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Battling the past

For the past six months or so, Vlambeer has been working on LUFTRAUSERS, our 2D dogfighting game in which players get to pilot and customize their own RAUSER. The game was built upon the foundations of its singularized prequel, LUFTRAUSER.

LUFTRAUSER was once created with the idea of making a quick game as a distraction from working on Serious Sam: The Random Encounter. We decided upon a dogfighting game and reached out to artist-in-crime Paul Veer and our favorite Finnish musician, KOZILEK. With them aboard, a lot of things quickly solidified. Jan Willem designed that flawless feeling of control in the game, Paul established the visual style with an extremely limited and striking palette, KOZILEK composed the memorable soundtrack that accompanied the action and I tried to keep up with my fellow Vlambeer as I programmed along with Jan Willems furious prototyping skills.

After two days the game was done and seeing that this was at the end of Vlambeers first year, we felt we earned a vacation. Long story short, we ported LUFTRAUSER to Flash and we tried to sell it to a Flash portal.

Even though we had good contacts at a lot of portals that knew of the successes of Super Crate Box and Radical Fishing, all of them turned the game down for being too ‘monochrome’, too ‘extreme’ or too ‘difficult’. We gave up after trying for a few days and decided to do something else. We’d use LUFTRAUSER to see if a game like it – five colors, difficult and ‘extreme’- could have an audience. We implemented a tracking solution to see how often it was played and decided that if it did well, we’d send the data along with our next game we hoped to sell to a Flash portal.

We released LUFTRAUSER for free without ads and allowed any portal to have it on their site as long as they did not disable the tracking.

Somewhat unexpected to everyone, the game blew up. LUFTRAUSER was amongst the top five games played on portals for a while and racked up millions of sessions in the first few months of being available. Even today, a year and a half later, on a bad day the game is attracting thousands of players per week.

A year later we found ourselves done with most of our projects: Serious Sam: The Random Encounter was done, GUN GODZ was available to Venus Patrol backers and Ridiculous Fishing was on the backburner until we felt like working on it again. We needed something to do and decided to work on LUFTRAUSER. We opened the game, played for a while and Jan Willem set out to redesign the flight mechanics of LUFTRAUSERS from the ground up.

We are stubborn people, so we stopped looking at the original and started working on the sequel independent of its prequel. LUFTRAUSERS started to take shape. In a week or two, we had the first builds in the game. After a month or two, we posted the SQUAD MODE video on our blog. We were experimenting – we were having fun.

Then something happened we couldn’t quite grasp: LUFTRAUSERS wasn’t nearly as fun as LUFTRAUSER. Even though we had a year of extra experience working on games, even though we had already made the game before, LUFTRAUSERS simply wasn’t what the prequel was. No matter how much we polished and tried, we simply couldn’t get the game up to shape. Diving down from the skies to skim just over the water didn’t feel as great as it should and shooting other airplanes missed a sense of gravitas – of weight – that we really liked about the original.

It took us weeks of doubt and work to get the game to the quality and feel that the original had. Almost two months were spent tweaking the camera, adding effects, iterating on flight feel and communication and accessibility. Hours of discussions spent on the background clouds, the enemy types and the interface. Endless iterations were made on effects and sounds and music. Nevertheless, one day we looked at the build and realized: this was it. We had finally reached the quality of the original game.

LUFTRAUSERS would be a worthy sequel.

That’s when we went back to LUFTRAUSER – and that’s when our stubbornness in trying to make something independent from its prequel turned out to have paid off weeks earlier: the original Flash game was pretty terrible to play.

Sure, we still recognized it as a good game, but it felt static and boring and flat comparing to the game we had been tweaking for months – which was weird: we recalled LUFTRAUSER as feeling dynamic, powerful and above all fun.

The months we spent tweaking weren’t spent getting the new game to match the feel we loved so much in the original game – no, they were spent getting LUFTRAUSERS to match the fond memories we have of that little Flash game. Memories that – especially for what LUFTRAUSER was, definitely outclassed what it actually did.

We didn’t stop there, obviously – we’ve been polishing the game endlessly ever since that moment three months ago. When we play LUFTRAUSERS now, it surpasses the memories of tight dogfighting and the insane aerial acrobats of a game that only existed in our best memories of a little Flash game we’re – to this day – extremely proud of.

We don’t think this is a repeatable strategy, because it was really us being unaware of our exaggeration of LUFTRAUSER’s feel that allowed us to push LUFTRAUSERS that far, but it was definitely an interesting experience.