2048: The Nihilistic Face Of Free To Play


Nihilism at its finest

Anyone who has read this blog or spoken to me will know that I have a very open mind when it comes to free to play gaming. Yes, I do prefer paid games and prefer forking out for a full product rather than committing myself to a longer term “pay as you love it more” service. But I appreciate that many players do and that there are incredibly valid and sensible ways to execute the model that delivers both values for players and for businesses. But the rise in the past week of 2048 as a free game has left me disconcerted, reminding me of the inherent nihilism that lies at the heart of some of the worst free titles.

In case you haven’t played 2048, it is an addictive freely available web game that gets you matching multiples of two in the hope of reaching the aforementioned 2048 tile. Players are fenced in by the limits of a 4×4 grid and have to slide their tiles up and down to force matches, balancing the aim of building to the highest multiple possible against filling up the 16 tile grid and checkmating yourself so you can’t move any further. It’s addictive, it’s well designed and it has proven a viral sensation.

But it’s also, unfortunately, a low quality knock off of a mobile game called Threes. Designed by a team of indie superstars, Threes is the superior game on a number of counts. The addition of 1 and 2 tiles to the gameplay to build the basic ’3′ tile forces players to think far more strategically than they have to in 2048. The art style, characterisation of tiles and the soundtrack build a friendly atmosphere that counters the addictive cruelty of the gameplay effectively. And the addition of save game syncing across devices, a beautiful top screen and gorgeous little sharing cards for social media, Threes is a perfectly formed package that is completely worth paying £1.50 for.

The problem is that with a game like 2048 around and completely for free, chances are Threes is going to suffer as a result. By having a price point of nothing, 2048 is leveraging the non-existent barrier of entry to turn into a viral success at the expense of the games which it owes such a debt to that the 2048 developer actually references it on the game’s website.

Now some will say that this is the nature of competition in an economy where free gaming is on the rise. And to some extent, I appreciate that is true. But in this instance, that doesn’t tell the whole story. When I think of games that have cannibalised a paid rival with the same mechanic successfully, I think of Candy Crush Saga flipping Match 3 mechanics in a way that turned them into a monetisation monster. The crucial thing here though is that King have released the game for free as a way to make money. It’s a tactic to support the overall strategy of filling their pockets in the long run and that’s alright by me.

What isn’t alright by me is a game that releases for free and makes no attempt to make money, which is what 2048 has done. It does nothing to monetise: it makes no advertising revenue; it has no broader cross promotional purpose and it certainly has no in app purchases to make money. 2048 is free to play but it is doing it in a way that is utterly self destructive. It’s not piracy and it’s definitely not released for immoral reasons but it is damaging. It’s like a Beatles cover band in 1965 somehow becoming globally famous and deciding that, not only are they going to screw over John, Paul Ringo and George, they’re not fussed about making money and playing to whole stadiums for me.

Ultimately, it’s that what gets my goat. It’s the fact that an original creator isn’t just being screwed out of revenues by legitimate competition; it’s an original creator having their idea nicked and pointlessly devalued. Games like 2048 don’t just lower the quality bar by offering a sub standard service for free; they are a warning to people trying to innovate that its far too easy for someone else to take the credit and the spoils.

And some people will go and shrug their shoulders and just say “that’s competition”, pointing to the fact that 2048 is now appearing in unofficial versions on the App Store and getting unofficial revenge on the web game creator. But really, that doesn’t make me feel better. Mobile and the web has become such a race to the bottom that making money is now seen as something as the preserve of the few, rather than the many. And that annoys me. People with great ideas who can execute them greatly deserve financial reward. Sure, it can be cut into by competition and part of the thrill of life is about fighting against that. But not by someone handing the equivalent of photocopies out at the side of the street.

So the next time you’re playing 2048 or one of its legion of competitors think about the guys who made the original, superior game and think about your role in taking money out of their pockets because you’re playing a free imitator that pays no-one in the end. Free to play needn’t mean that we have to embark down the road to nihilism but if we carry on playing the abused model that 2048 uses then we may well end their anyway.

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