Ever had one of those days where it feels like the whole world's out to get you? Like you just can't win? Like you are a magnet whose polarity is perfectly calibrated to attract gigantic, writhing jerkswarms who will stop at nothing to steal everything you love? Congratulations: you might be Super Crate Box and LUFTRAUSERS (among many, many other things) developer Vlambeer. Between countless clones and a recent theft of what basically amounted to their entire company during E3, the two-man team has been plagued by a string of bad luck so crushing that you'd think it was a giant joke.
So Rami Ismail and JW Nijman laugh at it. They laugh and count their blessings.
I am behind-the-scenes of Vlambeer. The scene: a convention booth. Me: worming around in its red-tinted inner workings. That, by my estimate, is about as "behind-the-scenes" as one can get. Rami Ismail has two things: a laptop and a bottle of Totally Not Coca-Cola. Sure, he's surrounded by wires and the ugly backsides of demo machines, but it's a pretty humble setup. This is not the frigid heart of an Activision or EA. It's not a place for the thief who fancies himself a Robin Hood. And yet, Vlambeer's been rocked by multiple instances of high-profile thievery. It really doesn't make much sense, and both Ismail and Nijman are well aware of that.
"We always have bizarre bad luck, I think, in terms of random stuff happening," Ismail says, grim yet truthful. "It’s sort of like a joke, isn’t it? Vlambeer’s stuff gets stolen, whether it’s our game ideas or our games or my bag. Our stuff gets stolen."
"All of our games get cloned, pretty much. Yeti Hunter didn’t get cloned. That’s something."
Vlambeer's hardly the only game developer to watch in horror as its babies go through the Replicatron, but every single time? That's just ridiculous. It's the sort of thing that'd make a lesser creator want to pack up shop and go home. Call it quits once and for all. Burn down the stand and never look back. It's not like Vlambeer hasn't considered it, either.
"We didn’t work for almost half a year [after Radical Fishing got cloned], and half a year in a company that makes a project in three months is a lot of time," Ismail points out. "We nearly went out of business. The only reason we didn’t is because we have an amazing army of fans who love the stuff we do and care about what we do. If we hadn’t had people telling us, 'We’re behind you, and when Ridiculous Fishing comes out it’s going to be amazing, so hang on there,' we would have given up. I’m 100 percent sure we would have given up. We had that conversation twice."
"That was the reality for six to eight months. I don’t want to go through that. I don’t want anybody to go through that. I don’t know what it did for us. I don’t know whether it was good for us. The talks we did got us some attention, the talks about cloning. So the way we responded to the clone got us some attention. But as for the clone itself, I would not wish that on anybody."
But why? What makes Vlambeer's vlambrand of arcade-y action so appealing to those with sticky fingers and consciences that look like shriveled up slabs of dead skin? It can't just be luck, after all. Where there's rhyme, there's reason.
"I think our games are easy to replicate," Ismail suggests, features settling into a thoughtful, obviously familiar position. "That makes it sound like we just make simple games, but they’re simple to play. The thing is, making something that simple is a lot of work. I think it’s easy to look at our games and say, 'Well, this makes total sense. We’ll copy that and release it and make money.' Vlambeer has enough popularity that people know if we release something, it’s probably going to be interesting."
"I wonder if there are companies just looking for our next thing. It’s quite an amusing thought, that there might be somebody somewhere interested in our next big announcement that way."
It is, then, a strangely inevitable part of the process for Ismail and Nijman. But when you face something day-in and day-out, you eventually get a sense for what makes it tick - the whirring, whining nuts and bolts. And from there, you can dissect it, make it yours. Blatant thievery may never help Vlambeer, but gone are the days when it dragged the duo so far down that they weren't sure if they'd ever get back up again.
"What we’ve learned is that, at first, your first response is to be more secretive about what you do," Ismail explains, almost lecturing. "You just keep it closer to your chest and don’t show anybody. We’ve learned to do the complete opposite thing and just be as open as possible and make sure that everyone knows this is our project. If anybody tries something like that, they get the largest possible backlash."
"With the LUFTRAUSERS clone, the interesting thing that happened is that it just got taken down. It was just gone. I think the industry and consumer opinion and the general opinion of clones has gone down. It’s such a different world from when Ridiculous Fishing got cloned. Back then, people were saying, 'That’s just part of video games. You should accept it.' And we said, 'No, this is not okay. We don’t want this shit in our industry. We’re not going to take it.' That’s a great shift."
Ismail doesn't think Vlambeer's the only company to benefit from that shift, either. His trials and tribulations might've only made up a couple dominoes in the chain, but he's exceedingly happy with the end result.
"After Ridiculous Fishing got cloned, the debate got started," he says. "Then you had a few really big cases. You had the Nimblebit case and Sprite Fox and Zynga. Suddenly it was the big issue, the one that everybody talked about. I think that changed things. If you clone a game now, you better be damn sure you can do it without being implicated, because if you are, people are going to hate you."
"I think that’s good. We don’t need laws for this. We don’t want laws for this. We don’t want laws saying, 'You can’t copy video games,' because that’s just going to get used against creative development like in the mobile phone market, where you can’t release a mobile phone around the edges because Samsung and Apple hold all the patents for the user interface. It’s completely stupid. So it’s good that this is self-regulating. It’s good that people are saying, 'We’re not going to buy this shit if you stole it from somebody else. We’ll just buy the original.' That was all we could hope for when Ridiculous Fishing got cloned."
As far as these things go, it's a rather happy ending. Sure, clones are still a big problem, but at least things seem to be headed in a good direction. And for Vlambeer that's especially good news, seeing as Ismail and Nijman derive their powers not from the sun, capes, or easily snipped hair (though their locks are uniquely magnificent), but rather happiness. Hope. Love of life.
