Rami Ismail gave me a funny look when I recently congratulated him about the release of Luftrausers, his studio's slick shoot-em-up that was just released for PlayStation platforms. He told me he had mixed feelings about the game. As he explained why he did, I suggested he write about it. He did and has let us republish his blog post about it below. I hope you'll find his take on his own game as surprising and intriguing as I did. - Stephen Totilo
My studio Vlambeer released Luftrausers a couple of weeks ago during the 2014 Game Developers Conference. Originally slated for spring 2012, Luftrausers had an exceptionally rough development cycle. Regardless of the delays, the reception was absolutely amazing: the game released with only minor problems. It's sitting on a stable 80+ metacritic score. The game recouped all expenses within 48 hours or so, and people seem to absolutely love it.
The games that Vlambeer make feel comfortable to me. They're games that allow you to get better. They are simple and straightforward but new and novel. They're friendly, even though they can be dystopian and difficult. You know, you're just jumping around grabbing a crate and shooting some monsters with a bazooka. You're flinging fish into the air and shooting them with a bazooka. You're running around the wastelands trying to shoot giant scorpions with a bazooka.
Luftrausers is different. Luftrausers is angry. Luftrausers is upset. It wants you to destroy things, to continuously blow up things, to never back down. If you do ever back down it is to allow yourself to heal so you can be more aggressive.
I know why the game is like that. It was originally conceived right in the middle of a really depressed time–right in the middle of us dealing with our game Ridiculous Fishing being cloned. Making the game was a final, desperate attempt to pull Vlambeer out of a tailspin, a tailspin that would've led to us simply giving up on game development. We were angry. We were upset. In that mental state, we worked on defining Luftrausers.
I guess what I'm saying is that there's a weird emotional disconnect between me and Luftrausers.
Nothing exemplifies this disconnect better than the game's combo counter. It's aggressive. It forces you to keep fighting and it stops you from taking too long while healing. To me, it almost feels like something slightly alien in our games. You can't really afford to drop your combo if you want a great Luftrausers score. So you keep destroying things because we tell you that there's no other option to play the game well.
When you're working on a game with a few people there's no way to keep a reflection of yourself out of the final game. If you define the core designs, rules and ideologies of a project in a certain mindset, redefining those requires restarting the entire project. Too many decisions branch out from those earliest decisions, and changing those often ripple through a project in unpredictable ways, creating contradictions and dissonance.
We stayed true to the original concept and ideology–Luftrausers is strict, genuine and aggressive. It is upset, just like we were. All the things that people praise the game for now are things that we took from our mental state two years ago and—often without realising it—worked into the game. When I play Luftrausers, it reminds me exactly of how angry and upset I felt when we started on the project.
I don't feel like that anymore.
This is a common emotional problem for a lot of long-term projects and something I've often talked about with other developers, but in this specific case there are a few factors that make that feeling stronger. After we defined Luftrausers, we started taking better care of ourselves. And then Ridiculous Fishing released to amazing reception and we started the most fun project we've had so far in the shape of Nuclear Throne. Where we felt lost and uncertain before, our actions feel more defined and purposeful now. We're proud and happy and excited.
It didn't help that Luftrausers sat in QA and certification for eight months without us really making any more changes to the game. That's demoralising in itself, but it also amplified the feeling that Luftrausers is a game made by people who don't exist anymore.
Doing interviews and talking about the game felt like I had to wear a mask, because Luftrausers felt so distanced from myself. I simply didn't really know how to get enthused or excited about a game that stood so far away from me. It wasn't until I figured out that I could talk about the game in terms of this particular estranged feeling that I was capable of doing launch interviews.
And when I first started reading the reviews, I was confused. Was I supposed to be happy or not? Were people celebrating a part of me that didn't exist anymore? I didn't know what to feel, and apparently the way I deal with that is just feeling nothing instead. It was the largest possible contrast with Ridiculous Fishing, where every great review that came in led to instantaneous celebration. Here, Jan Willem—the other half of Vlambeer—chose to just try and ignore the fact that the game had launched at all. I just read through all of the reviews and simply didn't feel anything.
Leading up to the release, I was more nervous than I've ever been for any game we've launched before. Launching during the Game Developers Conference is a terrible idea, but it was perfect for launching Luftrausers. The press was all occupied, developers would be too busy to play your game, nobody has access to good internet to download the game and nobody is Tweeting about a game they're playing. I felt lost again, and I didn't know how to cope with that. But launching at GDC really helped me talk to people that did get the game. I could see and hear the buzz in person rather than just try to get it from an abstract Twitter feed.
As the good news kept coming in and people told me how they felt and the sales figures came in, I slowly stopped thinking of the game as an artifact created by someone that isn't me. Instead, I started thinking of it as an artifact from my history–the slightly darker album of a band you like–and I actually started feeling good about the whole thing. We knew Luftrausers is a solid game, and it is a game that we worked on for a really long time, and we're really happy you like it. Even though the Vlambeer that created it doesn't really exist anymore, we still do exist. We're just different now, we've moved on, we're working on new projects.
Luftrausers launching as successfully as it did is the epilogue to our Ridiculous Fishing chapter. Just like in the Polygon video, we rationally thought of it as just the post-credits epilogue to the cloning story. Somewhere deep down, though, I knew that we put a lot of ourselves in the project–a lot of our anger, a lot of our knowledge and a lot of our style.
I am really happy a lot of you out there saw those things, too, and that those of you who have played it have helped me rediscover those things that helped make me so, so proud of Luftrausers in the first place.
Rami Ismail is the developer & business guy at Vlambeer. He also created Presskit() & travels around the world to speak about game development and culture at events, schools and in emerging territories.Follow Vlambeer on Twitter or like them on Facebook.