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In-Depth: Inside  Super Crate Box  Dev Vlambeer's Clone Wars

In-Depth: Inside Super Crate Box Dev Vlambeer's Clone Wars Exclusive

September 22, 2011 | By Mike Rose

The last few months could have gone a whole lot better for Dutch indie developer Vlambeer.

Having already earned their indie stripes as solo devs, the duo, namely Jan Willem Nijman and Rami Ismail, joined forces and blasted onto the scene in 2010 with Super Crate Box, a fast-paced action arcade title that picked up a top 10 position in Gamasutra's Best Indie Games of 2010.

Soon afterwards, their second title Radical Fishing was born, and with that they were off to a flying start, with 2011 set to be the year of the flaming bear.

However, this success story is about to go a little pear-shaped. After watching Radical Fishing explode all over the net, the twosome decided that it was about time Vlambeer entered the iOS space with a completely revamped version of the game.

"We got in touch with [Halcyon developer] Zach Gage at the [Independent Games Festival] 2011 and said we needed to do an iOS version," Ismail tells Gamasutra. But instead of simply porting the game, the plan was to start the whole thing from scratch on iOS.

"We got [Solipskier developer] Greg Wohlwend aboard and started working on this thing super-happily. Obviously, we had running projects at the time so we didn't announce the game yet. We scheduled to release the game in October or so and we named it Ridiculous Fishing."

So far, so good. But with Vlambeer readying to make its mark on iPhone, the unexpected happened.

"One day, our Twitter exploded," says Ismail. "There was a wall of messages about the trailer of a game called Ninja Fishing by a company called Gamenauts."

"People complained that it was Radical Fishing but with the 'clicking' for shooting replaced by Fruit Ninja-swiping for cutting. Besides that, it seemed pretty much identical down to having exactly the same upgrades."

"The trailer announced that they were going to release before we were even ready to officially announce Ridiculous Fishing," explains Ismail grimly. "We had to do something so we ended up announcing it prematurely."

Indeed, the team was forced to throw the announcement out early, complete with the new assets from Gage and Wohlwend. However, it didn't stop there, says Ismail.

"We got an e-mail from Gamenauts the day after all of this. They explained that they knew they screwed up and ensured us that they had always intended to credit us in the game as their inspiration - but those credits wouldn't be in the release version because that had already been submitted."

"That was a bit confusing, but it didn't really matter to us: we asked them to just try and differentiate the game so that we wouldn't need to be credited," he tells us.

"They said we'd get a revenue share, but we insisted that we'd much rather have them making this thing into their own game instead of a copy of ours. Finally, we offered them an alternative - release together with Ridiculous Fishing. Give both games an equal chance in the App Store, basically let the games speak for themselves."

However, the duo say that Gamenauts didn't want to play ball. "They said no, launched the game and then proceeded to earn a boatload of money, got credited for the design and got raving reviews," Ismail sighs.

Gamenauts Gives Its View

Of course, every story has two sides. While Vlambeer's part in this tale has been widely reported, Gamenauts hasn't yet been given many opportunities to defend itself. The company's co-founder Stanley Adrianus was more than happy to give Gamasutra his perspective.

"We've openly acknowledged with the media that Ninja Fishing is inspired by Vlambeer's Radical Fishing," he argues. "We, along with the general public, had no knowledge that they had been planning a version of the game for the iOS."

"We contacted Vlambeer to offer them three things as a gesture of good will: credits in our game for being inspired by Radical Fishing, a cross-promotion to their game when it comes out, and most importantly: a revenue share option from the profits of Ninja Fishing. Vlambeer chose to not accept all three offers."

Adrianus is also adamant that Ninja Fishing is far from a clone of Vlambeer's original title. "Contrary to what has been reported by some, Ninja Fishing is not identical to Radical Fishing," he says.

"Aside from the 100 percent new art, assets, theme, etc., we added a new slicing mechanic that we genuinely believe improved on the original shooting mechanic. There are also a lot of additions, improvements and tweaks that elevated our game from being a simple derivative."

The Gamenauts boss notes that many gaming sites have acknowledged this. "We've had professional game journalists from GamePro, Gamezebo and others who had played extensively with both games and publicly praised Ninja Fishing, saying that our game has its own character."

"This is in contrast to some journalists who had cast their harsh judgments before even playing Ninja Fishing extensively. The fact that they had not even played our game, nor even ask for our side of the story surely call their professionalism into question."

Adrianus also reveals that his company has seen the very same situation happen to the studio in the past.

"We had our own hit game, Burger Rush, cloned by another prominent developer as Coffee Rush a few years ago. Yet, we didn't kick up a big fuss about it, never rallied our friends or fans to publicly insult/spam/vandalize the other developer."

"We simply stood firm in our belief that our original game was better, and the players proved we were right as Burger Rush was #1 in major portals."

With Gamenauts' side of the story fought, it's back to the story of Vlambeer and its troubled time in the App Store.

Super Crate Box Vs. Muffin Knight

Ismail told us at GDC Europe last month that he had discovered that an iPhone developer was currently in the middle of creating a game that borrows heavily from Super Crate Box for iOS. However, said developer -- now revealed to be Angry Mob Games -- was not aware that Vlambeer knew of this development, and so the duo set to work porting their own game to iPhone as quickly as possible.

