Few think of the app stores as hostile, but mobile developers struggle every day to survive in an increasingly crowded market. They cast their lines in murky waters, cross their fingers, and hope players will bite.
Game developer Vlambeer was unlucky. It found a shark in those waters. Now, it has bounced back from a near-fatal cloning incident to claim one of the most popular games on iOS. “For a while, we just lost all faith in creativity as a way to earn a living,” Rami Ismail, one of the two members of the Dutch studio, told us.
Vlambeer’s extreme-sports game, Ridiculous Fishing, launched last month to massive acclaim and sales success. It’s based on the studio’s first-ever title, the Flash game Radical Fishing, which a rival ripped off at an unfortunate time. In July 2011, Gamenauts released a clone called Ninja Fishing just as Vlambeer was preparing to announce its remake.
Development screeched to a halt. Ismail and designer Jan Willem Nijman–along with collaborators Zach Gage of SpellTower fame and artist Greg Wohlwend, the cocreator of Hundreds–were discouraged.
“We felt that whatever we made, someone could copy and steal it and run with the credits,” says Ismail. Despite the hardship, he called the process of making the game “extremely inspiring.” The team reentered production because “we knew it had the potential to be a good game, and we wanted to make a good game.”
In Ridiculous Fishing, players drop their fishing line as deep in the water as possible. On the way up, the goal is to snag as many fish as you can (while avoiding nasty jellyfish) and rocket them in the air to shoot them.
“It’s a simple concept,” says Ismail. “How well you did at the stage before defines how well you can do at the current stage. Descend, ascend, shoot and shop, descend. It’s so tight that by the end of the cycle, you automatically try for another go.”
Ridiculous Fishing climbed the App Store’s top paid games chart on day one of release, becoming an Editor’s Choice. When the praise started, Ismail said they felt “overwhelmed” by the reactions. “There’s nothing quite as redeeming as seeing that all the work paid off,” he says. “Even weeks after the launch, we’re still getting supportive emails from our fans and fellow developers”–like Double Fine’s Tim Schafer and Elijah Wood.
“In the end, though, we owe our determination on this project to our vocal band of fans and to those standing up against cloning.”
Vlambeer’s unique marketing approach helped, too. It was the first developer to use Vine, the six-second video-making app, to create a promotional trailer. It also experimented with an alternate reality game (ARG) called Byrdr, a fake social network where people signed up to receive emails from chief executive officer James Eagler.
“These [emails] got increasingly absurd as the network–or its reality–fell apart, setting the stage for the actual game’s narrative,” says Ismail.
Vlambeer also took a bold stand in a Reddit AMA, encouraging developers to charge an upfront fee even though the mobile market is full of “free” alternatives that are used in in-app purchases (IAP).
“What we were trying to say is that freemium is not the only option–and that premium is a perfectly valid strategy,” says Ismail. “It’s something that’s easy to forget staring at the top-grossing chart and thinking, If we get just 1% of the players on iOS to buy something’–but that’s just not the way it works. The harsh reality is that unless you design your game specifically to funnel people to pay for IAPs, you’re likely not going to make money on IAP.”
The biggest lesson, of course, comes from the studio’s encounter with cloning. Ismail says Ninja Fishing doesn’t feel like a threat anymore.
“It feels as if Ridiculous Fishing is the ultimate proof of why cloning matters: This game almost didn’t exist because someone tried to make a ton of money,” he says.
“Working with a team of amazingly talented people that are crazy enough to make unexpected decisions was the best experience we’ve had in the development,” he adds. “We’ve learned that if you are a small developer, the best way to deal with the cloning problems isn’t more secrecy: It’s more openness. Own your ideas, communicate, and make sure that when a clone hits, you’re able to point out what is happening.”