This November, Dutch art dealers and publishers Cook & Becker will release a new book, 120 Years of Vlambeer & Friends, subtitled "Bringing back arcade games since 1896", chronicling the first six years of the titular indie studio, responsible for such indie successes as Ridiculous Fishing, LUFTRAUSERS and Nuclear Throne. The studio's co-founders, Rami Ismail and Jan Willem Nijman, have opened up their archive to present a vast amount of original artwork and concept-stage designs to complement the words.
Waypoint is pleased to publish a chapter from the book here, focusing on the release and reception of hit mobile app Ridiculous Fishing—a game that emerged from the troubled waters of a cloning scandal—and moving into the development of the singularly styled shooter LUFTRAUSERS, a game that would go on to be a little controversial itself.
Above: Artwork from 'Ridiculous Fishing'. All imagery courtesy of Vlambeer/Cook & Becker
March 2013 saw the much-anticipated launch of Ridiculous Fishing on iOS, now titled Ridiculous Fishing: A Tale of Redemption. The subtitle referred to the backstory the team gave to the fisherman himself, Billy, which turned out to be the tale of his father, who'd been lost at sea. It was a sad story, available to those players who made it through to the end, brought to life in a (digital) comic by artist Maré Odomo. But it was equally evocative of Vlambeer's ordeal in bringing the game to completion, as well. Gaming websites gave it near-perfect scores at launch, with a smattering of 10-out-of-10 marks. The cloning situation was mentioned in most reviews, but journalists made clear scores were not dependent on development history: The biggest compliments pointed out the intricate balancing of the three mini-games and the stunning visual and game design.
Priced at $2.99, Ridiculous Fishing wasn't cheap in comparison to other paid apps, or in terms of what many mobile gamers understood as representing value, but Vlambeer wanted to make a statement: After the many months of development hardship, and as a reflection of the depth of the game, they simply thought it warranted the price. The gaming audience agreed in droves: Sales went through the roof from day one, lifting the game to the number one position on Apple's paid app rankings in several market territories for weeks on end. Vlambeer's financial worries, already soothed through the Super Crate Box sales, vanished for a few years.
And gamers not only bought the game, but played it ferociously, working their way through to the story's ending while seriously collecting marine life for their personal 'fishopedia', too. In doing this, they uncovered a problem Vlambeer chose to resolve in the game's first update. Hunting specific types of fish in specific parts of the levels failed when you hooked another type of fish, after which you had to reel in your line before you could start again. To remove the annoying waste of time, Vlambeer added a knife to Billy's inventory, to cut the fishing line at any point and bring the player back to the start position.
Ridiculous Fishing's successes did not stop in March. It received an Apple Design Award in June, recognized as one of the outstanding apps for that year. In August, Vlambeer announced the game was close to 300,000 sales, which translated to a million US dollars in gross revenue. After the success on Apple's iOS platform, Rami, Jan Willem, Zach and Greg reunited to port the game to Android, Google's competing operating system for mobile devices, launching the game on the Google Play store in November. In December, it was named Apple's iPhone Game of the Year, winning praise for its 'great controls, hugely rewarding challenges, and vibrant retro-style graphics'. More awards and nominations would follow, from a second Dutch Game Award (for 'Best Mobile Game') to the BAFTA Games Awards in the UK (in the 'Mobile & Handheld' category) in 2014. Redemption took its time, but when it came, it came in full.
Meanwhile, other things were cooking as well. Back in 2011, Vlambeer had released the simple Flash game Luftrauser for free online, not expecting much from it after it failed to find a proper buyer. Yet when they checked player statistics, they saw that it far outperformed [previous free game] Dinosaur Zookeeper, a game advertised through Adult Swim and (Time Warner sister company) Cartoon Network. Soon, ideas emerged about expanding the dogfighting game into something larger. Early ideas about a sequel gelled when they talked to Nigel Lowrie, their contact at Serious Sam HD publisher Devolver Digital. Lowrie advised bringing the game to consoles, and offered to be Vlambeer's publisher again, funding some of the development costs and taking on part of the marketing when the game was ready.
The development team for what would become LUFTRAUSERS was JW and Rami, plus Paul Veer (who did the original art on Luftrauser) and Roy Nathan de Groot, who would collaborate with Paul on art and animations. Jukio Kallio, responsible for Luftrauser's music, was engaged to expand on his original audio ideas. Much of 2013 was used to flesh out initial ideas for a larger version of Luftrauser. At the center of this two-dimensional game was a small airplane—the 'luftrauser'—twirling through the skies over a body of water, dodging bullets and strafing enemy ships. The plane was extremely simple in design, just a hull and a wing in a sand-brown silhouette, but had a lively appearance through an optical trick Jan Willem applied to the sprite animation. As the plane changed course, its body and wing scaled: To the human mind, this translated to a dynamic, three-dimensional airplane rotating around its axis. This key feature informed all art design decisions: the trick only worked if the backgrounds were not too complex. Instinctively, Paul Veer decided on a palette inspired by Nintendo's Game Boy, that just used four colors: a beige for the background, white for bullets and clouds, sand brown for the plane, and a dark, brownish red for enemy ships and airplanes.
