How We Can Prevent the Bastardization of Mobile Games (by Paying For Them)

Jun 01, 2014
THREES ss 4 0

A while ago I reviewed Threes, a simple to learn but hard to master sliding tile game about combining numbers. Ever since that review went up I've regretted not addressing one huge issue with the game: its plethora of clones. If you're reading this, I'm sure you might have not even heard of Threes before. However, you might have heard about a little game called 2048. It's a game with almost identical mechanics that is unfortunately just a clone of Threes. Actually, it's a clone of another clone called 1024. This is pretty common for most popular mobile these days. Ever heard of Flappy Bird? No? How about Tappy Chicken? Maybe even Flappy 2048?

farmville 2 on zynga com

Cloning games is a pretty quick way to make money. Find a popular game with simple mechanics, open your favorite game maker software, make the same thing with slightly different graphics and a similar name, and upload it to your app store of choice for free with ad support. It's gross behavior, honestly, but it happens near constantly - a look at the Tumblr account I Want A Clone shows just a small amount of the clones that appear on app stores every day. This pattern isn't just because developers want to make a quick buck, either. Many mobile customers these days are extremely adverse to paying a cent for games, so much that a free clone is almost almost always preferable to the $3 original.

This consumer behavior is exactly why the free to play model exists, and that's really unfortunate. I've voiced my frustration with the model before, and I still think it's manipulative and lazy design. Sadly, this is becoming the norm. Say what you want about free to play, but in most cases it makes for a worse game: Intrusive advertisements, microtransactions, and artificially lengthened gameplay are enough to turn me off. Sure, they make more money - in 2010 Zynga reported only 3-5% of their player base paid for microtransactions, yet they still raked in $113 million a year from Farmville. Let me ask you though: In 2014, who these days looks back on Farmville as a compelling game? Would you rather go back and pay for Bejeweled 2 today, or boot up the social media integrated Bejeweled Blitz?

What I'm really asking is: Are these games really worth playing, or are they just temporary business models? Are these even worth playing in the long run?

Constant notifications/microtransactions: is this compelling, or just compulsive?

Let's bring this back to Threes and 2048. Patrick Klepek wrote an excellent piece over at Giant Bomb about the many clones of Threes, and even approached the creators of those clones in search of their motivations. One of the biggest takeaways from the article for me was the idea that the price of Threes was a design choice:

Ads were considered, but few games reach the popularity to make the ads a viable business model. Flappy Bird is an aberration, with a success that's impossible to replicate. A closer examination of in-app purchasing prompted them to back off the idea. [...] “People are just so thirsty and so starving for a game that’s just honest,” he said. “Just get it, and you don’t have to deal with any of these psychological yearnings.”

The idea of design coming first in Threes is exactly what makes Threes so compelling in the first place. There was a year and a half of planning that went into Threes, and less than a month went into the creation of 1024. In this design doc, even the developers agree that Threes is a more thoughtfully designed game than 2048, and thus has much more staying power. The problem is, how motivated are developers to make simple mobile games if they know they are going to be cloned instantly? What money is there in making a paid game when clones with ads and microtransactions are more likely to make money? How long will it be before the mobile market is flooded with nothing but free to play games?

THREES trailer

Well, one could argue that app stores are already full of free to play garbage, and I think it's our responsibility not to encourage that. If you value the games you play on mobile, I highly recommend you start paying for them. After all, would you rather see your next favorite mobile game designed by the developers of Threes, or the developers of Tiny Tower?

And, maybe this question is beside the point, but do we really want to see paid games like Dead Space 3 and Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare full of microtransactions now? Can we snuff this awful habit now before publishers start to think this business model is the only way? When I play a game, I want the transaction to end at the initial purchase, not after I've already sunk 12 hours into a game.

Zoë Wolfe

Co-Founder, Webmaster