Over two years of interviews, Vlambeer tells Polygon the inside story of how it beat the clones and launched the best-reviewed iOS game of 2013.
"I think 'overwhelmed' is the right word," says Rami Ismail, the business half of Dutch design duo Vlambeer.
The interview is over. The story, told in pieces at least a hundred times in bars, at hamburger joints, on stages and in private circles of up-and-coming game developers, has now been told for the first time in its entirety. It is a story about the little guy getting bullied and making a stand. And winning.
It is the story of Ridiculous Fishing, and how two men from the Netherlands rallied the worldwide community of independent game developers to take on the practice of game cloning and reclaim their invention to launch what will become (for a time) the best-reviewed iOS game of 2013.
Only when the tale is told, all at once, in a rush, do the men themselves fully realize the weight of it.
"We're overwhelmed," says Ismail, again. As if somehow in the repetition of the word he'll find a way through the sensation to a place where he can rationalize how he's feeling.
"We don't really know what happened. We know we worked really hard to get here, and we know what we went through to release this game in the end. To see everything pan out like this ..."
"I'm finally starting to not be ill anymore after the launch," interjects Jan Willem ("JW") Nijman, the design half of Vlambeer. He's laughing, but it's not the "haha" kind of laugh; it's the "ohgod" kind.
"It's ... It's weird," Ismail adds. His voice, typically a loud, booming wave erupting from the center of his six-foot-plus frame is beginning to crumble. His next words come almost as a whisper. "It's really, really nice."
That's when a curious thing happens: These two — known for being rambunctious, irreverent, insubordinate and for never shutting up — stop talking. They just sit, staring and thinking — reeling in the wake of the tragedy-turned-triumph they've just relived.
It happens suddenly, like the end of a hard rain. Then, after a long pause, Ismail opens his mouth to speak, then stops. He looks away and the tears begin to fall.
Human Angle: Cloned at Birth
Act One: You and I would call it stealing
Ridiculous Fishing was stolen. That's what you and I would call it. In game development (particularly in the Wild West of mobile game development), they call it "cloning." Basically, someone took the guts of the game, made it look different, then sold it as their own. This is a common practice. And it's legal, in short, because it is not yet illegal.
Here's what happened, in a nutshell:
Vlambeer made a Flash-based game it called Radical Fishing. In it, you control a tiny fisherman sitting in a boat, with a fishing line. Your line falls into the water, you pull up fish and then you shoot them with guns to earn points. It is rough-looking, and not quite perfect, but it is undeniably fun.
The idea for Radical Fishing came from Nijman, who, while watching a television program about tuna fisherman, wondered what might happen if he were to mix the slow-motion photography and drama of hauling big fish out of the ocean with the mechanics of a shooting game like Duck Hunt.
"These guys were sitting in the boat, whipping in loads of tuna and it was all beautiful, HD, slow-motion footage of fish floating through the air, and it sorta clicked," Nijman tells Polygon in a 2012 interview. "And basically I took a piece of paper and I wrote that entire design of Radical Fishing and it hasn't changed since."
Vlambeer sold Radical Fishing as a Flash game to a web gaming hub in 2010, retaining the rights to produce its own version for Apple devices.
Exactly one year later, the game appeared on Apple devices as planned. Only it wasn't Vlambeer's port of the game. Ismail and Nijman hadn't yet made it.
Radical Fishing had been cloned by a company named Gamenauts and released for iOS as Ninja Fishing — and it became an overnight sensation. The art had been changed and the game had been renamed, but it was in every other way the same game Vlambeer had created. And it was being sold as if it were an original creation. But it was a clone.
"We found out the hard way that creativity is fragile."
Game mechanics (i.e. what makes a game actually a game) are not protected by copyrights. Had the cloners copied Radical Fishing's art or title, Vlambeer could have sued, and probably would have won. As it was, however, "all" Gamenauts copied was the beating heart of the game, which is programming code, which is barely understood by laymen, much less the people who adjudicate legal issues.
Ismail and Nijman were devastated.
"It was pretty soul-crushing," Ismail says, in 2012. "We found out the hard way that creativity is fragile. People say, 'Well, you guys are creative. You can make up new stuff. You'll be fine.' But that's not really the way it works. I remember us sitting there for at least a few weeks being completely demotivated."
