Threes, clones and cornflakes: A view on 'casual games'

What can we learn from the Threes furore? Leigh Alexander takes the temperature on "casual games" business as usual, the value of brand names, and talks to 2048's 19-year old creator.
"Maker of hit puzzle game 2048 says he created it over a weekend," exclaims a breathless Los Angeles Times headline. What a miracle! The CNBC reporter who ran a similar story -- isn't Gabriele Cirulli, developer of that fiendishly-addictive 2048, a whiz? -- is probably still getting angry Tweets and mails. Because the story is basically wrong: 2048 is summarily a free public mod of 1024, which is a rip-off of Threes. Threes, by Asher Vollmer and Greg Wohlwend, is a game made by people the game development community know and like. It took time, as many fine and truly-taut puzzles do (over a year, in this case). And now Threes, a paid app, has been cloned, and the free clones are leeching the revenue these indies deserve for their hard work and ingenuity. When you bake a particularly nice pie, everyone wants a piece of it. Actually, that's a bad analogy: Everyone knocks off the recipe and sells their slapdash, lazy discount versions (or gives them away and collects donations from grateful users, like 2048's lucky Cirutti). There are still Flappy Bird clones rampaging all over free app lists and the sidebars of your Facebook page. People say the Flappy Bird debacle is a boring, cynical little episode, but what's happening to Threes is a unique tragedy, we feel. We saw what Vlambeer went through with the heartbreaking Ninja Fishing thing. And Threes has a similar social pedigree: It's endorsed by indie App Store innovation leaders like Canabalt creator Adam Saltsman and Spelltower's Zach Gage. On the Threes blog, the creators recently published a spirited and in-depth defense of their work: why Threes is a true original, and why it is, from the vantage of game design analysis, a better game than its clones. Yet no single malicious rip-off artist has attempted to eclipse and edge out Threes; this TechCrunch report illuminates just how rampant and prolific 2048-alikes have become on the App Store. And all the while, as of the report, Threes' market share has remained relatively intact. It's certainly possible that phoned-in free versions of innovative puzzle games could end up sucking the blood out of design pioneers' veins, but so far, data seems inconclusive. When Cirulli's 2048 (the second 2048 game to actually hit the market, according to reports) became the talk of the mainstream press, I felt the sting on behalf of Vollmer and Wohlwend. If you ask me, puzzle games that are accessible yet beautiful, design objects for Apple's clean-to-the-touch platforms, go wildly underrated, and it's hard to believe -- sorry, let's be blunt -- how lazy and ignorant traditional journalists can be when they try to talk about them video games.

I thought, why don't I find this guy. I chortled, I'll tell him I'm from CNN, and I'll ask him how he came up with such wizardry, this brilliant original design, in one weekend. I tweeted about it and a colleague emailed me a blank message with a subject heading reading only, "teach the boy a lesson." Then I Googled and I realized Cirulli is just 19 years old, a web developer, one of countless digital tinkers who experiment with content often and in public. A modder, young and thoughtless, who probably had no intent to usurp a couple developers who got honorable mention in the 2014 Independent Game Festival's Excellence in Design Category. I felt like blaming him -- especially when there was another 2048, and an App store and a web space and whatever all full of 1024s and Numberwangs unto infinity -- was probably the wrong tack (and to the CNN National Desk Editor who followed me on Twitter, don't worry, I was only kidding). This is going to happen, and this is going to keep happening. A couple years ago, when PopCap made Solitaire Blitz, I interviewed someone or other there about just how long it takes for a casual games house to develop a truly watertight, evergreen original idea, a Bejeweled or a Peggle or a Zuma. They come out of tiny teams of prototypers. Innovators. People like Vollmer and Wohlwend, probably. Yet the number of Bejeweled knockoffs is uncountable. Probably literally. Even the originality of PopCap's own ideas is often publicly in dispute. It's really hard to be truly original when it comes to something that simple. My mother loves Snood, to the extent she owns Snood merchandise, and I think she plays a clone. Somewhere along the line, our favorite and most brilliant independent games developers collided with the App Store and created the new casual games industry. Cloning, free knock-offs and uncredited iterations are just part of the business, and they always have been. My colleague Libe Goad Ackerman has covered casual and mobile games for as long as I've known her, for as long as they've really been a thing, and she's now editorial director of Nickelodeon's Addicting Games. Remember portals? She does. When it comes to what's happening to Threes, she's surprised that anyone is surprised.