Moving from Luftrauser to LUFTRAUSERS, Paul and Roy knew a fully fleshed out new game required something more, graphically. To enliven the action they chose four intermediate colors—reds, browns and orange—carefully keeping to the minimalist aesthetic of the first game. Jan Willem and Rami took up coding the game for PlayStation and PC—and ran into an interesting challenge. 'We made a deal not to play the original [Luftrauser] until the new version was as good as we remembered the original to be,' Rami wrote in a postmortem on the PlayStation blog in March 2014. 'We were surprised at how much of a struggle that was. We added bigger explosions, we worked on a dynamic camera system, we added trails of smoke on crashing jets. [Yet] it still took us almost a month to achieve the same level of speed, of chaos, and of impact that the far simpler original had.'
Satisfied with the initial results, the team discussed the game's theme. The color scheme and the dogfighting of the original game vaguely suggested 20th century warfare, yet the new game was in need of something deeper. The movement of the airplane defied the laws of gravity, and could dive, submerge and shoot out of the water, far exceeding the technical possibilities of any conflict of the proposed period. The Luftrauser itself obviously was a 'superweapon', the team agreed, belonging to the realm of the imagination rather than to reality, and to a historic era of superpowers spying on one another, looking for evidence of fantastic weaponry like submerging airplanes, flying fortresses and armed dolphins. Picking up on this, Roy suggested looking into 1960s television series like Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, which found their inspiration in the same Cold War tensions, rumors of technically advanced spy planes and secret missions Vlambeer was looking at. This settled the theme: LUFTRAUSERS would be about the player being the best fighter pilot in the world, blasting through dogfights in their superweapon in an alternate history, and with Thunderbirds-like puppets instead of humans.
The first release date for LUFTRAUSERS had been 'spring 2012'. Eventually it would launch two years later, in March 2014. Part of the delay was due to work on Ridiculous Fishing, yet another factor was Vlambeer's development practice: You take a small, fun idea, and see where it takes you. In the case of LUFTRAUSERS, the fun idea took the team to writing code and drawing assets for a customizable airplane that had up to 125 variations, and a need to playtest each and any possible combination. It also meant adding and tweaking more attack combos, and making more music: Jukio split up his audio tracks and attached new layers to certain Luftrauser parts. If a player changed a part of their airplane, part of the music would change with it (for example, a melodic or rhythmic layer), leading to potentially hundreds of 'remixes'.
In itself, these expansions were quickly executed, finished in months. Yet many months more were needed for programming menus and porting the game, as Vlambeer wanted to launch it simultaneously across different platforms. Eventually, the game would be available on PC and Mac computers (through Steam), on Android mobile devices (which launched in December 2014), and also on game consoles: Sony's PlayStation 3 and the PlayStation Vita, its handheld system. Adding the latter to the launch platforms required months of additional quality assurance testing: tweaking, adjusting, and reprogramming stuff to meet Sony's certification requirements. It meant lots of additional work, and the team had to face a steep learning curve to learn their way around Sony's operating system, but being on the two PlayStation systems was of incredible importance to all involved. For years, consoles had been 'high walled gardens' for small games companies, with only a handful of lucky studios finding their way onto the green distribution pastures like Microsoft's XBLA, Nintendo's WiiWare and Sony's PlayStation Network (PSN). Able to digitally distribute games to consumers before those same channels opened up through app stores and desktop computers, console platforms held the high ground for years, the huge corporations behind them setting the terms for smaller companies who wanted in.
By 2013, the balance of power had completely shifted. Longstanding practices that hampered indies—things like 'parity clauses' that forbade studios to offer their game on one platform when it had already launched with another—were retracted. Platform owners, realizing they needed larger game libraries to compete with new platforms on mobile and desktop computers, reached out to indies to talk about upcoming projects—a situation that simply never happened before. Vlambeer was one of the first studios to benefit from this new proposition, and enjoyed the refreshingly informal approach corporate companies adopted. 'A funny anecdote I love telling is how we signed LUFTRAUSERS to Sony,' Rami remembered:
"We were in a bar with [Sony Europe's then head of Strategic Content] Shahid Ahmad and he basically wrote the contract on a coaster and said, 'So, what do you need, and what do you want?' We discussed it, and within a week we had everything we needed to start developing. We got the contract the day after we got the [development computer] hardware, not the other way round, like 'Sign this and then…' No, this was just that he trusted us, and we trusted them. Done.
"Back in the day, platform holders were a necessity. You needed them. What's changed is, now they are a convenience, because the games are the stars. There are millions of games coming out, but having many games on your platform is a valuable thing."
(Rami Ismail, talking to vg247.com, 2013)
120 Years of Vlambeer & Friends is written by Arjan Terpstra and available to order here.