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App Awe: 2048 Variations on a Theme

How acceptable is copying in order to create new video games? One WID and video game expert weighs in through the Institute's App Awe editorial series.

Key image from iStock

App Awe is a WID essay series exploring the transformative potential that lives at the intersection of gaming, science, education and society.
Allison Salmon
By Allison Salmon, senior software engineer with WID’s Games+Learning+Society center

The Power of Three

On Feb. 6, 2014, Threes! made its debut on the iTunes App Store. A charming little puzzle game with a clean, modern, flat aesthetic and charming anthropomorphized numbers. The goal of the game is simple: slide the number tiles around the board and combine them to make the biggest number you possibly can. One will combine with two, but after that, you can only combine matching powers of three. The game had me hooked from the moment I first played. I make a habit of following other indie developers on Twitter, and if there is a game that is being talked about, I can’t not take a look. It’s my job and my passion. I saw Threes! popping up all over my feed and downloaded it immediately.

It is the perfect game for those spare moments that I had previously been filling with Candy Crush Saga. Developed by Asher Vollmer and Greg Wohlwend, there really couldn’t be a better example of how we now have the tools and distribution channels that make it possible for a small team to craft its vision of minimalist beauty and share it with the world. They have posted several places about the prototyping process they went through developing the game, trying on different art styles and tweaking the mechanics until they had exactly the experience that spoke to them. They were making not just a game but expressing a piece of themselves. They spent over a year developing Threes! As a game developer, I am both inspired and a bit jealous. Threes! is a finely crafted and polished experience. So fun, so addictive, lots of depth but such a simple-to-grasp game! Why didn’t I think of this?

Three is a Crowd

Threes! popularity spread, through word of mouth, through tweets, through the vast network of information people have woven all over the globe, through fibers and bits. Within weeks or release, it topped the App Store paid apps charts and eventually become the 25th highest grossing app on the App Store. As it worked its way around the Internet, others had the same thought I did: “This is a simple game.”

It didn’t take long — less than a month — for the first clone to appear. 1024 was released on Feb. 27 on the App Store. A nearly identical game, 1024 indicated by its name there was a slight twist. Players add powers of two not three. The game was clearly a knock-off, pushing the bounds of copyright infringement and not nearly as polished as the original. There was also a nearly identical javascript browser based version that surfaced shortly after. Cloning of mobile and indie games is an all too common occurrence; it almost has come to be expected. Vlambeer, another small indie development shop with a commitment to open betas of its games, gets nearly every one of its games cloned (see Ridiculous Fishing vs Radical Fishing and Ninja fishing and Luftrausers vs SkyFar’s). King, makers of Candy Crush Saga, has been accused of cloning at least two other games in making Candy Crush not to mention it is undeniably similar to the game Bejeweled. Zynga also got heat for cloning indie game Tiny Tower. The results of legal battles around these issues are expensive and usually have no satisfying conclusion. Small independent developers don’t have the resources to fight it out in the courts so often take to the Internet and rely on the public to shame the offenders. For the most part the creators of Threes! have remained quiet about the clones with just a few snarky tweets of acknowledgement.

Threes! image from Wikimedia Commons

Threes! image from Wikimedia Commons

Doubling Down

This is usually where the story ends. Cloning a game is easier than making something all your own, but it still usually takes a fair bit of work even for a game like Threes! Until Gabriele Cirulli came along and decided not only to make a clone, but to make the code available to the world via GitHub. 2048 was pretty much an exact duplicate of 1024 and actually it was even a clone of another clone also named 2048. HTML and Javascript based, it had a new color scheme and none of the quirky character of the original. It was like a blank canvas, a shell of a game. He posted his creation to Hacker News with full links to the repository containing the code. Even more than the cloned game, the code mirrored the minimalism of the original Threes! Easy to jump into and understand, just enough comments, cleanly laid out and organized. Within a few days of being posted to Hacker News, 2048’s popularity exploded, not with people playing the game but with people creating and making the game their own version.

“The rapid pace of iteration and creative outpouring was amazing to watch –a community mirroring the process of iteration similar to what the original Threes! developers went through, what all game developers go through when trying to find the heart of their game.” — Allison Salmon

For days on end, the clones of 2048 dominated Hacker News and eventually spread out to a subreddit. At first people spent time “fixing” issues they saw with the game. One version added an undo last move; another infinite undos. A few versions with save features popped up including an official version from Dropbox. Other people choose to start twisting the mechanics. Bigger grids, more than one grid, combining numbers in a fibonacci sequence, starting from 2048 and splitting numbers back down to 1 and Roman numerals. Still others decided that games are more fun with friends creating a competitive multiplayer version and a Hacker News Plays 2048, a play off of the Twitch Plays Pokemon phenomenon. The variations started getting wilder and more bizarre, substituting words and images for numbers. There was 2048 for physicists where you combine electrons to make muons and neutrinos. Doctor Who 2048 where you combine pictures of the Doctor to make the next Doctor and a Turkish 2048 where you combine pictures of politicians to make other politicians. Game mashups emerged there was Tetris 2048 and Flappy Bird 2048 that only had the slightest resemblance to the original. For all these variations intrepid programmers also made AI to play and conquer all the games. Some even more dedicated developers took 2048 to other platforms with a Game Boy version, a Pebble version and even a hardware arduino version made to exclusively play 2048.  The rapid pace of iteration and creative outpouring was amazing to watch — a community mirroring the process of iteration similar to what the original Threes! developers went through, what all game developers go through when trying to find the heart of their game. Instead of converging to a single honed point though the community iteration seems to be endlessly diverging, spinning off into cyberspace. After a week of iteration the fervor of 2048 seems to have died down but where does that leave Threes! now that it exists in a sea of clones?

One Shines

Despite all the possibilities, I still find myself coming back to playing Threes! Part of what draws me back is a weird sense of loyalty to indie developers who are doing their best to make a living while doing what they love. Cloning of games feels wrong to me, a form of plagiarism and piracy, but I also feel a strong connection with open source and the sharing of ideas and even code. Ideas, especially simple ideas, can not easily be owned or even contained by one person. Copying and building on what we see is part of how humans have grown and how we as a society evolve.  As the saying goes “Ideas are cheap, execution is everything.” This more then anything sums up why I keep on playing Threes! — execution is everything. The year spent by the developers in careful deliberation was not wasted. When it comes down to it, Threes! is just the better game.

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