Nijman started to wonder if game design was a worthwhile career in the first place. When someone can come along and take an idea that you've created and sell it as their own, with no consequences, what's the point of creating?
"If [we got cloned] a few times, I would definitely quit and become a doctor or do something else," Nijman says, "because I would think, [as a game designer] I'm not able to add anything meaningful to the world."
Over the next three years, Vlambeer will work to reclaim its game and re-release it as its own. It will be the hardest thing either Ismail or Nijman will ever do. And it will almost destroy them.
Jan Willem "JW" Nijman is the "design half" of Vlambeer.
Act Two: Games no one plays
Vlambeer's origin story sounds like the start of a romantic comedy. They met on a train, hated each other instantly, then, over the course of a slow and argumentative year at school together, came around.
"I was telling a story about stuff I'd been working on, and there was this hooded guy sitting next to me on the train," says Ismail. He and Nijman are sitting for an interview in an empty room overlooking San Francisco. When asked to sit together, the pair, without speaking, pick up their chairs and move them apart.
The still-hooded Nijman, leaning back in a chair tilted up on two legs, explains that he was tired of hearing Ismail bragging.
"He was super annoying," Nijman says. "And it was 9 o'clock in the morning."
"We still don't actually agree about anything except for the most high-level stuff."
"Suddenly that guy said, 'Just shut the hell up,'" says Ismail.
The Dutch duo is interviewing for a documentary film in a quiet corner of the Moscone Center in San Francisco. It's March 2012, the week of the Game Developers Conference. They have flown all the way from Utrecht, the Netherlands to attend the annual gathering of game developers. They are also nominated for an award.
Ismail, on the train, was recounting his modest successes in marketing independent space sims. Nijman, more of an artist than a businessman, lashed out. He dismissed Ismail for being too commercial.
In spite of hating each other, the two stayed in contact — somehow — and slowly, bit by bit, came to acknowledge each other's areas of expertise. Then they quit school and founded Vlambeer, where Nijman creates the game designs and Ismail does the marketing. And they still argue.
"We still don't actually agree about anything except for the most high-level stuff," says Ismail.
"You're the business guy; I'm the designer," says Nijman. "If you try to convince me of something about game design, you'd better come with really good arguments or it's not going to make it in."
"I make the business decisions and he makes the design decisions," Ismail explains, revealing his tactful approach to managing Vlambeer's marketing efforts: translating Nijman's "no bullshit" authoritative bark into something that might look better on a business plan. This is how they function.
"If we disagree with something that the other guy is doing, we can try to convince the other guy, but if [Nijman] has a design decision and he completely believes that's the right thing, he's the designer. I trust this guy to do the right thing. ... We still disagree about everything. I think if somebody randomly walked into the office in Utrecht they would probably assume we were going to murder each other within two weeks."
It's this separation of powers (particularly Ismail's focus on the necessary evil of marketing) that Nijman believes is the secret to their success.
"Everybody wants to have a Rami to do their business development."
"I don't want to be dealing with business stuff," Nijman says. "I don't want to be signing contracts. I don't want to be paying rent and doing taxes. I just want to make games. Rami doesn't mind doing that stuff. ... It's part of his life, and that's great. We both clash over a lot of things, but the part where we're running the company, everything works well."
Nijman says he knows a lot of people who make great games, but can't get a deal, or get anyone to even play their games. No one has heard of them. Some of that can be solved by marketing, but some of it has to do with the games themselves.
When Vlambeer formed, Ismail introduced Nijman to the idea of accessibility: making games that people could understand, instead of "arty" games that only made sense to other game developers. It's one thing to make a game that's technically amazing, but if, on picking it up or even looking at it, a player can't tell why it's great, then they won't care. Before forming Vlambeer, Nijman's games weren't very accessible. Now they are, thanks to Ismail.
"Having a Rami actually became sort of a thing," says Nijman. "Everybody wants to have a Rami to do their business development."
Act Three: Things that express who we are
Rami Ismail is the "business half" of Vlambeer.
Rami Ismail is a big man, in every way. Tall, thick, bearded. To know him is to be hugged by him. Often, and vigorously. His lantern jaw is almost always set in a wide smile; his large, dark eyes are alive with feeling.
