Threes creator Asher Vollmer on growing up, going indie, and the dangers of cloning

It's a magic number

Threes creator Asher Vollmer on growing up, going indie, and the dangers of cloning

There's no single route into game development, so if you ask any indie about how they got into the business, they'll each tell you their own tale of seized chances, unconventional ideas, and good fortune.

That's the brilliant thing about working in this industry: there are thousands of stories to tell, and each and every one is as interesting as the last.

The tale of Asher Vollmer, creator of the super-addictive and ultra-slick puzzler Threes, begins during an inconspicuous school summer, at a computer camp with one mission: introduce kids to the magnificent world of programming.

"When I was little I went to computer camp and that's when I learnt to program. I was really into it, and my dad was a software engineer too, so he helped me along," begins Vollmer.

"Even though I'd learned how to program, I still didn't know what to do with it, but then in high school I figured out that I could animate cartoons in Flash.

"So, I made cartoons and put them on Newgrounds for my friends. Then I found out that you can program in Flash , so I tried it out, and it turns out games are the easiest things to make in Flash, and it's the most fun because you get so much bang for your buck when you're programming."

Onwards and upwards

After falling in love with game design, Vollmer became intent on learning from the best and honing his considerable talents.

It was at that point, during the summer before his senior year of high school, that the developer caught wind of a USC class (University of Southern California)  that would allow him to do just that.

"The summer before my senior year of high school I took at class at my nearby college, USC, because they had a summer class for high school students who were interested in games, which was perfect," says Vollmer.

"I was helping out, and the teaching assistant of the class saw how good I was at programming. He was a masters student at the time, and he asked for my help programming his masters thesis.

"So, throughout my senior year of high school I helped him work on his thesis, and we got into the Independent Games Festival, which was very exciting.

"I actually didn't realise how precious that was at the time because it was the first game we'd ever submitted, but because of that I got into USC, which I wouldn't have been able to do with my grades."

With Vollmer slowly making a name for himself within industry circles, it made sense for the aspiring developer to continue on the path laid out before him.

"Being at USC studying game design my career path seemed pretty straight forward. I'd worked on a lot of games, but in my senior year of college I released Puzzlejuice, which was my first mobile game, but I didn't have a company or anything. I was just doing it for fun," explains Vollmer.

"Mobile probably wasn't the best format for Puzzlejuice. I think it's the most fun on the computer because the controls are a lot tighter and you can just type the words using your keyboard, which is a really fun exercise.

I was interested in exploring a new frontier and making a touchscreen game, and it just so happened that that's where the biggest audience on the planet was.
Asher Vollmer

"However, the USC prioritises experimental game design, and back then the touchscreen was new and unexplored, though I still think touchscreens have a lot of space to explore.

"So, I was interested in exploring that new frontier, and making a touchscreen game, and it just so happened that that's where the biggest audience on the planet was."

Journey into the unknown

Leaving college can be a worrying time for even the most prepared students, but for Vollmer, things couldn't have gone better.

Young, talented, and eager to learn, Vollmer was approached by That Game Company, the studio behind critically adored titles such as Journey, Flow, and Flower, and one of the most respected developers in the industry. As you can imagine, it was a chance he simply had to take.

"After leaving school I was approached by That Game Company, which was probably the best company I could work for.

"Of course, I took the job and I worked there for ten months. I learned an incredible amount while I was there, because they just hire the smartest people on the planet.

"I was working on their next game, and I joined them immediately after they'd finished Journey. I was the first person they hired after completing it, which was the best time for me to join in my opinion, because I love prototyping and making decisions on the ground level.

"I love watching decisions ripple through game design. When you join a project too late you can't really affect that kind of stuff, so it was the best possible scenario for me."

Vollmer joined That Game Company following the release of Journey

Unfortunately, after a ten month stint with the firm, it became apparent that working within the confines of a company just didn't offer the creative freedom the Threes developer needed.

"I enjoyed working on the game for ten months, and then I realised that I didn't actually enjoy working at a company. I just felt I was missing a lot of opportunities, and I didn't like not being able to pursue my own projects," reveals Vollmer.

"I went to the Game Developers Conference and spent a week hanging out with indies and it was at that point I thought 'yeah, this is good'”. I think indies have the right idea, so I went back to That Game Company the following Monday and told them that I should leave.

