When is a clone no longer a clone?


#1

Writing this in response to the recent Waypoint Radio episode.

I think this may be a potentially contentious viewpoint, so I want to lead off by saying that I am not simply saying this to be a devil’s advocate, and that I’m here to discuss in good faith. I’ve mulled this over for a long time, and pretty strongly believe what I’m saying here, but I’m not immune to changing my mind. I’m also not experienced at trying to formally present arguments, so hopefully I’ve done a good job here, to the standards of this community.

I’m writing this on the topic of 2048 and Threes. I’ve been a longtime Giant Bomb follower (as well as Waypoint), and I’m well versed in the PR blitz that Threes put out re: 2048, as well as Patrick’s write-up and take on it. I am not familiar with 1024 outside of what Patrick wrote about it.

I’ve spent a large chunk of time playing both games, and I’m a bit uncomfortable with how eagerly the “clone” label was applied to 2048, and how demonized it became (I recognize that some of this demonization stemmed from the shitty attitude of the developer). The Threes PR blitz was seemingly taken as gospel, with little critical examination. This may slip uncomfortably close to “devil’s advocate” territory, but I feel there are legitimate flaws in the outcry that the Threes developer made.

This seems largely due in part to the nature of these games - they are conceptually/mechanically very simple, which means that there isn’t as much design space for clearly transformative changes that read at a quick glance or examination.

My opinion on Threes vs. 2048 is similar to examining PUBG vs. Blackout - it largely feels like an adaptation/response to the source game, taking what was fun and streamlining it while removing sources of frustration. Similar? Absolutely. Iterative? Fundamentally. But this alone does not seem worth demonizing it, especially if you believe in the concept that everything is iterative on something else.

As a player of both games, here are the core, fundamental differences that I have observed:

  1. In Threes, you work with two co-dependent foundational blocks that are mutually exclusive of their type. 2’s cannot join with 2’s, and 1’s with 1’s. There is (seemingly) no system in place to guarantee that you will receive 1’s or 2’s in an order that facilitates this mechanic in a reasoned way. I recall strings of 4 or 5+ 1’s or 2’s in a row that would ultimately end up landlocking a portion of the board.

In 2048, you simply receive 2’s as the foundational block. You can receive multiples of 2, just like you receive multiples of 3 in Threes, but these expanded numbers do not house any sort of exclusivity with their duplicates and simply blend into the rest of the game.

  1. In 2048, a single action slams all tiles to their last physically possible endpoint. This is a profound difference from Threes, where a single action only shifts all tiles by one square in the selected direction. You cannot combine two blocks in Threes without some sort of physical resistance (a wall or landlocked tile). While this is technically true in 2048, the difference in how movement works makes this similarity a moot point. Maneuvers and strategies in 2048 are fundamentally impossible in Threes, and vice versa. The action economy in 2048 is much faster paced, while Threes is more measured.

  2. In 2048, the “Next Tile” preview window is removed. This largely seems like it was done because it’s unnecessary, since the main source of RNG difficulty was removed.

So when is a clone no longer a clone?

Lots of my runs in Threes ended in frustration - the RNG nature of the tiles you were given often led to the sensation of being screwed over with no way to respond or adapt. Difficulty manufactured through bad dice rolls often feels cheap and unearned, leaving me potentially sour on what could feel like a waste of time, and Threes was no exception. That’s not to say that I was a perfect player or anything, but I’m reasonably confident in my capabilities in puzzle games, and it’s pretty difficult to rationally argue your way through a board being clogged up with blocks that simply can’t combine or interact with each other.

2048 largely removed this RNG difficulty element, solely maintaining the randomness of where the block was placed. The end result was an easier game, certainly, but also a more pleasant experience. 2048 at times almost felt more akin to a toy of sorts or an incremental clicker, rather than a puzzle game. It was a low stress way to kill some time, offering an almost ensured opportunity to watch numbers continue to get higher..

So yeah. I haven’t played Donut County vs. the supposed clone in question so I can’t comment on that, but just wanted to explore discussion on this touchstone moment since it was brought back up recently.


