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14 - 16 April 2021

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Opportunity knocks: Vlambeer and co. on finding the indie advantage

Find strength in adversity say Ismail, Hunt and Griffith

Nuanced commentary is hardly the nature of the internet. "Looks like a steaming pile of dog shit," commented one YouTube user on the trailer of Nicoll Hunt's Fist of Awesome. "I hope you die horribly in a car crash."

As disparaging and jarringly offensive as such a reaction may be, comments like this can actually serve as an opportunity to fledging indie developers. Indeed, if there was one theme running through the Indie Survival Guide track at Pocket Gamer Connects on London's Southbank earlier this month, it was that developers getting lucky and steaming to success is a misnomer. Developers make their own luck. It was Hunt who delivered the keynote, detailing the secrets of his success to date and warning against faith in the vicissitudes of circumstance.

For Hunt, such 'luck' stemmed from making a few key decisions. First up, he wanted Fist of Awesome not only to be a hit, but also to make some money - a goal many indies are seemingly reluctant to admit. Key to that goal, he claimed, was not to be blindly loyal to just one platform or sector.

"Fist of Awesome was a financial success, but only because it was on a huge raft of platforms that kept the revenues flowing in," Hunt said quite plainly, urging developers to use the engines and tools at their disposal to target as many viable platforms as possible. "If I'd have focused on one platform or API, it wouldn't have been."

"There's a theory that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at everything, but I don't think you need to be an expert at everything to succeed at life"

Nicoll Hunt

Hunt, who had previously worked at the likes of Codemasters on the Colin McRae series and on APB for Realtime Worlds, actually left the games industry in a professional capacity before the release of Fist of Awesome to work in the film industry. He still made games in his spare time, but it was Fist of Awesome that brought him back to the fold in a more official capacity.

"There's a theory that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at everything, but I don't think you need to be an expert at everything to succeed at life," continued Hunt. "There is merit in failure - just look at Arnold Schwarzenegger' acting career."

But how can you try and avoid failure? Tip number two from Hunt was to make sure there's a story about your game you can tell the press - don't become an also-ran. For Hunt, that was making a game about wooing his real life girlfriend just in time for valentine's day, which eventually morphed into Fist of Awesome. Just by adding a human element to the story behind the development of the game, Fist of Awesome immediately stood out in the inboxes of the press, eager to tell an interesting tale.

Sometimes, however, the story the press is chasing isn't always a positive one, at least on the surface. Vlambeer's Rami Ismail, who followed Hunt on stage, has a whole host of experience of dealing with bad news, thanks to the studio's very public trials and tribulations with clones. As you might expect, the games media has been eager to talk to Ismail and co. ever since Ninja Fishing first moved in on Ridiculous Fishing's territory back in 2011.

Even the darkest of days can be turned into an opportunity - a mantra Vlambeer followed to the letter, deciding to open up to the press rather than close down. "We were a small studio that had overworked itself for a year and a half, so we had no emotional endurance left because, well, we had overworked for a year and a half," opened Ismail.

Fist of Awesome

Fist of Awesome

"Even though we got really down and didn't really work on anything for about six to eight months, we decided to make the most of it. Ridiculous Fishing getting cloned was actually interesting to the press, so we decided to start talking to them," he continued. "The whole idea of us going to the press was something we did because we were upset, and it went pretty well - The New York Times wrote an article about it."

Vlambeer didn't set out talking to the media with the express intention of hitting The New York Times, but the fact the studio was so open in talking about its situation - despite not exactly being a positive story - meant that journalists who had no real interest in games wanted to reach out to them. It was, Ismail suggested, a "human story" rather than a games story.

"That kind of thing is way more interesting for someone like the New York Times, so we realised we actually had a huge opportunity," detailed Ismail, before admitting that all the press did come with a down side. Vlambeer didn't want Ridiculous Fishing to forever be known as 'the game that got cloned, which required the studio to shift strategy pre-release. "About ten days before launch, we launched something called Byrdr - an Alternate Reality Game (ARG), along with a Vine clip of the game's trailer, all before launching the trailer itself. We didn't mention the cloning at all."