I didn't actually enjoy working at a company because I just felt I was missing a lot of opportunities.
Asher Vollmer

"It was a horrifying choice, but my biggest supporter was probably my mum, who explained that I'd been miserable ever since I took the job and that I should definitely quit. It was very un-mum-like advice, but I appreciated it."

Going solo

The hardest choices are often the most rewarding, and, while attempting to navigate the jungle of indie game development was a scary proposition, it was one that filled Vollmer with creative verve.

"After leaving That Game Company I was suddenly free to do my own stuff. I did some contract work, and I was dating this girl at the time who was a writer," says Vollmer.

"Because of that, I wanted to try my hand at writing a story. So, I was sat in front of Word, and I was struggling because it didn't come easy to me, which was annoying because games have always come easy to me.

"I was playing with the arrow keys on the keyboard and watching the cursor move around on the document, which got me wondering if I could make a game that only used the arrow keys.

"I immediately closed word and opened up unity. I made the prototype for Threes that night."

Threes smashed expectations to become a mobile phenomenon

The fact that I'm sat here right now writing this studio profile is a testament to the success Threes would go on to achieve, however, before the game ever hit shelves, Vollmer's expectations for the hit puzzler were surprisingly conservative.

"With Threes we actually prepared for the worst, and we didn't think it'd be any more successful than Puzzlejuice," adds Vollmer.

Clones popped up pretty quick, and Threes had already been cloned the weekend after we released it.
Asher Vollmer

"When we released it we realised that we didn't have to pitch it, because the game was gripping enough so that if we just got it into people's hands they'd keep playing it.

"After that they'd tell their friends about it, because they'd play it for so long eventually their friends would see them playing it."

Game of clones

Success, however, doesn't go unnnoticed for long, and Vollmer soon found himself having to deal with a problem caused by Threes' meteoric rise.  

"Clones popped up pretty quick, and it'd already been cloned the weekend after we released it. That clone wasn't trying to make money or anything, and it was just a programming assignment that a girl did for her college class," says Vollmer.

"We panicked and we freaked out, and we asked her to take down the source code because, of course, we didn't want people cloning our game.

"She was actually super friendly and did everything we asked, but then it started happening more and more frequently. There was a tidal wave of clones.

"We should have seen it coming at that point, and it was just something we couldn't stop."

Threes clone 2048 drew criticism from all corners of the internet

The arrival of 2048, a Threes clone that started to build serious momentum, changed everything.

The internet rallied around Vollmer, leaping to the defence of the developer and his game, while lambasting those making money of the back of a stolen idea. However, Vollmer believes that he should've had the foresight to stop the cloning of Threes before it ever happened.

"Eventually we saw 2048, which changed the game design in a way that I don't like, but I didn't think much of it at the time. Then I realised it was exploding, and that everyone was talking about it," explains Vollmer.

"I feel like the main difference was that 2048 was free, and that's why it blew up, and I'm still convinced that if Threes was free we could have avoided that problem.

"I don't blame anyone for what happened, and, ultimately, I believe I could have prevented it if I'd made better decisions.

I honestly should've looked at Threes, realised it was very easy to copy, and released it for free on the app stores.
Asher Vollmer

"I honestly should've looked at Threes, realised it was very easy to copy, because it had such a minimalist design, and taken it out of Unity so we could release it on the web, as well as releasing it for free on the app stores."

The next step

Threes, and the cloning controversy surround it, has helped raise Vollmer's profile, but the developer is adamant that he isn't famous, and, more importantly, he refuses to let the pressure of success weigh him down.

"It's interesting, because I'm not famous, but in the circles you and I run in everyone knows what Threes is, which is cool. I went to a conference last weekend called XOXO in Portland, which is an art and tech conference, and every single person there had heard of Threes. It was crazy," recalls Vollmer.

"To contrast that, last night I went to the YouTube space here in LA, and when I told the people there that I'd made a mobile game called Threes, no­one knew what it was. So, I'm not famous, I just made a cool thing that some people liked.

"It's weird though, because I'm now in a unique position where, when I'm networking at parties and conferences, I'm backing away from people because they're approaching me.

"I think I'm handling it the right way in that I'm making another game that's nothing like Threes. It's a completely new direction, because it's not touch, and it's not a puzzle game.

"It's called Close Castles, and I'm probably going to release it for consoles. It's something different, it's super-­weird, and I love it."

What do you call someone who has an unhealthy obsession with video games and Sean Bean? That'd be a 'Chris Kerr'. Chris is one of those deluded souls who actually believes that one day Sean Bean will survive a movie. Poor guy.