#2

I wonder if part of it is timing. 2048 was released within a month or two of Threes, and from the open letter that the Threes developer(s) wrote, it certainly seems like that contributed to whatever complicated and/or bad feelings they felt. With Donut County and Hole.io, the clone preempted the release of the original, which has the potential to undercut its success.

Listening to this episode reminded me of a board game I bought recently: 13 Days. It’s a card-driven game with very similar mechanics to Twilight Struggle and even shares the Cold War theme. It’s simpler and streamlined but it shares a lot more than just inspiration. I don’t actually know if there was much controversy surrounding its release, but 13 Days was released more than ten years after Twilight Struggle, and also Twilight Struggle is one of the most popular and successful board games, so there was no risk of 13 Days stealing the spotlight.

I guess what I’m getting at here is that maybe there is more to the “clone” epithet than pure mechanics. It’s worth debating the mechanics of clones or would-be-clones but that’s not the whole story.


#4

The mechanical argument is what caused things to fall into place for me. You cannot learn how to play 2048 correctly, and then apply what you learned to Threes and vice versa. This should by definition reject the notion of it being a clone, ignoring everything else I said.

Threes was a great game, but it had core flaws in my opinion. Whether the game came out one day, one month, or one year after, I don’t really see much of a difference. 2048 was a product that fulfilled a need that Threes created. I enjoyed the idea of Threes, but liked it less the more I played it. I can empathize with the dev’s position, but if your game has flaws, which you don’t address but somebody else does, your product will ultimately fall behind.

I saw Threes’ open letter, and their tone makes me pretty uncomfortable. I don’t know them, I can’t pretend to, but quotes like this

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.

Feel pretty frustrating. If they’re confident in their product, that’s absolutely fine, but different people’s tastes will gravitate them towards different products. If people are preferring 2048, the devs should have at least tried to understand why.

They then proceed to double down by saying that Threes is better because it’s “hard”, while completely sidestepping the fact that this difficulty is (in my opinion) artificially fabricated by the randomness of incoming tiles. To me, them saying that so few people were able to beat your game doesn’t indicate that your game is hard, it indicates that you’re reliant on insanely long odds.


#5

This is probably a poorly written wall of shit, but it’s what I got…
What I find interesting about all of this is their reaction to fortnite after battlegrounds. Battlegrounds isn’t just an iteration on the ideas of films like battle royale. It’s a mod… of a mod. It is Dota 2 of shooters. Does that make criticism on either side of this clone debate invalid? No. Battlegrounds is its own game. Dota is its own game. For me, curation is the answer. Curation from whom? Whoever you trust like waypoint. I understand that waypoint isn’t really a curator or a consumer resource site. Back on topic, I haven’t played either game about falling into holes, but I’d bet Donut County is the better one. It’s probably got better writing and pacing. I assume we’re able to say hole is a clone because it’s not as good as that is usually how this works. Just like Tattoo Assassins, wasn’t actually released for sale, is trying to be Mortal Kombat or Giana Sisters trying to be Super Mario. One game is getting good press and the other isn’t. Does that mean the “right one” is getting more money than the clone? I don’t know. I guess I hope so. They all have a right to exist. I just trust in waypoint, giantbomb, or whoever to call that shit out. Tell us how one is better than the other and hope that audience buys the “original.”


#6

To me, the comparison between Blackout and PUBG seems way more appropriate than PUBG and Fortnite.

It’s a very similar situation to Threes + 2048. Threes created the (great) concept, and then somebody came in and iterated on it, streamlining the fun elements and removing frustrating aspects.

It’s a different situation in a sense that PUBG had plenty of time to pick up slack and adapt (but didn’t, at least not in a timely manner), whereas 2048 came about very shortly after Threes’ launch.


#7

This is a fair point, although I think one of the problems with this issue is that there is no single authoritative (say, legal) definition of a clone. Since game mechanics aren’t legally copyrighted, these things end up being sort of emotional arguments in the “court of opinion”. I think that’s what I was getting at in my post about mechanics not being the whole story. Folks just feel like it’s scummy behavior if you publish a game that is so similar, so close on the heels, and in such a cutthroat market like the mobile stores or the hype sensitive indie game scene.

