It’s tough to know where to start when describing Rami Ismail. As Xbox owners, you may not have even heard the name, but undoubtedly will have had some exposure to his work, directly or indirectly. His work transcends almost every aspect of gaming: the business, profiling and promotion, tutoring and more than a little development. His purpose at Yorkshire Games Festival is to help nurture future generations of developers by giving one of his legendary talks.
As TXH descended onto the 3rd Yorkshire Games Festival, we were permitted to sit down and have a chat with Rami to give you all some direct exposure to this fascinating and creative individual.
Richard: Hi Rami, firstly thank you for your time.
Rami: No worries, thank you for taking the time.
Richard: As we are primarily an Xbox site, would you be able to give an introduction to those that may not be familiar with you and your work?
Rami: I’m Rami Ismail, I’m one half of Dutch independent studio Vlambeer, creators of a range of independent arcade games. We are best known for our PC games: Super Crate Box, Luftrausers and Nuclear Throne. Some of those also released on PlayStation. We also did a mobile game called Ridiculous Fishing which won the Apple Game of the Year and Design Award.
Our games are always arcade-y, quite intense and a little overwhelming. They’re easy to get into, they have a really high skill seating, that’s the kind of games we like making. They’re very much inspired by old school arcade games without trying to be old school arcade games, we’re trying to make modern games just inspired by those feelings.
Richard: How exactly did you get started with Vlambeer?
Rami: [Laughs] In the second year of my games university I went to a games design school. I hated it, so I dropped out. There was one other guy who dropped out as well (Vlambeer co-founder Jan Willem Nijman). I didn’t like him but, we were the only two people dropping out. He was good at starting games, I was good at finishing them. We decided to team up for one game and eight years later, that’s why I’m here.
Richard: What was the first game?
Rami: Super Crate Box. It was a tiny little arcade platform shooter
Richard: My only exposure to your games is Ridiculous Fishing, but this started out as a Flash game called Radical Fishing, correct?
Rami: Yeah so Super Crate Box was the game we were trying to make, but we didn’t have money, plus we also dropped out of school, so we needed money. Radical Fishing was made as a quick way to make money. And that game ended up getting attention from a lot of people we respected in the games industry and even though people liked Super Crate Box, it seemed that a lot of people had foremost interest in Radical Fishing.
After Super Crate Box was done, we looked at Radical Fishing and thought “Maybe we should flesh this out a little bit”. And that’s how Ridiculous Fishing got started. It was first called Super Radical Fishing which I still think is a pretty good title.
The trials and tribulations for Ridiculous Fishing have already been well documented elsewhere, so I didn’t want to delve any further with that. If you are interested, a brilliant article and documentary on Polygon probably details that best.
Instead, I wanted to talk about other work Rami has done away from creating games.
Richard: I also wanted to ask about Presskit(). As we cover a lot of indie games we get the review code and then the link to the press kit as well and invariably it is your Presskit(). How did this come about?
Rami: A big part of indie I think, is people trying to make things easier for themselves and then I ended up releasing Presskit for everybody because it’s easier. And if you think about it, that’s how a lot of games engines started, and it’s how Slack started.
Presskit was made for me; I wanted to make it easier for myself to make press kits because we make a lot of games. And then I realised that it was quite helpful. I was seeing this rise in basically cheap indie publishers and all they did was make a press kit and send it out to some outlets. There was no reason why that should be a 30% cut from the developers right? So, I just decided to wreck that market. That was genuinely my goal, to take that out. That’s my belief: If you want to change a culture you do it first, you do it free, you do it best.
I set out to make my internal press kit system the best version it could possibly be. I was encouraged by Phil Tibitoski from Young Horses (of Octodad fame) who wanted to use it as well. So, I went around to all the major websites and asked them “What do you want from a press kit?” and to a bunch of developers “Ok, what do you need from a modular press kit system?” And then I coded in best practices like, it wont work without three screenshots, you cant use new lines in your short description. Because I would ask people to give me a short description of a game and I would get two pages. And for you as press it must be frustrating as you have to read the entire fucking thing or just skip on the story. You can hack in a longer description but it’s a lot of work.
