more for every other unrelated game you bought for the Switch, and it will take a cut for every game you will ever buy for the platform. So when people say ‘how come Zelda can do without microtransactions‘, what they’re saying is ‘I am completely unaware of the fact that Zelda earns Nintendo money through console sales and through any game sold on that console, too, and as such is far less dependent on other income‘.


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.


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.


What am I arguing anyway?

 Content warning: discusses US abortion debate

If you’re on the internet, you’ve probably noticed it has effectively split into two camps. One believes the internet should be a place where people get treated with respect, where disagreement is handled properly and where people are generally held to the standards of decency you’d expect in real life. The other group believes the internet’s power is that you can say whatever you like, even if that is awful or has no purpose beyond trying to hurt others.

I see a lot of people outraged, and then people outraged about people being outraged. The solution, however, is “simple”: fix the social imbalance or issue at the heart of the anger, and the anger goes away.

One of the clearest examples to me is the pro-choice versus anti-abortion debate in the US. In the United States, there’s an almost unbelievable discussion about whether abortion should be allowed at all. In the Netherlands, that topic has been cleared since 1984. Guess what happened? The anger and outrage, the protests and discussions? They went away. It turned out the women who wanted abortion to be a right were being held back by unfair laws, and the opponents were speaking on behalf of embryo’s, fetuses, and God.

The other day, a US pro-choice group was extremely critical of a Doritos commercial.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vH2LsFcWOFY

To someone from the Netherlands, getting upset over this commercial feels ridiculous – but we haven’t lived with the requirements of debate, and the oppression of laws regarding abortion for over 30 years now. To most people in the Netherlands, that discussion is not part of their life. In the US, hundreds of millions of people are directly affected by the outcome of that debate, and the slow progress of freedom. What is and isn’t important to get upset about is so dependent on perspective, that my golden rule has become to check what side I’m on: those arguing their personal freedom, or those upset on behalf of something else. Am I arguing that I’m upset, or am I upset that others are? One is valuable. The other is a waste of time. Freedom isn’t one big thing. It’s lot of little things.


Bad Info

I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned the Dunning-Kruger curve before, the psychological effect of illusionary superiority by relatively unskilled people. I usually discuss the effect in terms of imposter syndrome, but that’s just one of the many implications of this simple law. Another implication of the curve is that if you place a lot of relatively unskilled people together, you create an environment in which a lot of information is exchanged as being true, regardless of its veracity.

This is something I’ve seen to painful effect in many environments: I’ve seen it at many universities, but also in game development forums, or extremely popular Facebook groups. When all opinions are equal in a creative process, you don’t necessarily get the best result: you get the safest result. If the majority of participants are either uninvolved, unaffected or unskilled, you get way worse than that. If they’re all of those, it’d be a miracle to get something awful regardless of intent or effort.

The best way to avoid bad information is through reckless collision with reality, or smaller and more specialized communities. While these communities definitely create a sense of security, and a sense of others getting it, the reality of game development is often far harsher. Reach out to game developers you look up to, or experiment with social media. In the end, it’s hard to make bad choices, but really easy to make uninformed ones. Check your information by seeing if you can find the opposite position argued, check your assumptions by rigorous playtesting with the intended audience, and check who is giving you what advice and what their credentials are.

Having no information and having to figure it out yourself is a much better spot to be in than being bombarded with and following bad info.


E-mail policy

Since I started receiving over a few hundred of them a day, I created a number of rules for handling e-mail. There is no perfect system, and while some of these self-imposed rules sound harsh, After experimenting a lot, I’ve found them to lead to my highest volume of e-mails answered in a qualitative way.

My main rule for handling e-mails: try to avoid writing e-mails longer than three sentences.

I have three rules for responding to e-mail:

  1. Don’t respond unless necessary. If it is important, people will follow up. No answer is better than a useless answer.
  2. If it takes more time to make a to-do entry out of an e-mail than to respond and complete the task, respond and complete the task. Otherwise, do not respond to e-mails until response is required or requested. Threads drag on too long with too much fluff.
  3. With the exception of urgent e-mails, prioritize ‘e-mails to which a response would really mean something to someone’ over ‘e-mails for work’.

I have three rules for writing e-mails:

  1. Don’t write an e-mail for something that isn’t absolutely necessarily an e-mail. E-mail is best for formalities, external communications that require archiving and communications that are not decidedly urgent. If you’re working with someone and things can be urgent, make sure you have another method of contact.
  2. Get to the point in the first line, and if pleasantries are expected, integrate them into the sentence with a comma or semi-column, regardless of the grammatical appropriateness. Nobody cares. (ie. Hope you’re doing well, I was writing to check in about [x])
  3. Set a reminder for a follow-up. Expect a response time of about a week, and follow-up after three to five days. If someone mentions a time-frame, set a follow-up reminder for 80% and 120% of that timeframe. People often need a reminder for communications through e-mail.

That leaves me curious: what are your rules for e-mail?