a review of Ridiculous Fishing
a videogame developed by Vlambeer, Zach Gage, Greg Wohlwend
for the iOS App Store ($2.99)
on the iOS app store
text by tim rogers
secret: i try to always talk to developers — at least a brief email exchange — before reviewing their games.
for this review, i decided to record the conversation for posterity. thanks, youtube!~~~
“Core Loop” is the expression social game developers use to describe the rollercoaster of experience through which a player samples a vertical slice of a game’s figurative cake — a little taste of each layer. At the end of each of hopefully many repetitions of the “Core Loop”, the player has felt some joy and some regret.
Ideally, the player feels more joy than regret. Joy tells the player, “Hey, let’s do that again!” Regret tells the player, “Hey, let’s do that again!” The only difference is the inflection of the “again”.
These two agains meet, embrace, and dance, and now the player and the game are, ideally, inseparable.
Once you’ve worked with “Core Loops” for more than a month, you see them everywhere. Even self-serve frozen yogurt shops have a “Core Loop”. Scientists and food engineers have tested every ingredient, topping, and yogurt flavor, certifying each one as nominally delicious for the sorts of customers the demographic research expects. The customer feels “joy” that the yogurt is tasty all by itself, and that Cap’n Crunch as a topping brings childish familiarity. The “regret” is tenuous: that next time, maybe you’ll be able to choose better toppings, and mix them in an even better proportion.
What will happen if you get the best mix possible of yogurt and toppings? No one will ever know, because it will never happen.
Customers keep trying, because it will never happen.
“Hey, let’s do that again!”
That’s how I like to think about mobile games: the goal is to create an exercise that inspires the player to aspire to perfect it, and then obscure the concept of perfection to a point that even thinking about it is addictive.
The perfect play of Super Hexagon, for example, is one in which the player plays forever.
Super Hexagon is a game in which the player touches the sides of the screen to move a triangle out of the way of closing walls. If you touch a wall, you die. The walls get faster.
Super Hexagon has a very short “loop”: you start, you play, you die, you start over.
So it’s easy to conjure the concept of a perfect play: don’t die.
Ridiculous Fishing presents a core loop even better than that of a self-serve frozen yogurt shop.
Without getting into the story (it exists, if you want it to, and it’s weird, if you want it to exist), we’ll say that this is a game about a fisherman. He’s on a boat. He fishes. He catches fish. He throws the fish into the air — designer Jan-Willem Nijman says the sight of tuna flying out of the water in a documentary about line fishing inspired this — and then shoots them out of the air with a gun.
That’s the “action” layer of the game. The other layer is the “progression”: you earn money for shooting fish, and you spend that money on items that help you earn more money.
The action layer has a “core loop” of its own, in that it’s split into three phases.
First, there’s the “down” phase. In this phase, your lure descends into the ocean. As it descends, you tilt your Apple-branded device to the left or right — either like a steering wheel or not — to move the hook. What you want to do is dodge fish.
When the hook touches a fish, the fish is hooked. Now the “up” phase begins. On the way back up to the surface, try to catch as many fish as you can.
Those two phases comprise what I’ll call “layer one” of the “action layer”.
The third phase is the “shooting” phase. The “up” phase ends when the hook reaches the surface of the water. Now the fish are flipping into the air. You touch the screen to fire your gun. Some of them take more than one hit. Tap the screen like crazy to kill them before they fall back into the water and (emotionlessly) swim away.
When all of the fish are dead or otherwise no longer flying, you receive your money. Now you can take your money to the shop. Here I should pause to reflect on how the shop button on the game over screen lights up, glows, and is happy if you have enough money to purchase an item in the store.
The items available for purchase multiply the complexity of the game. In the first column are new fishing lines — allowing you to go deeper. Simply put, you’ll eventually want all of the lines, once you get good enough to go deep enough to require them.
Then there are new guns — we’ll get to those later. Lastly, we have new lures, gadgets, and accessories.
Accessories include the “Fishopedia”, a book that lets you see which species of fish you have caught, and which remain unknown. Another accessory is the business suit, which lets you sell your fish for 10% more, or the Wizard Robe, which lets you sell your fish for 20% more.
Gadgets and lures are the most truly interesting items, because they make it easier to fish. Better fishing means more money.
The heart of the “gadget” system is the chainsaw lure. With this lure equipped, you can touch anywhere on the screen during the “down” phase to speed up and cut through fish. You earn the same amount of money for cutting through a fish that you’d earn for shooting it out of the air. (This is important.)
The chainsaw adds an extra layer of complexity to the controls. The screen shakes slightly as you boost, making it so you don’t always know where you are. The first couple of times you use the chainsaw, you might run into a fish immediately after letting go of the booster.
