Rami Ismail interview: Indie creativity, games and politics, dirty funding and getting back to making games
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Rami Ismail became famous as an ambassador for the indie games industry. He even won an award for his work from the Game Developers Choice Awards in 2018. But he closed his studio Vlambeer in 2020 after 10 years of making indie games with Jan Willem Nijman.
Since that time, he has been a consultant, a public speaker, a curator of talks and more. But he doesn’t have any games to talk about at the moment. During its 10 years as a two-person company, Vlambeer was responsible for making games like Ridiculous Fishing, Luftrausers, and Nuclear Throne.
Now Ismail is advising indies and observing the industry. At the recent Reboot Develop Blue event, he gave a talk on his ideas for surviving the indiepocalypse. We had a freewheeling talk about a number of subjects without any particular focus — kind of like an episode of Seinfeld, but from a very different point of view.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
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Rami Ismail: I’ve obviously been a bit in the background. I’ve mostly been consulting on projects. I’ve been looking at the ecosystem and where people are starting things, where people are building things, and where people are growing. It’s a strange time in the game industry at the moment. There’s quite a bit of opportunity, but also there’s a lot of risk aversion at the moment. Places where there’s not risk aversion tend to be very money-focused. It asks the question, where is the art part of the industry staying, the creative part of the industry?
I’m not going to say we made a mistake, but I think there’s a very particular path that this industry took when indie publishers became the defining part of the industry. The point of indie when it started in 2008, and 2010, that first or second wave of indie, really was this idea of, we don’t want gatekeepers to decide what gets made. We kind of ended up back there. Everything consolidates into smaller sources of power. ID@Xbox decides what gets made. PlayStation Fund decides what gets made. Devolver Digital, Annapurna, Raw Fury, all of them decide what gets made.
I’m a little scared that I see a lot of pitches where I can tell they’re made for a specific publisher, rather than because the developer wants to make it. You see a lot of pitches for Annapurna. “That’s an Annapurna game, isn’t it?” “Yeah, we want to pitch Annapurna.” Well, what if Annapurna doesn’t take it? That’s been a worrying trend I see. Power has consolidated quite significantly. Funding has consolidated quite significantly. There are more places than ever to get funding, but all of them are gatekept by small groups of people.
It’s not just indie publishing. Really, the biggest question, for me anyway—you’ve seen this more than I have, most likely. Right now we’re running into this situation where everybody is making something for a company. People make games for Devolver or Raw Fury. It’s not like the publishers fill the space the developers need. The developers make content that fits the platform or the publisher. It makes sense, but it creates this weird stratified situation. People are designing their games in specific budget ranges, rather than just figuring out what they need to make a game.
As things consolidate, as these gatekeepers gain more power, you get this situation where people make stuff that’s more and more like those things. Effectively the publishers are selling back our own audience to us. In principle, I have nothing against what the publishers are doing. They’re funding games and giving them opportunities. But I worry about the lack of opportunities. We see some examples that are like pseudo-publishers. They’re a funder but they don’t do services. They’re effectively still involved in publishing, I would argue. Some governments are doing grants, but to work with a government you need certain types of games that are properly representative.
There’s this big question that I’m grappling with and that I talk to people about. How do we create a place where people make what they want to make, instead of aiming games at a source of funding? It’s looking at games from a perspective of, what is the creative impetus for what you’re doing, while having healthy business considerations?
GamesBeat: Some people are also thinking of other trends, where you have generative AI and UGC. The combination of all that seems like it’s going to lead to far more games than before coming out. What is the consequence of that?
Ismail: Generative AI is a very interesting topic right now. We can all see how it could be bad. That’s not a hard question. But we can also see how it could be good. That’s not a hard question either. The question is, how do we implement it? I’m sad to say that I don’t have a lot of faith in the tech industry making sure that these things are positive. But there are absolutely uses for generative AI. I’m a game developer. We’ve been using AI for a long time, whether it’s supporting code development or generating where trees go, or writing scripts that operate entire regions of the game semi-intelligently. For me, the idea of having something that generates stuff for you is not a problem. Is it moral? Is it ethical?