Presskit() is basically made to nudge people in the right direction, not make common mistakes and also be a way to make that free so that it’s an equal playing field. Publishers can’t sell a service that should be free.
I went into the games industry wanting to be known for my games but I think Presskit() is the thing I’m best known for. It’s fine, I’m ok with it. It’s said that I made the industry a better place and that’s the best proof I have for that.
Presskit() will be around. It’ll survive my career. Probably.
Richard: For those that will be reading this and obviously unable to make it to Yorkshire Games Festival are you able to give a brief overview as to what it was about?
Rami: Yeah sure. When I was a student there were a lot of guest speakers and it would invariably lead to Q+A so I would always ask these questions like “What were your inspirations?” or “How does their process work?”. And now that I’ve been in the industry for ten years those answers were never useful because they were bad questions. The questions I asked didn’t highlight the realities of game development, the tension or where the actual problems hid. My impression of game development was an idealised school environment.
The problem with being a student in the games industry is that you don’t know what you don’t know. There is so much to this industry, you can’t be aware of it unless you’ve done it. So, my talk was twenty-six things – one for each letter of the alphabet – where I found an interesting subject to talk about for each letter. Is the English alphabet twenty-four or twenty-six letters?
Rami: Twenty-six right, I always forget because I work in so many languages, because of my conference (GameDev.World) that I forget how many letters we have.
So, it was every letter of the alphabet I found something to talk about, But I went like ten minutes overtime. But I think people enjoyed it.
Richard: They definitely did, don’t worry about it.
Rami: Oh good. I think it was a good talk, there was a lot of back and forth between the audience. I think what I wanted to prove was that there’s infinite stuff to know, and only knowing part of it is fine. You don’t need to know everything to be an industry professional. But you also can’t believe that you know everything. And that was the intention: You know nothing, but that’s ok. But, I think it went pretty well.
Richard: It did. Even for someone who knows nothing about that side of things it was still fascinating.
You also mentioned a couple of other things in the talk about travelling the world, looking for those indie games. But which countries are thriving right now that wouldn’t be immediately obvious?
Rami: South Africa is huge at the moment. A lot of good games are coming from there, a lot of good games that people wouldn’t think about: Broforce is from there, Semblance also. As a rapidly growing industry from when I started going there versus now, it’s night and day. They’ve created their own heroes, they have their own community there now that has its’ own leadership, goals and knows how to deal with the problems unique to South Africa, but also the opportunities unique to South Africa.
The Croatia region, Balkan region, very rapid evolution there. It used to be just Croteam but now you’re seeing a load of indies popping up there.
Also, Uruguay. Very lovely country. Sort of started to structure itself around the success they had which was Kingdom Rush by Ironhide Studios.
Those are rapidly evolving markets, so they are territories that I won’t go to much anymore because my job is to get them to the point they are at now. And from now on, they are fine. And they were fine, it’s just that I can make it faster.
I had more questions on the places he visited but then I remembered this was a gaming interview for a gaming website not a top destinations article. Rami had seen so many games on his world tours, so I wanted to know what happened next with them.
Richard: I wanted to ask about Meditations as well, something else you mentioned in the talk. What is it and how does it work?
Rami: The idea for Meditations came in 2017 when I played a game called TEMPRES which is a very interesting puzzle game where you clicked the screen and there were these ten bars and every time you clicked one would just fill up. And then occasionally it would just clear out entirely. There’s no tutorial or explanation, you just kind of mess with it asking yourself “How do I get the next bar to fill up without resetting?” You could try to go really fast but after two clicks it goes away or you could go really slow and after three clicks it goes away. You could try a rhythm…
But for five minutes in 2017 I was just playing with this little puzzle trying to figure it out but then the solution was that you had to slow down. The time between each click had to be more than the last one. And when I solved it, it genuinely chilled me out. It was a very special day, and those tiny little five minutes had a real measurable impact and I was just curious “What if, for every day of the year, there was a game that did that?”