Furthermore, the chainsaw lure uses fuel. When you run out of fuel, you run out of chainsaw.
So the chainsaw lure is layer two of the action phase: it gets you deeper. Getting deeper on the “down” phase means you’re going to pass more fish on the “up” phase, meaning you’re going to have more fish to shoot during the shooting phase.
It’s a very clean system.
And then you earn enough money to upgrade your chainsaw lure: now you can touch the screen on the way up to slow the lure down. So you can speed up on the way down, and slow down on the way up.
Both of these actions use fuel.
So you’ll want to boost on the way down only when necessary, remembering to keep enough fuel to have some slow-down power on the way up.
You want to slow down on the way up because doing so helps you collect more fish. More fish caught means more fish to shoot. Shooting more fish means more money. More money means more new stuff! More new stuff means better fishing. Better fishing means getting deeper. Getting deeper means finding more species of fish. Finding all of the species of fish means winning the game. So it is that the “shop layer” itself completes the “action layer”.
The third sub-layer of the action phase is where things start to get brilliant.
Once you’ve caught enough species of fish, you’ll unlock the final map area, The Maelstrom. This is the “infinite” level. It’s different every trip. By the time you unlock The Maelstrom, you’ll have already purchased many of the items in the shop — if not most of them. All that’s left, when you get to The Maelstrom, is for you to master the game. In The Maelstrom, you are at last alone with the mechanics.
As with the other areas, in The Malestrom, different species of fish are available at different depths. However, the layouts and placement of fish formations — and even what species of fish are available — changes every time you drop your lure into The Maelstrom.
By the time you get to The Maelstrom, the monstrous depth of Ridiculous Fishing’s interlocking systems has occurred to you many times — though it’s only ever been like a hunch. Now you know it for real.
To describe this depth, I have to first tell you about the toaster.
One of the items available in the Ridiculous Fishing shop is a toaster. It’s a toaster, according to Jan-Willem Nijman, because “it’s funny” that it’s a toaster. Toasters are electric appliances. Ridiculous Fishing’s toaster, too, is electric: it electrocutes the first fish you touch during the “down” phase, giving you a second chance.
The second chance lets you go deeper. More depth means different species of fish. Deeper fish are worth more money. Money is what you want — et cetera.
Save up enough money, and you can buy a hair dryer. Like the toaster, it electrocutes a fish. It’s your third chance — a chance for even more depth, even more fish, even more money, et cetera.
If you reach the bottom of a level — remembering that The Maelstrom has no bottom — your lure stops briefly and then begins to come up. The first important note about the electric appliances is this: they have no function during the “up” phase. If you made it to the bottom without using one of them, they become ineffective.
Since The Maelstrom is infinite, you will never finish a round without using both the hair dryer and the toaster. So it is that your “life meter” for the “down” phase is “three hits”.
Save up enough money, and you can purchase a “Tesla Coil”, which super-charges your hair-dryer and toaster so that if you touch a fish, it eliminates all visible fish on the screen. So now your life meter for the “down” phase is “three hits, plus an ethereal, invisible, unassailable fourth, and fifth hit”: from how many collective collisions might this smart bomb effect save you?
When you’re playing a finite level, some group of brain cells is crunching the probabilities as you approach imminent collision with a fish: should you boost, destroying the fish at the cost of fuel? Or should you collide with the fish, using the hair dryer?
The third option is: tilt your mobile device to move out of the way.
Crucial note: moving out of the way is always — always! — possible. In Ridiculous Fishing, polished skill at the central mechanic trumps all in-game upgrades.
You can imagine someone playing Ridiculous Fishing at a world-champion level, achieving leaderboard-topping depths in The Maelstrom, without ever equipping a hair-dryer or a toaster. You can imagine this person never using the chainsaw boost.
Imagine, then — and here’s where the depth spirals out of comprehension — how far that person could get with the hair-dryer and toaster equipped, and with prudent boosting.
You can buy larger fuel tanks, which increase the amount of time you can boost.
However, none of the items mean anything in the hypothetical case of your running directly into the first three fish you encounter, frying them all and beginning your ascent.
The next depth layer is even larger: let’s talk about the jellyfish.
The immediate-term goals for the “down” phase are simple: avoid everything. Don’t touch any of the objects on the screen. None of them are anything you want to touch. You want to get deeper.
For the “up” phase, the goals are a little more complex. You want to touch all of the fish, because doing so hooks them. However, you want to avoid the jellyfish. The jellyfish are recognizable because they are big, brightly colored, and ugly. They are the game’s consummate obstacle.
The “up” phase is already a beautiful game rule reversal in the league of Pac-Man (in which ghosts chase the player until the player picks up one of the four power pills on the board, at which point they are now running away): on the way down, we try to avoid everything. On the way up, we try to touch everything . . . except the jellyfish.
