In my bag I have two books and an academic paper. They are research material for the book I am working on. I also have the instructions for Occult Chronicles (Cryptic Comet, 2013) that I’ve been intending to read for months. On my smartphone, I have the Instapaper app installed in which there are 134 unread pages. My RSS aggregator, Press, keeps 43 links warm for me.

On my daily commute, I am not working through any of this backlog.

I am playing Threes (Sirvo, 2014). And this is totally Chris Lepine’s fault.

Why did I buy a smartphone? The original reason was to keep on top of my reading. I had all this empty time during my commute and it made sense to utilise that time more productively. The company Blackberry blocked most gaming sites so, if I wanted to work through my Instapaper queue, I had to fund another option.

I made the early decision not to use the smartphone for games and there were two reasons, both extremely practical and not, in any way, a judgement on the merits of mobile games.

First, if I started playing games on my phone in front of the children, it wouldn’t be long before they would ask to play here, there and everywhere on Daddy’s phone. I didn’t want the phone to be this omnipresent distraction that, given half a minute of free time, someone would ask for a quick session of Andy’s Dinosaur Adventures.

Second, Electron Dance is a site about PC games. If I strayed into playing mobile games, I wouldn’t end up writing about them. Sure, I break this rule all the time, but I couldn’t afford to spend hours on mobile games when I have plenty of PC games to get through. Not a week goes by without another humiliating “haven’t you played this yet” recommendation going on the list.

And the secret unlockable bonus reason: I can get a tad fucking obsessive with casual games if they are always accessible. You might remember a tale of Klondike woe I wrote a couple of years ago in a post titled Submergence which compared the obsession to a sickness.

I broke the no-gaming rule a couple of times for the purpose of research. One was Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor (Tiger Style, 2009), which I installed to see how its environmental narrative worked. I never finished the game because, frankly, I eventually tired of flicking the spider around to catch bugs. However, I did end up referencing the game in The Beautiful Dead.

The other game I installed was Luxuria Superbia (Tale of Tales, 2013). Despite announcing I would write a piece featuring Superbia last November I still haven’t done it. I promise to make amends soon. All I’ll say about the game for now is that I liked it but eventually had to put it down.

Now, this doesn’t mean I do not want to play mobile games, but rules are rules. No games. Certainly not for fun. Then one day Chris “The Artful Gamer” Lepine retweeted a link to a 2048 variant on the web called 2048: Academia Edition (Ana Salter, 2014).

This piqued my interest because I’d been reading a lot about the mobile game Threes. Threes is one of those “casual” puzzle games that people get addicted to and want to inflict on all their friends. Soon after it was released to iPhone and iPad, a free-to-play clone was released called 1024 (veewo studio, 2014) which copies not just the gameplay but also the graphical style. Then 1024 was cloned as a free browser game called 2048 (Gabriele Cirulli, 2014) over a weekend. It was this iteration that went viral.

2048 is now so well-known that many believe Threes to be the clone. Even 1024, the original clone, has renamed itself “1024: The Original of 2048”. Threes was developed over fourteen months and the developers, Greg Wohlwend and Asher Vollmer, have found the dominating success of a clone that turned up just two months after the release of their original to be galling.

Considering its viral success, you might expect 2048 to be the superior game. However, it was sold for zero pence and ran in a browser thus was carried on a wave of free across all platforms; nonetheless the developers of Threes insist theirs is the better game. To demonstrate the work that went into refining the mechanics of the game, they published an incredibly detailed article which summarised the fourteen months of discussions and changes that went into Threes’ development.

When Lepine tweeted the link to the 2048 variant, I clicked. I wanted to know what this game was all about. My phone hung for a moment and I thought, shit, maybe it’s downloading megabytes and burning up my data allowance. I tried to quit the page but it was… too late.


The game was okay. It ate up the remainder of my commute, around twenty-five minutes. I was angry for being so unproductive. If this was a taste of Threes, I didn’t get it. I didn’t get 2048, the biggest viral hit since Flappy Bird took over game journalism. There was only one way to find out whether Threes was actually any good or not.

The next day, weary and tired, I headed into the Google Play store and looked up Threes. Now I needed to be absolutely sure I was getting the real deal because, you know, with all the talk of cloning I didn’t want to end up with something called “Threes” which had the same gameplay and theming yet not the original, because such a thing exists. There’s also Fives, Threes! Doodle, Eights!, a Threes by “Candy Game Studio”, Threes Saga, Threes Free, Threes! Free, Simply Threes, Threes Classic, Threes Game!, Threes Two, Number Three, Threes (Can Not Stop) and… yeah. It goes on.

