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Indie is the new punk - Vlambeer

Indie is the new punk - Vlambeer

Wed 19 Feb 2014 3:53pm GMT / 10:53am EST / 7:53am PST
Development

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."

13 Comments

Steve Bauman
Senior Designer

4 1 0.3
I totally remember when Darby Crash and Johnny Rotten gave speeches at music industry conferences in the late 70s about how they were totally punk. It's totally the same thing.

Punk is a terrible analogy, since "real" punk was never commercially successful and a lot of punk was scream for cultural and political change (nevermind that punk from the UK was mostly on major labels and charted, versus the more underground scenes in the US). And hip hop isn't perfect because it's a mix of people who want to do anything to make money (and promote that lifestyle) and ones who have more artistic ambition.

Posted:5 months ago

#1

Tim Carter
Designer - Writer - Producer

550 268 0.5
"Punk is a terrible analogy, since "real" punk was never commercially successful..."

No shit, Sherlock.

That's the whole thing about indie anythiing... To not be in it for the money. To push the boundaries, etc.

The things that are pioneering and different now, though not commercially huge, provide the patterns for what becomes commercially successful later on. That's the way of the world.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Tim Carter on 19th February 2014 8:18pm

Posted:5 months ago

#2

Steve Bauman
Senior Designer

4 1 0.3
"That's the whole thing about indie anythiing... To not be in it for the money. To push the boundaries, etc."

Most indies are probably trying to make a living, though, which means they're in it for the money up to a point.

Regardless, that doesn't strike me as the kind of indie he's actually referring to, though he'd like to think he is. While some indie stuff pushes boundaries--though a lot of it also apes past classics--it's not like they're handing out their cassettes to kids on the street in front of clubs for free. They're selling them on Steam and XBLA and PSN, and making very real money.

Assuming we're talking about that side of indie gaming and not, say, all of the stuff that's been going on at places like Newgrounds for a very long time, or is being released on personal websites. Super Meat Boy, for example, isn't some rough demo; it's a produced, polished product that was released on major platforms, that was born out of a version released on Newgrounds. It's the major label debut of the former punk band. Whether it's still punk or not is for purists to argue about.

Posted:5 months ago

#3

Alfonso Sexto
Lead Tester

767 574 0.7
This is something we were discussing last week in during morning coffee time. Mobiles, Internet and Steam's Green-light have allowed a lot of people to self publish. But you encounter the same problem music faced a decade and a half ago; too many projects, too many games, same number of customers actually interested on paying for them.

Sounds cruel, but it kinda is a natural selection in some cases. Sadly, it doesn't always work that way. There are a good number of original an talented projects that fall apart while "flappy Bird clone #4.575" gets 3 million downloads.

Posted:5 months ago

#4

Rami Ismail
Business & Development Guy

1 2 2.0
Steve Bauman, people that make the distinction between "real" indie and indie are the same people that'd make a distinction between "real" punk and punk. In that case, "real" indie was never commercially viable, so that makes the analogy strong rather than weaker. It's just a silly distinction. "Real" punk rock artists also needed to feed themselves, you know, and it's not as if no punk rock band ever made money.

As for hip hop, the hip hop analogy comes in with the turntable - with technological democratisation. Our 'Game Maker' and 'Unity' is the equivalent of the turntable for music - tools that enabled people to make their own things and move on to make their own tools for more people to use. I spoke about that at the DICE Summit, that talk is available online. I'd also recommend Shawn Allan's IndieCade talk on that.

Alfonso Sexto, that's absolutely a problem we're dealing with as an industry. Curation is one of the largest problems in our industry - and with the increased proliferation of development tools comes a higher number of games. With more games comes less discoverability. It's something we'll have to figure out.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Rami Ismail on 20th February 2014 5:12pm

Posted:5 months ago

#5

Murray Lorden
Game Designer & Developer

199 72 0.4
Great stuff Rami!

I've been thinking about the "punk" element of indie games for a few years now, and I emphasised that "being in a band" vibe to making games with my first indie game "Rad Skater Apocalypse" for iOS. I even went around my local Melbourne suburbs putting up band-style posters of my game, which emphasised the hand-made "zine-style" aesthetic and themes of the game.