But Angry Mob was already well into production, and Muffin Knight was released earlier this month.

"When we found out about Muffin Knight, we tried playing it and found they had actually tried differentiating it from Super Crate Box's design by putting things like some new weapons, upgradable weapons and perks in there," explains Ismail.

"We'd love to have seen a bit more originality in their weapon set, honestly, but besides that it is its own game -- heavily inspired by ours."

With deja vu about to kick in, Vlambeer decided to take a different tact this time around.

"We felt it was an interesting experiment to just completely ignore the thing at the start and see what would happen compared to Ninja Fishing," he explained. "So, obviously, there's less attention for the 'other game', so to speak, but the downside is that it won't allow us to raise the issue of why it's important that we savor originality."

Angry Mob's Take

Again, it was only fair to let Angry Mob Games have its say. Bogdan Iliesiu, CEO at the company, tells Gamasutra that, when his team started work on Muffin Knight, Vlambeer had already passed on making an iOS version of Super Crate Box.

"We were inspired by SCB only because we loved playing it when it came out on PC, and we all thought it was an awesome game. We've added a lot to that formula, and most of all, we tweaked the design to make it a lot more accessible and more fun to play," he argues.

"It took us over eight months to develop Muffin Knight. Up until about one week before our release, there was no iOS version of Super Crate Box announced. The guys at Vlambeer publicly said previously they weren't going to port SCB to iOS, because the controls wouldn't translate well."

Iliesiu also tells us that Angry Mob, as Gamenauts before it, had offered Vlambeer some consolation.

"We've also been talking to the guys at Vlambeer," he says. "We offered to include them in the game credits, and link to their game, when their iOS version of SCB launches. Super Crate Box is an extremely popular PC title, and we'll never pretend those game mechanics were our ideas. Rami from Vlambeer was totally okay to have their game promoted inside our game."

Iliesiu notes that, while it was horribly bad timing in the circumstances, there's a lot more to it than is being made out.

"I really see how they've been in a really bad situation when they worked for a long time on Ridiculous Fishing, and then Gamenauts unexpectedly came out with a really similar game inspired by their Radical Fishing game," he says.

"The thing is the guys at Vlambeer do some incredible work, and great games. They also have a lot of friends and they're slowly getting to be among the 'indie darlings', like Team Meat, 2D Boy, TigerStyle etc."

"They put out an image of 'starving' developers. Now that they get their two games on iOS, they're trying to market themselves like that."

But Iliesiu doesn't want there to be any bad blood between the companies, despite the situation. "I'm sure people will play both titles, as they each have their own personality and they play differently. So there's definitely room for both," he argues.

"What matters most for us is our integrity and the relations we have with fellow developers. We'll try our best to set things right with Vlambeer, and help them promote their game."

Gaining Fans, Or Just Customers?

Whether this will gel well with the Vlambeer guys remains to be seen. On the topic of iPhone clones, there has been an increasing number of clones and unauthorized ports popping up on the App Store as of late -- and Vlambeer now represents one of those devs that feels most badly hit by this new wave. Understandably, the duo aren't shy to point fingers of blame.

"One of the things that stood out most to us as a sore point was how some reviewers that we contacted during the Ninja Fishing wouldn't acknowledge in their review that Ninja Fishing was a clone of Radical Fishing," argues Ismail.

"They explained to us that they felt their job was to objectively tell whether 'a game was worth your money.' We couldn't disagree with that more," he continued.

"Games can be more than 'just products' that you either throw money at or don't and things like context are important to understanding some games."

For Vlambeer, there is a silver lining, fortunately. "Most of the people we talked to have been extremely supportive, which really lifted our spirits. Like Greg [Wohlwend] wrote on his blog, it's pretty demotivating to think of the clone that beat you to the punch with your own game, every time you sit down to work on a project."

"Over at Edge, Chris Donlan wrote that, 'when you have no originality in your games, you can have no history, and you can have no personal quirks. You'll end up with customers, perhaps, but not genuine fans - and games built around the concept of customers alone are often pretty miserable.'"

Vlambeer believes that it has come out of the whole ordeal stronger, and reassured that it just needs to keep doing what it's doing. But that's not to say the devs don't think something needs to change where iOS clones are concerned.

"We think there's a shared responsibility there for any party that's involved," says Ismail. "Any distributor has a role to play, but so do the developers and the press."

"Distributors need to keep a close eye on stuff legally, but not so much morally. So that leaves the developers and the press, and we feel that what we need to be doing is raising the bar on how we communicate why it matters for originality, creativity and the industry as a whole that these clones are exposed and frowned upon - not just by the industry itself, but also by gamers."

And what of Vlambeer's other titles? Is the Dutch studio wary of its other games being copied or cloned for iPhone, and does it plan to do anything about it?

"Obviously it's a bit daunting to continue to put out experimental things like Radical Fishing, Luftrauser or Karate like this and for free, since apparently there's no such thing as asking before companies like Gamenauts start cloning it," Ismail quips.

"However, we discussed this a lot at Vlambeer and decided that we won't let this stuff influence what we're doing. We're just now getting some good contacts in terms of iOS development with Halfbot working on Super Crate Box iOS, and with us and Zach and Greg working on Ridiculous Fishing."

"Maybe in the future when we have something worthwhile, we'll start bringing it to iOS faster."

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