So I gave Threes a go and that was the end of productive commuting.

So, thank you, Chris Lepine, because most of my commutes since the purchase of Threes have become Threemutes. What was originally a casual interest in the latest cloning scandal has morphed into addiction. Now there are only the numbers. The numbers 1 and 2.

Then the number 3.

Then the numbers 6, 12, 24, 48, 96, 192, 384–

But no more! Surviving to see the next number 768 seems beyond me. I know it is there. It must be possible to reach it. I will keep trying until I achieve it. I must keep trying. If I reach 768, I tell myself, perhaps I will lose interest. 384 is so dull and common, now. 384 is nothing. 384 is for chumps.

So, yeah, I can report that Threes is the better game, except the game has taken over my daily commute. Work on breaking down my Instapaper queue has stopped, even though I keep throwing more links from Twitter onto the pile.

But maybe Lepine did the right thing. Do I want to spend every commute doing Electron Dance research? What happened to just having fun? Why can’t a guy who writes about games actually enjoy some games? Aren’t games meant to help reset the mind? ALL WORK AND NO PLAY MAKES JACK A DULL BOY? Does every game I play have to turn into an Electron Dance post? (Well, duh, you’re reading the answer to that question.)


I sometimes wonder if my obsession of wringing progress out of every scrap of spare time is a problem. I look around at people on my commute and see people watching television, playing games and reading fiction. Productivity isn’t the be-all and end-all and I wish I could engage the little joys in life without feeling constantly guilty that it doesn’t contribute to something larger. Maybe this is a cathartic addiction, something I’ve been longing for.

Yet, at the same time, it’s a warning. I’ll be much more wary next time I decided to install a game on the phone. Maybe Threes is the only escape I’ll ever commit to.

Threes has me in its thrall… for a little while. This intense romance won’t last forever. I think, probably, it’s fine. My interest is already starting to wane. So, Chris, it’s okay, don’t fret.

But to the rest of you, don’t come moaning to me when the Electron Dance book is a year late. Because you know exactly who to blame.

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14 thoughts on “A Productivity Problem

  1. Ed Key isn’t going to read this post because he has got fed up of seeing people high scores in Threes. I didn’t enjoy 2048 that much. It’s… easier. It goes on for ages (this is the complaint I’ve heard from someone at my workplace). The Threes board, however, can get congested and fraught fairly quickly if you’re not careful.

  2. Whenever someone sat next to me is playing 2048, I lately have made a point of taking out my phone and firing up Threes. It’s kind of the “I liked them better before” indie band attitude.

    I’ve only ever gotten to 196 🙁

  3. Don’t worry Eric, it took me quite a few games to get a 384. I don’t get them regularly either. I had a game today and I couldn’t get past 96! What’s really horrible are those unfilled slots on the Threes title screen, with the numbers you haven’t reached.

    Oh and that 2048 player is probably looking at your phone and thinking “fucking clone”.

  4. I just downloaded 2048 and was able to get a 512 in about 3 minutes by just going up and right over and over. Why do people like this?

  5. I found 2048 incredibly fun until I looked for tips online and found that corner rule. Strangely I haven’t been able to beat my “not cheating” high score using that rule, but it’s still changed how I play – to the extent that I sometimes play for 2 minutes just to see how far spamming those keys will take me, and then lose interest.

    But this raises an interesting point. The 2048 that I played before I knew that exploit – was it even the same game? I was playing totally differently, and my feelings as I played were “Ooh, I can be really clever and line these up!” rather than the more distanced “Hm, I wonder how far this exploit will take me” or the completely dispassionate “Why would I even play that now?” that I’ve experienced since. Does a game shift when you mentally unlock a new way of playing?

    This makes me think of Diablo 2. My first game was as a Paladin, and I played terribly. Paladins smash things with swords, so I didn’t really use mana (even though, you know, it’s RIGHT THERE and it’s PIVOTAL TO ALL CLASSES REGARDLESS). When I did pick mana skills, I picked the ones I liked, not the ones that would be most useful. In Diablo terms, I was playing it “wrong”. When I picked the game up years later, I knew how critical it was to plan your build, so I just looked one up online and built my new character completely to spec.