The jellyfish are what make Ridiculous Fishing bigger than Pac-Man. If we hook a jellyfish during the “up” phase, it too will flip into the air during the “shooting” phase.
Shooting a jellyfish subtracts money from your score — a high score is what you want!
Not shooting a jellyfish is easier said than done: they are all over the place, and they crowd up the screen. The nature of the shooting phase is that the fish are falling off the bottom of the screen in a hurry. Avoiding the jellyfish can be a nightmare when you’re trying to shoot the valuable fish.
In The Maelstrom, you’re going to run into Clone Jellies. If you accidentally catch one, and then even more accidentally shoot it during the shooting phase, it multiplies — and you scream.
One of the saddest feelings in the game is hesitating to shoot a valuable fish because you’re afraid of hitting a jellyfish near it . . . and then the valuable fish falls off the bottom of the screen. This is where you think: “I need to get better at avoiding jellyfish”.
To avoid jellyfish, you can either use your hover-saw lure to slow down — at the cost of fuel (hopefully you saved some fuel during the down phase) — or you can play the game until you earn the steady, precise hands of a neurosurgeon.
By now, the game’s “core loop” is more like a basketball-sized knot of yarn: the immediate-term goals of the “down phase” project into the “up phase”, and the immediate-term goals of the “up phase” project into the “shooting phase”.
And it gets deeper: some of the fish are tricky to catch. They move slowly or irregularly. You’ll need precise movements or sharp boosting reflexes to catch them.
At The Maelstrom, where the layouts are gently random, this becomes blindingly clear: on the way “down”, you need to remember where the slow-moving, valuable fish are. You need to make a note of the numeral at the top of the screen: “That fish that is worth a whole lot of money is at 554 meters”. On the way “up”, you keep glancing at the depth. “It’s time to slow down . . . now.” And you slow down, and you catch the fish, and you feel like a hero.
The developers tell me that it was an early decision to never let the player “die”. It was not a decision with much thought behind it. They made the decision naturally. It’s barely possible to have a round of Ridiculous Fishing in which you earn no money. You’d have to be really, really good at the game to earn no money from a Ridiculous Fishing trip — you’d have to avoid all the fish on the way up (there are so many of them!) and hit more than enough jellyfish. The developers placed the fish with love and care, so that even on accident, you’d hit more fish on the way up than jellyfish.
So we come to the ultimate layer — that the game is about more than the depth of your hook. It’d be easy to look at a leaderboard and crown someone champion because their hook got the deepest.
Once you’ve experienced The Maelstrom in full power-up regalia, you know that no one numeral matters as much as your score at the end of the run. It’s about how much money you make shooting the fish out of the sky.
By now you’re so familiar with the physics of the flipping fish that you have started avoiding certain fish species on the way up: smaller fish are worthless compared to the big ones. They fall faster. The camera follows the lowest fish — and this is certainly a deliberate design decision — so you will have to take out those little fish while the bigger ones are off the screen. Suddenly, axe-like, the bigger fish fall down through the stupid little fish you’re trying to shoot.
So once you ascend to the final, infinite plane of The Maelstrom, you know that even some of the money-making, score-increasing fish are, in fact, subtle enemies. Now the systems have all truly come together within your brain: Ridiculous Fishing’s seamless interlocking game designs are truly inseparable from one another.
This is where we talk about the guns: in all categories in the shop, every item is “better” than the one before it. The first lure is a chainsaw that speeds up and kills fish; the second is a chainsaw that speeds up and kills fish on the way down and slows down on the way up; the third lure shoots blades out of its sides while boosting down. Each fuel upgrade is bigger than the last. The special clothing you purchase allows you to sell fish for a higher score — obviously, you’ll want the best clothes to make the best score — and each one is more effective than the last.
Guns are different. You start with a single-shot pistol. You can move up to a shotgun — it’s imprecise, and you’ll sometimes hit jellyfish, though if you haven’t caught any jellyfish, it shouldn’t be a problem. You can buy an uzi, which is a little bit weak, though it has rapid fire. A minigun is like a powered-up uzi. You can get two uzis for a little bit more than a minigun. These let you use two fingers at once. You can get a magnum — it’s a more powerful pistol. You can buy two miniguns for more than two uzis. There’s an “orbital ray” which requires some zen focus to master, and there’s a rocket launcher which is messy — to say the least.
None of these are “better” than any of the others. I asked the developers what guns they use, and I was pleased to find out that they didn’t agree on which gun in the best. We discussed the skill of using the akimbo double guns — use one finger to keep fish from falling off the bottom of the screen while using another finger to keep fish from falling into the top of the screen — and during our brief discussion I realized just how many different games are curled up inside Ridiculous Fishing.
