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Threes, clones and cornflakes: A view on 'casual games' Exclusive
 Threes , clones and cornflakes: A view on 'casual games'
March 31, 2014 | By Leigh Alexander




"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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Comments


Rik Spruitenburg
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I found 2048 because it was mentioned on XKCD. I had heard about "Threes!" but never bothered to download it.

Wendelin Reich
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The one thing I am sure of after reading this article is that cloning of casual games is here to stay. Technical/artisitic simplicity of many casual games + a highly commoditized market space + the relative insignificance of casual cames to most people's lives -- these three combined make cloning inevitable.

But the first of these ingredients can be changed. Cloning depends on clonability. One can play Clumsy Ninja in a casual way, but the tech behind it is too complex to be reproducible without very significant investments.

There's a lesson there, I think. Many developers aspire to develop games that lean too much on Steve Jobs' mantra of simplicity and cleanliness. Sure they are beautiful (like Threes), but so are many non-simple games. Even a simple and clean-looking casual game can deploy mechanics that are difficult to clone in a short amount of time. Take the upcoming 'Monument Valley', for instance, with its Escherian obfuscation of 2D/3D space. No Unity-newbie will reproduce that in a week-end...

ken wong
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Designer of Monument Valley here. I'm sure if we get big enough, we'll be cloned in some way. It might take more than a weekend... but the cloners of Triple Town and Ridiculous Fishing were more than willing.

I'm not sure I agree that what you expressed should be a 'lesson'. Threes is fantastic design, because they created a simple mechanic that provides deep strategies. The designers should not feel the need to make the game any more complex just so others will have a more difficult time ripping them off.

Cloning is inevitable, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't fight it. We fought for games to be recognised as an artform, which means we also need to defend it as such.

Wendelin Reich
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I don't think a general 'lesson' can be drawn from Threes' success, other than that brilliance pays off etc. Also, it seems obvious that the clone inflation ultimately benefits them (just look at the outpouring of solidarity, as in this article).

The lesson I meant is in the creation of games that somehow leverage things that cannot easily be reproduced. I was really just making a point about the value of Blue Ocean Strategies. Ken, I would argue that you already pursue that! Yes, if your game is a success then it will be cloned, but not in a week-end :-)

Andreas Ahlborn
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Well written/researched article.

Goad Ackerman is sadly the only person that sheds some lights on things.

This article clearly shows the cluelessness of what even leading game designers/developers (no Offense Saltsman & Bogost) have to say about how to tackle the double bind situation many developers are facing in todays mobile market.

If you are not successful, you are fading into obscurity, and well...cant pay your bills.

If you have an original idea, clones will sooner pop up than pimples on a nerd`s face, and you might even have problems to prove that you had priority (as was the case in the Ridiculous Fishing case, if I remember correctly).

The Goldrush has clearly given away to a Clonerush and you better bet your bottom that the Casual Giants like Zynga/Popcap/King will have whole Departments full of "Gamehunters" scanning constantly through the appstore & kickstarter on the search for the next GameDNA they can clone.

While I am aware that the Problem of Mockbusters exists since the dawn of media time, its also a fact, as Wendelin abve stated, that part of the problem is the lacking/hidden complexity of most casual games that are easily cloneable. I get the argument Saltsman&Wohlwend makes about finetuning the formula and that it can be a long process but once the gameplay clicks its no rocket science to copy it.

This might be why AAA productions are immune to such a thing, and therefore might long live when the appstore has imploded due to its own scavenger mentality.

Its sheer impossible to clone Assassins creed or GTA on aweekend. The only game that attempted something similar is (afaik) the WarZ (piggybacking on DayZ) and we all know how bad that went for the developer.

There is even another thing that is not so easily replicated, a thing many gameplay-fanatctics often discredit: Story, Narrative.

Its for example impossible to clone something like "To the Moon" which obviously had no big budget behind it and is (from the gameplay perspective) simple.

Ian Bogost
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I'll make a note not to find offense when someone calls me "clueless," thanks for the tip!

Andreas Ahlborn
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I am actually a fan of your work ;-) so if you read carefully
"the cluelessness of what even leading game designers/developers [..]have to say" was not a personal attack, but just a statement that I found "the analysis" you and Adam provided in this case a little underwhelming.