Like a lot of game developers, Ismail started playing games when he was very young. His family bought a computer, and he claimed it. His favorite game was about gorillas throwing explosive bananas at one another, but to run it, he had to open up a programming console and manually input the code. This got him to thinking about how programming code works, and what it does. Then he started tinkering.
"I started messing around with all the letters on my screen, because I didn't know what they were," Ismail says. "That changed the game. Suddenly the background color wasn't blue. It was red. That was a little puzzle."
Ismail didn't know any programming languages, and wasn't good at math. But puzzles intrigued him. So he kept rearranging the game code, changing the color of the gorilla game and the way it played. Before long, he was making his own games, each one bigger and bigger.
"I started messing around with all the letters on my screen, because I didn't know what they were. That changed the game."
Then he had a realization: "At some point I realized I didn't want to do bigger things. I just want to make little things that help me express who I am and what I do and why I do it."
That's when he met Nijman on a train and (eventually) formed Vlambeer.
"The best feeling about doing this is when ... you've released a game and you read some response on the internet, or you see a video of somebody playing the game, and they get it," says Ismail. "That moment: it's sort of an appreciation thing, I suppose. When people appreciate what you do and they let you know — they take the time to let you know — for me that's the best feeling ever."
"Making stuff has always been my thing," Nijman says. "I never played with Legos. I just built stuff and my friends played with it. That's a feeling that I love. It's not a game until someone is playing it. You need that player in the system to finish it."
Nijman had a similar path into games as Ismail. He was 10 when he got his hands on a computer magazine for kids, where he saw an ad for a program called GameMaker. He bought the program and, true to its name, it allowed him to make games. He started by modifying a simple driving game by changing the horn effect to the sound of a cow.
"I was just driving around going, 'Moo! Moo! Moo!'" Nijman says. "I was super excited, like, 'Hey, I made a game!'"
His interest waned, and years passed, but he eventually picked GameMaker up again and still uses it to this day. He says it's a terrible program, but he doesn't know any programming languages and doesn't want to learn them.
"It just takes so damn long," he says.
"I was just driving around going, 'Moo! Moo! Moo!'" Nijman says. "I was super excited, like, 'Hey, I made a game!'"
"They're kind of like two sides of a coin," says their friend and collaborator Zach Gage. Gage has been working with Vlambeer on Ridiculous Fishing, helping port the Radical Fishing concept to iOS. He is also the creator of SpellTower. "[Nijman] is kind of a fucking genius with game mechanics. It's actually really disturbing.
"[Ismail's] a really savvy businessperson. I do a lot of my own iPhone stuff and I don't really think about a lot of the things he thinks about. It's good just to be able to ask questions of someone like that."
Vlambeer has a motto, or, rather, Ismail has a motto, which he relentlessly insists belongs to Vlambeer: "Make better games, not bigger games."
It's a motto that fits the times. Everyone caries a computer in their pocket, and most of those computers are full of games. Vlambeer's games fit right in.
"As long as our newest game is always better than the previous one, we're happy," says Ismail. "They don't need to be successful."
But successful or not, Vlambeer wants its games to be noticed. That's what made the cloning incident so frustrating for the pair.
"People [were] saying that it was such a great original game," says Nijman. "They were talking about the clone."
Vlambeer decided to do something about it.
While the pair kept busy making a new version of their original Radical Fishing for Apple devices called Ridiculous Fishing, they were also working on a new game called Super Crate Box. Super Crate Box was released in 2012 and became a modest hit. The duo started getting noticed.
Ridiculous Fishing, in its prototype stages, started making the rounds of indie game development showcases. It got nominated for an award at the prestigious Independent Games Festival at GDC. Ismail and Nijman started doing interviews. And everywhere they went, they talked about the cloning of Radical Fishing.
At the 2012 GDC, Ismail gave a lecture to a standing-room-only audience about what happened with Radical Fishing and why cloning was a disaster in the making for independent games.
What happened next would be appropriately termed an upswelling of outrage.
Act Four: Like murdering yourself
"People don't realize games are made by people," Ismail says.
Ismail and Nijman are standing on stage at the 2012 GDC. It has been just under a year since Gamenauts launched its cloned version of Radical Fishing.
The room is one of the larger presentation rooms at the Moscone Center. It seats about 200, with many more crowded in along the walls and clogging up the aisles.
