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Meet the Clones

Threes is the latest game to fall victim to the increasingly rampant cloning of smaller video games, especially on mobile. We spoke to the people who made these clones, and tried to find out why.

Video games do not exist in a vacuum. Part of the medium’s magic comes from developers taking cues from one another, leveraging each other’s breakthroughs to develop their own. The reliance on borrowing is both a blessing and a curse, and these days, the ethics in-between are very, very blurry.

You might have played Threes, the card stacking number game, except you know it as 2048. There’s a chance you know it as 1024. There’s a chance you know it as the countless other clones of Threes. 2048 and 1024 are their own riffs on the concept of Threes, though neither could exist without Threes.

Clone is a curious word, especially in the context of video games. What constitutes a clone, and what's the difference between stealing and inspiration? The question becomes tougher as the games become smaller, and the democratization of development tools makes it easier and easier to make games.

If you search for 1024 in the App Store, here’s what comes up:

You'll find a similar situation on the Google Play store. Searches on both stores for 2048 are just as prolific:

In short, the popularity of Threes proved attractive. Clones don’t arrive unless there’s something worthy of cloning. Threes, like Flappy Bird, is worth cloning. There's money in this banana stand.

Our journey into the world of Threes clones begins at ground zero. 1024, which first appeared on the App Store on February 27, was created by 28-year-old designer Yeung Jason in Beijing, China. Threes first appeared on the App Store on January 22.

A look at 1024 and Threes side-by-side.

Jason told me he’s a big fan of thatgamecompany’s Journey, and Threes co-creator Asher Vollmer once worked at that studio. That’s how he found Threes, and became entranced by it. 1024, he told me, was created for his fiancée, and he only later decided to publish it to the App Store and Google Play.

He does not consider 1024 a clone.

“No,” he said over email. “Never. As I said, I made it for fun and for my fiancée.

Jason explained that the reason 1024 not only borrows the design of Threes but the game's visuals, as well, is because he wanted to make the game “fast.” His work on 1024 led him to create Monster Grow!, a conceptually similar game for “kids and girls” with a new look and without any of the math. The numbers turned some players off.

“Good artists copy, great artists steal,” he said. “Clone=Copy. Inspiration=Steal. Any design cannot be completely free of plagiarism. But the difference between clone and inspiration is how much thought was put into it. It does not matter what it looks like.”

As of this week, Jason said he’s made around $1,000 off 1024.

The release of 1024 is where the worm began to turn. Two clones of 1024, each called 2048, sprung up. One was created by a French designer by the pseudonym of Samig. This version of 1024 lacks any charm, and the coder was aggressively hostile about his game’s origins in a FAQ on the website:

Q: You're just a shitty ripoff

A: That's not a question. But yes, I did copy the concept from other guys. However they had it on Android and iOS only and my mobile isn't compatible. You know what is compatible with almost anything ? A web page. That's compatible with PCs, tablets, smartphones, consoles... hell even some fridges. I don't put make the visitors pay anything to play the game, that would be morally bankrupt.

The version of 2048 most are familiar with, however, is from 19-year-old Italian designer Gabriele Cirulli. Though it doesn’t have the colorful characters and voices from Threes, the animation channels the playfulness that helps make Threes such a delight to mess around with.

Cirulli’s version of 2048 did not launch with a credit to Threes for a good reason: he hadn’t played it. The hat tip to Threes came later, once Cirulli’s 2048 became a viral sensation. Though his version of 2048 has taken some of the attention away from Threes, he’s not trying to hide the reason 2048 exists in the first place.

“Essentially, it is a clone of Threes, although an indirect one,” he said over email. “I was inspired by 1024, which is an actual clone of the game. Due to that, it probably wouldn’t exist without Threes. Personally, I only use the word clone when something is the exact same, both visually and in terms of gameplay, to the allegedly cloned game. Personally, I believe spin-off, or 'inspired by' is a more appropriate term for the other cases.”