For my first few hours, I’d considered the shooting a necessity. Then I started meeting stronger fish, and realizing that my gun’s power alone was not enough to master the shooting phase.
I thought about the progression — how at any point in the game, you can afford at least three different items from the shop. Which will you buy first? The suit that earns you 10% more money, or the toaster that lets you take an extra hit? Which do you know more about: yourself, or Ridiculous Fishing?
Here is where I realized each phase of Ridiculous Fishing is an instrument in an orchestra. Ridiculous Fishing represents the engineering of an even better core loop than a frozen yogurt shop.
A debate rages in video-game blog comments, whenever someone brings up a mobile game. They say mobile games aren’t “real games”, and that social games aren’t “real games”. With its interlocking systems and flawless controls, Ridiculous Fishing is the realest of real games, and it is also the most mobile of mobile games, and its progression is so finely tuned that even Zynga couldn’t copy it.
This game would not work at all without its impeccable controls — which is a misleading statement, because you couldn’t even start making this game without the impeccable controls already in place. I asked developer Zach Gage if it is, in fact, extremely difficult to make tilt controls that feel perfect — seeing as none of the games I’ve yet played on mobile devices managed to do it. He shrugged, and said that the game felt perfect from the first prototype. I found this revelation subtly hilarious: Gage says that engineering the controls was as easy as assigning a screen location that corresponded 1:1 with the device tilt angle.
For the record, Gage believes the game feels best on an iPad mini, though this is something else the developers interestingly disagree about. Rami Ismail plays it on an iPad, and artist Greg Wohlwend plays it on an iPhone 4. This has led to the developers each developing their own technique — one-handed, two-handed, steering-wheel style, device-rocking style, using the palms as a cradle, playing upside-down. Perhaps even more interesting is that, even after the game’s release, these guys all seem to be sinking at least a half an hour a day into playing the game.
Rami Ismail tells me that the game sat in a stage resembling “completion” for about a year and a half. The controls were perfect and the physics of the shooting were perfect. All of the developers convened in New York City for two weeks early in 2013 to finish the game. What they did was perfect the arrangements of fish in The Maelstrom, price the items in the shop, and craft the game’s unique — and wholly optional — storytelling.
I asked Rami how successful they thought the game was going to be, and his response was “We always knew it would be successful.” I asked him how they knew that, and he told me, “Because it was fun.”
Now it occurs to me that “Core Loop” is a phrase copycats use. I’ve only ever heard it inside the offices of startups and venture-capital-funded mobile game developers who consult with me on topics of game design and control. I’ve sat in on Monday morning meetings, and I’ve heard biz-dev directors ask the game developers, “Have you guys played any interesting games lately?” This is how the burglary process begins. It’s already Wednesday, so the words “Ridiculous Fishing” are currently at the top of at least a hundred PowerPoint presentation slides in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Yet Rami Ismail, Jan-Willem Nijman, Zach Gage, and Greg Wohlwend didn’t consult any modern design bibles as they put their game together. They balanced it against itself. They made a game which they found fun by itself. The perfection followed naturally after that.
Rami Ismail explained to me that, at the end, they looked at the shop items’ prices and thought, “Wow, we made a Zynga game”. All they’re missing is microtransactions. I asked if the way the game subverts microtransaction models was intentional. If this were a Zynga game, I said, the hair-dryer wouldn’t be yours forever. You’d have to buy a new one every time. Rami told me that these various subversions were not intentional; however, upon final reflection, he realizes that they certainly were deliberate choices.
This game wouldn’t be a masterpiece without its graphics. They are stylish — all of the fish are made up of forty-five-degree angles, a refreshing break from the tyranny of the square — and they are colorful. They are neither eight-bit nor sixteen-bit. They are no number of bits at all, yet when you look at Ridiculous Fishing, you know for certain that it is a videogame. You can say the same thing about its music: like the game itself, and its graphics, the music is simultaneously bizarre and catchy, and ties the package up into a holistic design masterpiece. All of these elements combine naturally to create a game that is more than “just a game”; like the original Super Mario Bros., it is a piece of pop-art in itself. Ridiculous Fishing is both the new Angry Birds — and something else entirely. Time will tell what that entire something else may be.
For now, a theory: David Jaffe, creator of some of the largest, grossest, visually ugliest interactive electronic entertainment experiences of all time once said that triple-A games were like movies — and that what he wanted to do was make pop songs. Canabalt was a pop song. ZiGGURAT was a 7” alternative rock single from a band whose members all died poor in the mid-1980s. Ridiculous Fishing is a full album of pop songs.