Vlambeer made its first pilgrimage to GDC in 2011. It had been nominated for an IGF award for Super Crate Box. (It didn't win.) Yet in spite of the IGF nomination, no one knew Vlambeer. It was one of many new and unproven design teams, passing out business cards and trying to prove that "indie" was even a thing, much less a potentially successful thing.
The next year is different. When Ismail and Nijman arrive in San Francisco in the spring of 2012, people know who they are. They know Super Crate Box and Ridiculous Fishing, and how these two unlikely Dutchmen have become the poster boys for both the burgeoning indie scene and the mounting counter-assault on game cloning.
"It's crazy to see how much appreciation you get," Nijman says. "All year [in the Netherlands] we're not hearing anything except for internet stuff, and now someone stops me and gives me a T-shirt because he likes Super Crate Box. It's crazy. ... It's super inspiring. I'll go home happy and full of ideas, and not tired like the way I got here."
The 2012 GDC is a whirlwind of exposure for Vlambeer, and the pair's talk on cloning is the main event.
As Ismail and Nijman speak, more than 200 sets of eyes track them, and more than 200 sets of ears hang on every word. Many in the audience are wearing ribbons created by noted academic and game designer Ian Bogost in support of Vlambeer that read, "Don't clone my indie game bro."
Ismail says the discussion on cloning has stalemated, in part because it is "filled with logical fallacies."
Ismail prepares to tell the GDC crowd to get over themselves.
He then proceeds to list those fallacies and blow them apart.
"Clones are necessary for progress," reads one slide. "False," says Ismail. Iteration is necessary for progress, and cloning stifles iteration by producing ... well, clones, not iterations.
Next: Simple games will inevitably be cloned. "Fuck that," says Ismail.
Step by step, he refutes the claims that have been levied against independent creators by the people who clone games. The room is silent, save for sporadic murmurs of assent and occasional laughter.
"Clones are necessary for progress," reads one slide. "False,"
"Clones are free marketing," Ismail intones, reciting the most offensive argument in favor of cloning. "Um, yeah, no."
"When we release our game, we're going to get a lot of shit from people saying, 'You ripped off that game,'" says Nijman. "That's not free marketing. That's like murdering yourself."
The bottom line, says Ismail, is that clones hurt the industry. They stifle innovation, damage reputations and force original, creative developers out of business.
Then he stops talking and steps away from the microphone. The applause is deafening.
Two hundred sets of hands, 200 vocal chords, 200 standing ovations. If this is not yet the death of cloning, it is at least a shot heard around the game industry.
Vlambeer has spoken — and people are listening.
Act Five: It's just a snowflake
"We're going to release a game in three hours, right here, from this place," says Ismail. "Which is a ridiculous thing to do."
The day after Vlambeer's emphatic speech on cloning in 2012, the Dutch duo is back to work, showing off Ridiculous Fishing at the IGF booth in the crowded GDC expo hall, and, at the same time, putting the finishing touches on a game Nijman has been working on in his spare time: Yeti Hunter.
They plan to release Yeti Hunter, live, from the GDC show floor. Because they can.
"We're going to release Yeti Hunter into the world," says Ismail. He's huddled on the floor near a power outlet, surrounded by a circle of indie developers, holding an iPad in one hand and typing on a laptop with another. He's in charge of making the website; meanwhile Nijman, beside him, is still finishing the game.
Yeti Hunter is a "realistic yeti hunting simulation," according to Ismail. Nijman has been working on it for some time, but the duo decided on its way to the GDC that this would be the day to unleash it into the wild.
Ismail has been ill the past two days, suffering from a premature version of the traditional "nerd flu" that afflicts many attendees of game conventions. He's spent most of the morning incommunicado, prompting some concern that he might possibly be dead. Worse, Ridiculous Fishing, the game Vlambeer is supposed to be showing off at its booth, currently lives on Ismail's iPad, which he has with him. The Vlambeer booth has no game to show until he arrives.
"What we know is that Rami went out last night to some parties, and then we haven't heard from him," said Zach Gage, less than an hour before. "So hopefully he's OK and hopefully he gets here soon with [his] iPad."
Ismail is OK, and he does arrive with his iPad — just several hours late. But judging from his level of energy, and the speed with which he leaps to work, you would never know he spent the morning throwing up.
