2048's Massive Popularity Triggers Cloning Controversy

Every video game has clones, but how often does the clone find more success than the game it copied?

Last week, the LA Times published an article about 2048, an increasingly popular puzzle game that was developed by a 19-year-old Italian web developer earlier this month.

"How long does it take to create a hit video game these days?" wrote the Times. "Just about one weekend, if you ask the creator of popular puzzle game 2048."

But in their original report, the Times missed the full story. 2048 is a near-direct clone of a game called 1028, which itself is a clone of Threes, the crazy-addictive game that just about everyone at Kotaku has been obsessed with for the past two months. They all share the same basic gameplay: players slide tiles around a 4x4 grid, matching numbers in an attempt to get as high a score as possible before running out of space. Released this past February, Threes was in development for just over a year—a stark contrast to 2048's "just about one weekend."

Threes has been successful—there are over 580,000 players on GameCenter, and it's been in the top 20 paid apps on iTunes all month—but 2048 has become a pop culture phenomenon. "The next Flappy Bird," some media outlets have proclaimed. Though it's not clear how the game found so much momentum, part of its success draws from the price: 2048 is free. Threes costs two dollars.

Reactions to the LA Times article were swift and hostile. Indie game developers took to Twitter to criticize both the Times and 2048, while one critic made a 2048 clone designed to tell people to go play Threes. Threes co-creator Asher Vollmer voiced disappointment about the whole situation, writing a long blog post about the game's development and tweeting yesterday that he was frustrated about 2048's success. "It's hard feeling like one misstep (not making the game free) led to us missing our chance to be part of global culture," Vollmer wrote yesterday.

2048's creator, Gabriele Cirulli, says he's sympathetic toward Vollmer.

"I think I understand how they feel, and I'm sorry that the popularity of 2048 harmed their game," Cirulli said in an e-mail this afternoon. "I haven't had any contacts with them, but I had no intention to somehow damage their work: 2048's popularity was really unexpected. I deeply respect all of the effort they put into it and I understand what it means to pour a lot of work into creating a polished product."

In fact, Cirulli's 2048 doesn't just draw from 1024 and Threes, which Cirulli says he wasn't familiar with until after he released 2048. Cirulli's 2048 is a clone of another game called 2048. The number one free app on iTunes is a clone of Cirulli's 2048. Meanwhile, the Google Play store is full of clones and clones of clones, to the point where it almost looks like a grid from one of these sliding puzzle games.


"It's hard feeling like one misstep (not making the game free) led to us missing our chance to be part of global culture." - Threes co-creator Asher Vollmer


It's easy to sympathize with the creators of Threes—how many potential sales have they lost because of this rash of clones? But Cirulli says he hasn't made money off his game, other than what people donate his way. He says the browser version of 2048—on which he credits both 1024 and Threes—will stay free, but he might release a paid mobile app in the future.

"For me, creating 2048 was just an exercise to improve my skills and to build something I would play," Cirulli said.

This whole controversy has raised some fascinating questions, not just about the nature of intellectual property and cloning, but about how games go viral in our culture. How does something become popular? "The question isn't whether or not it's corrupt to clone or to buy clones, or whether they are being screwed or not," academic Ian Bogost said in an interview with Gamasutra, pointing out that the average player doesn't really care about . "The question is, why is it that this attitude of interchangeability in regards to cloning exists?"

Bogost's explanation: these small, addictive games are more like chairs or cereal than they are like films or books. "For ordinary people, playing 2048 is just no different from playing Threes, no more than eating Kroger Flakes is different than eating Kellogg's Corn Flakes," he said.

Threes clones are spawning on a near-daily basis. 2048 just happened to win the viral lottery.

"It's true that 2048 is (although indirectly) related to the concept behind Threes, but I didn't really choose for it to become popular," Cirulli told me. "People just found it and liked it, maybe simply due to chance. I have credited Threes on 2048, so hopefully the presence of the note introduced some new players to Threes."