Rad Skater Apocalypse Boom! (free on iOS for iPad and iPhone)
https://itunes.apple.com/au/app/rad-skater-apocalypse-boom!/id623187850?mt=8

I think the analogies between small devs and small bands are really strong... namely that a group have bonded together with common tastes and goals, and they're banding their forces together to try to take their passion to the world stage.

And that the means of production and distribution are now accessible to anyone with a computer and some basic technologies - where inventiveness and effort can allow your work to rise and shine alongside products that cost millions of dollars to promote and market.

Posted:5 months ago

#6

Murray Lorden
Game Designer & Developer

199 72 0.4
One of my street posters lasted about 6 months, which was awesome - watching it age over time.
I'd hand water-colored the colors onto black and white posters to save money, and the colors did some cool stuff over several months of rain. :)
http://muzboz.blogspot.com.au/2012/07/muzboz-and-rad-skater-apocalypse-in-age.html

I finally watched some guys put a new poster there, after mine had finally fallen down, and I happened to be walking past at the time, and heard them talking about my poster, because they all remembered it! (Highlight of my game development career. Hehe).

Posted:5 months ago

#7

Murray Lorden
Game Designer & Developer

199 72 0.4
Regarding the whole discussion of "what's indie?", and "indies are in it for the money", you can debate it until the cow's come home.

All I have to say on that is that FUGAZI are one of the greatest examples of a "punk" band - they created their own record label, they toured seriously for decades, they made many great albums, they had integrity and a strong sense of what concepts and messages they wanted to discuss and promote in their music, and they weren't so much "in it for the money" as they were "managing a business with enough acumen to sustain their efforts in the present and into the future.

Their aesthetic was "punk" (or "hardcore"), it was how they stylistically chose to express themselves. Their politics and processes were also punk in style.

It is true that some bands (and some indie game developers) work with the "aesthetic" of punk / indie to try to make monetarily successful music and games. Some are more focused on simply making enough to sustain their work, others are more focused on maximising profits. It's a sliding scale, and it's hard to define exactly where to draw lines along that scale.

It's certainly interesting to think about what criteria could be devised, beyond which an indie band or game dev team cut themselves off from being indie. But I dare say it might be impossible to make such a definition.

Posted:5 months ago

#8

Bruce Everiss
Marketing Consultant

1,692 594 0.4
Punk was a fairly narrow musical genre.

Indie game development is the exact opposite. It is an explosion in creativity.
This is a consequence of the low barriers of entry to the market after decades of it being suppressed by high barriers to entry.

A true Indie has full creative freedom. A mega publisher could (should?) set up small Indie teams and let them get on with it.

Posted:5 months ago

#9

Tom Keresztes
Programmer

632 239 0.4
A true Indie has full creative freedom. A mega publisher could (should?) set up small Indie teams and let them get on with it.
The mega-publisher's powers-that-be are much better at knowing what makes a good game.

Posted:5 months ago

#10

Gary LaRochelle
Digital Artist/Game Designer

58 51 0.9
The mega-publisher's powers-that-be are much better at knowing what makes a good game.
But are less likely to experiment with new ideas. They stick to proven formulas (sequels).

Posted:5 months ago

#11

Joe Winkler
trained retail salesman

162 1 0.0
Indie is already "used" as a marketing tool for big companys. Take a look at "FarCry: Blood Dragon". It is essentially a "indie" kind of idea, maybe it was originally brought up by a few. But playing through the game and watching the credits (wich took about 10 minutes to look through) shows that it's just another midpriced-budget arcade game by a big company.

Indie turns out to be more and more a "brand" than just a symbol for independet developers. And that's quite a shame.
For me it still stands for the creativity of modders and young programmers. But the big ones will use that word more and more untill it's just another genre.

Modern Indy titles could be (hope not) as much punk as the latest "Green Day" albums (pop? easy listening?).

Posted:5 months ago

#12

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