But we’re seeing big shifts in what people are doing. We’re seeing interesting games being made with the premise of, what if ChatGPT runs the dialogue? I feel like there have been experiments, even in the indie scene, about AI. Event was an amazing indie game about talking to an AI. You could actually make it more like an AI now. That could be interesting.
What it means economically, though, is that part I’m more scared of. What does it mean for concept artists? What does it mean for writers and narrative designers? All of them I think are generally safe, because again, authorship. The idea of human creativity is currently non-replaceable by AI. But it does mean that we’re seeing a move from being the people who create stuff to being the people who flag whether something is okay or not—becoming content moderators rather than content creators.
The answer, always, is the same. Exceptional work with the right backing will stand out. People with lots of money will stand out. That’s the answer it’s always been. I don’t think that answer will change. Having more games will just push the baseline around. If you look back at the game industry for the last five years and try to describe what the top game of the year is, you’d get it wrong increasingly over time. If you try and predict the next five years, you’re going to get it wrong. This place moves fast. The questions are so big. I don’t think you can predict it.
For me the bigger question is how we’re going to protect this human element. Not because I don’t want AI involved. I like AI. I think AI has potential if managed well, if made to be a positive instead of a negative. But I do think, from where I’m sitting, a lot of the questions people have are about how to do business, how to optimize, how to be more efficient, how to be quicker and faster. Part of me hopes people just keep making genuine and sincere work. That’s been my mission: to help people, no matter where they are, to make sincere and genuine work that represents them. I think we’re doing better than ever, but I’m also scared about the direction things are moving.
GamesBeat: Tim Sweeney of Epic Games believes that indies need to bypass the middlemen’s tech platforms and avoid paying 30% to them.
Ismail: The thing with indies that a lot of people get wrong is that the way indies tend to work, they don’t see problems. They see cracks. That’s where indies go. If you’re in the industry, if you’ve been in the industry for a while, you look at the industry from this top-down perspective. By moving through the layers of the industry you see how the layers relate and how they work together. You get this bird’s-eye view of how it works. As an indie you’re just looking for an in. You’re looking at the places where most of the big players aren’t.
That’s why you get a Vampire Survivors. Nobody was looking at the genre or the art style or making a game very rapidly. That’s why you get people like Xalavier Nelson, who’s just really rapidly creating low-risk, interesting projects. That’s why you get Mike Bithell moving into mid-sized IP. Mike might not be the best example, but you see people moving way into the industry and finding openings that nobody else is looking at. For indies it’s enough for them to have a presence. The biggest challenge that indies face is getting visible enough for people to find them.
When Epic came in, that mostly was good, and also the Steam thing, mostly it was good. A number of documents got published that showed how these ranges are. What are the budgets? What are the buyouts? What kind of funds get involved? That was useful. The rest of, I don’t think anybody actually cares all that much. Higher up in the industry, at the level where people are making the games and trying to figure stuff out, it’s not relevant to a lot of creators. What’s relevant to them is whether it creates an opening that they can move into. I think that’s fine.
GamesBeat: The litigation hasn’t quite opened up yet.
Ismail: There was a really interesting point where there was a bunch of documentation about receiving deals on Epic Game Store with games—with numbers. You could see what Fez got. It showed the numbers for those kinds of deals. That information being not NDA’d anymore, becoming public, makes for a more level playing field. You don’t have to guess anymore. You know what the numbers are. Numbers normally get protected so much because you can keep the playing field un-level.
GamesBeat: Building alternative app stores and the possibility of mentioning that they exist was one of the points Epic won. I wonder if alternative app stores are much of an answer.
Ismail: They’re part of the answer. The problem I’m seeing, like I said, is this consolidation of power and funding. So, more places for funding and power, that’s good. But the other part of that question has to be the audience. You have to be really good at retaining an audience. The Epic Game Store versus Steam thing is ridiculous to watch because everybody would benefit from the competition. But people are still entrenched in the Valve ecosystem. It was a fight for Epic just to say, “We also exist.”