"We needed Ridiculous Fishing to be a creative achievement, to show the industry that if someone clones you're game, it's always going to be inferior, because they don't know the game you're making - it's going to be soulless"

Rami Ismail

So, how do you turn something terrible into something wonderful? "We needed Ridiculous Fishing to be a creative achievement, to show the industry that if someone clones you're game, it's always going to be inferior, because they don't know the game you're making - it's going to be soulless," summarised Ismail.

"The lesson is, find the opportunity. When you're an indie, you kinda go along with 'fuck it, lets see what happens', but we learned that, whatever happens there's an opportunity there. You don't know what it is, but you just have to be prepared to look for it. Learn to not take everything that is a negative as a negative - you can spin anything to make you feel better."

Finding opportunity in adversity is something indie developer PR specialist Natalie Griffith also threw her weight behind. Her presentation on serendipity laid out how whole chunks of her career in recent years have been governed by chance encounters, often at events she almost didn't show her face at. One thing leads to another, she detailed, and a friend of a friend of a friend you met at a drinks meet up somewhere can soon become a client, making you money. And it's not just real life encounters that can forge important connections, either, with Griffith going on to stress "the importance of paying attention on Twitter.

TerraTech

TerraTech

"Most of us follow enough people that you could spend your entire existence following your news feed - being a slave to it is a mistake, but when something pops up that's unexpected, make sure you jump on it and make the most of that opportunity," said Griffith, noting that she'd previously noticed a Kotaku tweet about games at the Radius festival, which triggered her to push a game she'd been working with - TerraTech. The end result was TerraTech was named game of the show just a day after its Kickstarter campaign had been launched, boosting early support.

The trick, Griffth contended, is not to over-evaluate the pros and cons of leaping on an opportunity too much, whether that'd replying to an interesting tweet that lands in your feed or, even more importantly, debating whether you can afford to go to an event or not.

"You can't always guarantee what you're going to get out of event, but try not to get too salesman about it - you don't need to be 'right, I've got four meetings lined up, and one of them will end up in a contract and blah blah blah'," Griffith continued. "Don't get too hung up on this. There is the potential to make your own luck if you pay attention to the opportunities that are presented to you and the people that you work with."

Success also requires you to adopt a bit of a 'f*ck you' attitude to all your doubters, contended Hunt. Self belief is half the battle. "F*ck anyone who says you can't make a game by yourself. F*ck anyone who says you need professional marketing success. F*ck anyone who says you can't achieve your dreams," Hunt concluded, to cheers of approval from the crowd.

"F*ck anyone who says you can't make a game by yourself. F*ck anyone who says you need professional marketing success. F*ck anyone who says you can't achieve your dreams"

Nicoll Hunt

"Do it all yourself and show yourself what you can achieve, and be a one man band. You want to create relationships with people rather than come across as a faceless entity, because you're not. That's the advantage you have over these big corporations - you're an individual."

That sentiment is shared by Ismail, who concluded his talk by stressing he doesn't regret the studio's decision to be open with the press about Ridiculous Fishing and its clone - despite the fact the firm's games have been cloned since.

"Being scared of being cloned is not helpful," he argued. "The idea of being secretive, holding things back and not talking to the press is not a good thing. We started talking about [our next game] Luftrausers because we owned that idea - we went into full press mode. Luftrausers got cloned, by a game called SkyFar, but we'd already spoken about Luftrausers so much people knew it was ours."

If you want an example of just how honest Ismail is prepared to be, his admission that him and Vlambeer's other leading man JW aren't the best friends many perceive them to be served as the perfect evidence. "A lot of people think that me and JW are aligned - we're not, we don't like each other," concluded Ismail to a spot of laughter from those in attendance. "I don't invite him to my birthday party and he doesn't invite me to his, but it's that collision that makes Vlambeer happen."

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14 - 16 April 2021

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