"The first thing I ever said to Rami was 'Can you please shut up?', because it was very early and he kept on talking about his stupid stuff he was working on. That was our introduction to each other."
Jan Willem Nijman first met Rami Ismail on the train on the way to their design school, the Utrecht School of the Arts, and they immediately found each other incredibly irritating. One day soon afterwards, JW was playing a little game prototype he'd put together called Crates From Hell with a bunch of friends, and Ismail walked into the classroom and watched the action.
"You've got something here," he told JW. "Wanna help me get it on consoles?" JW asked. Subsequently the pair drifted away from school, set up indie studio Vlambeer, and released their first game, Super Crate Box.
If you follow Vlambeer closely, you know how the story goes after that. From Serious Sam: The Random Encounter, to Gun Godz, Ridiculous Fishing, Yeti Hunter, Luftrausers, and now the upcoming Nuclear Throne, Vlambeer is most definitely a studio worth keeping tabs on.
But while Vlambeer's game catalogue is filled with little beauties, you may be less savvy to some of JW’s lesser known works, including the multitude of abandoned ideas that never came to fruition in-between the main Vlambeer releases.
JW sat down with me to discuss the ones that you missed, plus the ones that didn't make it, complete with art, concepts, and even some builds you can download and play now. As you'll discover, he has a bit of an obsession with Vlambeer one day crafting the ultimate space sim.
"After Super Crate Box, we started making this platform puzzling game. Everyone was doing these gimmicky platformers with weird mechanics, and we decided it was cool again to do that. In this game, if you walked around an edge, the gravity turned with you. You could also jump over edges, and the gravity would pull you to the ground."
We started to realise at this point that I don't like fixed-solution puzzle games, and I started to figure out what really interested me in games. This game was super linear, and once you knew how it worked, it wasn't fun anymore."
"I love science-fiction, and I always wanted to make a space sim, but accessible. Every time I see a new trailer for a 2D space sim, I'm like 'Yes, finally!', and then there are spreadsheets and complicated menus.
Space Murder was an attempt at giving ourselves a super short deadline, and just making a space sim that was tacked together. The idea for the game was that you could click around to travel. It had music by C418, the Minecraft composer, and we had a couple of different artists, including Adam Saltsman. In the end that game just wasn't any fun. We made it for a week or two with all these super talented people, including Francis Coulombe and Derek Bones.
For the last three years, I'd been trying to make this space sim, and I now have this theory that if you put 'Space' in the name, your game won't get finished. So then I started making a game called Dogs of the Future, or Dogs of the Galaxy or whatever, but those didn't work out either.”
"The idea with that was making an accessible tower defence game. What always bugs me in games is when you make a mistake, and you get punished for it way later. Most tower defence games felt like that to me - if I messed up ten minutes ago, now I have to replay those ten minutes.
To fix that problem with Ffflood, we basically sped up tower defence so you wouldn't have to replay ten minutes, but three seconds instead. The waves are insanely fast, and you place an incredible number of towers, and there are tons of enemies, and it all comes at you in 10 second waves. That was fun to work on, but it also didn't really work out, because we still made the waves too long to work! It was an interesting project though, and I think something like that still kinda interests us. We might return to that one day."
GTA II in space
“I wanted to make GTA II in space. That kind of feeling where you sit behind your computer and you start screwing around, robbing cargo ships etc.”
Untitled Space Marines Sims-alike
[JW's personal project]
"I don't know why, but I'm kinda fascinated by this whole Gears of War space marine vibe. I'd been thinking how interesting it would be to make a game about those space marines, but all the battles are super simple and straightforward. You're super powerful and you just steamroll through.
The game is more about the stuff in-between, like walking through your barracks, eating food, standing in the shower with your squad mates and talking to them, doing pushups, I wanted to make a whole game based on that.
Then again, it was super ambitious and a lot of work. There was at a point when I took a week off from Vlambeer just to mess around with this game. It also never got anywhere, but I had a lot of fun making those sprites. I had a dumb system where you could do closeups, and the eyebrows could have their own expressions. It was an attempt at a narrative game."
[JW's personal project]
"This was a narrative first-person shooter based on the movie High Noon. You walk around this little Western town for an actual real-life hour, waiting for the train to come with someone on it who you have to shoot.
Me, Kitty Calis and some musicians spent a week working on that, got a whole town done and put some weird Easter eggs in, but then the train never actually comes... we never got around to making that. That game was very interesting to work on from a narrative point of view, because we started out with the idea that you have to wait for an hour and talk to people, and learn about who you shoot, so it would be this one really interesting kill, as opposed to the hundreds normally in games.
But then when we were working on the game, it turned out that instead it kinda flipped around, and it was more that hour of walking around talking to people was really heavy and interesting, because you were going to shoot someone after that. It's kinda one of my rare narrative explorations with games. It still interests me, but I'm a horrible writer."
[JW's personal project]
“I’d been playing Far Cry 3, and I just wanted to attempt a stealth game. It was just a very simple top-down shooter that I started jamming. What interests me in top-down games is that the line of sight is super weird, because the player sees everything, including the enemies and their lines of sight.
So in this game you could hide in bushes and trees, but it doesn’t always work. You can roll from tree to tree and not be seen, and also roll into enemies to take them out. You could also carry corpses and drag them into bushes.”
And the other smaller projects:
Beast Raider: "In Beast Raider, you were a little helicopter, and you flew into giant monsters. I believe it was a surgery kind of game. It never went further than that..."
Cool Survivors: “That was a roguelike idea, where it was like a zombie survival thing, turn-based -- I'd been trying a couple of these turn-based style games along the lines of Michael Brough's stuff.”
King of Galaxy: “That was like a 4X game, and it had randomly generated planets. It had blurry pictures taken from Google Images on the right. But the gameplay never really came together.”
Asteroid King: “That was inspired by all those big open-world building games like Minecraft. I was wondering what that would be like if you only had a tiny space, so I started working on some randomly-generated asteroids that you could mine and fly around. But it was getting boring very quickly. It was fun messing around the aesthetic.”
Adventure Minute: “This one’s kinda cool, it was for the Adventure Time game jam, made with Kitty Calis and with music from Danny Baranowsky (Super Meat Boy, Canabalt, The Binding of Isaac). We’re still kinda working on that on the side.” (Build here)