Dutch game developer duo Vlambeer has only been making games since September of last year, but the studio has made a strong impression on fans of independent video games in that short span of time. Part of that impact has come from its games — notably Radical Fishing and Super Crate Box, a pair of free Flash-based titles that rely on simple mechanics to deliver electric play experiences. Unfortunately, the other part comes from the notoriety of having one of their games copied by another company, which proceeded to take the idea near the top of the App Store charts — while the studio was quietly creating its own iOS version of the original game.
All of the internet bickering and behind-the-scenes negotiations that resulted formed the basis of Vlambeer’s director’s commentary panel on Saturday at Fantastic Arcade, the gaming-centric portion of the Fantastic Fest film festival in Austin, Texas. Rami Ismail and Jan Willem Nijman took the stage for nearly an hour to discuss the heartbreak that followed when Gamenauts used the core game design from Radical Fishing to create App Store hit Ninja Fishing. But despite the turmoil, the pair remained both optimistic and defiant, opting to discuss the importance of iteration in the video game industry while also showing off prototypes of other unreleased games.
It’s (not) radical
Radical Fishing was released as a free online Flash game late last year, and its premise is simple but memorable. Using your mouse, you’ll guide a fishing line as far down as possible into the sea before pulling it back up and grabbing as many fish on the hook as you can. Once at the surface, the sea creatures are vaulted into the sky, giving you the opportunity to blast them to bits with a shotgun. It’s crude, but amusing — and Vlambeer was quietly working on an all-new iOS iteration titled Ridiculous Fishing, which would deliver a slick new art style and fresh mechanics to the mix.
But Vlambeer didn’t get an opportunity to introduce most of its game design to App Store users, as Gamenauts, a Bay Area developer established in 2005, beat it to the punch in early August with Ninja Fishing. While Ninja Fishing introduces a Fruit Ninja-like sword swiping system in place of the shotgun, the underwater action, upgrades, and overall concept are markedly similar to those of Vlambeer’s title. When it was first revealed in mid-July, various websites and prominent members of the indie development community quickly began calling out the similarities. Said Nijman on the realization that their beloved game design had been clearly copied for profit, “It still hurts to think about.”
The subject dominated a large chunk of what was one of the more anticipated commentary panels at Fantastic Arcade, with the pair displaying the first email Gamenauts sent following the initial internet reaction, wherein the studio claimed it was “inspired by [the] original Radical Fishing game” and that the team wanted to recognize Vlambeer within the Ninja Fishing app for providing that inspiration. In a follow-up email, the duo said Gamenauts offered them compensation as a settlement.
“We explained that we’d rather not have their money, but instead have them change their game so it wouldn’t be so much like Radical Fishing,” admitted Ismail. “Since we kind of understood that they weren’t going to do that, we proposed that they delay their game so that [Ridiculous Fishing] and their game would release at the same time — to basically give both games a equal chance in the App Store.” What followed didn’t seem to surprise the pair. “Then they sent a very polite email that basically translates to, ‘F–k you,'” said Nijman. Ninja Fishing went on to reach #5 in the App Store worldwide rankings, he noted, adding, “I guess that’s a good indication that our game design was really solid.”
Iteration vs. cloning
But rather than spend the entire panel bagging on Gamenauts and reliving the unfortunate situation, Vlambeer opted to use the situation to initiate a constructive discussion about the differences between iteration in the game industry and developers simply cloning established ideas. Using Xbox 360 mega-franchise Gears of War as an example of positive iteration, the pair explained how that shooter revised the cover system of a competitor’s earlier multiplatform console shooter, Kill.Switch. According to Ismail, it’s a prime example of iteration, in which a studio looks at an existing game design or mechanic and works to improve it and make it their own. In his view, it’s essential for the industry to continue forward.