"The question isn't whether or not it's corrupt to clone or to buy clones, or whether they are being screwed or not. The question is, why is it that this attitude of interchangeability in regards to cloning exists?"
It's been happening since there were enough casual games to warrant a "casual games space," she says, from Bejeweled, Zuma and Peggle clones to bubble poppers, collapse and word games. Even Angry Birds owes a debt, she says, to the "flinger" mechanic from one of her favorite browser game series, Crush the Castle. "I always wonder why more people weren't crying foul when clones were being created long before Flappy Bird or Tiny Tower was born," Goad Ackerman tells me. "I think some of it was old-school bias against 'casual' games. But now with an industry shift to mobile and indie games and, yes, 'casual' games, in the past few years -- there's more attention than ever on these types of games (and their money-making potential, a la Candy Crush). And then there's the ability to communicate in light speed, so creators and their fans have so many more ways to cry foul than they did in the past." To Goad Ackerman, this is just business as usual for "casual games" -- games that are made to be enduring, accessible to a wide audience, and which rely on puzzles that are simple to learn and hard to master. Still, she says, she's glad that finally the larger conversation about the impact of cloning is happening among visible developers and the industry at large. "It might not be the solution, but changing the conversation can be a powerful incubator for real change," she says. "Maybe it'll help create an unwritten standard for game developers; maybe game publishers can regulate what kind of games -- or clones, in this case, that they allow on their platforms." Change needs to happen on an industry and platform level, she says, because your average consumer doesn't read blogs, search Reddit, or follow popular developers on Twitter. They might never even find out that a game they've fallen in love with is a copy, and they might not care even if they knew. "I've seen consumers flock to what I consider pretty shoddy clones, and for a while, it was surprising," she says. "It's not anymore. But now, it's confirmation that real change has to start first with accepting that this is likely to happen, and second, anticipating that and planning what to do before it happens to your game." Designer, author and academic Ian Bogost, who famously critiqued the predilections of your average social game player with Facebook satire Cow Clicker, says developers are asking the wrong questions. "The question isn’t whether or not it’s corrupt to clone or to buy clones, or whether they are being screwed or not," he says "The question is, why is it that this attitude of interchangeability in regards to cloning exists?" The answer? Many games, particularly small mobile ones, are "more like design objects (chairs, cereals, etc) than they are like texts (films, novels, etc)," he believes. In normal markets, either branding, scarcity or both help resolve competitive similarities -- a designer bag is worth more than one that looks rather like it because of its marquee label, or because its leather is genuine, for example. "But there's no material scarcity among games," says Bogost. "There's no equivalent to leather, and there's also scarcely little brand value, particularly for small games by unknown creators. For ordinary people, playing 2048 is just no different from playing Threes, no more than eating Kroger Flakes is different than eating Kellogg's Corn Flakes." "The smart question to ask would be why everyone’s heard of 2048 and not heard of Threes," Bogost says of the mainstream press coverage. Because 2048 is free, I say. "It's true, but really, nobody thinks about it," says Bogost. "It's just not a thing to people, not any more than they think about Kellogg's." Dev diaries like Vollmer's widely-shared design analysis are primarily of merit to other developers, he suggests. Games may mean different things to different people, but for Adam Saltsman, a well-regarded mobile developer who endorsed Threes (and who collaborated with Greg Wohlwend himself on last year's fashionable numeric puzzler, Hundreds), games are a life's work. "Playing a game that is maybe a little fluffy, or maybe has some degenerate strategies, to me that feels like... betrayal," he writes to me. "Like I've been tricked into wasting the only un-replenish-able resource I have: time. The game might as well have like... extracted stem cells from me, or something, except even those I can regrow, I think."