Now he's working alongside Nijman to launch Yeti Hunter. It's part publicity stunt, part exercise in controlled chaos. And both men look to be having the time of their lives.
Indie developer Zach Gage, a star in his own right, helped Vlambeer with the iOS version of Ridiculous Fishing.
Ismail checks his phone, responding to tweets, laughing. You get the feeling that he saves up all year for this level of excitement. He'd almost have to.
"GDC in general, and the Independent Games Festival, are really nice places, with people that are really open-minded," Ismail says, the cacophony of the expo hall surging around him. He steals an occasional sideways glance to eyeball a "hello" to someone passing by. Vlambeer's booth is stacked two or three deep with people waiting to play Ridiculous Fishing.
"A lot of times you think you see the yeti, but it turns out to be a snowflake. Which is kind of the point of the game."
"Last year was really different," Ismail says. "This year Vlambeer has grown so much. People know us. We know people. We're amongst friends. We know so many more people that it's kind of scary how big Vlambeer has gotten."
Ismail gets called away to do another interview. "Don't break my website," he shouts, as he hurries away and a friend takes over the HTML coding. "I don't want penises on my background."
Yeti Hunter is a simple game. The goal is to find and kill the yeti. This is not easy. The yeti rarely appears. In practice, the game is mostly very long and incredibly boring.
"It's actually very hard to hunt the yeti," Nijman says. "A lot of times you think you see one, but it turns out to be a snowflake. Which is kind of the point of the game."
Later, Vlambeer will attend the IGF Awards ceremony, where Ridiculous Fishing is up for "Best Mobile Game." It will not win, and the duo knows it. For now, all they care about is the yeti. Because after this, there's nothing to look forward to but the long ride back home — and finally finishing Ridiculous Fishing.
The months ahead will be the most difficult and challenging of their lives, and they will come close to calling it quits for good.
Intermission: The soap box
The tears are still wet when the hugs begin.
It is 2013. The cameras have stopped rolling, and Ismail is out of his chair, dragging everyone within reach of his long arms into his embrace.
Ismail is the soul of Vlambeer, and, some would argue, of the indie game community itself. He and Nijman organize indie get-togethers in their home town of Utrecht. They work out of a building full of other indie developers, and Ismail is a central figure in the indie collective "Megabooth," which pitches a triple-A sized tent at the Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) and PAX East.
Everywhere he goes, he brings a smile and a hug. He is not a man you would imagine being sad, and today is no exception. Ismail's tears are borne of gladness; of amazement. Of disbelief and wonder. They are the tears of a man who has seen a day he never believed would come, and who, upon seeing it, realizes he never quite knew just how badly he wanted it.
Vlambeer has emerged from under a dark cloud that has been shadowing it for nearly three years. It's finished a game it thought had been stolen from it, and launched it to near-universal acclaim.
All Ismail can say is, "It's ... It's weird. It's really, really nice."
Hours earlier, Ismail was again on the GDC stage, in a room similarly sized to the one he wowed in 2012, but this time as part of a collective. Ismail was giving a five-minute lecture as part of the "Microtalks." His topic: Marketing.
"As indies, there is this sphere of influence that we have, both as individual developers and as a scene," Ismail tells the crowd. "It's a sphere of people that we can reach by our own means. Those developers and gamers and members of the press and our fans are the people that we can rely on to be at least peripherally interested in what we make and what we say and what we aspire to. They're the people that you can count on to spread the word when you release a game."
Ismail is easing into the punch. He's about to tell these gathered independent developers something they don't want to hear. He's about to tell them to get over themselves.
Ismail lives in perpetual motion, always running late, rarely reachable.
"I want to give a talk about how developers should go to more public-facing events, consumer-facing events; things that aren't GDC," Rami told Polygon just before he took the stage.
He was wandering the crowded hallways of the Moscone Center, chatting with passers-by, trailing cameras. He was stalling for time, as he does, because he didn't want to think too much about his speech before he had to deliver it.
Ismail lives in perpetual motion, always running late, rarely reachable. Yet somehow he's always where he needs to be, when he needs to be there. Ready to spout wisdom about the industry that somehow no one else manages to see.
"We need to reach out more to gamers, because they're the people that play our games," he said. "The Indie Megabooth just did so much to help people learn about indie games. They come by our booth and say, 'Thank you for Ridiculous Fishing and thank you for being in this area, because I saw like five new games I never heard about that look really cool.'"
