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The clone that won't disappear: 'Threes' vs. '2048' on Google Play

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Google removed the quirky puzzle game Threes from the Play store on Tuesday. Its removal was unceremonious and sudden, but that's not exactly why Threes creator Asher Vollmer found the situation frustrating. That came down to two reasons:

  1. A robot informed Vollmer that his game was removed from Google Play in a cold, automated message.
  2. Threes was removed from Google Play because it used "2048" as a keyword -- and 2048 is a blatant, known clone of Threes.

Google -- probably a human there, not a robot -- reinstated Threes after just a few hours offline and following a stream of articles and Twitter activity around its removal. Of course, 2048 remained live on Google Play the entire time, alongside a bunch of other Threes clones. This string of events highlights one of the biggest differences between Google and Apple, and how they approach their app stores. "Apple's policies are preventative and Google's policies are retroactive," Vollmer says. "You can probably figure out which one I prefer."

Vollmer spoke with a few of his Android developer friends during the Threes blackout and they said his situation was fairly common.

"Google has bots that crawl over their store and look for instances of 'keyword stuffing' and then automatically take down the app," Vollmer explains. "You then have to appeal to get the app back on the store, which can take two to three days. On the Apple app store every app goes through an approval process for a few weeks before it shows up on the store. On Google Play you can publish a game instantly, but you are at risk of Google pulling it at any moment."

Vollmer has tried to fight against the wave of Threes clones, which popped up at a ridiculous rate starting just 21 days after the original game's release. Threes took 14 months and more than 500 emails between Vollmer and artist Greg Wohlwend to plan and perfect, and these games took the idea and ran with it, often with a price tag of "free." Threes, on the other hand, costs $1.99. At first, the developers tried to get rid of the clones whack-a-mole style -- and then 2048 showed up.

"There was technically nothing wrong with it," Vollmer says. "It didn't steal our art or our name and the creator of the web version was so far removed from the game scene that he had never even heard of Threes. He cloned a clone without knowing."

The studio behind 2048 is a notorious clone-making machine, and it's able to stay in business because it's not technically breaking any rules.

"My copyright on Threes only covers the look and feel of the game, and 2048 looks very different," Vollmer says. "My trademark only covers the icon and name, and 2048 has neither. My only hope of legal action would be to patent the game mechanics, which I will never do for a thousand different reasons. All I can do is treat 2048 like a healthy competitor -- one that wouldn't exist if it wasn't for me."

According to Google Play, Threes has been installed 100,000 to 500,000 times, while 2048 has been installed 10 million to 50 million times.

Clearly, today, Threes was placed on the Google Play support fast-track once people there realized the mistake. This saved Vollmer a few days of not only inactivity, but of potential customers being directed to clones of his game. It was a blunder and at least it was handled quickly, but Google Play's "publish now, pull later" philosophy remains. The Apple app store has its own issues as well, including oversaturation and pricing standards that feel like a race to the bottom. However, with the ironic removal of Threes, the oddity of Google Play's app policies are presently on full display.

"I want Google to rely on humans and not on robots to make these decisions," Vollmer says. "I want Google Play to at least issue warnings before they take these kinds of actions.... This was a completely tone-deaf move."

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