2048: attack of the clones

Threes! is an excellent game that has been overshadowed by clones. The heartbreaking thing is how so few people seem to care.

Michelle Starr Science editor
Michelle Starr is CNET's science editor, and she hopes to get you as enthralled with the wonders of the universe as she is. When she's not daydreaming about flying through space, she's daydreaming about bats.
Michelle Starr
3 min read

opinion Threes! is an excellent game that has been overshadowed by clones. The heartbreaking thing is how so few people seem to care.

(Screenshot by Michelle Starr/CNET Australia)

Threes! is a puzzle game by a tiny, two-man independent studio. The game has you pushing same-numbered blocks together to try to reach the highest number possible, on a little four-by-four grid. Each number has its own personality, and the game itself — released for AU$2.49 on iOS and AU$2.22 on Google Play is beautifully designed, with a clean interface and a satisfying mechanic.

It took 14 months to design and build. It took three weeks to clone in the form of a game called 1024.

Then, 31 days after its launch on the iTunes app store, a game by young Italian web developer Gabriele Cirulli arrived. Called 2048, it took the basic principle of Threes!, mixed up the gameplay and the visual design a little and — perhaps most unfortunately for Sirvo — was free to play on the web. It took Cirulli two days to build, and skyrocketed in popularity.

Meanwhile, Sirvo was working on porting its game to Android; but another clone called Fives had already arrived on Google Play.

(Screenshot by Michelle Starr/CNET Australia)

2048, in turn, inspired clones of its own, including a customiser that allowed users to put their own content into the boxes. Cirulli remained adamant that he wasn't going to either make an app for or profit off 2048, and to his credit he hasn't; but others have, as evidenced by a version of 2048 — not made by either Cirullu or Sirvo — currently sitting at the top of Apple's free app charts.

And most players of 2048, we'd warrant, have never even heard of Threes!, even though Cirulli had put a link to his inspiration at the bottom of his page. This is something Sirvo also found.

"It's all in good fun, at least we'd like to think so, but try as our logical brains might, we still got the same 'cloning feeling'," Sirvo's Asher Vollmer and Greg Wohlwend wrote in a blog post about the clone phenomenon. "Especially when people called Threes!, a game we pored over for nearly a year and a half, a clone of 2048. Others rifled off that they thought 2048 was a better game than Threes!. That all stung pretty bad. We know Threes! is a better game, we spent over a year on it. And obviously, Threes! is the reason 2048 exists."

Threes! is a better-made game. It has a much more considered approach, and a slower progression — but the satisfaction when you hit the high points is the better for it. 2048 is all about instant gratification.

But Cirulli and 2048 aren't necessarily the problem here. Cirulli was just mucking about, experimenting with designing a web interface. He never intended his game to become as popular as it did, he refuses to profit from 2048 and he has been making sure that he credits Sirvo as much as possible.

To take a look at the real problem, take a look at the top app charts. Do a search on Google Play or the iTunes app store using the terms "threes" or "2048". Clones are blossoming like bruises. Keep a careful eye on new apps, where you might find as many as 10 Flappy Bird clones in the last two hours (as we have at time of writing).

If the original game was getting equal or greater attention, perhaps this sort of opportunistic copycatting wouldn't be so problematic. Annoying, sure, but easily dismissed. But when it's harming developers who have worked hard bring a concept to fruition, gamers should stand up and take note.

This is unlikely to mean much to the majority of gamers out there, who only know that they're having a good time. However, it should matter. Firstly, a flood of clones lowers the overall quality of the app marketplace. Secondly, a flood of clones could discourage genuinely creative and interesting developers away from the app marketplaces.

No one can be forced to think ethically about the games they play. However, if you played and enjoyed one of the multitudinous Threes! clones out there, have a think about downloading the original game, just to show your appreciation for the hard work that brought it to life.