When Cirulli launched 2048, he actually sent an email to Jason, the Chinese designer of 1024.

“I built this as a fun weekend project, with no intention to profit off it,” wrote Cirulli in an email exchange that I confirmed with both designers. “I credited your original game in the footer as the source of my inspiration. […] I wanted to be proactive in email about his hoping that this wouldn’t give rise to any problems. I’m not planning to profit over this game concept either now or in the future.”

The email is proof of Cirulli's naivety about what he was actually cloning. This is the slippery slope, and reflects how the Internet both connects us and disconnects us at the same time. Threes is both present and not present.

A clone of a clone of a clone. This is a comparison of 1024, Cirulli's 2048, and Threes.

Cirulli does not have ads on his website, but he does have an option for fans to submit donations. Though he hasn’t disclosed how much he’s made from people’s charity, he told me he's “happy” with them so far.

The young designer is aware that 2048 has impacted Threes, and doesn’t appear he takes that notion lightly.

“I can understand the frustration of the creators of Threes, though, and I believe it’s motivated,” he said. “ […] The amount of effort they put into Threes is very appreciable, and I’m sorry that I accidentally damaged it in part with 2048."

The difference between 2048 on the web and 2048 on iOS and Android? Ads.

If Cirulli couldn’t have anticipated how far 2048 would spread, he likely didn’t anticipate what would happen as a result of making 2048’s code open source on GitHub, either. Making the game open source meant anyone could take the code and make their own variations on 2048. Some of them, like Doge2048, are hilarious, and very much in the spirit of the Internet’s collaborative nature.

Right now, 2048 is at the top of the “free” spot in the App Store. It hasn’t budged for well over a week, and it only seems to be accelerating in popularity. Cirulli did not make this version, which not only does not mention Threes or Cirulli’s original work. And this version has a very key difference: ads.

Who made this version of the game? Based on my reporting, it’s French designer Antoine Morcos.

This mobile version of 2048 was published by a company called Ketchapp, whose website has zero information about the people behind it. An email to the address listed went unanswered. I know about Morcos because I looked up the domain for ketchappstudio.com, and found him talking about other Ketchapp games:

His Twitter and Facebook feeds do not make mention of 2048, though the company is credited with publishing the game on the App Store. On Google Play, it's listed under Presselite, another mobile company Morcos is associated with. Morcos did not return any of my repeated attempts to discuss his business.

“I think it’s up to the people who are doing it to judge whether they’re doing the right thing,” said Cirulli.

Here are the other games Ketchapp has been responsible for in the last few months. Notice a trend?

Flappy Fish - Bird Flyer, Bird in the Dark - Flappy Flyer, Hoverbird Rider, Skater Monkey - No Flappy No Bird, Kitty Jetpack, and Grabby Bird - Flappy Bird Flyer are all shameless grabs at Flappy Bird's massive success. None of them appear to have really taken off, which cannot be said about the chart-topping 2048.

Ketchapp's business model, at least in games, seems to largely be about finding existing designs and looking for a way to ride the wave. One could argue 1024 and 2048 were creative riffs on Threes. One cannot make the same claim for Ketchapp's published version of 2048, which does not acknowledge Threes.

In 2048, Morcos found a goldmine. People love free, 2048 is a beloved riff on Threes, Threes isn’t free, and mobile-ready code was available for free online. The money was gift-wrapped for someone like Morcos.

There's nothing illegal about what Morcos pulled off, but that doesn't mean it sits well with everyone.

“That’s the incarnation of unethical behavior,” said Threes co-creator Greg Wolhwend. “That’s the culmination of it all right there in this long chain of clone of clone of clone of clone of clone blah blah blah. That’s the end thing. I do think if it wasn’t him, it would have been someone else. I’m betting that he rests on that at night when he goes to sleep. ‘It had to be somebody, it might as well be me.’’

Wohlwend has made his peace with most of this, including the web version of 2048. But not the app.

Wohlwend was also involved with Ridiculous Fishing, a game that went through its own cloning saga.