But cloning is an entirely different subject for him. “Cloning is when a game company — or Gamenauts — looks at a game and just takes all the answers and copies them wholesale,” asserted Ismail. “That’s a clone. And it isn’t a good thing, because clones hurt.” Ismail said the two primary aspects that cloning hurts is originality and motivation, the former of which requires no explanation. But the latter was vividly demonstrated when the pair displayed a snippet from an email on the screen behind them, which was sent in the wake of the Ninja Fishing saga by Greg Wohlwend, the artist behind Solipskier’s remarkable look who is currently working on Ridiculous Fishing’s slick redesign.
“I wake up and I can’t think of working on Ridiculous Fishing without behind reminded of this ugliness,” wrote Wohlwend. “It confuses me and stops me in my tracks. There are chunks of time, maybe 20 minutes, where I can work away and try to forget about Gamenauts and Ninja Fishing. Those are nice but have been getting more infrequent.” Added Ismail about the process of working on Ridiculous Fishing, “Suddenly, these guys come along and take away [all of] the fun we had working on the project, because every time we try to open the files, we’re just reminded that somebody was cashing in with our game design, and they were getting the praise for everything we were working on for months.”
Much of the online discussion that’s followed in the past several weeks has been in black and white terms, where people either support rampant cloning or patents on game design — but Ismail and Nijman don’t see it quite so clearly, and presented three ways in which both game developers and press can work to educate players on the dangers of game cloning and stolen concepts. The first idea is to reach out to the press and have them help make the case against copycats, but Ismail warned that this isn’t always an option, as one editor he contacted shrugged off the issue in the name of his website simply being a “buyer’s guide.”
Secondly, the duo believes game developers should make their voices heard when clones are spotted, with Ismail saying that “it would be such a tragedy if one guy has this amazing idea and didn’t make it because he’s afraid to get ripped off.” And finally, they believe that informing consumers on the context of game design will make a difference, as games require creativity and considerable effort to succeed. “We need to tell players that making a video game is hard work, and making a great video game is even more work,” said Ismail. Nijman chimed in, saying, “Right now, especially in the App Store, there’s absolutely no cultural literacy for video games. People just consume them and there it ends. With any medium, we think that sometimes it’s actually more important where something is coming from and how it was made than just the final project.”
Despite strong support from video game fans, Vlambeer had its detractors in the wake of the
Ninja Fishing debacle. Some claimed that the studio should not make simple games because they’re easier to clone, to which Nijman responded, “We believe in minimalist game design – we think you can still make simple games that are new and that work.” And furthermore, some commenters espoused the belief that Vlambeer should not have shown its hand by releasing games for free online. In a defiant turn, Ismail said, “Just as a general ‘f–k you’ to these people, we’re going to show some of our upcoming prototypes.”
What followed were rough sketches of a couple of playable games that may or may not ever see the light of day, the first of which was Yeti Hunter, a pixel-centric first-person hunting game where you’ll hunt the fantastical creature in the falling snow. The other title was FFFLOOD, which sounds like a take on the tower defense genre, though the pair were reticent to nail down exactly what it is at this point. Whatever it may be, it certainly bears the same kind of bizarre humor found in Radical Fishing, as Nijman explained, “It’s a science fiction game where you’re cleaning out all the native animals on planets to build holiday resorts”
Neither may actually come to market, but Vlambeer remains incredibly busy in the meantime, as it is preparing for next month’s PC release of Serious Sam: The Random Encounter, a lo-fi role-playing take on the popular shooter franchise that rounds out a recent series of indie spinoffs. Ridiculous Fishing should follow sometime soon after that, plus the studio is putting the last touches on an iOS version of Super Crate Box, which is being co-produced by The Blocks Cometh developer Halfbot, which fought through its own App Store cloning saga back in January.
What was particularly encouraging about the panel was that in spite of all the nastiness that has emerged from the Gamenauts run-in, the Vlambeer duo remain largely positive and optimistic about their bright future, as well as the importance of game studios building upon and improving existing ideas. Said Nijman in a memorable exchange, “Video games can be whatever you want them to be. I guess everybody here knows that, but it’s still a great thing and we should never forget that.”