Every year, the Polygon staff chooses 10 excellent games to award our Game of the Year honors, but that means some games we love don't quite make the cut. This year we've decided to run a series of opinion pieces by members of the Polygon staff explaining why certain games earned top marks from them even if they didn't make our staff-wide Game of the Year list.
Developer Greg Wohlwend contacted me about Threes! back in January, and it was the first game to pop into my head when I began thinking about my personal game of the year.
He pitched it as a game that was simple enough to learn in a minute, but complex enough to play for a very long time. He also sent over this animation that explained how the game was played, and it only took a moment of me watching the loop to realize I was in very big trouble.
The best mobile games flow over your life like a warm liquid, filling the little gaps and holes in your time with something a bit more interesting and fun than staring at the ceiling or wishing you were somewhere else.
I would play a quick game of Threes! while waiting at the dentist's office. It was my friend during delays at the airport. I'm embarrassed to say how many trips to the restroom it artificially lengthened. I didn't have any free moments in 2014; I just had stolen seconds in which I played Threes!.
I spoke with developers Greg Wohlwend and Asher Vollmer about the game at length, and it's further proof that if a game looks simple but sucks you in this completely, it took a significant amount of time to perfect. It takes real work to create something that is easy to play but supports long-term engagement. Threes! is a game uniquely suited to mobile devices that's simple to play and engages nearly everyone who tries it. It's one of the best-designed games of the year.
The darker side of elegant design
The success of Threes! also pointed to the problems of the mobile ecosystem in 2014. It was a "simple" game with a design that was easy to emulate, so of course the clones popped up and drew their own clones. The most popular was a game called 2048, which in terms of gameplay was an inferior copy, but spread like wildfire due to the fact it was free and ad-supported. Why pay for the real thing when you could have an adequate knock-off for nothing?
This led to news reports in the mainstream media that didn't seem to understand that the game was a clone of Threes!, allowing the rip-offs to gain even more acclaim. Wohlwend and Vollmer dealt with the situation with more grace and restraint than seems possible.
It doesn't help that an article in the Los Angeles Times claimed 2048 was created in a weekend. Of course it was; the hard work of design had already been done.
There's no solution for this
"That was a particularly upsetting article," Wohlwend told Polygon at the time. "I see why the LA Times wrote the story that way to make it sexier with 'teenage developer makes hit in a weekend!' It's a fast-paced news cycle that can generate mistakes like that, so we get it. It happens. I'd just like to see a correction or be given the chance to comment at the very minimum."
This is the problem with cloning, outside of the obvious economic harm it does to the developers who come up with the original game: Design is hard. It takes a much larger time commitment than most realize, and clones benefit from that work without giving anything back. Apple's Jony Ive spoke about this issue when expressing frustration at stolen designs.
"If you look at the work of the studio, and you think 80 per cent of this isnt going to work, one of the sad things is — and this is why perhaps we may seem a little testy when things we have been working on for eight years are copied in six months — but it wasn't inevitable that it was going to work," Ive said.
"It's not copying, it's theft," he continued. "They stole our time, time we could have had with our families."
There's no solution for this, or at least there won't be one in the near future. If you create an elegant game like Threes! and charge a flat fee for it, you can expect it to be cloned in an ad-supported version that's positioned near the original game in the various app stores.
The good news is that Threes! was still a success, although the clones were harmful in a number of years, and Vollmer and Wohlwend remain two of the more well-respected designers in gaming today. Apple recently named Threes! the best iPhone game of the year and, while the cloning business has to wait for someone else to create the next big thing, Vollmer and Wohlwend are free to create the future themselves.
Clones may hurt the business of mobile games, but their developers miss out on the thrill of creating something fun and pure that brings joy to the lives of others. This is something that Threes! provided to its fans, and it makes it one of the best games of the year, and my game of the year.
This piece is part of Polygon's 2014 in Review series. Throughout December we'll be exploring the games, people and events that shaped gaming in the past year. You can check out more 2014 in Review stories in our StoryStream.