The tweet from Asher Vollmer, one of the creators of the cult hit video game Threes, seems almost as puzzling as his app: Why have so few Chinese users bought the mobile game, compared with the much larger number who are playing it every day, making China the game’s second biggest market?

Image: Threes

The unfortunate answer for Vollmer and his fellow Threes developer Greg Wohlwend—as well as for anyone trying to sell apps in China—is that its software market for smartphones is rife with piracy. Illicit sites like allow users to download software without using Apple’s iTunes Store, and are chock-full of popular apps that can be downloaded for free. Chinese iPhone and iPad owners so prefer free apps to paid one that in 2012, the most recent year that data was available, the Chinese iTunes Store accounted for 18% of global downloads but only 3% of revenue.

Vollmer and Wohlwend are fending off threats on more than one front; the pair wrote a scathing blog post last month taking aim at the copycats, rip-offs, and clones of Threes that have proliferated since the game became a sensation. The duo can at least take heart in the fact that Chinese users seem to prefer the original—even if they aren’t willing to pay for it.

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