Clone wars: Why Vlambeer refuses to call time on open development
Finding the right balance between enabling as many gamers as possible to sample games and ensuring those titles are encased in security to ensure the developer behind them isn't ripped off is a harder task now than ever.
One studio known to have taken a view is Dutch development house Vlambeer.
Despite the risks, Vlambeer releases its games on open Flash portals in order to gain feedback feedback it then uses to shape additional development on those titles.
The flipside of such an approach, however, is that Vlambeer has been extremely vulnerable to cloning. Flash game Radical Fishing made headlines when a supposed copycat, Gamenauts' Ninja Fishing, popped up on the App Store.
More recently, a game that looked suspiciously like Vlambeer's PS Vita release Luftrausers called SkyFar also hit iOS courtesy of RubiqLab.
So, should Vlambeer face criticism for failing to protect its IP? In the first part of a two-part interview with head of business and development Rami Ismail, we find out why the studio is such an advocate of an open approach to games development.
Pocket Gamer: Is it fair to call your Flash games prototypes, or do you see them as finished games for that particular platform?
Rami Ismail: We wouldn't consider them prototypes, because prototypes are usually made even faster, but yeah, they're somewhat in that stage of, "There's something interesting here, but we don't quite know what it is."
Usually our games start with a one or two-day game jam, in which [game designer] Jan Willem Nijman sort of rushes out the most core version of the game we can make, the most essential version of the game we can make, and then we either decide to work on it or to release it and see what happens.
For Radical Fishing, we really didn't have a choice. That was our very first game, so that wasn't a prototype. That was a finished product.
That was back in 2010 when we were just starting, and we'd just dropped out of school. We made Radical Fishing, and that's what enabled us to make Super Crate Box.
Now, Luftrauser and Karate and Yeti Hunter and Super Puppy Boy and a whole bunch of games we made - those are more of a prototype. They're this essential version, this essence of a game, and we know that there's something interesting there, because we took it to the point where we could actually show it to people.
So you release these Flash games and then garner feedback. What kind of feedback do you most commonly receive?
We have two types of feedback that we use. One of them is for projects that we know we're going to do, and that's our friends. We have our friends and other developers and we send versions to them.
Then we have the sort of open thing what we just described - we talk to the people that play the game, and if there's a lot of people liking the game, or picking up on sort of the core thing we were going for, that tells us that there's something interesting there that people can actually pick up on.
For Luftrauser, we had two interesting pieces of feedback. One of them was that the game was being played a lot, without us putting in any effort to make that so.
We had just released Dinosaur Zookeeper on Adult Swim, and Adult Swim's marketing machine was making sure it was getting great numbers, pushing it on Cartoon Network. Luftrauser, which [we] released two months later, easily rivaled the numbers that Dinosaur Zookeeper was doing, even though we didn't market it at all.
So we knew people were playing the game. We just didn't know why.
Something that a lot of people noticed and talked about something we spotted when we searched for it on Twitter or anyplace we could find it - was the feeling of the airplane. The sense of falling that you have when you cut the engine and the sense of speed that you get when you re-enable it.
That was exactly sort of the thing we were trying to make with that game - a game about nice movement and about flying around, about feeling the power of the best airplane in the world.
So when people picked up on that, we realised that it did exactly what we wanted, and that was when we decided that it might be interesting to further explore the game's ideas.
Have there been any games that you put up on a Flash portal, were iffy about, but decided to pursue further development on owing to fan feedback, even though you had doubts?
We weren't going to do anything with Radical Fishing. Ridiculous Fishing was never an idea until the fans started asking for it.
We made Radical Fishing to earn some starting money. The reception to that was overwhelming, but at that point we didn't have a business strategy.
We were starting up. We were trying to figure out how to survive -that was our main goal. We had our long term goals, which was to get a good pipeline towards digital distribution platforms and to help establish a local indie scene - we had all these other goals that we were always aware of.
People really liked that game and they kept asking about it. When we were negotiating for Radical Fishing, I made a big issue out of the fact that we wanted to keep the rights for a mobile version, [but] we never really had plans for it until somebody suggested it.
Then the fans and a bunch of friends of ours actually pushed that so far that they introduced us to Zack Gage.
Back then, nobody had ever heard of Zack Gage, but both me and Jan knew him as the guy who made Lose/Lose, which is an amazing thing, so suddenly we were like "Well, if people really want this, and now we know a guy who could help us program it, why the hell not?" And that's how Ridiculous Fishing got started.
Have you ever taken on a game despite negative feedback from the fans that might suggest you shouldn't bother going any further with that game?
The funny thing about Vlambeer that you should realise, if you're looking at it from the outside, there's not really an entity at Vlambeer.
It's me and Jan and we fight about stuff, and the fans, if they're part of the argument, they're like a third person in the company, within the argument. So it's me, and Jan, and Vlambeer arguing.
Okay, so has there ever been anything that you and Jan agreed upon but which Vlambeer, by this definition, did not, but you and Jan went forward with it anyway?
Often, when Vlambeer is trying to push us to do something, we will say no. It doesn't often happen that we say yes and then Vlambeer says no.
Can you give any specific examples of how open development for Luftrauser as a Flash game guided your development of Luftrausers for PS3 and PS Vita?
I still get people talking about the old Luftrauser, and they're still sort of talking about the same thing. The feeling of the airplane, the music in the game, and the fact that they like to play it for twenty minutes.
But then you see people tweeting about the game four or five separate times over a month. So they play twenty minutes, but they're playing twenty minutes six or seven times.
Here's what we got out of that - the feeling of the airplane is important. So what can we do to further emphasise that?
One of the ideas we had was what would happen if we had lots of different airplanes that handled differently, and players make their choice as to which airplane they build based on how it handles. Because, apparently, that's the interesting part, right? The way the airplane handles.
The second thing was, a lot of people were talking about the music. So we made it so that when you change your airplane we tied those two things together. When you customise your airplane, you're also customising the soundtrack.
So for each combination of airplane - and there are 125 different combinations - there's a unique soundtrack.
The third one was about the context in which people were playing this game - short bursts of about 20 minutes.
So, what is a good platform for games like that? PC, Mac, and Linux are always good platforms, because people play all sorts of games on their PC, but then the Vita was sort of a no-brainer. 20 minute games, and they probably played a few sessions? [Vita] was the most obvious thing.
So we started talking about Vita.
Then Sony came up with the idea of the PlayStation 3 version and, at first, we weren't that excited about that idea, but then we saw it on a big screen - people were talking about the way the sepia, the contrast, looks good on bigger screens - and we were like, well, this looks sort of amazing.
The fans helped us decide that we were going to do a Vita [version], and then that informed us that we were going to do PlayStation 3.
Pretty much all of Luftrausers snowballed from the few things that the fans kept saying.
In part two of our interview with Ismail, we discuss the price to be paid for open development, and whether Vlambeer could ever pursue other options.
Dennis Scimeca is a freelance writer from Boston, MA. You can follow him on Twitter @DennisScimeca.