This is the story of how Dutch indie developer Vlambeer (Super Crate Box) almost lost its way entirely after its game was cloned, and that clone became a big hit on the App Store -- and how it found its way to work again with the help of some notable collaborators.
Whether Vlambeer's Rami Ismail was attempting to hide the deep anguish he was feeling or not, it was pretty obvious that he was bummed out during GDC Europe back in 2011.
We laughed and joked about various silly means by which Gamenauts' Ninja Fishing, a clone of Vlambeer's own Radical Fishing that was being downloaded by the millions, could be used to the Dutch studio's advantage. Perhaps the tables could be turned, and Vlambeer could pretend that Ridiculous Fishing was in fact a sequel to Ninja Fishing. How could Gamenauts really complain about that line of fire?
Through all the smiles, it was obvious that day-to-day life at Vlambeer wasn't so chirpy following the cloning outbreak. But while the entire ordeal has been well documented in the past, what hasn't been explored in great detail is just how deep it had all affected Ismail and his partner Jan Willem "JW" Nijman.
But let's start on a positive note. Ridiculous Fishing is finally getting a release on March 14. It's the iOS version of Radical Fishing that was started on December 7, 2010 -- the same year that the original iPad came out, and iOS had really begun to gain traction.
Ismail's demeanor has changed dramatically since 2011. "It's a weight off of our shoulders," he says. "It's been such a long time coming, the whole game. It's been in the back of our heads, this lingering desire to show the world we have a great game."
As Ismail and collaborator Zach Gage hit the App Store submission button just weeks ago, there was a pure 10 minutes of dancing, celebrating, and shouting "Hell yeah!" -- followed by a Skype call to other coconspirator Greg Wohlwend, which was followed by even more celebrating.
"It's just such a relief to be done with it," Ismail adds.
Back to the start
Ridiculous Fishing, for those who have missed the drama, is a stylish mobile game all about catching as many fish as possible, then flicking them up into the sky and blasting them with your shotgun. It's a project that has tormented the team since the day it was casually cloned by another studio, and one that very nearly brought about the end of Vlambeer.
To really gauge the rollercoaster that Ismail, Nijman, and co. went on over the last couple of years, it's necessary to go back to the start. The beginning of 2011 saw huge strides in getting the game up and running, and for four to six months it came along in leaps and bounds. Then the clone hit, and it all went to pot.
"We were working on Serious Sam: The Random Encounter at the same time, and when the clone hit, my main job at the time was Serious Sam," explains Ismail. "What ended up happening was, my full-time job became just handling the fallout from the clone, so JW had to take over Serious Sam."
"Everything just started falling apart. We didn't work on Ridiculous Fishing for about a year -- maybe a few days every now and then -- and then we had another short stretch of work on it just before IGF. And then we didn't work on it for another year!"
From an outside perspective, it seems like the answer was obvious: Drop Ridiculous Fishing, try to put the painful memories to the backs of their minds, and get on with doing what they did best -- make games. But it wasn't that simple, and this project lingering on the backburner preoccupied both Ismail and Nijman.
"We couldn't kill Ridiculous Fishing. We just couldn't," says Ismail. "We just really liked the game, and we knew that we could make it a good game, but we knew that if we tried to make it during that demotivated period, we'd just end up getting really depressed. That ended up being a weird sort of constant tension between me and JW."
This led to a prolonged period of discontent within the duo's working relationship. "Everything was stressful for a really long time," admits Ismail. "You want to be happy working, and for a while we weren't. For a while we were just constantly worrying about everything we did, about whether we were going to be able to continue doing Vlambeer, to be able to continue making a living."
Not that Vlambeer has ever been a simple coming together of two friends -- far from it. Ismail and Nijman spend a good portion of their time arguing with each other on everything from visual design to gameplay, and worrying about stuff is just their way of dealing with life.
Notes Ismail, "We know that if we want to be an indie developer, we're going to have to worry about stuff. We want to worry about making the best games we can. We want to worry about building an indie scene in the Netherlands. We want to worry about organizing events.
"But the one thing we don't want to worry about is the idea that when we release a game, people will realize that it's a Vlambeer game, and that our work gets acknowledged," he adds. "That's the one thing that we don't want to worry about."
Seeing people discussing his games, whether it's in a positive or not-so-positive light, is a large part of why Ismail makes games in the first place. He loves watching people pick apart his work, and that acknowledgement that he's made something worth picking apart is rewarding enough to keep his desire to make games alive.
But there's a flipside to creativity. "What the clone did was make us realize that someone else could just come in, take our stuff, release a highly similar game..." he trails off, the memory of it all clearly catching up with him.
"With Ridiculous Fishing, we were set up to have people credit another company for our ideas," he continues. "And when we started worrying about that, that was sort of this abyss of 'I don't give a shit anymore.' It turns out that creativity is not a solid something. It's pretty fragile. It's not an infinite resource that you can just tap into."