Will Hendrickson
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We are all a bit clueless in our own way :)

Walt Collins
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Are Cirulli and other cloners going to be in any legal hot water over this? Could they be held liable for potential lost sales by original concept developers Vollmer and Wolwend? Is cloning now considered legal? Or is it merely (mostly) unenforceable due to prevalence? If game ideas and mechanics are no longer copyrightable, are the particulars of implementation the only thing that matters, legally?

Obviously it's a shame that the original Threes team are almost certainly missing out on revenues, but in today's Wild West of social media inspired indie game dev tactics, one can make the argument that to AVOID cloning hurts you as compared with the many other indie devs that do clone.

I'm a team of one, but I'm an aspiring game developer. From a practical perspective, am I being foolishly over-cautious for not considering cloning of game ideas and mechanics to integrate into my own game productions? Personally, I feel cloning is unethical. But hey, "everyone's doing it", right? Why should they succeed while I struggle in private trying to create my own unique gem of an idea (which others will then steal and profit from)?

So, as an indie dev, I'm damned if I do (ethically) and damned if I don't (financially). What's a little guy like me to do?

Zachary Strebeck
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Depending on what you clone, I don't think it was ever illegal. There are only so many protectable elements in a game. I have a post on here somewhere about Flappy Bird that looks at that situation and touches on what is protectable.

Generally, you would have to create something where the copyrightable elements are substantially similar in order to be legally actionable. However, this case involving Tetris - http://www.iplb.org/articles/case-survey-tetris-holding-llc-v-xio
-interactive-inc - seems to extend it to the "overall look and feel."

I haven't actually looked at Threes and 2048 to see how similar they are, but essentially the mechanics and rules of the game are not copyrightable, only patentable. Most developers don't bother with patents, as they are super expensive and time consuming to get. That Tetris case above is worth a read to get a handle on the relevant issues!

Phil Maxey
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At the end of the day this all comes down to the App store owners. I don't put any blame at all on any developers who "clone" game designs. Obviously if someone clones the exact gameplay and graphics of a game that's totally wrong, but there's nothing wrong just making games with similar game design. But whether you end up with an App store full of similar games or not, is not the fault of the developers! the developers are going to create games based upon what already works! which is why there's 1000000 match 3 games. And you can't blame the public either, because they just play what's put in front of them. So who can you blame? who has the actual power to allow or not allow, or promote or not promote games on the App stores? Yup, it's those who own/run them.

People like what they like, and because of that, and because of the current structure/setup of the App stores, you are going to get a situation eventually where you will have just a few games, and then 100000 clones of them, and that will be that.

Ian Bogost
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Why must there be anyone to "blame?" It's a product of a set of circumstances.

Guilherme Tows
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these poor cloners are the product of broken homes and an education that has failed them

Phil Maxey
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@Ian

Because it doesn't help drive innovation forward, it doesn't help new/cool games be created, when it's far easier to make a clone and profit from it.

Ian Bogost
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Sorry, what doesn't help drive innovation forward? The absence of a clear, singular agent for blame? I'm surely misunderstanding you so please clarify.

Zachary Strebeck
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Sounds like he's arguing for Apple or whoever owns the platform to step up and stop clones. However, this is somewhat troubling. We want to have an open platform, except for when it hurts us, then we want someone coming in to fix things. I'm sure there is a happy medium there somewhere, but we see the disappointment with crowdsourcing it like in Steam Greenlight.

No easy answers.

Phil Maxey
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I'm saying that through a better designed/structured and more sophisticated App store the effect of clones can be negated. The answers lie in tailor made charts, targeting the right kinds of games to the right people, combined with user made charts. Right now the way games are presented on the App stores is very black and white, whereas it needs to be more nuanced.

Bruno Mikus
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2048 has a certain appeal (especially to the programmer community [attraction to powers of 2]), it is available free without any installation and most importantly, one can easily fiddle with it!

At the office where I work at once one person tried it, all of us were playing it! My first thought when I saw the game was "How would one make an AI", one google away I found out someone already answered that question. In the days to come someone made a multiplayer mode, a flappy bird fusion, a local political satire version etc.

The game is moddable and is hence very interesting. Much more so than a paid app on a mobile device, even if it might lack in quality.

I think Cirulli did a good job, especially because he mentioned the original/inspirational games. Not many cloners do that!

Jörg Reisig
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I actually bought Threes because it was mentioned on the 2048 site.