    It sounds like I’m heading towards an “And I had more fun when I played it MY WAY!” revelation but actually, no, not really. That first character was terrible, which made the game more difficult. My new character is slightly overpowered, which is lovely as I can smash lots of pinata-monsters and feel like a badass. But that first character still felt “different” – more “mine”. Was I playing different games? Probably not… I guess…? But I engaged with it in a totally different way.

    Imagine you’re playing football. You’re a nerd and you hate it. You do your bit when necessary to avoid getting bullied in the showers but generally you try to stay out of it. Now skip forward 20 years to a point in your life when, amazingly, you love football. Now you’re engaged, and you’re tackling people and dribbling and scoring goals and using football lingo and oh my God I know nothing about football.

    Are they different games? They’re both football. But your goals, actions, mode of engagement are all different. It reminds me of Netrunner or D&D or other asynchronous games – player 1 is hacking the corporation or exploring a dungeon, player 2 is defending against the hacker or throwing monsters at them.

  6. I beat the 2048 academia edition, if only to see what came after “full prof” and then “emeritus.” Getting to the ending was worth it. And this is surprisingly on-topic with my thoughts about why people might prefer the game that goes on forever.

    I guess the mechanical difference with Threes is that it randomly generates 1s and 2s and you have to combine one of each to get 3 before you can progress?

  7. James, I kind of zoned out when I played 2048 – nothing seemed to have much consequence for ages – and I was wondering if this was part of the appeal. But the game is approximately solved by the corner algorithm (which I didn’t know about initially) and I can imagine that can undermine the urge to replay. This weakness of 2048 means it might be better to compare it to a puzzle game which has one solution. Once you’ve found the solution, you lose interest in carrying on. You didn’t find the corner strategy, someone revealed it to you and spoiled the solution. You thought it was a challenge for which you needed to develop tactics rather than a puzzle game with a solution.

    Obviously this isn’t a perfect analogy, but it describes the change as one of framing. It is not the same game you saw it as. I’d wager this kind of thing happens all the time. I often have expectations at the start of a game which make the opening really great – but the knowledge of the embedded systems eventually reveals the truth; I can no longer enjoy the game’s opening in the same way. Re: Those Honeymoon Hours.

    Matt, I think the movement mechanic also works differently. All of the tiles only move one space in Threes rather than 2048’s slide.

  8. Interesting piece and discussion on Threes’ design process and the differences it shows with 2048. The Threes team apparently encountered the corner strategy and carefully designed around it… among other stuff.

    Found it indirectly from Jesper Juul who tweets: “Good example of faulty design reasoning using made-up criteria: Threes > 2048 because harder.”

    For me, I think I agree with the Wire folk (but I’ve never played Threes); 2048 is dead to me now that I know about the corner strategy. There are some tactical challenges but they aren’t enough. But I can understand why most people prefer it. When we say that the early moves of Threes matter in a way that those of 2048 don’t, another way of saying it is that in Threes you can screw yourself over in the beginning. When we say 2048 takes too long, that’s another way of saying that in Threes you spend most of your time losing early. And the depth of play in Threes may mean partly that you have to concentrate more, which may not be what most people playing on their commute or in the bathroom want to do. Sometimes we’ve been deadened by the day and we want something relatively mechanical to relax with — hence FreeCell.

    But also, the characteristic experience for me when I played 2048 was getting the grid almost entirely blocked up and having a chain reaction start that cleared everything away. Being brought back from the brink of disaster. Not usually in an “I love it when a plan comes together way,” but because the game makes it easy to take place. And I think this is part of the appeal. Because that feels like grace. You didn’t earn it, but grace is unearned by its nature. Setting up a trap that you wait to spring can be immensely satisfying, but immensely frustrating too (because things might not fall right, or you might not mess things up), and sometimes we would rather have things that we didn’t work for fall into our lap. Heaven knows it doesn’t happen enough in real life.

    Now I think this is kind of dangerous and in the end unsatisfying, partly because it does take so long, partly because it is a simulacrum of grace designed to addict you. But I see why it’s appealing. And is the game where you have to earn your progress that much more virtuous? There’s still an unreality about the progress, even if the progress is real, if you see what I mean.

  9. Hi Matt. Thanks for the Wired piece – will take a proper look when I have some time. Eric and I have actually done a Counterweight on Threes and we tackle a little bit of this. I can see why some find 2048 fun and also note that some of the criticism of 2048 is just railing against the cloning aspect more than anything: i.e. if we shout enough, maybe people will give Threes its due.

    2048 is closer to Klondike in this regard– a lot of its “work” is mindless and it serves to pass the time than exercise the brain. Again, that’s not a bad thing.

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