As one of the more prominent developers operating in the games industry today, Rami Ismail is often regarded as being a pivotal force for indie gaming, and has ensured that his efforts to champion the indie flag are backed up by Vlambeer’s own stellar successes (such as Ridiculous Fishing and Luftrausers). So it was an honour to catch up with him at this year’s Radius Festival and speak to him about a number of issues pertaining to his field. What follows is an exclusive interview (spread out over four parts) where Rami gets to talk about, amongst many other things, his experiences with Nintendo. Enjoy.
You’re in London right now for the Radius Festival. What brings you to Radius Festival?
I was invited by the organizers. Radius, it’s basically the second year that this event happens even though it wasn’t even known as Radius last year. It’s very much a during / post E3 festival. They show a bunch of games. It’s very, very open. Very welcoming. It’s a nice little event. It’s in the center of London right off Leicester Square which means that it’s in a very high traffic location – which brings in a lot of people that are excited about video games that are here specifically for Radius. It’s also nice that there’s a high ratio of people that just happen to walk in here because they saw the signs outside. It’s been very busy. It’s a very diverse crowd so I’m very happy about it so far.
But yeah, I was invited and I just decided to fly out because it sounded like fun and London is not that far from where I was so, I just flew in.
Now you’ve just been to E3. How was that?
E3 was interesting. It was good. The thing with E3 this year is very much that everything just seemed to go as planned. Last year was obviously a very big E3 announcement of the new consoles, the XBox, the PlayStation, so it was a big deal. A lot of weird shifts happened. PlayStation basically destroyed Microsoft back in 2013. This year was very much what we all expected. Microsoft made a comeback. Sony just did what it did last year, but with new stuff. Nintendo showed a lot of first party stuff. Every big company is working on a new IP, but also has new installments of their big IP, so everything sort of went like everybody expected which made for a sort of boring, but still high quality E3. So, I was happy with it. Everything is fine. Everything is going okay.
Now obviously, E3 is an indication of where the industry is going. As an indie developer, how do you think the industry is catering to indie developers (and vice versa) and where do you think they fit in going forward?
Indie was a huge part of E3 this year. A large part of the Sony booth and the Microsoft booth was entirely dedicated to independent developers, so you had IndieCade at E3. I think the influence of indies is growing because we are one of the few parties that can deliver a high volume of content. Frequent games, lots of releases, high quality and of increasing quality, if I might add. So there is an increasing amount of room for independent developers to do as they wish, or make interesting games. You see that with games like Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, story games
Talking about Sony, Shahid Ahmad recently stated that indie games can sell platforms / machines. How much truth do you think there is in his statement?
Well I think there is a truth to it. In the end, the first wave of console buyers are going to be people that are excited about the possibilities that a machine gives for a new generation. So most PlayStation 4’s or most XBox One’s are not being sold because of the indies games on there. That would be a ridiculous suggestion to make. But what Shahid rightfully points out is that, for example, the PlayStation Vita is basically being sold only on indie games. Their main content is indie games. A large part of what Steam does is indie games at this point. But of the library that’s available for PlayStation or for XBox One, the majority at this point is indie games and the majority of unique titles that people can buy on those platforms are indie games, so even though they might not be as decisive as, for example, a Halo, indie games definitely are part of why people select a console. So, do they sell consoles? I think they can. I think they can definitely can be a big consideration for people. And in some cases they sell a platform, yeah. I don’t think that would be invalid to say. I just think it doesn’t go for all platforms.
You mentioned that Sony had a strong showing for indie games as well as Microsoft. Considering Microsoft’s (some would argue) draconian stance on exclusivity, how reflexive and how accommodating have they been you towards you as an independent studio since the shit storm that happened last year?
So, the thing is they…
I think it’s called ID1, isn’t it?
ID@Xbox, yeah. First of all, ID@Xbox is a great program. It’s wonderful that Microsoft went, in one year, from not having self-publishing to showing dozens of indie games at E3 on their show floor. So ID@Xbox is great. It’s a great thing. And they still have launch parity, like the draconian exclusivity standards are still there. They are still a problem, but at least indie developers now know that they can talk about that, right. And I think that is important, but I still prefer Sony’s deal. I think Sony still offers the better deal by far, but there’s value in competition I guess. As long as my Microsoft’s launch parity does not leave Sony to have to do something similar, I guess it’s up to the developer and whether they want to cave into something like that. I would really strongly recommend not to.