Before I thought it was just an ordinary puzzle game.

I still like 2048 more, it feels more "fluid" and looks nicer probably because Cirulli is not a game developer but does UI.

Dana Laratta
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Free-to-play is such an industry darling right now, and certainly the revenue possible is amazing. But everyone glosses over the fact that being free to initially download was not only a trojan horse to make the initial download decision, the onboarding, easier, but also to make the product easier to find.

In a sense, free-to-play is a stop-gap solution for broken digital storefronts. Prices that started low combined with open publishing created such a rush to the bottom--it rivals that of the Atari video game crash of the early 80's.

The trick of making your game free to make it discoverable has a limited shelf life. Once all games are free and financed by IAP, there is no longer any separate list, any listing advantage, to the distinction. Now, the big teams and publishers are in that space now, with infrastructures for IAP that indie developers have little chance of rivaling.

If I opened a brick-and-mortar, and my vendors had to drop prices for their product to even be found in my storefront and move off the shelves, I wouldn't be any vendor's favorite retailer.

The philosophy of open publishing on the App store is self-defeating because all its value-highlighting mechanisms focus on the lowest common denominator. This is why Steam is working in things area towards community storefronts, since Greenlight was such an imperfect solution, and no storefront even has the manpower to curate the huge volume of games being produced.

However they are all stop gaps against the commoditization, and decreasing value, of software itself. And if the biggest games on the App store are free-to-play clones produced over a weekend in the time that it would take Tim Schaeffer to make a Vine, then spending a year-and-a-half of your intelligence and tuning and skills and ability to produce a high-quality pay-to-buy game on the iOS App Store is quite literally casting pearls before Swine.

What did they expect? The App Store has been this way since before they even started development on Threes.

Devin Wilson
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Maybe games aren't supposed to be intellectual property and holding onto that idea is fighting an uphill battle, especially when—as Bogost mentions—there is basically no such thing as digital scarcity.

Dana Laratta
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I don't want to live in the world where the most time anyone puts into a game is a weekend, because there is no salable value to the endeavor.

There is merit to considering differences between ours and the eastern concepts of whether or not a person can an actually devise and own an idea, or whether they are in essence a tool of creation for the universe's will. And that there are actually no new ideas under the sun (Praise the Sun!).

But your post reads like you wish to completely devalue the craft possible in gaming-making because you don't want to pay for the fruits of that craft.

Devin Wilson
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I'm happy to pay for software if it's the only way that piece of software's developers can get money for making said software.

However, selling copies of software is largely an absurd way to get software developers paid for their work, as the sales can only come after the work is actually done. Jason Rohrer pointed this out some time ago, and he foreshadowed some of the crowdfunding models you see now.

Making software professionally doesn't necessarily require the sale of copies of said software. That's obviously the most visible model we have now, but it's not the only way.

I'd much rather back a Kickstarter for a project that seems interesting than buy a game on Steam. While I'm not even guaranteed a product at the end of it, I'd much rather fund the *development* of something I believe in than buy a digital object that's ultimately available for free if I go to the right website and use the right workarounds.

Trevor Love
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That is not even close to the world that we're living in currently. People like me and, apparently you, and millions of others greatly desire games that are deep, rich and designed like works of art. There are also perhaps more people, also including myself, who want to be able to pick up there tablet for five minutes and play a "mindless" game while waiting in line at the bank. A designer is delusional if they think that their game with beautiful mechanical nuances and artistic depth will stick out and possess staying power in the App Store when the main download driver of their game is the easily clonable basic mechanic or whimsicality. A developer must consider their target audience before dropping 18 months into a casual game and thinking that it's going to be the next big thing simply because he knows all of the hidden depths of it. Most people aren't going to care about that or may not even be able to discover or appreciate it. A classic case of developer-centric design.

Steve Fulton
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>>"Threes, by Asher Vollmer and Greg Wohlwend, is a game made by people the game >>development community know and like."

By "game development community" whom are you referring to? I'm not sure what your definition might be, since there are dozens, if not 100's, of "game development communities" centered around game genres, technologies, platforms, design elements, and every possible combination of those things. I'm sure Asher and Wohlwend are fine and upstanding people, and I love their game, but I fear the "game development community" you are referring to is a slim, narrow, slice of reality. The 19 year old in question, he has now made a successful game too. Like it or not, he is part of that very same "game development community", whatever that might be.

