Feature Excerpt: The final, terrifying days of launching Ridiculous Fishing

Excerpted from the forthcoming feature "Cloned at Birth: The Story of Ridiculous Fishing," publishing next week at Polygon.

It is 2013. After three years of frustration and anxiety, and seeing its game cloned (to great success) by developer Gamenauts, indie developer Vlambeer is just days away from releasing its iOS game Ridiculous Fishing. The only challenge left: getting people to notice it.

The Apple App Store is full of games. Imagine it as the cavernous warehouse where the Lost Ark ends up after Indiana Jones raids it, and you won't too be far off. The App Store contains thousands upon thousands of games, and more than a hundred new ones are added every single day.

As a result, there are two main ways to get a game noticed: either sell enough to break the top five, or somehow convince Apple to "feature" it. Vlambeer's developers are counting on their high profile and previous sales of Super Crate Box to make it an easy choice for Apple to feature Ridiculous Fishing. Turns out they aren't the only ones with this strategy.

The App Store contains thousands upon thousands of games, and more than a hundred new ones are added every single day.

Gamenauts, the developer that launched clone Ninja Fishing, is also releasing a new game — on the exact same day as Vlambeer. And the success of its Ninja Fishing — cloned, as it was, from Vlambeer's Radical Fishing — could be enough to earn Gamenauts the feature, instead of Vlambeer.

Vlambeer is terrified at the prospect.

For three long years, the development of Ridiculous Fishing has been dogged by the creeping insecurity borne of being cloned. Two brief months of furious focus and the encouragement of its all-star team have helped Vlambeer to cast aside its doubts, but with the news that Gamenauts is once again in the picture, all of the negativity, anxiety and panic come rushing right back. For these passionate and creative developers, it is a crushing emotional blow.

"I just switched off all my emotions," says Jan Willem Nijman, the design half of Vlambeer. "Those weeks after submission, I just spent them sleeping and spending time with my girlfriend and cooking dinner ... and more sleeping."

Although Gamenauts's upcoming game, Castle Champions, may not be a clone (and certainly isn't a clone of anything made by Vlambeer), the release of the game on the exact same day as Ridiculous Fishing can't help but make Vlambeer feel that, once again, the cloners will win.

"I just switched off all my emotions."

Vlambeer business half Rami Ismail reaches out to Gamenauts, begging it to reschedule its launch. The company emails back, saying that it can't be done. Castle Champions is coming.

"This was ... a moment at which it would [have been] the right thing to delay their game," says Ismail. "And they didn't."

"I was super worried. I was like, 'Why do we deserve this?'" says Nijman. "'Why fight those guys again?' Then Rami just texted me one morning like, 'All right, I'm gonna stop caring about it.' And I decided the same. That was a really good decision."

Yet in spite of his advice to Nijman, Ismail is deeply concerned. He believes that if Gamenauts gets the feature instead of Vlambeer, the fault will be his. His message to Nijman is less a pronouncement of his own Zen-like attitude than a way to put Nijman at ease. In Ismail's mind, it's no one's problem but his own.

"I was super worried. I was like, 'Why do we deserve this?'"

Ismail is the business half of Vlambeer; the marketing half. Nijman had done his part, designing the game. Greg Wohlwend made it pretty. Zach Gage made it work on iOS. Eirik Suhrke made the music. The team of once-unknown indies-turned-all-stars has done their part. Now they're all counting on Ismail to make sure that people play the game they worked so hard to create — and he's not sure if he'll be able to.

Marketing is what Ismail does. He's the expert. He travels the world giving speeches about it. If he gets beaten by the people who cloned Vlambeer's game — because of the success of that cloned game — it will be more than a letdown; it will be a catastrophic personal failure.

"That would be such a stab," says Ismail. "We did everything ... I literally didn't sleep for three days before the launch, just working and making sure that every reviewer and every website and every person that I could send the game to had the game."

If they get beaten by the people who cloned their game — because of the success of that cloned game — it will be a catastrophic personal failure.

In the end, it won't matter. Just days before launch, Ismail learns of another game coming out on the very same day: Noodlecake Studios' Super Stickman Golf 2. Now it's no longer Vlambeer versus Gamenauts; it's Vlambeer versus Gamenauts versus Noodlecake, and somehow this makes everyone sleep easier.

"That sort of reassured me that it was either going to be us or [Noodlecake], and not that other game," says Ismail. "Because Super Stickman Golf 2 ... that has way too much hype."

"That made us think again, 'All right. Good games come out any time. That's the nature of things in the App Store,'" says Nijman. "If it's those guys [who get the feature], no problem."

Launch day comes and Ismail's hard work pays off: Early reviews of Ridiculous Fishing pour in within minutes after the game's release. The results: Astronomically high praise and near-universal perfect scores.

Ridiculous Fishing currently sits at a 92 Metacritic average, making it the highest-rated iOS game of 2013. Higher than Castle Champions. Higher, even, than Super Stickman Golf 2.

After three years and more than its fair share of setbacks, Vlambeer has finally made it.

This has been excerpted from the forthcoming feature "Cloned at Birth: The Story of Ridiculous Fishing," publishing next week at Polygon.

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