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."