Markus Nigrin
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We tend to cry foul when the actual game is innovative and the financial success goes to someone else.
But innovation has many aspects. How a game reaches an audience is one of those aspects defining overall success. And there is lot's of innovation happening in that area. From the clever marketing Vlambeer does to Indie games being financially successful going against the stream with soft, audience-friendly IAP like Nimblebit games.
Besides actually making Canabalt, Adam was innovating against the $0.99 trend in 2009 with going $2.99, successfully. Imagine that today as a fun exercise (and it's not that Canabalt didn't get cloned back then).
Indies are innovation leaders in all aspects making games and getting them out. Always has been that way. If one deliberately goes niche, we should all cross our fingers that it plays out. If one is misjudging the market with an otherwise innovative game, they deserve all our support, hopefully still did well and hopefully do even better next time.

Billy Clack
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I agree with the article, and unfortunately, with respect to public opinion, I'm not quite sure why Cirulli is taking the heat. His version is just a web-based free-to-play, opensource clone. He doesn't run ads, he doesn't sell the game, he just tinkered around, put a clone together, and happend to put it on the web (since he is a web designer, this makes sense). This is perfectly fine, and many game developers learn initially by cloning their favorite games. Again, Cirulli does not deserve blame or hate for any of the clones that have popped up on the app store, he is a student playing with technology. Just look at his twitter feed or the 2048 site, he has stated explicitly that he doesn't not want to profit from this. Other people have come in, capitalized on the popularity of his clone, and put the game in the app stores for profit. I don't think the general masses really understand this and are quick to blame Cirulli for cloning something and reaping monetary rewards for something. I think the misunderstanding the Cirulli cloned the game and is reaping profit off of it should be cleared. If anything, Cirulli only seems to be profitting from publicity. I should mention that clones are not always bad business for the original game, and it is evident that the original Threes is profitting from the clones' publicity too. Before the whole 2048 cloning controversy, I had never heard of Threes, but I will probably go buy it now.

James Margaris
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When people pirate music, which is illegal, we say "the music industry is old and outdated and needs to stop clinging to obsolete business methods."

When people clone games, which is perfectly legal, we wring our hands and act very concerned because we believe the original creators are entitled to certain fruits of their labor.

Clones aren't going away. If you make something very easy to clone people will clone it. I used to play Mouse Trap for ColecoVision - it's just Pac-Man except you're a mouse running from cats. It was functionally identical to Pac-Man as far as I could tell and also looked better than home versions of Pac-Man.

Alex Van de Weyer
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I agree with the spirit of the article and so many of the replies, but I'm still left wondering if, actually, 2048 is even a clone of Threes!? There's an assumption that it is, but as the developer himself has said, he hadn't heard of Threes! when he launched the game.

It also has noticably different mechanics to Threes! in the way that the tiles slide, combine, and appear. If we're reverent enough to the mechanics of a game to treasure the subtle differences between them, then surely we have to acknowledge that when they are different they can change the entire feel of a game. I can see why 2048 is labelled a clone, but really it plays entirely differently. I think there's a chance that it informs and enhances the experience of Threes! by showing how differently it could be with certain changes.

I have been disgusted in the past by Zynga's business practices, for example, and with the story of Ridiculous Fishing. Yet I cannot shake the feeling that this is different. And that 2048 and Threes! seem to me to sit very happily together in the 'gaming ecosystem' without one being an insult to the other.

Ian Bogost
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Rephrasing more generally: we don't seem to know what a "clone" is, really, or what we mean when we say "clone." This is worth thinking about further.

Mark Wonnacott
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"A play begins when you first hear about it, and ends when you stop thinking about it" -- Tassos Stevens (via George Buckingham's "Rules for making games")

2048 encouraged variations of itself and spawned so many - i feel that was also an interesting part of the game itself, not just the bare mechanics

Clay Cowgill
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I have a hard time calling 2048 a 'clone' of Threes. A game in the same genre, sure, but a clone? ('simulating exactly') To use a simple (and probably somewhat flawed) analogy-- Threes is a bit like Tetris while 2048's something like Columns.

Threes 'slides' the entire tile pattern around maintaining gaps; 2048 'collapses' all open space with each move. Threes allows some indecision by making partial movements that can be undone; a move in 2048 is instant and permanent. Threes shows the next tile and is predictable which side it comes in on; 2048 is more random and without the variation in new tile types (1's or 2's).

