The Anatomy of Imitation

In February, at the height of the Flappy Bird fad, a game called, Threes, was released in the app store. It had the addictive quality of Flappy Bird but it was not nearly so pointless and required, for want of a better word, ‘thought.’ It was also a polished game. Great music. Very fluid design. Neat animations. Pleasant to the eye. Everything an app should be. It had rave reviews and despite being priced at $2.99 it jumped to the top of the app store.


But, now, a couple of months later and the top free app on the app store is 2048. It is basically a variant of Threes. The ‘board’ looks the same and you swipe tiles together to get larger numbers. 2048 starts with twos but it also has a few other bits and pieces that make it different. But I think it is safe to see that without Threes we wouldn’t have had 2048.


Today, the developers of Threes took to a very long blog post to describe how they, for want of a better word, ‘feel.’

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”. Especially when people called Threes, a game we poured 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.

The rest of the post does two things. First, it describes why the developers think Threes is a better game. Second, it shows that they did a ton of work and thought getting it that way.

But along the way, the developers are struggling.

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 appears that they are pleading for just a bit more time. Their moment in the sun was too short.

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 think what they are after is some appreciation more than worrying about loss of revenue or the like. What they want is the academic system of citation. When the imitators — good or bad — to Threes came out, they wanted some system that would indicate the lineage of ideas and an acknowledgment of the work they had done. Of course, because this exists in a commercial vein, we can’t expect the imitators to acknowledge their imitation. That may open them up to legal claims, etc.

This suggests an opening to something like a creative commons license but not for copyright material but for design itself — something that we can think of easily for games but even for layout and gestures. If a developer agrees to that license, they agree not to take legal action if a design is used so long as proper acknowledgment is given in a public way so that kudos can flow back to the developer. How to construct that legally is something I’d have to leave to Larry Lessig and his ilk. But given the fluidity of software app development, surely it is time for someone to step in and set this up.

2 Replies to “The Anatomy of Imitation”

  1. Thanks for pointing to the Threes post, which I hadn’t seen. I do wonder where your conclusion about citation versus revenue comes from? I mean, I think there’s a lot of pressure on people who are trying to be generous and fair about their feelings to not worry about such crass and mercenary things as money, but that is a luxury of course. As Bertolt Brecht wrote:

    Among the high placed
    it is considered low to talk about food.
    The fact is
    they have already eaten.

    (or it might have been, ironically, one of his unattributed women collaborators).

    I can see why they wouldn’t lead with money, but I wonder if it isn’t there, somewhere in the background.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s