"It’s been amazing," enthuses Ismail, suddenly looking five years younger. "We finally found the energy. After Ridiculous Fishing launched, we finally found that energy that made Vlambeer fun. We started working on new stuff again. We’ve got like four things in the pipeline at the moment. We’re working on Super Crate Box for Ouya, which is coming really soon. I haven’t really slept yet today. We’re doing an update for Super Crate Box on iOS. We’re doing an update for Ridiculous Fishing on iOS. We’re releasing LUFTRAUSERS on five platforms simultaneously."
"And we have a new project that we haven’t really talked about yet. We’re excited to not be telling people about it, because the people who have been following Vlambeer probably know what it’s going to be. We’ve talked about it in the past a bit. The people that haven’t been paying attention to us have no clue. So it’s this nice wink at the fans. We’re going to live stream all of the development on that."
It's really kind of insane, when you think about it. Vlambeer is two people. Two. But when they're on, they're on. And when they're not? Well, it's all about moderation. That and many rapidly draining bottles of Totally Not Coca-Cola.
"We might not sound like the healthiest people," Ismail admits. "Vlambeer has been called the unhealthiest gaming company somebody has ever seen, and an infinite game jam. I can see how people would think that. At points in our history, that has definitely been true. But it’s that we care a lot about everything we do. We had to figure out that we need to take care of ourselves if we want to be able to do all that. In the past two and a half years we’ve found a balance where we can work ourselves to the point where we’re really tired, but not beyond that. We have a little bit of restraint."
"Vlambeer is a lot about me and JW being happy. I think we pay a lot of attention to ourselves being happy. Our games sort of come from that mindset. They’re fun, interesting, weird, silly, all sorts of things, but we can’t make those if we’re not having fun. If you’re having fun at your job, you never have to go to work, I guess. Isn’t that the saying? I guess that’s true."
And while Vlambeer's slow march into the screaming eye of oblivion might sound like the result of an understaffed operation, Ismail and Nijman actually view it as the opposite. If you truly want to do things your way, the smaller the better. Sometimes (read: most of the time) that means off-the-wall game ideas that eventually come to fruition. Other times, it means taking a much-needed - and, by most standards, very long - rest.
"I think Vlambeer works because we can take stupid risks," Ismail laughs. "If JW decides he doesn’t want to work for three months, and I decide I don’t want to work for three months, we can just suspend the company for three months at a minimal cost. We just need to make sure that we don’t die, which is not that expensive."
He further points out that it's not just him and Nijman, either. Many Vlambeer games have been collaborations with third parties, with various personalities sowing seeds all across different projects. Still though, it ultimately comes back to Ismail and Nijman - a partnership that, somewhat unsurprisingly, emerged from a pretty darn unlucky situation itself.
"What happened is, [JW and I] met each other going to school, and we instantly hated each other with a passion. The only reason we ended up working together was because the only thing we hated more than each other was the school itself. Shared enemies, that’s a good way to start talking."
But somehow, it worked out. Before long, Ismail and Nijman dropped out of school to work on games like Radical Fishing and a prototype that would eventually go on to become Super Crate Box. And they fought each other every step of the way, which is pretty much their version of happily ever after.
"JW grew into a person who can really rapidly iterate on an idea," Ismail says. "He can start with an idea and say, 'No, that’s shit, let’s try again, half an hour. I learned this, so I’ll apply that.' He’ll keep going like that. I come from the complete opposite side, where you sit down for a project and work on it for two years and then get that out there to people who want to play that. So we came from completely opposite philosophies of game development. That clash between us, that’s what Vlambeer is."
"Me and JW will fight about something, and then we’ll say, 'Oh, this is a solution. We’ll go in that direction.' We don’t know where that is, but we’ll just go that way and see where it ends up. That’s the fun part. We don’t know what's going to happen. That’s why we have games about airplanes and games about fishing and games about hunting yetis and games about smashing crates. We don’t know why these games happened. We know that if you play them, you will know that it’s Vlambeer. It’s just that, if you look at our games now, you won’t be able to tell what our next game is, because we don’t know either. There’s no formula or set idea of what we’re going to do. We just… Whatever. Video games."
Vlambeer, then, is a developer founded on ups and downs. Constant strife. Difference. But somewhere in the center of the maelstrom, there is calm - or at least a brief glimmer of agreement. Ismail and I emerge from the red-as-a-heartbeat booth background and into the dim convention lights. Sure enough, he and Nijman immediately get to arguing about a potential feature for an upcoming unannounced game. But they part ways trading lighthearted jabs and chuckling, comfortable and collected among their own self-made chaos.
It's hardly the sort of attitude you'd expect to see from two guys who - just a few weeks earlier - had "pretty much their entire company" stolen right out of a backpack at E3. But then, when you seem to relish, in a way, making your own bad luck, you kind of just learn to roll with whatever else life throws at you.
"I have a program set up on our server, so every time our computer logs in, it connects," Ismail explains, also noting that everything on its was completely backed-up beforehand. "It just hasn’t pinged back. So I’m assuming that they opened the laptop, wiped it, and sold it."
"Our stuff gets stolen. It’s something you have to deal with at some point. But on the other hand, if you look at how Vlambeer has been going, I don’t think we can complain at all. We’ve had the most amazing two and a half years that any game development company could wish for. It’s a lot of hard work and there’s a lot of setbacks like these, but in the end, the feeling I have with Vlambeer is always a really positive one. We still don’t know where Vlambeer is taking us either. We’re just having fun and seeing what happens."
Note: Yes, there are many unlucky game developers in the world - for instance, Project Zomboid's own The Indie Stone. The title is not meant to be taken literally. Everything is relative, etc, etc, etc.