The list goes on, but just a few changes to the game play mechanics and rules do make for a different game even if the core theme (combine like number tiles that slide around) is common between them. To riff on James' Pac-Man analogy-- Galaxian is just Space Invaders with a few small changes. Take away shield bases and the 'advance and drop' approach, add aliens that peel off and attack instead. It's still a "grid of aliens against one player ship", but it's also a different game.

Scott Slomiany
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The more I play 2048, the more I agree with this sentiment. The thought process for the playing well is very different between the two games due to the number of changes that have been made. While it's clear that there is a lineage between the two games, I would argue that the game is different enough to not be be clone.

Chris Bieniek
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I'd like to know if Saltsman considers it "important" that Canabalt players "acknowledge that they're playing the 'cheap' version" of Tomena Sanner.

Charles Zapata
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So, given that Threes/2048 has happened, the question is: what's next? What can a game developer do? And perhaps did 2048 do something right that we should emulate, or does it suggest some direction for game design or a game company?

(1) I play Threes on my IPad, but I can play 2048 everywhere (and I can play it in one click after a Google search.) The mechanics of Threes are suitable for a browser. Perhaps this means that if a game is straightforward enough, it must be built in the browser. Your need to be your own viral clone. I'd even play Threes with banner ads. I don't have the numbers and I'm no SEO/internet ad expert - but would the volume of traffic that 2048 is getting generate sufficient ad revenue to make the game a worthwhile investment?

(2) Follow on clone games are here to stay. But this problem is not a game industry problem. This is the same problem that every business owner faces. When I go to market, what will my competition do? So perhaps part of the game design process needs to be asking the question: when I release, how fast will a clone show up? If the answer is "immediately and with low cost"… that game probably isn't a business.

(3) IMO - Threes is a better game. I played Threes for a long time (best tile: 768), finally tore myself away, found 2048, played a bit, then went back to playing Threes because I remembered how good it was. But Threes is a lot harder. I can beat 2048 fairly often (which is not great since Threes experts can beat 2048 every time, not "often".) Maybe the challenge level is also what lead to 2048 getting such wide adoption. Even if Threes was on the browser, would it have had the same adoption as 2048? I'm not inclined to think so. So perhaps 2048 just hit a spot in the audience difficulty curve which would be more widely adopted? If you told the Threes team "make your game easier and you will get more users", would they do it (or should they)?

I agree that the clones take away from revenue that I would prefer to go to the Threes team. But I'm not sure how to fix that without going down the road of patenting game design. That seems dangerous.

OK, I'm going back to play Threes now.

Bart Stewart
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Point 2 is the important one, I think.

Talking to the 2048 creator to ask direct, not-loaded questions (another thing I wish more journalists actually did) is valuable for trying to better understand the supply side of this equation... but the demand side matters, too.

2048 got popular because people made it popular. So what I'd like to know is, what are the structural factors that enable popular clones?

My working theory is that this is just one more manifestation of the new cultural belief that anything digital should be free to take, as though property existing in a form that's easy to take somehow makes it ethically OK to take it. In that world, where "because I want it" is acceptable, cranking out clones -- knowingly or not -- is just satisfying a demand.

If the demand for free content didn't exist, clones would have less value. People would still make them, as homages or student projects or whatever, but I suspect they would be less likely to crowd out more original products whose price tag is understood to be what supports its creator's livelihood.

If so, I don't know how to fix that. I have no idea how to jam the "because I want it and it's easy to take makes it OK to take it" genie back in his bottle, so that the default reverts to people *wanting* to reward the creators of original things. Until then, I suspect we'll see the rise of multiple curated systems to cut through the noise of all the clones.

Wendelin Reich
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@Bart: I don't think most/all people "believe" that digital stuff should be free. I don't hear people crying that Titanfall should be free (on the contrary, imagine the hate if it had gone F2P).

A lot of good stuff just *happens* to be either free or freely available (not always legally). Convenience wins. Therefore, at the risk of repeating myself, developers of 'simple' games need to find ways to distinguish themselves / decommoditize their product / creative value that isn't easily cloneable.

David Roberts
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Lots of good stuff in this discussion, as well as Leigh's article. We struggled with cloning discussions (on every possible side of it) at PopCap for years, and there are no easy answers.

