THREES Creators Strike Back At Ripoff Games

The developers of the much-copied mobile hit lay out their entire creative process.

Threes is a terrific game. At once simple and complex, it's a puzzler that's kept me awake many a night while my cat wondered what the hell I was doing. Adorable and cuddly though she may be, the cat doesn't stand a chance against the multiplicative gameplay of Threes where my attention is concerned. It's clever and streamlined, sporting a charming monstery art style, and the average round lasts a couple minutes, making it completely addictive.

Like any successful mobile game, it's also been endlessly cloned and ripped off. Variants of its tile-based number-merging mechanic abound - most successfully 2048, which many people now believe came before Threes - but none are quite as good, or quite as original. This cycle happens all the time in the easily-monetised mobile gaming world, with App Stores chock full of Angry Birds and Canabalt clones, but this game's simplicity of gameplay and lack of necessary graphics, coupled with its developers' relative lack of visibility, has meant Threes has been all but swallowed up by its ripoffs. Indeed, when I bought it, it was difficult to find amongst all the dross.

In retaliation - or more accurately, a benign plea for recognition - creators Asher Vollmer, Greg Wohlwend and Jimmy Hinson have posted an exhaustive account - complete with emails, text messages, and handwritten notes - of the making of Threes, along with an open letter to those who ripped it off. Their fourteen-month story is not a glimpse but a piggish perve at the creative and collaborative process of making a game. In the 48,000-word transcription you'll find demonstrations of the frustration, laughter, self-doubt, and joy of working with another human being on a creative project. It's rare that we get to see that particular human experience in this detail without being a part of it.

But even rarer are the opening passages that communicate the unique, weird pain of having had an original idea that, inevitably, gets ripped off:

The branching of all these ideas can happen so fast nowadays that it seems tiny games like Threes are destined to be lost in the underbrush of copycats, me-toos and iterators. This fast, speed-up of technological and creative advances is the lay of the land here. That’s life! That’s how we get to where we’re going. Standing on each others shoulders.

We want to celebrate iteration on our ideas and ideas in general. It’s great. 2048 is a simpler, easier form of Threes that is worth investigation, but piling on top of us right when the majority of Threes players haven’t had time to understand all we’ve done with our game’s system and why we took 14 months to make it, well… that makes us sad.

It’s complicated and hard to express these conflicting feelings but hopefully this is a start. We are so happy with Threes and how it has done and all the response. Seriously. And even writing this feels like we’re whining about some sour grapes that we have no business feeling sour about. Like it’s not ok to feel the way we do some of the time. But we do.

We do believe imitation is the greatest form of flattery, but ideally the imitation happens after we’ve had time to descend slowly from the peak -- not the moment we plant the flag.

I have personal reasons to empathise with these guys. As of this writing, my no-budget, skeleton-crewed, four-year project Ghost Shark 2: Urban Jaws - a barely-to-moderately successful experiment in making a serious movie within a stupid concept - is nearing completion. It had been shot and fairly heavily publicised well in advance of the SyFy Channel's release of their own Ghost Shark, which bore the exact same dumb premise and none of the attempted heart. Our movie that started out as a sequel to nothing is now widely believed to be an actual sequel, yet another one of SyFy's shark flicks. But that's a strange story for another day.

It's all too easy to get angry when your ideas are copied by someone else, but that doesn't really accomplish anything. Nothing in gaming or entertainment stays unique for long. All you can do is stand up for your ideas and keep generating new ones. The creators of Threes understand that.

So solidarity, guys. I feel your pain.