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Vlambeer's Rami Ismail: ID@Xbox is a "strong move", but "I still like Sony better"

We talk to 50% of indie developer Vlambeer about Xbox and PlayStation, Nintendo and Steam, VR, sales culture and the golden age of indie gaming.

  • Text: Mike Holmes
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When we sit down with Vlambeer's Rami Ismail, it's the morning after we talked politics and gaming over Pizza in a restaurant in Birmingham. During our interview we covered many of the same topics of conversation as those put to rights the night before, along the way discussing things such as the state of indies in the console market, and the plummeting price of PC games.

It's a frank conversation, and although Rami was still tired from his recent trip to America for the GDC, he still finds time to talk to us at length about working with Sony and Microsoft, offers his thoughts on Steam and virtual reality, and explains to us why he believes we're now living in a golden age for indie games.

We started off talking about his recent experiences of working with Sony. Off the back of the recent release of Luftrausers on PS Vita, the man from Vlambeer had plenty of complimentary things to say about the platform holder, including a nice anecdote about how the game was signed up.

"We did the project [Super Crate Box] because the guy that we were talking to, Shahid [Ahmad], we felt that he cared, right?! And that's unique, you don't get that that often in the industry and especially not with the larger companies, that you genuinely feel that this person knows your work, and cares about your work, and wants your work to exist on their platforms."

"We worked with them on Super Crate Box mobile and we had a good experience with them. So we were visiting London and Shahid and us ended up talking a bit, and we were actually in a pretty similar situation to here [we're sitting in a beer garden], and he asked us if we had any other games, so we said we were working on an airplane game called Luftrausers. So he said "Ok" and he grabbed a coaster and he started writing the name of the game on the coaster, and he said "what do you need?" "Well, we haven't really thought about it, but yeah, sure, how about we want some marketing and we want some of this and some of that, and we want a PlayStation dev kit and a PlayStation Vita dev kit. And he just wrote all the things down and then he said: "And I want Luftrausers". We were like "Ok" and then he said "sign here". So we signed the game on a coaster, and then when I got back the dev kits were already there and we got the full contract to sign.

"So that was the way we started working with Sony. That is exactly how we want to do business. It's not the whole dancing with contracts and spending time on that sort of stuff. We want to get to the point, which is: we want to make games and they want to get games to their players. That's what the games industry is about for me, and that's what it's about for them."

We asked if he thought the studio and Sony started working together at the right moment, given their recent push into the indie space:

"So we were there exactly at the right time, with the right game, and we talked to the right people, and that just sort of happened. Or actually the right people talked to us I guess. These things are waves right, they're not a static thing. The field changes, new consoles come out, new platforms come out, the industry shifts, and sometimes you're in the right spot at the right time, and that definitely helped us.

"But I think in the end it also really helped Sony because you look at the Vita right now, and that thing was declared dead. I mean it's still not the best-selling console in the world, but it's got a pretty happy following of indie game enthusiasts. And to be honest if anyone's going to ask me where I play indie games at the moment, it's going to be PC or Vita, for me, that's where I play my games."

You can't talk about Sony and PlayStation 4 without mentioning Microsoft and Xbox One. While Rami wasn't able to offer the same amount of flattering comments, he did offer a positive opinion on ID@Xbox, the platform holder's indie development program.

"So we signed up for ID@Xbox before it was announced, so Vlambeer was one of the first studios that were reached out to, and we've been dealing with Chris Charla who is the head of ID@Xbox, and he's a wonderful guy," he explained. "He is another one of those people that you know he genuinely cares and he really wants this to succeed. I think Microsoft has some catching up to do, but I think with ID@Xbox, to be honest... to be honest, the Xbox One, the fact that it's even a viable competitor in the console market right now is a major victory for Microsoft, because E3 [2013] is going to go into the marketing history books as one of the biggest disasters in PR, ever, in any product category, ever. And then the way they turned that around, and still made Xbox One a viable platform, and a thing that people want and that people support, is going to go into the history books of marketing as a major victory for a company.