These monopolies or duopolies, a large part of it is just that the audience is loyal to them. That makes it really hard to build a new app store. And as a developer, you can’t just go out and be on every store. You have limited resources and limited time. You’re going to hit the ones where you’re most likely to be successful, and that’s always going to be the biggest one. The alternate ones, if you’re already successful, if you have a little bit of extra time and opportunity, you can look into it. But people don’t often start on the alternate store.
VR was a big thing, obviously. VR is still a big thing. People publishing in VR are making lots of money still, because it is a small market. When it comes to app stores, though? Apple and Android are still going to be your main thing.
GamesBeat: How much does everybody care, or really understand, about the politics around some of this money? The Saudi money, the Chinese money.
Ismail: I think that’s something where the specter of the defaults hangs over everything. A lot of money is U.S. money. A lot of money is taxed in the U.S., and the U.S. does a lot of bad things around the world. We’ve talked about the militarization of game development. We’ve talked about the cultural default in game development. How the U.S. economy benefits the war economy and the war economy benefits from the games economy. These are not new topics. But people have sort of accepted that this is the reality.
If I’m going to be honest with you, I don’t like U.S. money. I also don’t like Saudi money. I also don’t like Chinese money. All money comes with strings attached. When you think about it, it’s very strange for us to say that this money, with these blood-soaked strings, we’re okay with that. But the other ones we’re not. All money that goes through the U.S. is still beholden to U.S. law and U.S. regulation. All that is built to benefit the U.S. economy and the U.S. military. From where I’m sitting, I see very little difference. For all three of these countries, as a Muslim, the biggest difference to me is where they kill Muslims and how they kill Muslims. For me there’s not a major difference here. There’s always blood involved, and it tends to be fairly close blood in my case.
I don’t know. The Saudi money—there being an opportunity for people local to the region to develop games, to get funding from their government and bring talent to the region—yeah, somebody’s going to benefit from that. And they’re terrible people, just like in the U.S. Whether that goes to Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos or whoever runs whatever company, it’s still going to get taxed. It’s still going to get involved in all that. I don’t like that. In China, the same thing. This creates local opportunities in China, in the region, for people to make things and get opportunities that they didn’t have in those regions.
What’s the saying? There’s no ethical consumption under capitalism? I don’t think that means we just can’t participate in capitalism, because otherwise you die.
GamesBeat: Do you think there’s a crack for indie games that are political?
Ismail: Yes and no. I’ve always said that the day I believe that the game industry is a meritocracy is the day where I see a game in which you play a Middle Eastern soldier defending their country from U.S. invaders, made in the Middle East. And that game gets talked about as if it’s a U.S. game about shooting people in the Middle East. Until that happens I don’t believe it’s a meritocracy. We’re bound by U.S. culture. We’re bound by U.S. history. If you make a game like that, I don’t know if you’d be allowed to sell it. Knife kills on U.S. soldiers? Spec Ops got away with it using the mental instability or PTSD sort of angle, but that’s the only thing I can think of that managed to get any sort of attention.
I don’t really believe it’s a meritocracy anyway. The politics you can talk about are relatively defined. They have to fit what is acceptable in the U.S., or do it in a way that the U.S. accepts it. Europe, a little more. European games tend to be a bit more political in general. In South Africa there’s a lot of political games, and in parts of Asia.
GamesBeat: Hendrik Lesser has his Ukraine game.
Ismail: But that’s the thing. That’s another one of those perspectives where the west would approve of that. I want to make very clear, what’s happening in Ukraine is awful. But do you see a game like that made in Palestine, or–
GamesBeat: I guess another question is, do gamers appear to want these kinds of games? They like the Netflix documentaries, but I don’t know if documentary games are what they want.
