While Super Crate Box developer Vlambeer was preparing to announce an iPhone version of its first game, the browser-based Radical Fishing, it discovered that the game was almost on the App Store. Sort of.
A game called Ninja Fishing, published by Gamenauts, bears an unmistakeable resemblance to Radical Fishing. In both games, you start by controlling a hook falling through the water, dodging fish on the way down. You then pull the hook up at high speed, grabbing as many fish as you can. Then you yank the fish out of the water and destroy as many as you can before they splash back down. The art is different, and there are some tweaks, but the two games are, at the very least, closely related.
"We learned first of Ninja Fishing when there was a huge commotion on Twitter about the resemblance between Ninja Fishing and our 2010 game Radical Fishing," Vlambeer co-founder Rami Ismael told Joystiq in an email interview. "This was about two weeks before Ninja Fishing was launched."
Work on Ridiculous Fishing, as the iPhone remake is called, began in December 2010. Vlambeer partnered with Zach Gage (Bit Pilot) and artist Greg Wohlwend (Solipskier) to reimagine Radical Fishing for iPhone. "I'd say we were starting to really ramp up on production by the time Ninja Fishing came out. Ridiculous Fishing was planned for a release in September or early October, but it might potentially speed up a bit after its forced early announcement."
Once the story got out and Vlambeer became aware of the alleged clone, Vlambeer received its first communication from Ninja Fishing developer Gamenauts, in the form of an email. "The basic gist was that they were, indeed, inspired by Radical Fishing," Ismail said. "We mailed back and forth for a while, as we tried to find a good solution to the situation that had come to be." Gamenauts offered a credit, to be added in an update, which Vlambeer refused. Gamenauts also offered a share of Ninja Fishing's revenue, which Vlambeer also turned down. "We had come up with an idea that we felt was more fair than us taking money," Ismail said. "We asked Gamenauts to delay Ninja Fishing until Ridiculous Fishing was ready to launch. That way the games could speak for themselves and ultimately, we felt that would be the most mutually beneficial outcome."
There aren't that many ways to prevent this from happening besides lawyering up, though - and we don't want to do that. - Rami Ismail, Vlambeer
But Gamenauts didn't delay the game -- it was released to the iPhone App Store on August 4 and hit #7 in Paid Apps soon after. "We had financial commitments from investors for our game to launch on time, so delaying the announced release date wasn't an option," Gamenauts CEO Stanley Adrianus told Joystiq. "We had also offered Vlambeer to cross-promote their game once it's released and also a revenue share option. Unfortunately we couldn't come to an agreement and so we moved forward with our original launch plans."
Adrianus said that Gamenauts has experienced both sides of this issue -- its game Burger Rush was "cloned" as Coffee Rush. "We pretty much shrugged it off because we knew that our original game was the better one and history showed us being right as Burger Rush was the #1 game on many portals," he said. "When that happened to us, there was no Twitter uproar, no threats, insults, hate mails or nothing of the sort and we weren't really that bothered by the situation."
It's not an uncommon situation, either; games often take cues from one another to various degrees. This is especially true in the wild frontier of the App Store. Super Mega Worm bears a close resemblance to Death Worm; in an extreme example, The Blocks Cometh was literally copied for the App Store. But even outside of the iOS market, borrowing is common. Nintendo's Balloon Fight is, essentially, adorable Joust. "I would argue that we did a lot more to differentiate Ninja Fishing vs Radical Fishing than Super Mega Worm vs Death Worm, in terms of the art style, theme, target audience and adding in new mechanics," Adrianus told us.
Vlambeer seems to be doing its best to effectively shrug this off, as well. At least, it has no interest in actively working to prevent any future clones or derivative works. "We don't want to be a company with NDA's & secrecy," Ismail said. "We do what we do because we sincerely believe that making innovative and novel games is fun. There aren't that many ways to prevent this from happening besides lawyering up, though - and we don't want to do that." Ismail noted that game designs can't be patented, which helps the game industry avoid "patent wars."
"We concluded that what we can do is explain to the audience how much things like these hurt the people who put their finite amounts of creativity, time and energy in the games they love."
Artist Wohlwend posted an open letter on his blog, describing his determination to "forgive" Gamenauts for what happened, despite his enthusiasm for working on Ridiculous Fishing now being sapped. "I wake up and I can't think of working on Ridiculous Fishing without being reminded of this ugliness."