The designer doesn’t try to hide his obsession with reading what people think about the game. Google Alerts send him updates to articles written about Threes, and he will often spend hours browsing Twitter looking for idle conversations about his game. That means he’s constantly looking at 2048, too.

“I still sort of check the App Store top charts,” he said, “and it’s still number one, ‘’Oh, maybe it’ll go down a little bit!’ [laughs] It’s like checking your ex-girlfriend’s Facebook or something. You just shouldn’t do that. It still stings.”

As half of the team behind Threes, Wohlwend has reason to be frustrated. Though the clones of Threes vindicates the design, it not only means money and attention diverted elsewhere, it means others ran off with the game that took more than a year to create.

In response to the clones, Wohlwend and co. published a novel-length blog that outlined the lengthy creative process behind Threes, and how the seemingly simple game almost never came to be.

“We were thinking about so many different ways to tackle it,” he said. “‘Should we just throw a free version out there? We should try to compete! Maybe we should try to open source and put it on the web.’ It’s not like we’re not still thinking about those things because…how can you not? We felt like this was our answer, and it was the right answer.”

The nature of what defines a clone is complicated, and Wohlwend has given it substantial thought as this arc in the Threes story has played out. We talked about how when DOOM was originally released, games that would now be called first-person-shooters were commonly referred to as DOOM clones.

“When people see something new and they don’t know what else to call it, they call it that kind of clone,” he said. “With Threes, this is why it is complicated. In development communities especially, it’s not exactly a clone. It’s not the exact game system, but it is heavily borrowing and heavily derivative of what we’ve done.”

“I think Threes came out and people didn’t really know [how to classify it]” he continued. “It’s the beginnings of what I think are a bit of a genre thing, even though it’s very hard to call it a genre. Threes still does borrow from plenty of games, too. That’s how game development works, and that’s another complex thing.”

"Threes still does borrow from plenty of games, too. That’s how game development works."

Some prefer 2048 and 1024 to Threes, partially because of the easier learning curves. That’s fair, but a huge part of the viral success came from both being free.

Charging money for Threes was, in some way, a design choice. The price point for Threes might change in the future. Free was considered during the game's development. At one point, it could have been free with in-app purchases, such as the ability to “undo” moves on the board.

“That was a terrifying endeavor,” he said.

Ads were considered, but few games reach the popularity to make the ads a viable business model. Flappy Bird is an aberration, with a success that's impossible to replicate. A closer examination of in-app purchasing prompted them to back off the idea.

“To do that well,” he said. “It takes a village. [laughs] The worst kind of village, a village you don’t want to be in or visit. You need an economist, you need a psychologist, and you need all this testing and analytics people. It feels gross, and it’s nothing I ever want to be a part of.”

Threes is not the first time Wohlwend has experienced the consequences of cloning. He worked on the updated version of Ridiculous Fishing, a game that was cloned before it was released. (Read about that here.) But Wohlwend learned an important lesson on Ridiculous Fishing that informed the price of Threes.

“People are just so thirsty and so starving for a game that’s just honest,” he said. “Just get it, and you don’t have to deal with any of these psychological yearnings.”

All that said, Threes has soured Wohlwend on the prospect of making more mobile games. He hasn’t ruled it out, though, and he’s working on finishing a completely separate mobile project--another puzzle game--that will be released in the next few months. But the experience has given him pause on future designs.

“I’m trying to go towards the uncloneable games,” he laughed.

(Full disclosure: On some afternoons, I work in the same office as Wohlwend.)

Patrick Klepek on Google+
188 Comments
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Posted by Lukeweizer

I think as long as there's a way for unimaginative, lazy people to make money off of other people's creations, there will always be rip-offs. It's the same reason we have movies like "Transmorfers" and "Atlantic Rim". People want to cash in on what's popular.

Posted by Thiago123

"The young designer is aware that 2048 has impacted Threes, and doesn’t appear he takes that notion lightly."

