Thursday, April 10, 2014

2048 and Marketing

Two things struck me about the latest game-nerd darling, 2048: the number of friends who have independently recommended it to me, and how quickly I got bored of it. Eventually I figured out why there's such a disparity in my reaction to the game and everyone else's, and I'll focus on that here because I think it's interesting. In a separate post I plan to talk about some of my own favorite mobile games of the last year.

First, to clear the air - 2048 is a good game. I like puzzles, I like simplicity, and I like numbers. I like the smooth and intuitive mechanics. I like the fact that the game has a set endpoint - a goal established from the beginning. Given all of this, I was surprised by the fact that the game only appealed to me for about 20-30 minutes before I got tired of it.

The reason 2048 failed to hold my interest is simply that I've played this game before, and I'm not talking about the fact that the game is a clone several times over. That's its own entire topic. I didn't play 1024 or Threes, but I have played the same category of puzzle game, starting with Triple Town a few years ago, and manifesting in other games like Puzzle Forge. You see, the big secret of 2048 is that at its heart, the game is not about numbers - it's about spatial planning. The novice player will focus on matches they see and try to build up mid-size numbers only to discover that these midsize numbers are too far apart to be effectively combined, and they quickly run out of space. In order to get the largest numbers, you need to plan ahead and make sure that your mid-sized numbers end up next to each other, so that you can combine them into the really big numbers.

With this kind of puzzle, the number theme is unnecessary. The key is that you have like tokens that combine into bigger (higher-value) tokens, and those bigger like tokens can combine, but only with each other, requiring exponentially more space to build each new token up the hierarchy. The size of the board then determines how far up this totem pole combination will become difficult for players, as the amount of space required for all the components of a big token outstrips the playing area. In Triple Town these tokens were bushes, that combined into trees and then into houses of various sizes, ultimately leading to a floating castle. In Puzzle Forge you combined metals into higher and higher quality smithing materials, and then could cash in your big tokens to produce items and sell them. You could just as easily have the tokens be single-celled organisms building into animals up an evolutionary chain, or coins combining into larger units of currency. The only requirement is that there is a clear sense of hierarchy, and that the game gives you limited space to work within.

So what makes this iteration of the spatial-planning puzzle game so much more popular than its predecessors? The answer is the marketing and virality. I don't mean that they spent a bunch of money on ads, but that design decisions, and specifically the decision to represent its tokens as powers of 2, enable the game to appeal to new audiences and be more sharable than its predecessors. Even though the game, according to me, isn't about numbers, the decision to theme it on numbers is brilliant for a few reasons.

First, the numbers make the hierarchy of tokens instantly intuitive, rather than requiring the player to learn that bushes make trees which make houses (which is totally arbitrary). This, combined with the simplicity of the confounding agent (the fact that new numbers appear randomly, rather than being placed, which serves the same chaos-inducing role that ninja bears did in Triple Town), means that the game's learning curve is so shallow that it needs no tutorial. You can literally hand your phone to a friend and just say "check out this game" and they will fairly quickly figure out how it is played (in fact, this is how the game was first introduced to me).

Second, the numbers theme makes the game extra appealing to math and science nerds, especially since powers of 2 are evocative of computer science (bits and bytes and all that jazz). The theme not only vindicates nerds, it gives the game an air of being pseudo-educational or at least more intellectual than a game that is visually about trees and ninja bears. The nerd appeal is particularly evidenced by an xkcd comic on the game (random side note: when plugging in that link I half-expected the comic's serial number in the url to itself be a good 2048 combination).

Third, and perhaps least importantly, the use of a number for the title of the game makes it appear at or near the top of an alphabetized list. This doesn't matter too much for people playing the flash game on their browser, but if you download the game on an Android device, you may notice that it will be the first item to appear when you press that "apps" button. Moreover, the title is a good one because it is easy to remember and communicates the game's goal.

Of course, much of the game's success is a matter of sheer luck (especially since it is a clone of other games that came out a month earlier to less fanfare), but luck only allows a game to get noticed - in order to sink in, it also needs the qualities that make it viral, and the difference in reception between Triple Town and 2048 is, in my mind, something to take note of. It is fair to reply to this entire post by noting differences in basic game mechanics between the two games, and there is an argument to be made that swiping the board is simply a more interesting mechanic than placing tokens. However, as someone who played Triple Town fairly thoroughly, I recognized the same area of my brain activated when planning in 2048. They are most certainly kindred spirits.