Indie is the new punk - Vlambeer
Rami Ismail talks about how to solve discoverability problems, downplays YouTube payola worries
During his D.I.C.E. Summit 2014 presentation, Vlambeer's Rami Ismail talked about the debt he owes to FlashPunk, a freely available development tool his two-man studio used for its first game four years ago. Speaking with GamesIndustry International after the presentation, Ismail gushed not just about the utility itself, but its name as well.
"I think that name is so telling for what it truly is," Ismail said. "What's happening is so close to punk rock or hip-hop. What's happening in the games industry is so similar."
When asked if he would put the indie scene closer to Sex Pistols or Green Day on the punk timeline, Ismail leaned toward the former. The indie gaming movement is just getting underway he said, having just seen its first wave of creators that people identify with. However, it has also already started to go mainstream.
"There's no way to go around indie development any more. It is in your top 10 lists. It is in your podcasts. It's on IGN and GameSpot."
"We've got our Jonathan Blow, our Phil Fish, those names," Ismail said. "But we've got this really divided industry at the moment, where a large part of the people who play games just know FIFA and Madden, or racing and shooting games. And that's fine. There's no problem with that. But more and more, they'll start to realize that there is more. That's the biggest change that's happening right now. There's no way to go around indie development any more. It is in your top 10 lists. It is in your podcasts. It's on IGN and GameSpot. It's everywhere."
And it's not just important because gamers know these games exist. Ismail said it's important because people who would like to make games know they exist. They know that it's possible to put together a Super Meat Boy or a Ridiculous Fishing with essentially two people, which will only encourage more people to give the field a shot. That expansion of the development pool has been made possible in part by the explosion of mobile gaming.
"Mobile made gaming more of a global phenomenon than it was," Ismail said. "Because sure, a lot of people played games, but they were our type of people. They were people who really liked video games. Video games started with just mathematicians being able to play games. Then they made tools that made it accessible enough for people to make more games that were more accessible to more people, and this just keeps happening over and over. And now we're at a point where gaming is starting to get everywhere."
That's part of the reason the globe-trotting Ismail makes a point of speaking in emerging territories, and advocates making development tools freely accessible. Beyond owing his own success to free tools, Ismail said bringing down the barriers to entry in game development "allows for different types of games that could not exist otherwise."
Ismail pointed to Mahdi Bahrami as one example. The 21-year-old Iranian developer's game Farsh--a puzzle game centered around unrolling Persian rugs--was a finalist in the 2013 Independent Games Festival's student showcase. He's back again this year with another finalist in the showcase, Engare, a Persian word describing an incomplete pattern.
"The biggest challenge we're facing right now is how to deal with this major increase of games being made. How do we make sure that any good game that gets made gets the attention it deserves?"
"Those games could not have been made by me," Ismail said. "They could not have been made by somebody from England or the US, or Japan, or any other territory. They could only be made by someone that has a different cultural perspective, a different background. That is what excites me about video games, to see boundaries pushed and see how that feeds back into this larger thing, which can then use that new perspective to make better things."
But as many have already realized, the rush of new blood into the industry also creates problems with visibility.
"The biggest challenge we're facing right now is how to deal with this major increase of games being made," Ismail said. "How do we make sure that any good game that gets made gets the attention it deserves? And I think we are making, interestingly enough, out-of-industry improvements on that."
Specifically, Ismail said the rise of "Let's Play" videos on YouTube has added a more personal touch to discoverability, helping interesting or weird games find larger audiences. And while he acknowledged recent concerns with the practice of paying YouTube personalities for uncritical coverage, Ismail said he still holds out hope for the form because the YouTubers he interacts with are as stubborn as he is, and likely to turn their noses up at any such offers.
"Sure, there will be some that are open to sponsorships, but that doesn't change anything because sponsorships happen in the industry everywhere," Ismail said. "It is business for a lot of people. And if it becomes business, then people who are business-minded will pay business money to get their business advantage. A lot of indies will not."
"That's my worry at this point, that indie is getting so professional, so big, that we're actually standing in the spotlight of a lot of smaller independent studios."
But given that discoverability and standing out from the crowd is still the biggest challenge facing indies today, does there ever become a point where having barriers to development is actually desirable?
"As a studio that wants to earn money, the answer would be yes," Ismail said. "Sure, I would want barriers around this Steam thing so that only my game can get attention. But that is not what I feel. What I feel is that if there is some guy or girl out there like me who wants to make games, then the last thing I ever want is for Vlambeer to be in the way of that. That's my worry at this point, that indie is getting so professional, so big, that we're actually standing in the spotlight of a lot of smaller independent studios."
So far, Ismail's solution to that problem has been by trying to share that spotlight with other developers, calling attention to their projects where he can. Ironically, in trying to bring down barriers and push the industry as close as possible to a meritocracy (something he sees as an unfortunately unattainable goal), Ismail has been acting as a sort of gatekeeper, having to pick and choose between the projects he calls attention to.
"One of the weird situations we have right now is that since nobody is really being a gatekeeper for indie developers, indie developers are the gatekeeper for indie developers," Ismail said. "There are Kickstarters that are made because some big influential indie picks up on it and tweets about it, and then everybody spreads it and it goes from $138 to $20,000 in a few hours. So we are the gatekeepers because there are no alternatives to that. And I desperately want an alternative. I feel weird about being a gatekeeper in an industry I'm a part of. This should not be our [function]. We need more Brandon Boyers, we need more people who are sort of inside, but also sort of outside. We need more voices that people can connect to."