Shortly afterwards, more or less the exact same words come out of his mouth, into a microphone and to the ears of the patient GDC crowd of his collected peers.
"You owe it to your game to try and reach as many people that would like to play it," Ismail says. "Not only will more people get to interact with your game, but those people are also more likely to be interested in your next big thing. The more people that play your game, the more likely you are to be able to support yourself financially while making new games."
Ismail encourages the collected indies to reach beyond themselves and their comfortable spheres of influence, to attend events like PAX, to show off their games and expose themselves to new games they might not have seen. To grow, in other words, commercially and creatively.
To do, in other words, what Vlambeer did.
"As an open invitation to all of you, let's meet up at the next big one. Thank you."
The applause, again, is deafening.
Act Six: Against the wall
Artist Greg Wohlwend moved in with Gage in New York City, working 14 hour days to finish Ridiculous Fishing.
It is 2012. For Ismail and Nijman, GDC has ended with a whimper. The parties are over and they're in a plane, on the long journey home. That they'll soon be home in Utrecht, back among dozens of friends and making games is little consolation. At GDC, they were among thousands of friends ... and making games.
"The end of GDC is always a bit of the same," Ismail says. "When you go home after you've been in an environment like this, where all your heroes are here and all your inspirations are here and you get to talk to everybody that you look up to and people get to talk to you ... then you go home and you sit at home ... and you sit at home. 'Well, I'm sitting at home.' That's it."
After GDC 2012, Vlambeer will sit at home for months. The duo will sink into a deep, dark depression over being cloned, and it will struggle to finish the game that has been the source of both its recent rise to fame and its greatest suffering.
On the plane home, Nijman distracts himself by doing what he always does: developing a game. This time, it's an airplane combat game called Luftrausers. He's in an airplane, watching the clouds, and the beauty of his view inspires him. Also, he can't afford to fly on planes that have TVs.
Upon arriving home, the post-GDC depression sets in. Worse, it's combined with the realization that after all of the drama and publicity, Vlambeer must now figure out a way to actually finish Ridiculous Fishing.
Its first strategy: Do something else.
Ismail and Nijman concoct a plan for a "really large game," that will tie in everything they know about game design and social networks. It will be the biggest project they have ever undertaken — the perfect distraction.
They begin budgeting and planning. The work consumes them, but doesn't make Nijman happy. The work no longer interests him. In part of his mind, he knows the work is an illusory distraction from what he really ought to be working on: Ridiculous Fishing. Tired of chasing his white whale, he's tried to ignore it. Now it's chasing him instead.
At one of their own indie meet-ups in Utrecht, Ismail and Nijman are so absorbed in their attempt to ignore Ridiculous Fishing that they end up ignoring their own party instead. Their friends are floating around them, chatting and happy, meanwhile the duo stand against a wall in deep discussion over the future of Vlambeer, oblivious.
They haven't thought through the plans for their "big game." They know they want it to be multiplayer, and "big," but they aren't sure of anything other than that. They don't want to work on it anymore, and the frustration is causing them to remember that they also have another game waiting to be finished — Ridiculous Fishing — but they don't want to work on that one either. It's too painful.
Ismail and Nijman are literally and figuratively against a wall. The long shadow of the clone has followed Vlambeer all the way to Utrecht, and the duo have no idea how to get out from under it. Making games isn't fun anymore, but it's all they know how to do.
Ismail, Nijman, Zach Gage and artist Greg Wohlwend are each still working separately on Ridiculous Fishing, but sporadically and in different directions. One of them will get motivated to work on the game, make a little progress, get discouraged, then give it up, like some Sisyphean relay race. Only the rock keeps getting nudged in random directions, and all of them are getting crushed.
Vlambeer decides to kill the "big project" and move on. It gives itself an ultimatum: Finish Ridiculous Fishing.
Act Seven: Shouting at cows
It is 2012, August. Ismail, Gage and Wohlwend are in Seattle for PAX. After the convention, they decide to drive to New York. The trip will take them a week.
"We bought a megaphone and shouted at cows," says Ismail. "It was a pretty good trip. We realized that by the time we got to New York, we'd either hate each other forever or we'd work on [Ridiculous Fishing].
"It turned out that we worked on the game."
