Ladies and gentlemen, it seems that Fall has well and truly fallen, and Summer has been relegated to but a flickering memory from a dream of eons past. Seasons change, people change, but the Sunday Sidebar still stands strong. This week I continued my whistle-stop tour of Europe by teleporting to Utrecht in The Netherlands, where I caught up with Rami Ismail and Jan Willem Nijman of Vlambeer. These guys work tirelessly on a impossible number of projects at any one time. Read on to find out which of their current games appeals to you most!
Who are you and what do you do? How many are on the Vlambeer team?
I’m Rami Ismail & I take care of programming and business. My fellow Vlambeer is Jan Willem Nijman – he takes care of the game design. We’re a two-man-strong indie studio from the Netherlands. Our workdays basically consist of the two of us bitching at each other for six hours, whether it is about the music JW is playing, or about the way ‘that one thing’ influences ‘that other thing’ in our game.
How did you get into videogames development? What is your personal history?
For me, games became my life when I was still pretty young. When I was six we had this MS-DOS computer that came with a floppy disc with a programming tool called QBASIC. I wouldn’t have given that any attention if it weren’t for GORILLAS.BAS: a file full of code that – when run through QBASIC – would give you a game of throwing explosive bananas at other gorillas. Curiosity got the better of me and I started changing things in the code – which would result in changing things in the game.
When I inevitably broke the game, I searched for another copy relentlessly. Luckily, someone had a copy of the file for handy for me. From that point on, I’ve been steadily learning how to code. I was involved in some space-sims, where I got involved with business and marketing too. Everything sort of came together when I went to game design college. I met one particular game designer that I really disliked because he focused on making short, weird games – but we both hated college, so we started talking. Obviously, that designer was JW and at some point, he showed me Crates From Hell. We decided to drop out.
“We don’t really care about niches or target audiences.”
Your studio is only just two years old last month, yet you seem to have so many projects running at once. Are you still finding your niche?
We don’t really care about niches or target audiences. We make the games we want to make and we trust that this, exactly, is why our fans like us. Don’t get us wrong – we’ll go out of our way to do things for our fans, but we won’t design games for them. We make those games because we feel they should be made and because they’d be fun or interesting to make.
We work on so many things at a time that often, even we wonder why we do it. It would be easier to just work on just one thing – but while it’s seriously tiring at times, we’d quickly get bored of working on one thing at once. We’ve tried moving towards single-project planning before, but that failed in hilarious ways.
At the Megabooth, the Vlambeer booth was notable for having not one but four games on display. How is development coming along on them?
Development is going pretty well! LUFTRAUSERS is our main project – it’s a dogfighting game about making you feel like the best pilot in the world. It’s getting a lot of attention and recognition, which is great – we’re having tons of fun working on it. Ridiculous Fishing for iOS is a fishing game about fishing with guns. It’s almost done and we’re looking forward to wrapping that up after two stormy years of work. The other projects were GUN GODZ – our first person shooter about gangster rap and of course, Super Crate Box – which released on Vita just this week during Super Crate Box month. For the Super Crate Box month, we’ve also announced a new, secret version of the game called Super Bread Box. The Super Crate Box musician released a whole new version of the soundtrack. It’s pretty amazing.
Wow. Which begs the question: Which of the projects are you most enjoying right now? I mean, every parent has a favorite child.
At this point it’s probably LUFTRAUSERS. There’s just something about flying around and shooting things that is instantly gratifying – and that feeling is something that we put a lot of work and effort into. We sincerely like Ridiculous Fishing, but that project has just been less fun to work on after the cloning case happened. We’re still wrapping it up, and we’re still extremely proud of the game – but the pleasure of working on it has just been soured a bit for us. Ask again in three months and it’ll be one of those prototypes we’re jamming on right now.
Why did you decide to release Super Crate Box for free on Steam?
First of all, Super Crate Box had always been free, so we were dedicated to bringing it to Steam for free. Obviously, putting a game on Steam for free earns nobody anything, so it took us some time to convince them to put the game up on there. We’re extremely grateful that Steam gave in.
On launch, we decided to test Steam’s claim that their best marketing tool is that little popup that says ‘Your friend is now playing [Whichever Game]’. We staged a media blackout; didn’t mention the launch and waited to see whether anyone would pick up on it. Two days after the launch of the game, the news was all over the internet. We like to think Steam knows what they’re doing in regards to pricing and marketing.
“Indie MEGABOOTH is such a great example of what makes indie strong: the general sense of cooperating instead of competing.”
How is the development community in The Netherlands? Do you interact much with developers in your locality?
We rent a tiny office in a building of thirty-some other developers – a business center of sorts called the Dutch Game Garden. Vlambeer has always been about creating an indie community in the Netherlands, so we’re involved in organizing a lot of local events ranging from Indie Meetups to Local Multiplayer-themed evenings. From time to time, we’ll be involved in organizing game jams (like recently 7DFPS or soon, Fuck This Jam) or giving seminars or workshops to aspiring students. We think community is a big part of what makes indie capable of existing, so we put a lot of effort in creating a sustainable indie community in our home country.
How was the Indie Megabooth for you?
Overwhelming. We were showcasing four games and running a merchandise store, basically with just me running the booth and helping out people with all of the games at once while giving interviews. The team that does the merchandise, Level Up, helped out a bit at the booth every now and then – if they hadn’t been there, we’re not sure I’d have survived. Like previous time at PAX East, though, the Indie MEGABOOTH is such a great example of what makes indie strong: the general sense of cooperating instead of competing.
Just the fact that some of the most interesting, novel and creative games are gathered in one spot drives a tremendous amount of people to games they might not’ve heard of before. Games like Super Time Force and Antichamber, Monaco and Cortex Command, Octodad and Card Hunter, LUFTRAUSERS and Quadrilateral Cowboy – each one of them has a specific audience or fan-base that now run into all the other beautiful stuff that is made in the indie scene.
What are some of the most challenging aspects of being an independent developer? And the most rewarding?
Obviously, life is uncertain. Being an entrepreneur (God, we hate that word) means that you’re never quite sure whether you’ll be able to pay for your rent in a years time. We work long, rough days for extended periods. The two of us have to do everything on our own – whether it’s making the games, marketing them, supporting them with new content or updates. The upside is that we get to talk to our fans directly, which is amazing. There’s no better feeling than seeing somebody enjoy your games, or getting an e-mail from a fan explaining why they love your game so much. Or fan-art or remixes of songs in our games.
And come on, we’re making videogames as a living. It might be tiring and rough and lots of work, but that’s all sorts of amazing.
Finally, what’s your most prized gaming possession? Is there anything you’re still holding onto from the dark ages?
If you want an official thing, when the Independent Games Festival of 2011 ended and Super Crate Box’ nomination booth was torn down, we sort of took the banner that was at the top of the booth with us. It’s a huge thing, so we had to convince stewardesses and flight crew to let us take it aboard, but it made it all the way to our office from San Francisco to Utrecht, the Netherlands.
But to be fair: So much cool stuff arrives at the offices every month – a fan of ours made an amazing papercraft Super Crate Box set, we get drawings in brown, anonymous German envelopes and tiny drawings of the two of us.
Those are our favorite possessions.