"In a way, they're all already playing Threes. But it's important to me, for some reason, that they acknowledge that they're playing the 'cheap' version of Threes... that it's not marshmallows all the way down."
He gets it, the thing where for most people games are not that "serious": "I think for most people games are some chips you can eat on the subway without getting in trouble with the MTA, or whatever -- something crunchy to pass the time," he says. "It doesn't matter if it's... intellectually robust, or psychologically challenging, or particularly delicious in some regard. It's the Mumford & Sons of phone apps." Mumford & Sons?! I asked Saltsman for 200 words, but he sent what he describes as a 'screed': "I haven't figured out how to write that without it sounding judgmental, because I want to smack Mumford & Sons, and I know this is all tied up in tribalism and taste, but for a lot of people the quality of the game is secondary to other positive things those games offer them, and I am absolutely not judging them for playing in a way that is different from how I play," he says. "We get few enough excuses to play, as grown-ups, that I'll be damned if I'm going to shit on the ones I don't happen to personally enjoy," Saltsman adds. Sometimes simple things are really hard to make, and sometimes they're not -- neither Saltsman's classic runner Canabalt nor Terry Cavanagh's distinctive, brutal Super Hexagon took a year and a half to make, as Threes' creators say it did. But Saltsman says he and Cavanagh had a lot of small experiments on the way to those games: "Even those 'fast' or 'easy' games were built on the backs of years of previous efforts." "My point is that when some people see a simple result, I think they intuit that the process itself was simple, or else they otherwise sort of discount the mighty achievement that is the little gem," he continues. "...people see a clever little thing that, once discovered, can be easily replicated. And so they replicate it, and think, yes, I made." Still, Saltsman says he doesn't like telling people what to do; "I don't like telling people that like crunchy little fluffy things that they need to get their act together and really appreciate some 'real media' or 'real food', or whatever," he says. "To this end I feel like, who cares if people play clones? It's their 70-odd years on the Earth, it's their call." "At the same time, I think if we completely abandon the ideas of curation, education, design depth, and so on, then we are long-term dooming the art form," he adds. "I'm just worried that if we don't make a big deal about something like Threes existing behind the tidal wave of 2048 marshmallows, that we are losing something really important." It is, says Saltsman, less important that people play Threes than that they simply realize it exists, that it was "responsible" for their snack food. "In a way, they're all already playing Threes," he says. "But it's important to me, for some reason, that they acknowledge that they're playing the 'cheap' version of Threes... that it's not marshmallows all the way down." On Sunday Cirulli answered my email. In the end, I didn't lie to, bully or blame him. What was your motivation to create and publish 2048, I asked. "I made 2048 just as an exercise over the weekend," he replied. "I didn't really have any idea of how popular it would become. I just published it online and didn’t even try to advertise it. Its popularity came all on its own." Did you know about the similar games, I asked. Did you think people would get angry about clones. "2048 was based on 1024, which apparently is a clone of Threes," he says succinctly. "I had no idea of this, and I didn't even know Threes existed, before releasing 2048. Not thinking that 2048 would be successful, I didn't really consider any of the possible repercussions." About the App Store, about developer conversations: He hasn't been following them, he told me. "I think in this case the fact that 2048 is open source resulted in being a double-edged sword: it allowed many creative developers to come up with new versions of the game, but at the same time a few people have taken the source, slapped some ads onto it and published it on the App Store." I asked Cirulli the same question that Bogost proposed: Why is 2048 getting the mainstream attention that similar games haven't attained? "It probably boils down to chance and luck, and maybe some minor factor such as the way it looks and/or its animations," he replied. "I can’t really put a finger on it, though."

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