Wohlwend moves in with Gage in New York City and the two buckle down to focus on Ridiculous Fishing. Their enthusiasm spreads across the Atlantic, infecting Nijman, galvanizing the entire team to ship or die trying.
Nijman is waking up at 9 a.m. every day and going to bed later and later every night. Eventually he's only getting four hours of sleep, but he isn't tired. He's energized by the adrenaline, and the excitement of finally making progress on Ridiculous Fishing.
"We bought a megaphone and shouted at cows," says Ismail. "It was a pretty good trip"
Meanwhile, Gage and Wohlwend, who were relatively unknown outside of indie circles when work began on Ridiculous Fishing, are both contending with the increasing demands of their own growing careers. Since Ridiculous Fishing started development, both have shipped best-selling games of their own. Gage's SpellTower is one of the best-selling iOS games of 2012, breaking the indie barrier to reach grandmothers and aunts and people who don't typically play indie games.
Wohlwend, meanwhile, has helped ship Hundreds, another best-seller on iOS. Even composer Eirik Suhrke has landed a best-seller, creating the score for XBLA game Spelunky.
In a way, the hiatus of Ridiculous Fishing has been the start of the most fertile period of each of its creators' lives. Now, as indie superstars, they are reunited and picking up where they left off. Nijman spends the last few weeks of development adding fish, changing the algorithms and generally making the game more fun. Somewhere along the way someone has an idea for an in-game, Twitter-like messaging system. They call it Byrdr.
After years of frustration and anxiety, the creativity is coming together in a flood. In spite of the chaos — or perhaps because of it — the remainder of Ridiculous Fishing comes together smoothly, leaving Vlambeer, Gage and Wohlwend feeling like they've conquered the world.
Ismail, in New York, submits the game to Apple for approval, then rushes to catch a plane home to the Netherlands. After three years and innumerable obstacles, it looks to the team like the dark times are finally over.
Act Eight: "Why do we deserve this?"
It is 2013. Vlambeer is days away from releasing
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.
Gamenauts, the developer that launched 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 their 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 Nijman. "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.
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.
Ismail is the business half of Vlambeer; the marketing half. Nijman had done his part, designing the game. Wohlwend made it pretty. Gage made it work on iOS. 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.
"It would have been the right thing to delay their game. And they didn't."
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."
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.
"Everything exploded," says Ismail. "Instantly."
Vlambeer makes the typically Vlambeer-esque decision to accompany the launch of Ridiculous Fishing with a live stream from its office in Utrecht. The result is an evening of chaos and joy; a release of years of pent-up frustration and anxiety, shared with the world.
Leading up to the launch, Vlambeer commissions a series of trailers. The first, a seven-second Vine video, simply shows off the gameplay.
"A lot of people loved that because we didn't waste their time at all," says Nijman. "We just showed them what the game was. This game actually translates really well to seven seconds."
The second trailer is a full 90 seconds. Both are featured during the live stream, along with an alternate reality game created to showcase Ridiculous Fishing's in-game messaging network, Byrdr.
"The launch [stream] itself was just us being nervous, streaming ourselves from our office and sitting all night behind our computers," says Nijman. "Playing some of our old games, playing Ridiculous Fishing and talking to people in the chat."
"Around 4 a.m. we started this Skype conversation with everybody that worked on the team live on Twitch.tv," says Ismail. "So it was me and [Nijman] and Greg Wohlwend and Zach Gage and ... Kert Gartner, who did the trailer, and Eirik, who did the music, and Maré Odomo, who did the comic in the game. We got all those people together and we started talking and joking.
"Then, at the moment we were supposed to launch, we opened the Apple iTunes site where we can press the big green button that says 'Release This Game.' I clicked 'Release This Game' and then I instantly switched over to the FTP programs to watch the website and send press releases to everybody that needed them."
Nijman in search of food at GDC in 2013.
After a quick detour to fix some broken links on the website and upload a Vimeo trailer ("I actually forgot to push the Vimeo trailer live," says Ismail), the game, finally, is out in the world.
"Then the reviews started rolling in," says Nijman.
Ten out of 10. Nine out of 10. Five out of five. Perfect scores from Gamezebo, Destructoid, Joystiq, MacLife, Touch Arcade and more. The scores from the European press are in the 80s — and that's as low as the scores go.