Ismail: It’s not so much about documentary games or other kinds of games. There are politics involved in games and there’s not really any way around it. It’s because you leave a fingerprint of who you are in any game that you make or touch. The bigger question, if we’re talking about gamers and politics, then why is “gamer” so defined around just two or three demographics? South America has a massively growing gaming population. The Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia, but also the rest of that region, has a tremendously growing population of gamers. China has the largest gaming audience in the world, I think. India has one of the largest audiences, and it’s growing.
We define “gamer,” especially in Western conversations, very much as our audience, the audience that we know. They have specific political leanings because they’re all from the same place. They might be Republican or Democrat or Labour. We have our leanings. But politics are very different. It’s one of those things where—I think getting people to understand that there are more politics, but they just don’t stand a chance in the global gaming market, because that one is Western-controlled.
Look at companies making culturally relevant work in places that aren’t the West. They have to do that by sneaking it in. They can’t just make a NORCO or a Kentucky Route Zero. There are a lot of shortcuts in that. What is an interstate? What does a gas station look like? What does a street look like? How do people talk to each other? How much does a coffee cost? You know all those things, inherently, about the U.S. But if I say, [quotation in Arabic ], nobody knows what that means. It literally means the ring road in Cairo, a ring road in Egypt, and coffee is 25 Egyptian pounds. But nobody would be able to take anything from that except for Egyptians.
There are a lot of things working against people around the world who want to make that kind of politically honest, culturally relevant work. But it’s just that the audience wouldn’t get it. The global audience wouldn’t get it. Games are risky. You need a global audience. You can’t just say, “I’m making this game for Dutch people.” All 20 million of them, of which 30,000 might be interested in your game. You have to aim for the global audience, and that’s what keeps politics such a strange topic. There are accepted politics in games.
GamesBeat: What do you think of the significance of things like the Mario movie, or The Last of Us on HBO, these adaptations that are succeeding and elevating gaming culture into the world’s culture? It was a subculture, and now it’s part of mainstream culture.
Ismail: I think it’s the other way around. I think we are the mainstream culture, and we have been for a while. The world has just taken some time to catch up. Every kid I know plays games. Every kid I know watches Twitch. Every kid I know checks YouTube. Every kid I know wants to be a live streamer. Our politics are gamified. The controversies that start in games bleed over into real-life politics. The biggest political upsets in the world come from weird situations that happen in gaming, these harassment campaigns. We’re writing the playbook for the future. That’s what gaming is. That’s what gaming has been. The world just takes time to catch up.
For me, it’s really interesting. I have to say, I loved The Last of Us, mostly because I think it was the first time in my life I’ve seen the soul of a game transferred into something that isn’t a game. We’ve seen attempts. Okay, we’ll take the story of the game or the characters from a game. What The Last of Us really got right is they took the soul of the game into the series.
It was so interesting to see, as a game designer, what they could do that we cannot. Having Joel’s daughter at the start—in the game, you control her, but it’s a very controlled sequence. Before she goes outside the game takes over and you get into the car with Joel and Tommy and you get out. You can’t go outside, because to keep the tension, we need her to not be attacked, but feel like she’s about to be attacked. But if she’s not attacked, the tension breaks. If she is attacked, she could die, which we can’t have. If she can’t die, there’s no tension. We literally can’t have her be in actual danger.
In the TV series she goes over to the neighbor’s house and gets attacked and runs back out and then Joel steps in. We can’t do that. The perspective shifts, we can’t do that. That entire third episode, we can’t do that. But it also shows the things we can do that movies or TV cannot. We can have a very long sewer level with this building dread and tension, which in a TV series would just be boring. You’re just watching two people walking through a sewer feeling tense for about 15 minutes. They can’t do that. For me, that balance of, we can’t do this, they can’t do that, this is their strength, that’s our strength, that’s been really interesting to me.
I hope to see more of that. I hope to see more of that exploration of what we can and can’t do. I think Remedy did a really interesting experiment with that in Quantum Break back when. Did it work out? Questionable. But it was interesting to see them play to the strengths of the two mediums. Seeing this develop, it made me curious for more of these interactions between games and other things.
