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April 13, 2014 | by  | in Articulated Splines Opinion |
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Who would have guessed that so many of us would be captured by a game with a title as innocuous as 2048? It’s a simple concept – you fling numbered tiles around a board to double them and eventually get to the number 2048 (naturally, there’s a Doge version too). It’s become quite the sensation, with the iOS version becoming a bestseller and even getting a reference in xkcd. The trouble is, it was all a lie.

2048 was, you see, built as a little programming experiment to clone the mechanics of a game called 1024. 1024 was, in turn, a close copy of a game called Threes. That game was built by a small group of indie developers who invested a substantial amount of time and money developing the thing, only to see a swathe of far simpler clones steal their concept and most of their audience.

Game-making is a business, a cut-throat world where the slightest misjudgment can lead to devastating losses. Hell, Threes is a pretty good game. It has cute visuals, a handy interface and fun gameplay. From a development standpoint, it’s golden. From a business perspective, though, it misses the mark just enough for the modesty of its sales to seem all but inevitable.

Threes misses the mark in knowing what people value when it comes to simple mobile gaming. Your casual gamer is going to be playing on the bus, at their desk, on the loo – they don’t really care about saving progress and slick animations, or even whether or not they see advertisements. To my taste, 2048 is genuinely more fun than the original. Sometimes less really is more.

What we as casual gamers do care about (as predominantly a younger, poorer crowd) is the bottom line. Threes costs $2.59 on the NZ iTunes Store, while 2048 costs nothing. Be honest, which would you choose?

Unfortunately, with indie budgets, nobody can afford a marketing team or even the smallest of international copyright lawsuits. Kingdom Rush has seen success thanks in no small part to Apple taking a shoddy clone off the Store, but that’s the exception rather than the rule. The usual means of differentiation and defensive mechanisms in the physical market just aren’t as available in the gaming arena. For every crazy success story like Luftrausers or Rust, there are another ten disappointments and frustrations like Threes.

It won’t last forever, by the way. For one thing, advertising is becoming a less viable way to prop up freeware games, caving to the more developer-friendly freemium and microtransaction-based models. Don’t fret, we’ll figure out how to sort the wheat from the chaff eventually – but for now, it’s the law of the jungle.

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