It is undeniably more difficult to create effective and simple user experiences (with software anyway) than it is to copy them. Yet those experiences and the work it takes to make them are essentially un-protectable. This has been the case for decades (I was the Product Manager for MacPaint in the late 80s, and you could easily transplant this discussion to our old conference rooms).

At the risk of starting a religious war, I wonder whether the industry shouldn't seek better legal protections of intellectual property in and around simple puzzle games. Copyright laws are far too narrow (someone basically has to steal your actual artwork or code). Trademark protections are somewhat effective, but really only serve to reinforce the branding discussion Ian mentions in the article. And patents? OMFG don't get started on that rat-hole (relevant on this week's Supreme Court docket). IP protection is a double-edge sword of course, and I don't really hold out hope that anything effective will ever be enacted. I'm just surprised nobody's even trying.

Absent a change, we must understand that "simple and elegant" will generally enable easy cloning. It's part of (today's) ecosystem and something game developers have to acknowledge if they seek commercial success. It's been particularly pernicious for the casual side of gaming dating back to the portal days that Goad Ackerman recalls in the article. Distribution, which can mitigate these sorts of problems, failed us in those early days just as it fails us today with un-curated App Stores. At the end of the day, we have to go to war with the army we have (and presumably on the battlefield that's there, unless we can somehow shift it).

Steve Fulton
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I believe curated app stores and minimum price levels would help. But then I also believe I will one day win the lottery, and the next Star Wars movie will be good, so I'm obviously delusional.

Chris Condon
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I was the artist and assisted with game design on Crush the Castle, thanks for the mention! Just wanted to note however that the idea wasn't ours.

The true grand-daddy of Angry Birds is Castle Clout: http://armorgames.com/play/3233/castle-clout-return-of-the-king

The difference is our publisher asked for permission from the original author and compensated him for his idea. Not suggesting that this was the right path to take, just what was done.

Greg Shives
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Maybe we owe the willingness to overlook cloning to Picasso's often referenced quote "...great artists steal". Really? Go up to the artist that "inspired" your clone and say 'I copied your game and made $5000. Thanks for making me great!". See if they don't punch you in the face.

Sadly, the truth is that there are too few people in this industry who possess the ability to conceive and develop an original idea, so cloning continues to be an accepted development practice.

Thanks for the article. Maybe it will help to bring more attention to the psychological effects this type of theft can have on a developer.

Samuel Green
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The whole situation is really sad. In all other industries, businesses try to make products that are uncloneable Old school businesses try to innovate so that cloning costs more time and money than is worth the effort... while the original business is creating the next big thing to start the cycle again.

Unfortunately art isn't business so I have no idea if a game studio can operate like this. Imagine if Threes took 3 weeks to clone, and the developer would already have a new and hotter game out on the market by the time the clones hit the shelves. Sounds like you need a gaming Picasso to do something like that with a simple and elegant game.

Triple A got something right. Can smaller developers take anything from that?

Alexander Jhin
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Simple and clean are easy to clone.

Unique art and music are harder (and illegal) to clone.

Price and platform matter.

Name matters (Threes vs 2048. Which name do you like better, have an easier time remembering?)

At some point, clones can be a useful shortcut for users: My current car has an interface "cloned" from the model T. But that just makes it easier to drive.

Bart Stewart
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2048 slyly deconstructed: http://blog.semantics3.com/announcing-2048-as-a-service/

Alexander Brady
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A very nice article. I hope the developers of Three are successful.

However, I want to point out that cloning in the games industry is a very tricky business. Contrary to popular belief, Canabalt did *not* invent the running game - it owes a debt to games like Dino Run. Similarly, Super Hexagon bears similarities to games such as Missile Game 3D. Even Flappy Bird bears a strong similarity to old internet games such as Helicopter.

I do not mean to reduce or deride either Canabalt or Super Hexagon (I have played and enjoyed both, they are fantastic and worthy of commendation). I simply mean to point out that copying in video games happens frequently, and should be encouraged (that is part of how art happens).

The line where copying elements from other games turns into a full-on clone is tricky business. While it would be nice to have some kind of protection for developers against this kind of cloning, it is important that we don't err too far on the other side and end up like Mickey Mouse. (still copyrighted! really!)

Will Hendrickson
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Dino run was awesome! I still play that!


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