"And I think ID@Xbox is a really clever move at exactly the right time, and what Microsoft did really smartly was they branded it. ID@Xbox is an actual program with intent to help indie developers out. Indie developers get two dev kits and stuff like that. This is not different to what Sony does, ID@Xbox is not different to what Sony does, but Microsoft branded it."

Ismail then went on to explain that, although it's a step in the right direction for Microsoft, the scheme is still far from perfect:

"Microsoft needed to catch up, right?! And they needed to do that desperately, and they did that well. And I just mentioned [earlier in the interview] that they're transparent about their process. I would be able to get 100% behind ID@Xbox if that were completely true, but it is not. Microsoft has one rule that Sony does not - and we've been talking to them about that, and we've been trying to convince them that they shouldn't have it - something called launch parity. It effectively means that if your game launches on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Vita before it launches on Xbox One, you're not allowed to launch. You have to get an exception for that.

"I want ID@Xbox to succeed, so I want them to get rid of that clause. I want to make sure that indie developers go with the platform first because they like the platform, or in most cases they will probably still manage to release simultaneously, but I just don't want any studio to get in any big trouble because of launch parity. And it's such a simple rule to drop... they would literally just have to say "you know what, you can launch on any platform in any order. You're independent and you get to make your own choices". That's all we want, we want to make our own choices.

"It's a strong move by Microsoft. I think they executed it really, really well. It's surprising to see a first iteration of anything be as good as ID@Xbox is. I think Chris Charla has gathered a really good team around him. I still like Sony better."

Conversation then moved onto the third major platform holder: "Nintendo is an interesting company," Rami said. "They have roots that are unlike the other companies. The biggest problem with Nintendo at the moment is A, Most of their consoles don't have middleware, and B, they are not quite willing to give out dev kits to developers. They're willing to loan them for a limited time..."

"We've been talking to them about getting our games on their platform, and we might actually be pretty close to seriously talking about that, but it's a weird situation to realise that Nintendo still looks at the world the way it was five years ago...

"Back in the day, being on the consoles was a major advantage, right?! It was an additional platform you could launch, and developers sort of needed that, right?! Nowadays we're in a world where the majority of your revenues are going to come from Steam, like it's always going to come from Steam (with small exceptions)... When [developers] commit to a platform, when we commit to a console launch, we're basically committing months of life to get a game to work on another platform, and then seeing a really, really tiny return on that usually... We're not talking about the honour of being able to develop for a platform any more, we're talking about the convenience of also launching on a platform. It's not so much that they're doing us a favour, as developers are doing platforms a favour. And I know that's a really big statement to make, but that's the reality of how things are."

As mentioned at the beginning, we also discussed the state of Steam, sales culture, Early Access and Kickstarter, virtual reality and the overall state of the industry. One of the last points made was probably one of the most interesting.

"Pricing is a problem, it's an interesting problem. Kickstarter is wonderful, it's also problematic. Steam is great, it also creates a monopoly on PC. What Sony is doing is wonderful, a lot of big indies now have access to a console platform - it also means that smaller indies are easier to overlook because you already have great indie games on Sony, so how do you get the smaller ones in there? What Microsoft is doing is wonderful, but they have launch parity. What Nintendo is doing is kind of weird, but it's getting better.

"Everything has two sides. And the thing is, the industry is constantly shifting. Things are changing, things are getting better, they're getting worse. The power that we as independent developers have is that we're small. We're nimble, we can change. We can change with the currents, we can change against the currents, we can make things happen, we can be the first people to jump in on something. That adaptability is such a big part of why indie games are interesting...

"Whatever happens to the industry, my hope is that there will always be independent developers that do crazy stuff. And as long as that's true, I can't get that worried about the state of the industry. We're in a golden age for indie games."

We've recently reviewed Luftrausers, and we got hands-on with an early build of Nuclear Throne (we've also been playing quite a bit of Super Crate Box on the Vita - alas there's no review, but we can give it a thumbs up approval if you're wondering). We look forward to seeing what the studio has lined up for us next. The full 40 minute interview can be seen below.