Anyone who knows Vlambeer, and Nijman's past endeavors in particular, will know that feeling of demiurgic bliss. As it turns out, having your ideas ripped off doesn't exactly do wonders for your creativity.
"We had this period where JW had a really tough time with ideas, and I had a rough time working on the execution of ideas," Ismail says. "JW is normally extremely prolific, making games in 15 minutes, or in a few hours -- and then suddenly we weren't quite doing that. We skipped the Global Game Jam, and we'd normally always do that."
"And that's what nearly ended Vlambeer -- we realized that we weren't able to be Vlambeer," he adds. "Vlambeer is prolific, Vlambeer makes lots of games, Vlambeer releases prototypes and weird experiments. That's what we do. Sort of like between the big indies who only make really polished stuff, and then the extremely prolific part of the indie scene. We're between that."
Suddenly, the Vlambeer pair found themselves sat at their computers, staring at blank screens, wondering why they were even there at all. They weren't making anything, and they'd lost the motivation to care -- and all because of one incident that, to the eyes of an outsider, had come and gone many months before.
"We found ourselves at a bar, at a meetup that we organized ourselves, questioning, 'Can we still do this?'" says Ismail. "We canceled one really big project that we were planning to do, because we realized we weren't doing it because we wanted to, but rather because we just wanted a project to be working on. Cancelling that project was a big step. I think if we hadn't done that... We just weren't making anything, and we weren't being productive. We just needed something at that point."
Finding Vlambeer all over again
That's when things finally started to turn around. The pair began participating in game jams again, and using that experience to figure out what Vlambeer would have to be. Ismail went travelling, and JW spent some time away from his work relaxing. Soon afterwards, they decided to revisit an old Vlambeer classic Luftrauser, and later still a commercial version called Luftrausers was born.
Says Ismail, "When Luftrausers started coming together, we realized that Vlambeer wasn't necessarily gone. We had just been having a really tough time from dealing with the fallout of the cloning stuff. It took way longer than I care to admit for us to figure out what was wrong. But when we did, everything just sort of started working again."
"That's what's been happening the past year -- it hasn't been Vlambeer. We've been working on all this stuff that isn't making games. We've been organizing lots of events and giving all sorts of talks and going to all sorts of places, and making sure we stayed in touch with all sorts of business people. But we didn't make new games, because we couldn't."
Slowly but surely, Vlambeer's original goals and values started to come back into play, to the point where the pair were finally able to get on with life properly again.
"We think now that everything is sort of resolved, we can move on and do new and interesting stuff," says Ismail. "That thing in the back of our heads that was keeping us tied to the past -- that has gone. We've already been talking about two more projects that we really want to work on. We've got a lot of little jam projects that we really want to see if we can do more with."
"I told my mom this just last week: It just feels like Vlambeer again. When I go to the office, it doesn't feel like going to work. It feels like doing the thing that I dropped out of college for."
But before we jump to the present, and the impending release of Ridiculous Fishing -- due March 14 -- it's well worth digging into the moment that led up to the final resurrection of the game. Ridiculous Fishing was always an annoying, nagging feeling in the backs of their minds, and a constant source of anxiety for the team. So when Ismail met up with Zach Gage and Greg Wohlwend at PAX Prime last year, it was a definite fork in the road.
"We said, 'You know what? We should find an opportunity to breathe new life into Ridiculous Fishing.' So we took a road trip from Seattle to New York. It was called 'The Week of Hatred.' We got a car and drove for five days with Mike Boxleiter (the other half of Mikengreg with Wohlwend), Zach and Greg, with the idea that we might have a good time, or we might end up hating each other forever."
Upon arriving in New York, the team set about gutting Ridiculous Fishing to within an inch of its life. "At that point, the fishing felt great, but the shooting didn't feel so right," says Ismail. "We had a store that worked, but it wasn't great, and people didn't know they had to go there. Everything was there, but it was all convoluted, mixed up, disjointed..."
And with that, it was time to throw out the trash. Adds Ismail, "We decided that the shop was garbage, the interface was garbage, the endgame was garbage... a lot of stuff was okay, but 'okay' wasn't what we were aiming for, so we threw out 90 percent of what we'd done."
Getting rid of so much of the game left the designers with a much clearer image of what Radical Fishing, and subsequently Ridiculous Fishing, is really all about.
This also gave them the chance to deliberate over every aspect of the game. "So the whole in-app purchase progression thing, right? Making sure the feedback loop is as tight as possible, making sure people are constantly rewarded for what they're doing, without the evil in-app purchase stuff. We don't want to do that; we don't want to make that kind of game. We want to take the good things out of that -- it's like we're making an IAP game without IAPs."
It's something that Vlambeer didn't even realize it was doing when the game was pieced together.
"For Radical Fishing, our intention was to make a Flash game that took everything good from the addictive-type browser games, but didn't stretch it out just to make it addictive," explains Ismail. "So Ridiculous Fishing ended up being the 2012/2013 equivalent of that, where the Flash market is sort of weakening and iOS is sort of what Flash was -- you know what I mean?"