So, I wanted to find 365 developers to make 365 games, one for each day of the year. And then I got a cool team of curators and friends together to help out by finding those 365 people, but our main goal is to show that game developers can be everyone and games can be anything.
Some of these games have been made by people who have been in the industry for fifteen years, some have been made by people just finishing their first game, or the Meditations game was their first game. And we tried to pick them from everywhere round the world. They made small, personal, weird, interesting stuff. Some of them are just platformers, puzzle games, very traditional stuff. There’s a game about petting a dog, or one about scattering your mothers’ ashes.
Each of these games is inspired by the day it’s on. You download the launcher, and this will allow you to only play the current game for the current day. Tomorrow, you won’t be able to play todays game until that day next year.
It’s a huge project but its fascinating because you don’t know what tomorrow’s game will be. Sometimes it’s very happy or playful but they can also be weird and abstract.
Richard: It sounds – and not to disrespect the games on there – like a very throwaway experience to relax you for that moment.
Rami: Yep. Or stress you out. That’s the cool thing though, you never know what it’s going to be. The games are meant to be made in a short amount of time so if you decide not to play a game, you’re not hurting the developer. It’s not made to sell, it’s made to be what it is exactly on the day that it is on.
Meditations is available on https://meditations.games/ available for free on PC and Mac with a personal assurance from Rami that these games can be played on lower spec computers. But Rami is also beavering away on another project that is close to heart away from Meditations.
Richard: What is GameDev.World and when exactly will that be happening?
Rami: So, I’ve been going around the world for a decade. I’ve been going to these big conferences round the English-speaking world that say they’re the ‘Big One’, the global games conference. And you know what, they’re all lovely, I love them and they’re great events. And I’ve been going around the world to all these other places, these non-English speaking territories like Russia, Spain, Brazil, Argentina and Egypt where English isn’t the primary spoken language and I would give talks there as well like I did here. I might be the keynote or a big announcement but there would always be this one room with a person I had never heard of doing a talk and they would just fill out the room. Everybody shows up.
But I would go to these talks and not understand a fucking word because I don’t speak Russian, and I was really sad about that. I wanted to know what this person has to say.
I’m also sad about these big multi-national events because there’s a lot of people I know who want to go to them but just can’t afford it. It’s really expensive to get to San Francisco, to be in San Francisco even for somebody from the UK. It’s cost prohibitive.
Imagine for an Egyptian, or a Central African kid or a Cuban kid where you can’t go there. And a lot of these events lock the knowledge that comes from them behind paywalls. That’s where GameDev.World comes in.
The goal is really simple: we’re doing a livestream online games conference. There’s no location. There are 32 talks with 32 speakers in eight difference languages. And we are translating everything into English, Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Russian and French. With that, we cover about 80% of the world’s territories. Not all of them, but most people around the world will speak one of these languages. And it means for the first time in our industry, we have a global games conference. A conference that no matter where you are, where you’re from, no matter what your primary language, there is a relatively high chance of you being able to attend equally to everybody else.
It happens June 21st to June 23rd and we plan to have transcripts available for every talk after the conference in all languages for free. I’ve been working on it for three years now and it will be entirely free. We might accept donations but probably not even that. This is what the future of games conferences should be.
Details of GameDev.World and how to get involved can be found here https://gamedev.world/en/
At this point, my time with Rami was over. I cheekily asked him why none of his stuff was on Xbox and whilst he said he wanted to port at least Nuclear Throne over – aside from a nasty bug on the PlayStation Vita he still wants to fix and has it high up on his priorities – as you can see from everything above, he more than has his hands full so I and other Xbox owners will wait patiently.
Thank you very much to Rami Ismail and everyone at Yorkshire Games Festival for arranging this interview. Rami is a fascinating person and I could have happily spent more time chatting about everything he is doing. You only need to spend five minutes with him to see his passion and true determination to make this industry a better place for everyone. It’s infectious, and I hope one day to sit down with him again in a couple of years’ time to discuss how all the above went on and hear what he has planned next.