I still say that if you’re going to do a game with Microsoft, as an indie developer, it should almost feel like a responsibility to negotiate that clause out of there, because it would just cause Microsoft time. If launch parity doesn’t yield them anything except for having to get rid of it in every contract, eventually they’ll just get rid of it, right. And I think that’s important. I think that’s something we should do because the alternative is that Microsoft gets rewarded for having a worse deal and that should never be the case, but overall, I’m very positive about what ID@Xbox is doing. Everybody that works with them is having a good experience, as far as I know. Everybody that’s not working with them and is trying to work with them, but already has an existing relationship with PlayStation is not that happy with them because launch parity is still in place, so for a lot of them like Curve Studios it’s just not really a possibility to work with Microsoft. So, there’s ups and downs, but overall it’s up, which is good I guess.
What about Nintendo because Nintendo recently announced that they have a lot of indie developers making games for their Wii U platform. How much of that is just positive PR spin and how much of that is actually concrete based on your own understanding on how Nintendo operate?
So from what I’m seeing, that’s a lot of PR spin. I mean, there are indies making games for Nintendo, and the indies making games for Nintendo seem to be very happy. We’ve been trying to work with Nintendo, but we basically gave them one demand and that is if we’re going to making indie games for Wii U, we also want to be making games for 3DS and they’ve not been very responsive on that.
Why is that?
I don’t know. But basically, we can get a Wii U if we want, but not a 3DS, and I’m not really willing to do that. I mean, I like Nintendo’s platforms. I’m a big fan of the 3DS, I’m a big fan of the Wii U, because they’re both interesting platforms. They’re just weird, different things and I like that. I like that we have the choice to make something silly or strange or interesting. Spin the Bottle just seems like a nice little quirky interesting thing and I just like that. I like that that’s the thing. And I would to bring some of our games there, but I would have to get a basic amount of trust out of Nintendo to feel comfortable doing that.
Is that because you’re kind of scared that, to put it into so many words, they’re going to fuck you over?
No. I think the bigger worry I have is that, when as a company Vlambeer works with platforms, we expect a mutual trust because working on a game for a platform is a huge commitment. You have to get the hardware that you have to keep safe. You have to create the game for a platform. You have to optimize, you’re fragmenting your team into separate things, you need to make sure that it works on everything, you need to look at the design restrictions, the development restrictions…there’s a lot of stuff you need to do to make something work. And making that commitment, I don’t want to make that commitment without getting a basic modicum of trust out of a company. So for Nintendo, them saying “sure Wii U is fine, but 3DS, nah” that’s not enough trust. I need them to say, “Okay, we’ll do everything” like “if you want access to our hardware, you’ll get access to hardware.”
Now obviously, you’re used to just stating your opinion on Nintendo and their way of appeasing the indie developer community. To what extent would you argue that your comments echo the feelings of the indie community in general? Is this just an isolated case, or do you think most independent developers also feel the same way you do?
I think most independent developers can’t take the risk of developing for Nintendo. I mean, the amount of attention third party games get is relatively small already, so going with Sony or Microsoft, which are largely supporting independent developers is a way safer choice. In our case, we’re lucky enough to not have to worry about the resources of doing it. For us it’s more of an ideological stance that we would like a company to show a certain amount of trust. For a lot of other indies, that’s not a hope or a wish, that’s a requirement before they can make that commitment. So, for a lot of small independent developers I think it’s very dangerous to make a Wii U game at this point.
Is that because the install base…
The install base is small, support is relatively low. It’s not an easy market. Nintendo is a very, very rough market to be on.
Even the 3DS, assuming that you’re able to get onto the 3DS?
That’s the thing. 3DS is probably better, but it’s almost impossible to get your game on there.
Why do you think that is?
I know they’re a bit more protective of the 3DS than the Wii U and I can see why. They desperately need games on the Wii U. They’ve got enough stuff coming out on the 3DS usually, so I would guess that it has something to do with that. I’m not sure, like all I know is that Vlambeer games could come to Nintendo. All we need for them is to show a little trust.
Click here for Part 2.