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A Common Thread: Rami Ismail

When I was six, we got our first computer at home. It was one of those giant IBM 386’s with MS-DOS on a floppy drive. It had no such thing as a hard drive, so it had to load the operating system into RAM before it would boot, but after it had booted, you could switch the floppy for another one. I always switched it for a floppy that said ‘GORILLAS’ – a small file full of code that ran a game with gorillas throwing explosive bananas at each other.

Being curious but not understanding a word of English, I started changing things in the code, which led to things in the game changing too. I was fascinated by how changing simple characters led to the game changing in some way. That fascination never let go. Thus, I started programming. My fascination with systems and optimal solutions evolved through many, many things – I did some space art for a while, teaching myself Photoshop (and a general abuse of filters), I did some web design at some point, I did interface design and for a while, I did marketing and business for a commercial studio on the side.

At some point in your life, you have to decide what it is you really want to do. I had been working on failed projects continuously for a decade by the time high school wrapped up, but I’d been involved in a few successful ones too. I decided to enroll into a game design university. I’d love to say it was a mistake, because schools are generally terrible at teaching you anything related to creativity, but school did introduce me to a lot of people - amongst them Jan Willem Nijman, with whom I dropped out of university to start Vlambeer almost 2.5 years ago.

Vlambeer opened my eyes to a side of game development I had not encountered before: the indie game community. More than just inspired, I was amazed by how accepting, diverse and co-operative this scene was – and through it, slowly but surely I fell for the less obvious charms of our medium. My fascination shifted from just how I can optimize the logical system behind games to how we can use, explore and apply those systems to games.

In the past two years, I learned so much about who I am, what I do and what I can do – by making games, by discussing with people far smarter than I am. Last year, I spoke at events around the globe about game development, business and marketing. Between those talks, I spent a lot of my year traveling around the world to meet with such people, to talk with them and learn from them. I learned that I have a knack for marketing and tried to figure out how I could give that back to the indie scene, which cumulated in me developing presskit(), a free framework that helps indies market their games. In Austin, I met Mexico-based developer Fernando Ramallo, with whom I conceived Fuck This Jam.

In the meanwhile, Jan Willem and I released 16 games as Vlambeer. We are involved in organizing local indie meetups, events, game jams, workshops & seminars to students that aspire to become game developers. 

My name is Rami Ismail, age 24, and I’m the business & developer guy at Vlambeer, a two-man independent studio in the Netherlands best known for Super Crate Box, Radical Fishing, GUN GODZ and our upcoming game LUFTRAUSERS.

The concept of Fuck This Jam was to get game developers, developing games in genres they disliked or hated, essentially bringing people out of their comfort zone. Do you think more game jams have an obligation to challenge developers in more profound ways and bring them out of their comfort zones in differing ways? 
Game jams – to me – always represent stepping out of your comfort zone on purpose. Fuck This Jam just took that core idea and intentionally made it the central theme of the jam. A good game jam forces you to make something – to go through the process of creation. A great game jam forces you to make something that you couldn’t make otherwise. The other Vlambeer co-organized game jam, 7DFPS, asked indies to make first person shooters.

For Fuck This Jam, the idea Fernando and I had was to push people into areas they are utterly uninformed about, to see what happens when someone with little or no former knowledge of a genre, its hit titles, its appeals or its conventions, gets to make a game that has to conform to the most basic truths of a genre.
Fuck This Jam lasted a week where other game jams generally last anywhere between 2 hours to 3 days. Why 1 week? 
Fuck This Jam was a jam about intentionally exploring the unknown – something that two or three days simply wouldn’t offer enough time for. The idea was that participants would pick a genre, figure out what it is that makes games in said genre interesting – reflect on that and then proceed to make something that they would like to play.

We tried to offer an optimal timeframe to allow exploration and implementation. We’d much prefer participants spending a day researching and thinking than having to rush through that phase because there are only thirty hours left. We’d much rather see that they’d spend time in the IRC-chat discussing a genre than not having proper time for that.
Ultimately, we decided that one week would allow people to explore, implement and discuss amongst each other. It’d also allow people that couldn’t join in right at the start some ample time to join in later.

What do you think the boundaries of a game jam should be?
The definition of a ‘jam’, to me, is any pre-set amount of time that you pick to force yourself to work on a non-routine task. I don’t really think a game jam should have boundaries. 

There’s been a lot of talk about game jams and what they should and shouldn’t be. Recently, a group of developers organized a Depth Jam – a week long discussion about specific, often high-level design problems in games they have been working on for an extended period - and framed it as a response of sorts to ‘short’ jams. 

What I do worry about is the notion that a ‘jam’ could be a bad thing. I’ve heard criticisms of short jams wasting the potential of great game designers, or people complaining that the amazing One Game A Month-initiative will only lead to incomplete games – or the other extreme, criticisms of the Depth Jam just not really being a jam in the first place. Hearing such things is always a tad disheartening to me. The way someone choses to explore their craft is their own - if that is spending a year prototyping twelve games, which might lead to stumbling upon something amazing – that’s great. If you prefer to spend time on arguing about design issues, that’s great too.

The only thing jams are –or should be- is a tool to force yourself out of your normal working patterns – and whether you use that tool to socialize, to be creative in one short, explosive burst or to discuss high-level design issues is not something I have strong feelings about.
Retrospectively, was organising Fuck This Jam worth the payoff or a fulfilling experience for you? Did Fuck This Jam accomplish what you hoped that it would?
Organizing Fuck This Jam is one of those things that, if you had known before you started how much work it would be, you might’ve never done it altogether. However, having done it, you know how amazing the payoff can be. Browsing through the games made for Fuck This Jam – dozens, hundreds of games – and seeing the occasional gem between those games is oddly rewarding.

Looking at some of the games made during the jam, like Desperate Gods, Crystal Crashers, 52 or Dear Esteban, we were surprised by how diversely people have applied the theme. Some of these games are an analysis of genres, others are satires. Some games are an attempt at understanding, or a way to subvert the conventions of a genre as a means to create something the creator would like.

We gave people a small push & they ventured onward, into territory they’d never dared before. That’s more than we had hoped for when the idea for Fuck This Jam came to be at an Austin bar, both me and Fernando far away from our homes.

Has this experience given you a taste for to organise any other game jams? Would you like to keep pushing the boundaries of game jams in new and different ways or is Fuck This Jam going to become an annual event?
The thing I really want to achieve is pushing things in a direction. I don’t really care whether people would classify the direction I’m pushing as forward, or backward – or any other direction for that matter – I just want to move things in a direction. 

With presskit(), I tried to offer something that would allow any developer – regardless of their marketing skills – to offer information in a way that the press appreciates. My hope was that all these beautiful games that I see that are lost to obscurity could somehow find their way to a larger audience – to touch more people.

With Fuck This Jam, the goal was to see what can happen when people are tasked with creating something they do not fully understand yet. We strongly believe that ignorance is a worthy perspective in matters of creation, too. We hoped that Fuck This Jam would lead to beautiful games.

On the other hand, we also have a lot of ideas on the format of game jams being inherently introverted. For a hypothetical next Fuck This Jam, we’d like to play around with the format of game jams a bit more. It’d be great if we, as developers, can show the world the raw process of creation in games – the variety of perspective, the personal expression and the hours of work that go into even the simplest of games.
What are your thoughts on game jams (in their many current forms)?
Some game jams bring people in touch with each other, some allow people to practice, discuss, co-operate or compete. Some do all of that at once. But there’s one thing that any game jam does: they get people to make games. That’s a worthwhile cause.

Notes

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