If he was that worried about it, he would stop taking in $ and give whatever has been donated, to the creator of Threes.

"Jason explained that the reason 1024 not only borrows the design of 1024" Needs a fix here.

"There's money in this banana stand." I see what you did there.

Posted by PiterJupiter

another great read.

Posted by johnw188

That ad supported version of 2048 is really gross...

Posted by Lando81

Great read Patrick. This kind of rampant game cloning has infuriated me for some time. It seems as though people forget the phrase "Credit where credit is due.".

Posted by JJBSterling

It's a real bummer to hear about as it seems to happen all too often in the mobile games scene.

The real thing that irks me is that there appears to be no way to combat this issue as the app store doesn't do any sort of policing over this issue.

I'm not sure if that's a good or even viable solution to this problem but it seems way to easy to get copycat games onto the app store.

Edited by Strabo

Triple Town. The original that Threes! copied and simplified.

Edited by eloj
Posted by kidman

I have both Threes! and 2048 on my phone, but I prefer the latter as it's simpler, which is way more up my alley - so I guess I prefer the clone.

Edited by Fear_the_Booboo

@strabo: Triple town does not play like threes! at all. The similarities between threes! and 2048 are way more obvious.

Sorry, maybe I took you too seriously.

Posted by Lando81

@strabo: there's some key differences between the two. Good try though.

Edited by TheLastGunslinger

Clones are inevitable, what really bothers me is the attention they sometimes get at the expense of the original. My own opinion falls in line with what Max Tempkin was saying on twitter earlier this week when he took a few reporters to task for covering 2048 without questioning the creator about Threes! or sometimes even mentioning Threes! at all.

Most people aren't reading enthusiast press like GiantBomb (where I learned about Threes!) but they are reading MSN, Yahoo!, etc. Those are the people that take a gaming phenomena and can turn it into a full blown cultural one and it's upsetting when the clone made in a weekend is rewarded over the game that took years to build.

Posted by UncleBenny

No offense Patrick, but I think this may be the best in-depth article you've written yet.

Posted by Deathpooky

Great story Patrick. As much as the clones suck for the Threes guys, the only real scumbug appears to be the 2048 app maker. Take open source code wholesale, slap ads on it, put it out as your own app. Worse than the normal dregs of mobile gamemakers. "Flappy Fish" is shameless but at least required some independent creative work.

But otherwise it's an almost unsolveable problem at this point. Clones and inspiration are legion in games, but the ability to turn around a clone of simpler game in a matter of weeks makes it a nightmare for anyone making original, easy-to-copy games.

Posted by zudthespud

I guess going free to play with ads has to be such a risky move, it must take a lot of downloads to be worth it, but if you are worried about clones that has to be the way to go. Flappy Bird Clones weren't a thing when Flappy Bird was still number 1 on the stores, but even $1 is too much for most people. They don't care about whether it is a clone, phone games aren't considered art in the same way other things are.

Posted by Milkman

This is some good stuff, Patrick. This whole thing is a real complicated situation. The 2084 creator sounds like a good guy who just got himself caught in a kind of shitty situation while the 1024 guy sounds little less innocent. While these Ketchapp guys seem just like scamming scumbags.

Side note, Jason's quote about removing the number for "kids and girls" is certainly...something.

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Edited by bleatingheart

"... a conceptually similar game for 'kids and girls'..."

(ノಠ益ಠ)ノ

Posted by Tortoise

Seems like a bad idea to use a number for your game's name

Posted by Ett

Wow these people talk like soap opera politicians. “Good artists copy, great artists steal,” is such a shitty quote. Cant wait for steam too open up. Send in the clones.

Posted by Fobwashed

Threes is an amazing game largely due to its incredibly simple mechanics. Anyone with any experience programming could build a working prototype within a few hours and that's goddamn scary.

Cloning games is such a weird thing... Thanks for the good read.

Posted by rmanthorp

Flappy 3's?

