Rami Ismail's Ten Essential Tips for Thriving in the Indie Game Industry

Indie consultant Rami Ismail has shared valuable advice for studios on how to distinguish themselves and succeed in a rapidly growing and competitive industry.

The phenomenon known as the "indiepocalypse" – the concept that suggests that a vast number of indie games in the market makes it difficult to sustain their viability – has garnered extensive attention in recent years.

To address this issue and provide support for indie developers, Rami Ismail, an indie consultant and co-founder of the now-defunct Vlambeer, delivered an insightful talk during this year's Reboot Develop Blue conference in Croatia (via GamesIndustry.biz) delving into the topic and sharing ten practical tips to empower studios in distinguishing themselves and succeeding in an ever-growing and competitive industry.

1. Understand Risks

Ismail's first tip emphasized the importance of understanding risks. He advised studios to carefully assess the situation and choose a strategy that aligns with their goals and capabilities: either minimizing risks or maximizing opportunities. 

"If you have an infinite amount of money, please go and maximize your opportunities. You can take risks," he explained. "But if you're just starting out, your biggest obstacles are probably that you haven't shipped anything, you have no money, and you have no experience. At that point, you should figure out how to minimize your risks."

Additionally, Ismail recommended that studios start their journey by creating a game that doesn't require a significant financial investment or seeking out potential sponsors or investors who are willing to fund the project. 

2. Don't Chase the Market

Ismail strongly encouraged developers to create games that will be different and unique. According to him, although it might seem logical to capitalize on established hits, competing with them can be challenging as well as predicting the next big hit is an almost impossible task.

3. Test Your Business Case

As independent developers often seek funding from publishers and investors, Ismail advised that developers start their pitching with "the five publishers you hate the most" and continue this process with "the five you like slightly more."

Ismail explained that approaching favorite publishers first might be a bad idea as developers may want to present the best version of their pitch to them. This is why his advice is to initially target five publishers that the developer may not have a strong preference for or even dislike to practice and refine the pitch before going to favorite publishers.

4. Assume Failure

According to Ismail, the most sustainable approach to running a business, including game development, is to operate under the assumption that the game may not generate any profit in the end.

This approach, as Ismail claims, may help developers in such aspects as approaching a publisher for funding as in this case, they will understand that it is essential to request an amount that not only covers the game development and shipping expenses but also allows the studio to sustain operations for an additional three to six months – the buffer period that will provide the necessary time and resources to prepare for pitching the next game.

5. Don't Aim Too High

Ismail noted that the studios he knows tend to rise and adapt to the challenges they face. However, the crucial point he highlighted is that the challenges will always escalate based on the capabilities of the studio.

To illustrate this point, Ismail shared an example from his former studio, Vlambeer. Throughout its existence, the team at Vlambeer comprised a maximum of seven individuals, and most of the time, the team size ranged from two to five people. This is why they focused on developing games that could be realistically created by a small team of two to five developers. 

"As soon as you hire another artist, you then have to feed that artist, which means you need to make slightly bigger games with slighter bigger budgets," he said, explaining that the need for new hires leads to the development of bigger games, which subsequently prompts the hiring of more staff, and this process continues, creating a snowball effect where the need for further growth becomes constant and seemingly never-ending.

This is why Ismail advised to "just make better games." "You don't have to grow to do that. Your team is getting better, getting more experience, more used to each other. Eventually, your team starts being better without having to grow," he added.

6. Build Your Brand

Ismail stressed the significance of game developers forging a genuine connection with their audience and cultivating a distinctive identity that makes them stand out. At the same time, he stressed that this does not imply being confined to a particular genre or style.

Ismail further emphasized that a brand is not solely defined by the games themselves but encompasses various other crucial elements such as community management, interactions with the audience, and networking within the industry. According to him, these aspects play a vital role in shaping and building a brand that resonates with both players and industry professionals.

7. Embrace Sincerity

Ismail highlighted the significance of sincerity and authenticity as essential traits for game developers. According to him, despite developers sharing common interests and pursuits, their individual life experiences remain distinct and can help create a unique game.

Ismail provided an example in the context of war games, noting that many of them are developed in the US and depict players venturing into foreign countries or planets, engaging in extensive combat with little consideration for consequences, all in the name of liberation. He argued that such games reflect a cultural perspective unique to the US.

In contrast, Ismail highlighted games like Spec Ops: The Line from German studio Yager, which explores the emotional impact, guilt, and shame associated with war. He also mentioned This War of Mine, developed by Polish studio 11 Bit Studios, a game centered around survival and the hardships faced in the midst of war.

According to Ismail, the distinctiveness of games like Spec Ops: The Line and This War of Mine can be attributed to their genuine nature as the development teams behind these games didn't approach them by simply trying to mimic popular trends in the war game genre. 

8. Avoid the Obvious

Ismail cautioned against pursuing obvious game ideas, explaining that when confronted with similar challenges, most individuals tend to arrive at the same conclusions. This contributes to the frequent release of waves of similar games in the industry. However, Ismail suggested that by relating these obvious ideas to one's own life, and contemplating deeper connections and connotations, developers can unlock the potential for creating something truly original and innovative.

Ismail advised developers to discard the first three ideas that come to mind and think further to create unique ideas.

9. Fail Faster

Ismail noted that certain studios may spend a year or even longer before realizing that their game isn't progressing as expected. To address this issue, Ismail emphasized the significance of prototyping. However, he urged developers to approach the concept of prototyping with greater thoughtfulness and deliberation.

He also encouraged developers to embrace the concept of "failing faster" and to let go of their pursuit of being perfect game developers. Instead, he advised them to focus on creating prototypes, even if they initially appear subpar, as these prototypes are essential for determining whether the core idea of their project will connect with players.

10. Be Luckier

Finally, Ismail suggested that luck plays a significant role in game development success. According to him, even if developers do everything right, the outcome of their game's success is ultimately unpredictable.

11. There Is No Indiepocalypse

Wrapping up his talk, Ismail straightforwardly dismissed the idea of the "indiepocalypse" as nonsense. He argued that the worries about the indie game sector, driven by the belief that the number of game releases will keep increasing indefinitely, are based on a misconception. Ismail stated that this trend will not continue forever, as some developers will quit or shut down, balancing out the number of new developers entering the industry.

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