Watching the design philosophy of Radical Fishing pour into Ridiculous Fishing with a modernized twist really gave the new game foundations built firmly in the mobile space.
"Radical Fishing was already about a tight feedback loop -- that's what made the game interesting for cloners," he adds. "If you do well in the descent stage, you'll do better in the reeling-in stage; if you do better in the reeling-in stage, you'll do better in the shooting stage; if you do better in the shooting stage, you'll be able to buy more stuff -- and then you'll be better at the descent stage. Thus it goes round and round. It's one giant feedback loop."
The project was nearly derailed again by Ninja Fishing at one point - after revealing the various locations and the way in which they were to be presented in Ridiculous Fishing, a locations screen was added to Ninja Fishing with a simple image that read "Coming Soon".
Soon afterwards, Ridiculous Fishing died off again, although the team didn't stop emailing each other this time around. "Before, we just wouldn't discuss the game at all," notes Ismail. "We didn't really talk about the game because we didn't want to. We weren't motivated. So suddenly we're mailing again, and we're throwing around these weird ideas."
It was when Wohlwend finished up with Gasketball and flew out to stay with Gage that the real development got underway.
"He decided to fly over to New York to Zach's place, and basically not leave until the game was done," Ismail recalls. "Me and JW were working on Luftrausers, so when we heard of that plan, we decided 'Okay, we're going to drop everything and focus on Ridiculous Fishing.'"
It wasn't smooth sailing from the get-go -- although, would you expect less from this long and winding story? As it turns out, success can be a wonderful thing, but it can also change the playing field rather a lot.
"We had to figure out how to work with each other again," says Ismail. "If you look at who we were when we started this project, Vlambeer had just released Super Crate Box and Radical Fishing, Greg had released Solipskier, and Zach hadn't yet released anything that a lot of people knew about except for maybe Lose/Lose. That's what we were all known for."
"Since then, Vlambeer has released like 10 other games, and Greg worked on Gasketball and Hundreds, and Zach released SpellTower, which became this absurd success. So when we started working together again, we had this problem that we were four people who were all doing something else. It took us a while to work out how to work together again."
Describing it as "a luxury problem," Ismail notes that having four different teammates, each with their own great success and their own strong opinions about what would make the game click, means that moving forward can be rather tricky.
"If you have to dive into hardcore philosophy every time you want to make a decision, that's not how you make video games!" he laughs. "Maybe some people do, but that's not how we make video games. We just try to see what works. But we didn't do that -- we had this problem where we were just talking about stuff."
It's not something that Ismail, or indeed any of the team, had really considered. Who would have thought that bringing together an indie dream team could create its own problems?
"I've been extremely honored working with these guys, but it's interesting that it doesn't only bring positives," he adds. "You don't really think about that when you put a team together, I suppose. You end up over-discussing and overanalyzing everything, instead of actually trying. That was unexpected, but sort of cool."
An example of this over-analysis: The team had a four hour long heated debate about adding a single name to the end game credits.
"We were moving again, but we needed to figure out how to work," says Ismail. And figure it out they did -- in a few short weeks the foursome had locked down everything from the visuals to the gameplay, and things rapidly escalated from there.
Just weeks later, the game was suddenly finished, and the team was staring at the App Store submission screen. "We couldn't really believe it," adds Ismail. "That was amazing. It was such a weird rush."
Video games releases are always a savaged bundle of emotions for their respective developers. On the one hand, there's huge elation at getting your work out to the public. On the other, there's the worry of how people will receive it, and whether anyone will actually care.
For Ismail and co., there's the added worry that the average iOS gamer will believe Ridiculous Fishing is a clone of a game they played a while back.
"Ridiculous Fishing is in this weird situation where a lot of people know about it, and they know it's related in some way to cloning, but they don't necessarily know how," he says. "So I am a bit worried about the public reception of the game. I'm not quite sure that everybody will understand that Ridiculous Fishing is the original."
But surely people will have forgotten about it by now anyway, I remark.
"We really hope that's true, but yesterday we had our first mention on Touch Arcade," Ismail responds. "The article even mentioned the clone, but there was a comment on the article that said, 'If Vlambeer gets cloned, it's the biggest news story -- but if they clone another game, it's suddenly like, whatever?'"
I flinched at this. The Rami Ismail from GDCE 2011 may well have fallen into a deep, long coma if he was able to read these sorts of comments now.
"So that is sort of worrying to me, and I don't know what we're going to do about that, except sort of explain it to everybody until they understand," he says.
In the meantime, Ismail is just happy to be making games again, and he's determined that nothing is going to shake him from that path again.
"I playtest Ridiculous Fishing every time I travel," he notes. "I'm on the train, and I find someone to playtest the game. These are people who might not know about gaming at all, or people who don't play video games, or people who are really good gamers. One time I even ran into someone who had played the clone, which was sort of painful... But you know, it's such a wide demography, and just seeing their responses... Whoever we give it to, they play, and they're having fun."
"That's so exciting," he says. "It's just so nice to be making games again."