Moderator
Edited by Hassun

The mobile games market is still an unbelievable cesspool. I have no idea how actual games designers continue to have the courage to publish in those places.

It makes me worry about a wholly self-published Steam as well...

Either way, thanks for doing the research @patrickklepek.

Posted by jakeyjake

Nice article, Patrick! I wonder how realistic it is, technically, for an app developer to strategically design to avoid being cloned.

Edited by IcyEyes

Making an "uncloneable" game is easy peasy! Step 1: Make an ugly, overly complicated, bad game that cost $99. Step 2: release it. Step 3: Profit!

"Cloning" is the price you pay for success, but the funny thing is only the people that get hurt complain about it. I've never heard Markus Persson (Minecraft), or Imangi Studios (Temple Run) complain about all the clones. Maybe it's because their making millions anyway? I'm not saying it doesn't suck, and I do feel for the creators, but it does seem a little hypocritical, right?

Posted by KoolAid

It really is an interesting, but somewhat unique case because Threes took a lot of effort to make, but little effort to clone. If the game was harder to copy, we would see less clones. An interesting design consideration to make in today's day and age.

Though the high amount of minecraft clones on the app store should tell us that your successful game will get cloned to some degree no matter what.

Edited by nicknacknob

“I think it’s up to the people who are doing it to judge whether they’re doing the right thing,” said Cirulli.

I'll be honest: this sentence scares me.

I'm reminded of the movie Do the Right Thing by Spike Lee. There were many things to learn about society from that movie, but one of the most important things I learned is that "doing the right thing" can be very complicated and has a lot to do with perspective. On this subject, "doing the right thing" might be making a great, innovative game that users will enjoy...or it could be for economic success, regardless of the potential moral fog that could be enveloping it...or it could somewhere in between those two perspectives or something completely different.

Posted by Foil1212

I didn't realize the web version of 2048 wasn't ad supported. I feel way better about that guy now.

Great article as always, Scoops.

Posted by Fobwashed

I'd also like to say that this is some lovely formatting. I swear I can never get blog posts to look the way I want them to and this just looks fantastic.

Edited by patrickklepek

No offense Patrick, but I think this may be the best in-depth article you've written yet.

Why would I take offense to the idea that I'm getting better, not worse? ;)

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Posted by Napstar

Like the developers mentioned Threes has kinda created a genre in puzzle games. Take sudoku, you wouldn't blame someone making a sudoku clone its either sudoku or it isn't. Also I don't see how Samig was aggressively hostile in his FAQ. In fact I would say you are rather argressive immediately assuming whoever creates a similar game is trying to take money from the developers of Threes.

I really hope people stop using “Good artists copy, great artists steal” .

Posted by Bory

This made me want to buy Threes

Thanks Pat

Edited by jimmyfenix

Great article as always tricky.

Online
Posted by TheShrubber

Great article, dude.

Makes me sad to see these people rip off a fellow developer without giving it too much thought.

Well, as a result of all this I bought Threes for my Android (never really buy games on my phone) and I'm thoroughly enjoying it. Gotta support creators, I guess.

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Edited by GorillaMoPena

2048 got so much attention from people I communicate with on twitter. Felt like I was talking to wall well I suggested some of them try Threes.

Anyways be right back, I'm going to copy and paste this article and release it on the app store.

Posted by gschmidl

@lukeweizer: I was going to agree but the Asylum movie rip-offs are more diversely cast and entertaining than the dumbshit Hollywood movies they rip off.

Edited by BigD145

“I think it’s up to the people who are doing it to judge whether they’re doing the right thing,” said Cirulli.

What a cop out. Theft is okay because thieves say it's okay? That's not how that works.

Posted by ChrisTaran

As far as I'm concerned, the clones made better versions of the game and won the market. Threes can claim to being a better game all it wants, but the majority of people clearly disagree.

Posted by Beinhart

Great Read !

Posted by BaconGames

@bleatingheart said:

"... a conceptually similar game for 'kids and girls'..."