GamesBeat: My only worry is that gaming had this subculture, and now it’s the big culture. It brought some of the bad things in from there. A lot of toxicity. It’s all still there, but now it’s going to be part of the world’s culture.
Ismail: It is already. The whole rise of the playbook of online toxicity, you could say it started in games. It started in gaming culture, on the message boards, in the chats, all these places. I think what people forget is that—people always said that gaming is for kids. Well, those kids grow up. The things they learn, the attitudes they have — they grow up. As an industry, we slowly got more aware of that. But a lot of people that made games were kids. When we started we were kids. I was 20. I had no clue about what responsibility or accountability or representation or any of that meant. I thought it was nonsense. Let me just play some games. It’s just a game.
Then you sit in the industry for three or four years and you realize that this is actually important. What we’re doing is important. What we’re doing is defining how kids see the world, and how adults think of playfulness. We define how people see entire regions of the planet. We define what people see as right and wrong, moral and ethical. These things are not completely defined by games, but games are part of that answer.
I’ve always felt that if we accept that we make art, we have to accept that art affects people. That’s the truth of it. I think we ended up very over-defensive because of the relentless and senseless attacks about games making kids violent because they don’t. But does that mean that games can’t be part of kids seeing the world in a violent way? No, I think they can, and I think we need to be responsible about that. I think we’ve had that discussion.
Similarly, how kids look at themes of ethics, morality, sexuality, friendship, masculinity, gender, all of these things, the way people interact, kids get them from their heroes. Back in the day the heroes were TV people. Now they’re game characters. They’re live streamers and content creators. Those are kids’ role models. We’re part of that ecosystem, and we need to take responsibility for that ecosystem. We can’t solve this issue, but we also can’t look away from the issue. This is our responsibility whether we want it or not. If you want to be part of the culture, we have to accept that as creators, as people with voices, we have a responsibility toward it.
GamesBeat: Toxicity is something we have to fight again, even if it doesn’t necessarily get solved.
Ismail: You can fight toxicity, but we can’t define the industry that way. All that will do is, other people will jump into the void. They’ll say we can have no toxicity whatsoever. If you ban everything then someone else will make a different game and go there. We’re game designers. We’re good at nudging. We’re good at creating behavior. We’re good at making sure people check our app once a day. We’re good at making people build rituals and routines. We’re good at getting people to play together in certain ways. This is our job. Our job is affecting behavior and affecting people in certain ways.
This is not unsolvable for us. It’s just a hard one to balance with economic realities. I think we’re doing a better job, but I think we can always do better. I think no one would disagree with that. Well, nobody would disagree that we can do better. I think that some people just define “better” in a very different way than I do. But I think that’s a responsibility that we have.
GamesBeat: Are there any other big things on your mind today?
Ismail: For me, in my personal practice, what I’m doing—I think the biggest thing I’m trying to do is just to see how we can make knowledge in the games industry more structurally accessible. I’m starting to realize that what I do still very much depends on my being there. The consultancy, the support, helping people out. There must be ways of doing this that are more structural, and that are not dependent on me being there. For now, it’s not scalable.
The weird thing about this brand I have, the personal brand, is that people want to talk with me or learn from me about the things that I talk about. I think there’s a lot of that. If you look at the people that people want to learn from, they’re all strong personal brands in games. I’m trying to see if there’s a more structural way of making knowledge more accessible because I really love my consultancy. I love what I do. But also, I get the same question 11 times a day. There must be a way to have that knowledge accessible in a way where people still feel like they got the answer to their questions. I’m evaluating that.
Beyond that, I have a game coming out in the next few months, a fun little project. I’m consulting on a number of projects. It’s interesting for me to see, around the world, what people are working on and the spaces that they inhabit. I’ll continue my little consultancy trip for a while longer, but I do intend to get back to making games.
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