This week several writers from Higher Level Gamer are out conferencing! They are currently in Chicago at the Popular Culture Association’s annual meeting. That doesn’t explain my delay in posting, but I wish them good luck and safe travels and hope they don’t notice my late time stamp…
Now on to the topic at hand: What is a clone?
I think answering that question is actually a lot harder than it first appears. We could defer to some sort of science or formalism which defaults to a similarity of code, whether genetic or logical, yet either of those aren’t particularly useful for most games. While some game developers do post their code, allowing the average (programming literate) Joe to peel back that “black box”, most games remain hidden behind their cases. That means that this past month when the label “clone” was tossed out, usually in a derogatory fashion, it was based on something else.
That something else is hard to define, but I believe a large part of labeling a video game a clone has to do with not actually playing the clones. While there can be a momentary sense of similarity from one game to the next, when someone looks at the entire package they move past their old experiences and assimilate to the new. Understanding the game as a complete experience means moving beyond deterministic labels based on game mechanics, graphics, sound, narrative, difficulty, or any single feature alone. A composite view of all the game’s features in motion approaches the idea of subjective player experience. And it is here, in the subjective space as a casual gamer that I disagree with calling 1024 and 2048 clones of Threes. (Obviously the bricoleurs out there having fun with 2048’s code and making their own remixes are a different story for another day.) I cannot speak for all casual gamers who enjoy this genre of puzzle games, especially the ones with repetitive mathematical features, but I will speak from my own experience and hope that there is something here worth saving.
Jesper Juul offers a great place for me to join the conversation with his recent blog post “Where did threes come from?” In that post, Juul discusses two of the main mechanics used in Threes– the “merge” and “slide to combine”. He provides a fairly comprehensive list of the history of these two basic operations and concludes, rather politely, “the Threes developers have (as far as I know) not mentioned any of the games I have cited… Games are made out of bits of other games, people!” While I agree with Juul’s ultimate point that game mechanics are almost always borrowed forward, the underlying premise that “all games are clones” is drastically different from my proposition that “no games are clones.” Where does this divergence come from?
In the definition of what constitutes the game, of course! In an earlier post by Juul, “Only the Obvious can be Protected”, he discusses why copyright law and intellectual property are bizarre legal constructs for defining dynamic technologies, especially video games. As part of that discussion, he posits that “our intuition of what constitutes the core of a game puts emphasis on what we could call the idea, whereas copyright puts emphasis on what seems to be the shallow surface.” I would disagree with his emphasis because that “our” is too objective. Some people do define games by and experience them as mathematical operations. Many more do not. In deferring to the core of the game, some sort of ideal, Juul is overlooking the fact that the shallow surface is all of those tiny details that are actually very important for the variations seen in user experience due to representation, narrative, resonance, tempo, etc. The game is a package, not definable as either the core mathematical principles or the surface gloss. I argue that they go together, and we should at least attempt to use a heuristic based on subjective user experience when discussing a games popularity. That translates to questions like, “How are players reacting?” rather than solely building descriptions based on easily found metrics.
Oh right, this post is supposed to be about Threes, 1024, and 2048. I will include several short reflections about my initial reaction to each game, but I would encourage those who haven’t played all three (including Threes) to do so. Try them out for yourself and see if they feel like “clones”. I will admit to playing 2048 first, but only after I purchased Threes from the Google Play store. The media coverage had convinced me that was the ethical thing to do.
Since I played 2048 first, I became accustomed to the speed of the motions. It allowed an almost trance like state as I watched a show or thought about things I needed to buy at the grocery store later. The colors were pleasant and simple, and the tiles quickly merged in to one another. I next played Threes which began our relationship on the wrong note by making me jump out of my chair. While playing on my tablet, I had left the volume on and received the shock of my life when the tiles greeted me after merging them. The first major distinction about threes is the number of configurable options: for one, I was able to turn the music down and sound effects off. The board reminds me of electronic mahjong tiles flattened to the size of a deck of cards. As a personal preference, the level of animation annoyed me. The side eyes that the pieces give each other was also too much of a “hint” after every move. 1024 is a worse culprit in this regard. There, your every move leads to a cascade of animation and sound effects which delay the actual playing of the game. It was only after I played all three that I realized what was so appealing about the 2048 player experience for me: speed and balance of difficulty. This is, as I mentioned earlier, one person’s description, but there may be some commonalities across these games as experience that are worth noting.
As a final thought, I wanted to tie my subjective evaluation of these games in to some of the basic premises of the Three’s developers public letter and email dump. Asher Vollmer and Greg Wohlwend describe 2048 as a “broken game” because it is too easy; “It’s not very fun.” A player experience centered response, however, would consider the range of places and environments where players pick up number puzzles or other casual games. These are frequently a second order operation that occupies time while allowing the player to simultaneously think or focus on something else around them. A portion of casual gamers don’t want a hard, concentration intensive game while waiting in line or half paying attention to a lecture. The game 2048 is just hard enough to persistently hold the players interest, and it allows momentary bursts of happiness when successful. Threes requires more focus and is harder to win, meaning the work level involved is much higher than the emotional payout.
Perhaps in time 2048 will lose its appeal, and if I want a similar game, I will turn back to Threes. Who knows, they may win this PR battle and have a lasting presence on the market instead of a momentary spike in popularity. But, I can guarantee you one thing: I won’t pick up threes, or 1024, or 2048 because they are the same game. When I pick one of them up, I will be looking for a different flavor. It is a good thing we don’t use doge to define games, or they would all sound like clones: Wow. Much numbers. Very puzzle. So fun.