(ノಠ益ಠ)ノ

That's some sexist bullshit right there. It didn't register the first time but seeing it again, I realize how fucked up that sounds. Combined with the fact that the dude copied Threes down to the faces, I think he's got no ground to stand on.

If he was that interested in making it for his fiancee, he should have just given it to her and left it at that. In a way, that's kind of a cool idea. To recreate down to the letter a one-of-a-kind version of a game for a significant other.

Posted by nukethewhalesagain

I'll confess that I play a clone of Threes. I play Fives, which I downloaded for free a couple of months ago. At the time Threes was not available on the Android app store. I had been hearing about Threes for weeks and had yet to play it so I found a clone that had good reviews and downloaded it.

I learned that Threes was released for Android a few weeks ago. I believe, I learned about it because I searched for it on the store. I bought it, played it for about an hour one night. Then I had trouble with my phone and I had to delete a whole bunch of apps and deleted threes. I kept Fives. I like it because it's simpler.


If you're a game designer and want to take something out of my experience: release your game on as many platforms as you can or be prepare to market to new platforms when you join them.

Posted by Jensonb

I bought Threes and hate/love it as much as basically everyone who did. Then, while I was on a trip to Amsterdam recently, I mentioned it offhand to a friend who was playing a game on his phone, and briefly started to explain the mechanics. Then I realised he was playing 2048. They all were at some point. It gave me a weird sense of isolated connection. We were sharing the same experience, but in a way that was ultimately incompatible. There's something disaffecting about that.

Posted by FoolishChaos

You would think apple might want to intervene in cases such as this. If some of the best designers on your platform are considering leaving the platform, you should probably do something

Edited by Acornactivist

I love your reporting, Patrick. I was finding myself getting frustrated at many earlier articles about this, that just seemed to simply be rushing to the emotional corner of the Threes guys, because they're the indies "doing it right" (looking at you, Polygon). I cannot tell you how much I appreciated you spending the first half of this talking to the OTHER creators about their actual intentions and motivations, specifically Cirulli, rather than just grabbing your pitchfork and joining the horde.

And for then specifically and intentionally showing and explaining why what Ketchapp is doing is different and more damaging compared to the 1024 and browser 2048 games. When I downloaded the 2048 app, I didn't realize it was different from the browser version (talk about a clone amirite?). I now regret giving them ad revenue. I've also bought Threes as a result.

It's especially admirable that you did this so evenly and objectively, since you work in close proximity with Wohlwend.

Great article, man. This is why I love GB the best!

Posted by nightmaresabin

Just searched 1024 on the app store to count the clones. I stopped counting at around 130.

I bought Threes when it came out. The rampant cloning is sickening.

Posted by kylealanr

@nukethewhalesagain: I agree, while I think Threes! is a much better game than Fives, all of my friends started playing Fives first. And it's lighter on my battery too, so I still play that more. I absolutely love Threes! and if it was available for Android faster I wouldn't care about Fives.

Posted by BeachThunder

This is a clone of the dozens of other articles that have been written on the same subject :P

Anyway, just putting it out there, but I prefer the mechanics of Cirulli's 2048 over the mechanics of Threes!

Posted by Toug

People using “Good artists copy, great artists steal" as a get out of jail free card really annoys the crap out of me. They seem to be missing the point.

To copy is to just replicate what's been done. To steal is to make it yours. To create ownership of it. To "steal" a creative work isn't just tracing a picture, it's examining why another artist drew a picture a certain way, and taking the techniques you learn from that and applying it to your own, new works.

A "clone" isn't stolen, it's copied. And it sure as hell don't make you a "great" artist.

Edited by MarkWahlberg

@thiago123 said:

"There's money in this banana stand." I see what you did there.

Isn't there a whole thing about how basically all farmed banana trees are genetically identical, which means that when the shit finally goes down on a banana plantation, they're all completely fucked?

Not saying that's what Scoops meant, but there's a deeper lesson to this banana.

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