Threes immediately captivated the people who started playing it, with folks bemoaning the lost hours and tired eyes they got in pursuit of ever-higher scores. But, over the last few days, any buzz surrounding Asher Vollmer's second mobile game has been but a whisper compared to the roaring whirlwind surrounding Flappy Bird, which doesn't exist anymore. It's been a weird week for the 24-year-old game designer.
I reached out to Vollmer because it just struck me as really odd, in a cosmic way, how people started talking about Threes and Eliss Infinity during the same week that Flappy Bird captured the public imagination.
"It was really fortuitous that the Flappy drama happened during our release week," Volmer told me as we chatted online. "It made people think critically about the value of a well-executed game. And I'm not saying Flappy isn't well executed, but when you look at it — it feels familiar and simple."
"If a game doesn't look like it was made with love, it looks like a waste of time because clearly the developer didn't spend much time on it either."
"When people try to figure out Flappy's success (which is what most people were doing in its early days) everyone just sort of landed on 'luck,'" he continued. "And then Threes and Eliss came out and people said 'Oh, these games DESERVE to be successful. Look at all the love that went into them."
I don't know about the 'deserve' thing, but I know that I always feel better working on (and playing) games that you can tell had heart and soul poured into them. If a game doesn't look like it was made with love, it looks like a waste of time because clearly the developer didn't spend much time on it either. And when you release a game to the public that's basically what you're asking them to do: please give up your time and interact with this thing. It feels dishonest to ask them to spend more time on your game than you did."
Does he feel like the lack of communication from Nguyen about how much time/love/effort went into Flappy Bird allowed people to be harsh on the game? "I don't feel like Nguyen is to blame for anything. Flappy Bird isn't deceitful in the slightest. Its presentation makes all of its values clear: this is a cheap, simple game. It is free so you have to look at some ads while you play. I think that's what got people into a tizzy: it's so cheap, but it's so popular. It's the same reason people get mad at reality television."
So, where's the 'love' in Threes? "All the love in Threes went into making sure the game was… valuable," Vollmer said. "On the game design side: I spent my time trying to figure out the best mechanics that would continue to challenge people and didn't have any glaring holes or derivative strategies. Once I plugged up those holes: suddenly getting a high score becomes valuable. It means something to excel in the game. On the art side: we spent a year trying to figure out how to squeeze personality into this game that wants to be a cold hard mechanical system."
"[Flappy Bird] is so cheap, but it's so popular. It's the same reason people get mad at reality television."
"Threes came into existence by accident," Vollmer said. The game idea popped into his head while he was trying to do something other than make video games. "I was still at That Game Company and I was worried that games were becoming my entire life. So I sat down one night after work and opened a word document with the hope of writing a short story. I wrote a few sentences. And then I stared at the screen. And didn't write anything for a while. But then I started playing with the arrow keys and moving the cursor around the document. And I thought to myself, 'Hey, I bet I could make a game that uses only the arrow keys.' And then I insta-closed Word and opened up Unity.
Ten hours later (around 9 a.m.) I had the first prototype of Threes." (It's pictured above.)
"There's also a fun little fighting game that I was working on called HUP HUP where you played old timey gentlemen squares. My friends still want me to finish that... so I might."
When I asked Vollmer about any games that he, consciously or not, riffed on while making Threes, he told me that another game with numbers was influential. "Drop7 was, without a doubt, the biggest inspiration for Threes. It's an iPhone game that I played for (no exaggeration) two years straight."
"Every day it would get me through my workout on the elliptical," Vollmer continued. "There were two things I liked about it: (1) the controls were simple enough that I didn't have to be precise and (2) I felt like I was getting a little better every day. And when I was working on Threes it occurred to me that I could strive for the same things."
"I feel like the design for Threes went through three major design goals. And each one narrowed down what the game needed to be:
1) How do I make a game with just the arrow keys
2) How do I make a game that's perfect for mobile
3) How do I make a game you can play forever
I think Drop7...that's the main game I drew inspiration from. Threes ended up feeling like Triple Town, but at no point did I consciously intend that. Triple Town has a similar sense of progression: it gets exponentially harder to move up the ranks. It's a little harder to make a house than a tree. It's a lot harder to make a mansion than a house, etc. It's the same with making 96s, 192s, 368s in Threes."
Vollmer says that he's been hearing one kind of feedback over and over again: "I love this game, it's so addicting!" "It drives me nuts," he confessed. "My goal is to make people excited to play and to stimulate people's brains. 'Addicting' has all these negative connotations of stealing people's time. My goal isn't to mess with people's lives. It's just an unhappy byproduct."
"Currently it's been mostly upsides! It's sort of strange because I've watched Nguyen get so much hate for succeeding [with Flappy Bird]. It hurts every time I hear about all the death threats he's been receiving.
Meanwhile I get an 'I love your game!' tweet every hour or so and that's kind of it. The main downside is that I haven't been able to get any work done! It's taken a week to figure out how to filter out all the noise (tweets, articles, analytics) and focus on my life. And I'm not convinced I've figured it out yet."