Ridiculous Fishing, by any critical measure, is a success.
"Immediately after launch, we knew that things were going really well," says Ismail. "An hour after launch, we got the first sales stats, and we were at 40 in the App Store rankings. Games don't launch at 40. They launch at like 120-something and then they move up over the course of a day. But we instantly appeared at 40, so we were like, 'What just happened?'
"Then things kept getting more and more overwhelming."
Ridiculous Fishing wins the coveted feature in the Apple App Store. It appears at the very top of the page.
Nijman tries to read the incoming reviews aloud on the live stream, but he can't get all the way through them because of his excitement.
"I was sitting there and it took me half an hour," Nijman says. "Someone would say a word on the Skype and I was like, 'Aw, man, I have to read this all over again!'"
The critical response is overwhelming. Both men barely manage to keep themselves from throwing up. ("I threw up the next day," says Nijman.) After the long struggle to overcome the initial cloning, the setbacks and their own depression, they can barely believe they've actually finished the game, and that people like it.
"I got my emotions back," says Nijman. "It was kind of cool."
"Everybody turned it into a statement of things that they feel or think about the game industry."
Word spreads quickly. In the days following the launch, Twitter is alive with mentions of Ridiculous Fishing. People who don't typically play indie games are playing it. The actor Elijah Wood tweets about it — he's playing it, too.
Ismail sees someone playing Ridiculous Fishing on an airplane. He's too embarrassed to say hello, but inside, he's beaming. Within days, Ridiculous Fishing becomes the most successful game Vlambeer has ever made.
"Ridiculous Fishing reached outside of the sort of bubble that we exist in," says Ismail. "Everybody turned it into a statement. Whether it was a statement on cloning, or a statement on how you can make good games ... on iOS ... people turned it into this icon of things that they feel or think about the game industry."
Recounting the story, Ismail and Nijman can again barely contain their emotions. They are talking over each other, finishing each other's sentences. The generally effusive Ismail is growing silent with feeling and the normally reserved Nijman is excited, bouncing in his chair and smiling.
It's clear that neither man has yet had the opportunity to think about the three-year saga of Ridiculous Fishing in its entirety, as an event that, like their game, has a beginning, a middle and an end. In the process of sharing the story, they are struck by the realization that they are at the end of it and the magnitude of their redemption suddenly hits them.
For Ismail, typically, he sees it first through the experiences of fans. He laughs and shakes his head, his eyes bright with the beginnings of tears.
"People, whether they're developers or gamers, they want to let us know and reassure us that creativity, in the end, does win," Ismail says. "Making games because you want to make games, instead of making games as just a way to earn money, is the better way to be doing this."
Nijman interrupts: "I'm not sure it's a Hollywood happy ending, because we're already super lucky. We have a game company. We make games. We can live off that. We don't have to do shitty jobs.
"But now we've found our spirits back. People are loving our game, which ... I didn't expect that at all."
Epilogue: Not a Hollywood ending
It is 2013, April. An airplane fighting game is released on the App Store. It is not Vlambeer's.
The upcoming Luftrausers, the game Nijman created while sitting on a plane, has been cloned mere weeks before it is due to be released. It's happening again.
"We simply can't deal with the stress of another cloned game," Ismail writes to Polygon, "so we've gotten in touch with Apple and Google to see if there is a way for the issue to be resolved without us getting involved in yet another clone war."
Another clone war. After three years, almost unendurable stress and, finally, a triumphant redemption, Vlambeer is having to face going through all of it all over again. The world can't seem to get enough of kicking these two Dutchmen around.
"We refuse to accept this as a part of our industry."
Bangalore-based Rubiq Lab, developers of the latest game to lift generously from a Vlambeer release, claim it's well within their rights, and that its game, SkyFar, isn't a clone. Rubiq Lab accuses Vlambeer of unleashing an army of fans to harass it on social media.
"Ultimately, we refuse to accept this as a part of our industry," says Ismail. "We believe that showing our games to our fans early is a better way of developing Vlambeer games than keeping secrets and just dropping the final result on people when it's done.
"We hope this will be the last time we have to deal with this, but we're encouraged to know that if it's not, we won't be alone."
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Design / Layout: Warren Schultheis
Video: Jimmy Shelton, Tom Connors
Editing: Matt Leone, Charlie Hall
Music: Robot Science