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Gaming is not a meritocracy

Vlambeer's Rami Ismail pokes holes in the notion of cream rising to the top, explains why devs and platforms may believe in it anyway

At last month's GamesIndustry.biz Investment Summit, Vlambeer co-founder Rami Ismail posed questions to Epic Games' David Stelzer and Sergey Galyonkin, seeking details on the Epic Games store that would be most relevant to independent developers. When asked what indie developers looking to make it through Epic's curation process could do, Stelzer's response raised some eyebrows.

"The cream always rises to the top at the end of the day," Stelzer said. "If you make a crappy game, then there are places where you can put crappy games."

Given widespread agreement on the significant challenge of discoverability, the idea of the industry as a meritocracy where "the cream always rises to the top" might not sit well with some creators. GamesIndustry.biz caught up with Ismail the following day at PAX East, and he didn't give the idea much weight.

"It's something a lot of people would like to believe, that just good work would set you apart... That's not how the world works"

"It's something a lot of people would like to believe, that just good work would set you apart," Ismail said. "Because I think a lot of people are doing good work, and it's easy to believe that's all you need. That there's no further parts of life that affect that, like your resources, your upbringing, or anything else that affects that. But it's obviously and pertinently untrue. That's not how the world works.

"The world works with privilege. It works with access, with resources, where you're born, what languages you speak, the amount of money you have, what previous games you've made, the network you have... There are tons of factors that play into whether or not your game will be successful."

Even when there's a game that people think "came out of nowhere" (think Motion Twin's Dead Cells or Mike Bithell's Thomas Was Alone), Ismail noted that the actual story involves creators who've worked for years but simply hadn't had a high profile until their breakthrough game.

"People ask, 'Well isn't that meritocracy?' And no, it means the right person with a good game was in the right place at the right time with the right resources," Ismail said. "But they say only good games rise to the top. And the games that rise to the top tend to be good, but it doesn't mean a game that's good will automatically rise to the top. It's a combination of factors."

He added that an industry that was truly a meritocracy is incompatible with the idea of a hidden gem, or of games that go unnoticed for years but breakthrough on Twitch years later when a popular streamer discovers them.

"One of the reasons it's such a common myth is because a) developers want it to be true, and b) for platforms, distributors, stores, it's an easy way out," Ismail said. "'It's a meritocracy. If your game didn't do well, you have to make a better game next time.'"

Ismail says he and many other developers can see that in the receptions of their own titles. The games a developer is most proud of or believes to be their best don't always line up with the critical or commercial reception they receive. For example, Ismail said one his favorites is Glitchhiker, a Global Gam Jam entry made with five other developers in which everyone who played drew from (and contributed to) the same pool of lives, and which became permanently unplayable after that pool was exhausted. All told, the game existed for less than seven hours.

"Everybody is making bigger games... There's a very clear distinction between the haves and the have nots in the space"

"I think what developers want to do and what players want to play are very different things," Ismail said. "I'm trying to make interesting things around the state of my life, where I'm at, and the work I've done already. So a lot of my work is a response to things that happened in my life."

As he explained, Vlambeer's Luftrausers is a game created largely out of the anger he and the other half of Vlambeer, Jan Willem Nijman, had after their previous title Ridiculous Fishing was cloned.

"We were angry so we made an angry game, because that's how we deal with life," Ismail said. "We write, we make games, we make bad music, we do things to deal with where we are in life, our frustrations and happiness, trying to express things."

Vlambeer's next game, Ultrabugs, is similarly a response to its last game, Nuclear Throne. Where Nuclear Throne was a sprawling project that took four or five years to put together, Ultrabugs is intended to go small, the first of a series of smaller-scope games that will be collected under the Vlambeer Arcade banner.

"Everybody is making bigger games," Ismail said. "Across the space, people are making bigger games, spending more resources, more time, more budget making things that are bigger because it's one of the easiest ways of standing out right now. There's a very clear distinction between the haves and the have nots in the space."

Even in the indie space, production values are increasing, studios are growing, and people are devoting more resources into polished visuals, top-notch voice actors, and other resource-intensive pursuits.

"I've seen that race before," Ismail said. "Because AAA did the exact same thing... I just want to focus on [interesting games]. I just want to make some smaller stuff, and I hope maybe if we can prove there's an audience for that, that developers who make work like that feel encouraged to try really polishing a game like that up and releasing it. Because right now the market is just really leaning toward bigger."

Ismail has heard plenty of stories of developers who risked it all to make their dream project. Now he wants to hear a different kind of story.

"We're just more interested in how can a studio keep their head above water without having to blow everything on it," Ismail said. "That's how this should work. You should be able to make interesting games you're really proud of that don't require you to sell your house, or get a second mortgage, or get rid of your healthcare. But those are the stories we keep telling. We just want to tell the story of, 'We're a studio in a good spot. We have a great audience. We have a community. We're making games, doing it without betting the bank, and we're doing it in a way that we're still making work we're very proud of that we think our fans will like.'"

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Brendan Sinclair avatar

Brendan Sinclair

Managing Editor

Brendan joined GamesIndustry.biz in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot in the US.