I don’t have as strong an opinion on specific case of Threes and 2048. In general I can empathize with the creators and fans (and folks on the podcast) who are bemoaning this sort of behavior.


#8

I kind of don’t get what they were talking about when comparing hole.io and Donut County.

DC is a game with lovely graphics, a clever mechanic supported by puzzles and a lot of charming humor. Hole.io has none of that. I really don’t agree that if you put the two games side by side that people wouldn’t be able to tell them apart.

I mean, Donut Country is a single player game with a story. Hole-io is a point competition game against bots without music or sound effects and minimum effort graphics.

If people still prefer to play Hole-io it might be because 1) DC is not available on Android or 2) people are not willing to pay what a game with that quality costs. (Or the makers don’t want to finance it with ads.)

Game mechanics and ideas are not copyrightable any more than the idea about writing an article about shitty game producers who copy ideas. And while that might be frustrating at times the alternative is far far worse. (Because that means all of a sudden you can’t make a game where you run and jump, or swing a sword, or shoot someone with a gun… or control a hole to swallow stuff.)


#9

I found a few threads on Boardgamegeek where people were asking if it was okay that 13 Days and Twilight Struggle seemed so similar, so it does seem like at least someone thought about it. I have not played 13 Days myself, but I wonder whether it could have elicited that sort of response without the Cold War theme. TS didn’t invent the fundamental card stuff that drives it and you can find plenty of other card-driven games that aren’t Cold War themed. As far as I can tell, there’s no such controversy for other games built around playing cards for events or actions on the board.

I think this goes to your point that this is all fuzzy, court of public opinion stuff, but also that theme more important than mechanics to people. If hole.io were about a whirlpool or something and not a hole swallowing things, would the backlash have been as severe? Donut County does remind me of Katamari, but I would never feel like it was unfairly copying from Katamari.


#10

I’m strangely uncomfortable with this thread, and I guess I’m not sure why. I read it and just got uneasy.

My first instinct is that this conversation presumes death of the author, but when we’re talking market-oriented cloning, the author is Not Dead. You can’t just approach it based on pure mechanics because the context of release is the thing being discussed. Death of the author is useful for academic analysis or mechanical analysis, but cloning is a specific conversation about market context and the behaviors of the authors.

THAT SAID - i’d call these games ripoffs and not clones. I’d reserve clones for games that are obviously asset swaps of someone else’s programming, like what we saw over and over again in the Flappy Bird wild west.


#11

I agree with you about the distinction between clones and ripoffs, and the fact that market context is really the major factor that determines whether these games were good faith iterations on their predecessors versus deliberate attempts to undermine the success of their so-called inspirations.

I think there’s room, though, to accuse 2048 of intentionally undercutting Threes and also assess it as a game that refined the concept further, or even just a game that appeals to more people. Producing “a more casual/accessible version of X” is an important thing for game devs to do periodically, because welcomes more folks into genres they aren’t familiar with, so I’m a little uncomfortable demonizing a game for doing that.

That said, it sounds like the context of 2048 is similar to that of Fortnite. They iterated on the formula, sure, but they adopted it the moment it got popular and likely had at least some intention of capitalizing on the popularity. I’m not super familiar with either, though, so folks should feel free to contradict me.


#12

when it’s ajar. 15 characters


#13

I think the stigma of making a game that’s similar to a past one is diluted once it begins to happen more frequently. I remember reading and hearing the phrase “Doom clones” in the 90s, but we eventually just started calling them “first-person shooters” once there were enough of them to constitute a genre. “Stuff falling into a hole” may never get there, but something like “battle royale” probably will (if it hasn’t already!).

(Some of those subgenres, like “roguelike” or “metroidvania,” seem unable to shed the names of their progenitors, but at least those names seem less judgmental without the word “clone” in there…)


#14

Well, “roguelike” in particular is a weird case, as what we use it for now is considerably wider than what it was originally intended for. (I still like roguelites or roguelikelikes for most of the things we now call roguelikes, even though they basically only have permadeath and some pseudorandom procgen.)