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How two developers turned the age-old game of tic-tac-toe into something much more fun

by Mike Rougeau

January 23 2014

It's not uncommon for game developers to rip one another off in Apple and Google's poorly regulated app marketplaces. But that's not what happened in the case of Tic Tactics and Ten.

Yes, Hidden Variable's Tic Tactics came out just weeks before Sennep's Ten. And yes, they're more or less identical, at least in terms of gameplay. But it seems both games were in development for months before either developer had heard of the other—and more importantly, neither was the first to come up with this take on the age-old game of tic-tac-toe.

The way it works is simple: instead of playing tic-tac-toe on one 9x9 grid, you play against an opponent on nine 9x9 grids that, together, make up a larger grid. That makes for ten grids in total (hence one studio's name for the game), and it requires much more complex tactics (hence the other name) than the original game of circles and crosses. There are other nuances, like each of your moves influencing where your opponent has to play next, but that's the gist of it.

Origin stories

The first time someone from Los Angeles-based Hidden Variable Studios, the makers of the earlier-released Tic Tactics, encountered this version of tic-tac-toe was when a friend showed it to studio co-founder David Marino at lunch on a napkin, the game's creative producer Nick Ahrens told me. The friend apparently called it "mega tic-tac-toe."

"It turned out that this was something that other people were doing, and it was pretty cool," Ahrens said. "We really took a liking to it." They started playing it on paper around the studio and eventually prototyped the digital version, changing rules and making it their own.

Meanwhile Matt Rice, creative director at the London interactive design studio responsible for the later-released Ten, encountered this version of tic-tac-toe on a math blog online. Rice showed it to his co-workers and they played it around the studio, but they realized that the missing piece was a good online version.

They searched to discover the game's origin, Rice told me, but couldn't find one true original. They did find other versions on the App Store, though they were "really badly executed," Rice said (Tic Tactics had not yet been released at this point).

That's when they decided to make their version—and it also happened to be the firm's tenth year in operation, making the name all the more appropriate.

Carving a niche

"We worked really hard just to keep it super clean, super minimal," Rice said. Sennep's version also features a music component, as each mark a player leaves on the grid translates to a music note. As the game goes on the notes are played in sequence, making unique melodies every time. "We really like this idea of sort of generative melodies, and it felt very natural," Rice said.

But what makes the game so universally appealing? "It's a complexity that I would call 'depth,' on something that everyone kind of knows the basics on: three in a row," Ahrens said. He said their unique changes to the rules and their "gorgeous, minimalist" art style set Tic Tactics apart from other takes on "mega tic-tac-toe."

Surely the two games have different aesthetics, though they're both quite striking, visually. It is interesting that both developers described their chosen art styles as "minimal."

The other difference between Tic Tactics and Ten is that Tactics is free-to-play, with optional in-app purchases. "It allows it to be accessible, which is important," Ahrens said. "We put this wrapper around this really good idea of quality, that even if you don't pay—and most users don't pay in free-to-play—we want you to fell like you're playing a premium game."

Rice admitted that he and his co-workers at Sennep were disappointed when Tic Tactics came out while they were still in the middle of developing Ten, but they were heartened when they saw that Hidden Variable had chosen a free-to-play model—a model Rice and co. believed they could top.

"It just felt a bit too heavy for such a simple, minimal, you know, classic game," He said. The basic version of Ten is free, with the option for a single upgrade to a premium version with more options.

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Future additions to Tic Tactics will include leaderboards, achievements and chat, while the next update to Ten will feature the ability to invite your friends online to play with you, a feature requested by players.

Both games are available now on iOS, and Tic Tactics is also out on Android—it's up to you to decide which one is better. Of course, there's also nothing stopping you from playing the old-fashioned way, on a napkin with a pencil and a friend.

And If you want to review the best tablet games, consider joining the Tabby Awards judging panel.

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