An interview series that highlights the human side of interesting people in tech
Rami Ismail interviewed by the FT.
What’s your job title and what do you do on a normal day?
I used to be an independent video game developer at a studio called Vlambeer. I accidentally rolled into being an industry ambassador, which meant that I spent most of my days travelling the world, meeting with developers in countries everywhere. Not just the countries where the games industry was strong, like the US, Europe and Japan, but also where the industry was growing, like South America, Africa, the Middle East and in parts of southeast Asia. I try to help local developers, universities, schools, governments, etc set up for more success in the games industry and teach them about game design, and obviously, learn from all those experiences. Besides that, I make tools for game developers. I don’t really have a normal day, because every day is on a different continent, with different people doing different things. I quit Vlambeer about a year and a half ago. I and my co-founder Jan Willem Nijman mutually stopped with the studio — not because there was a fight or disagreement or a scandal or we’d run out of money, but just because we were happy. Things were good. And ever since, I’ve been on a sabbatical from intense development. I’m doing some consultancy instead, mostly very cheap or free, for people around the world. And I’ve accidentally rolled into three games projects so it’s not a very successful sabbatical.
Accidentally, I love that.
Yeah, I really didn’t mean to, but here we are.
What was the last piece of code you wrote?
That was two days ago, some lines of code for a prototype that I’m working on — not for me but somebody else. It’s not a project I’d normally take on. They had this interesting game idea, but their team couldn’t figure out the game design and they ended up in one of the consultancies that I’ve been doing this year. They just kind of talked about it and I said “I think I can make something out of that, I’ll give it a try”. So I’ve been prototyping this weird little game idea and if it works, they’re going to make that game and if it doesn’t work, then we’re all in agreement that it doesn’t work. Turns out that if you’ve been making games since you were six it sort of becomes your creative outlet. When you’re angry, you make angry video games, when you’re sad you make sad video games, when you’re happy, you make happy video games. And when I’m not making games I kind of miss that. I’ve been trying to learn some piano and drawing and I do writing all the time. I try to keep busy, but nothing expresses as fluently as video games for me. I can recommend many easier ways to do self-expression, to be fair. It’s sort of a mess, but it’s also the beauty for me because it’s like the collective of human expression morphed into one thing.
What’s the backstory for Ridiculous Fishing? Was that a happy game?
It was a necessary game for us, but it started out as Radical Fishing. Jan Willem and I needed money because we decided to drop out of university. There was a documentary about tuna overfishing that we watched. And we talked about Duck Hunt, which was this old Nintendo game where you had a little plastic gun that you shot at the TV with to hunt ducks. In the documentary, there was this beautiful slow motion shot of a fish and we went like “what if you shoot the fish”. So that was how Radical Fishing happened.
It was a flash game at the time, and we made enough money from it to turn it into an iOS game. But then, a studio in San Francisco stole the entire idea and launched it, beating us to market. We were five kids, they hired this big Indonesian outsourcing firm. It was really heartbreaking to us. We were naive university drop-outs who believed that creativity would pave the way for future success, and as long as you had good ideas and you executed them well, everything would be fine. The reality is that it’s a very cut-throat business and a lot of people aren’t as romantic or idealistic about the business of game design. So we got really sad and depressed because we’d been working too hard for three years straight. We thought we were unbeatable. Every game we’d created was a success, we were making money, and we were living our dream. We had infinite energy and then the clone happened. It was genuinely the first bad thing that happened in our lives, at least in our lives as game developers. So we burned out.
How did you tackle that situation on a personal level?
The honest answer is that I didn’t, at first. I went to work the next day, a tiny little room where two people could work, and I opened my laptop and I had the biggest headache of my life. It was like the blinking cursor was splitting my head open, so I closed the computer again. I sat there and, eventually, with lots of pain, I managed to write an email and send it out to some people to tell them that the clone was out and that our game wouldn’t happen anymore. And for three weeks, I just couldn’t work. I was tired, I was hurt and I think my co-founder was very similar in that. He had no energy left and we almost lost the company. It took a few months before the money ran out and we had some good, honest conversations about quitting and finding something else to do in life.
The thing that saved Vlambeer and Ridiculous Fishing was a Canadian game studio that read about our story somewhere online. They reached out to us and said that the same thing had happened to them. They were making mobile games, and they offered to port Super Crate Box for mobile devices so that we could earn a little bit of money. If it weren’t for them, Ridiculous Fishing would never have happened.
So they helped us, and by then, our despair had turned to anger. We thought that if we’re going down, we might as well take the San Francisco company with us, so we started reaching out to every website, newspaper, and TV station we could find, including the ones that were never going to write about us — two kids who did badly in business. But it turns out that our story hooked really well into the copycat problem of that time. It affected programs, apps, games, and it spoke to a larger theme of creativity vs business. So before we knew it, we were in the New York Times and on Al Jazeera and talking on CNN. And it sort of galvanized the whole games industry around the topic, like, creativity should matter. Creativity should be valuable. And it was the first time I got that Industry Ambassador thing going. Because suddenly we were speaking on behalf of the games industry. In the meantime, we released a very angry game called Luftrausers, which is about being the coolest pilot in the world blowing up as many enemies as you can before you die.
Not hard to see where that game came from.
Yeah, strange, right? 😄 The game design is not that subtle. But then we launched Ridiculous Fishing and it got the Apple Game of the Year award and the Apple Design Awards. Now, 10 years later, it’s still frequently listed as one of the top 10 iOS games. So I guess that’s how we dealt with it. Ridiculous Fishing stood for something bigger than just a video game. It stood for “creativity should win”, and everybody got behind that, including Apple.
You’ve been advocating for inclusion. Explain?
Video games are sort of like an expression, but I think a lot of people forget that we’re very limited in the expression of the games that we’ve seen so far. As I travelled I started seeing this in everything. The scariest thing was seeing it in my own work because I just thought of my games as games. But what they were, in many ways, were Dutch games. I came across this description of dutch design, which was: minimalist, self-deprecating and pushes against the edges of the medium. Then I looked at our games and realised that they are exactly that. But I couldn’t see that until I had travelled. It shocked me, but it makes so much sense in hindsight.
I travel the world to meet new people and I try, to the best of my ability, to support them and give them access to all the stuff they don’t have access to, which is a lot. If you’re an American kid, and you want to learn programming, you learn programming. When I was a kid messing around with my computer, I had to learn English. I understood the logic before I understood the words. And around the world, there are all these extra barriers: language, [personal] economy, access to electricity, to good feedback, to community and networking, to travel, to the existing news industry, to knowledge in game design. The closest we have to a repository is in English and it’s not free.
There are a lot of moments in my life that happened at the exact right time. To me, it just emphasizes the importance of kindness, accepting people and creating opportunities for others. Because if everybody’s lives are a result of the nudges they got previously, then really, we should be attempting to nudge as many lives as possible in a positive direction. To create access and the possibility for people to live the life they want to live. The core for me is that I want to be helpful, but I don’t care about the specifics of it. And every now and then, secretly, in the meantime, I make some more video games.
When I say Financial Times, you think…?
Hm, that’s a good question 🤔 Games exist in this really odd space between art, technology and finance and public relations and it’s this strange balancing act. If you get any of it wrong, a game doesn’t work. So being aware of finance has been very helpful. I think we were mentioned in it once, and I’ve been a pretty consistent reader over the years.
The FT covers the finance itself but also the context around it: what the money is doing and also why that matters.