The Monday 'Joe: The Sincerest Form of Flattery

The Monday 'Joe

Zynga’s been in the news recently for things they’re usually in the news for: receiving accusations of copying other developers. Tiny Tower developer NimbleBit has, in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek manner, accused Zynga of copying their game for Dream Heights, which was curious considering they later revealed fact that Zynga had been in talks to acquire NimbleBit. Reactions to the accusation have been mixed, ranging from, “Tiny Tower is free, so I’d play that anyway,” to, “Well, Tiny Tower is basically just 1994’s Sims Tower,” to, “Holy Christ, Zynga, what is wrong with you?” Whatever the case, nothing has deterred Zynga, who has a history of doing this kind of behaviour. In fact, as I type this, news has come out saying that Buffalo Studios, “inspired” by NimbleBit, has accused Zynga of plagiarising their Bingo Blitz game for Zynga Bingo.

Apparently, plagiarism in the social game industry has become epidemic. A report which hit just today states that Spry Fox, developer of freemium game Triple Town, has filed suit against 6Waves for making a “blatant copy” of their game called Yeti Town. Part of that accusation was that Spry Fox was in negotiation with 6Waves over publishing rights, after which the latter company broke off the day they released their game. Since 6Waves had access to the closed beta, the accusation is that they used Spry Fox explicitly to steal code.

In light of all this, here’s this week’s question:

What are your thoughts on plagiarism in the modern era, particularly by industry behemoth Zynga?

Mohamed Al-Saadoon: Let’s learn two words here today:

Homage (Noun): something that shows respect or attests to the worth or influence of another.

Rip Off (Noun): to copy or imitate blatantly or unscrupulously.

Can you guess which one NimbleBit and Zynga have done respectively? I’m sure there are a lot of similarities between Tiny Tower and the old Sim Tower title (Disclaimer: I haven’t played Sim Tower, only read about and seen it) but it’s different enough in style and mechanics to be called an original game. Zynga’s new game is one hundred percent a direct copy of Tiny Tower, just with a simple coat of paint.

Zynga’s actions cannot be defended at all, and this is just common practice by them anyway. It’s how they built their entire business. I have no sympathy for them whatsoever and no one should, really.

Joshua Moore: I played a bit of Sim Tower when I was very young. As Mohamed stated, the game is indeed different enough that NimbleBit’s creation can be seen as a unique but inspired work. The problem here, which is apparent in the image linked above, is that Dream Heights is literally the same game with a different name and presented in a different artistic style. “A simple coat of paint” is probably the most apt description, given this.

I’m not surprised, seeing as how Zynga has a history of doing this. They did the same when they made Hidden Chronicles, which was a copy of Playdom’s Gardens of Time. SocialApps also sued them, alleging that Zynga stole the Farmville code from them after expressing an interest to buy them out. Zynga CEO Mark Pincus has admitted to using shady practices in order to rake in a profit in a video uploaded by TechCrunch. They recently went public, and their stock has been dropping quite fast. Things like this probably aren’t going to help them there.

Crystal Steltenpohl: Some people have said that Tiny Tower is a copy of Sim Tower. I haven’t played either game, but I’ve heard from a number of people that have played both that the games aren’t similar enough for Tiny Tower to be accurately described as a rip off. And here’s the thing: just because a game is in the same genre as another game doesn’t make it a rip off. What’s required from a rip off is for a game to be similar enough to the original that you can’t really tell the difference between the two.

Without playing both of the games myself, I can’t say for sure if Dream Heights is a rip off of Tiny Tower. But honestly, if you look at the evidence that’s been gathered so far, it doesn’t look good for Zynga—not that they care. Any differences that I’ve seen between the two games look completely aesthetic in nature: the graphics are more cartoony, and certain words have been changed, e.g. cuisine instead of food. Oh, and they bothered to change some of the colors. That light blue instead of the darker purple is really cute. The palm trees are a nice touch as well. That’s sweet.

Honestly, Zynga’s defense of Dream Heights is probably going to look a lot like Vanilla Ice’s defense of “Ice Ice Baby.”

Christopher Bowen: Oh, it’s a copy. It’s a flagarant copy. It’s a flagrant copy from a company who has not only done this in the past but has blatantly admitted to it. As Mohamed stated above, this isn’t an homage. It’s a rip off.

I’m disgusted at the reactions of people who are even in the industry. “Well, every game is just a copy of another game.” No. That’s bullshit. Back in the 1980s, the genre du jour was platforming games where you jumped on an enemy to kill them. In the 1990s, everyone came out with a 2D fighter. Today, it’s first-person shooters. But that’s homage and just adjusting to market trends. No one in the 1980s took the code base of Super Mario Bros. and changed the colours to make it look original, and this is what Zynga and a few other companies are trying to do.

The bigger problem to me is that no one cares. Zynga is flaunting copyright law because the companies they’re going after are too small to fight back. NimbleBit has three employees; Zynga probably has ten times more VPs than that. Of course, when the tables are turned, Zynga will unleash litigation hell, as Vostu found out. It’s a simple matter of Zynga being the big bully on the block and picking on kids who can’t punch back.

Zynga’s share price has dropped since their IPO, but no one—shareholders, analysts, customers—cares about copyright infringement outside of the bottom line. The price is dropping because of Zynga’s low free-to-paid conversion and a lack of new customers coming in. It has nothing to do with copyright infringement, and won’t, unless Zynga has to make a massive payment to someone that affects. As for players, they’re so casual they barely know there’s an industry. They don’t care where their Facebook games come from so long as it distracts them from that person in the next cubicle who plays music too loud.

Zynga is an awful company, and Mark Pincus is a terrible human being, but ultimately, those details don’t matter. We’re talking in a wind tunnel here. The way to attack such an innovation-stifling mindset is to attack it at its source: by turning this kind of willful infringement into the kind of PR disaster that SOPA and PIPA were. Until we get everyday users on board to actually look at what they play, companies like Zynga will laugh all the way to the bank.

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Christopher Bowen

About Christopher Bowen

Christopher Bowen is the Editor in Chief of Gaming Bus. Before opening Gaming Bus in May of 2011, he was the News Editor at Diehard GameFAN, a lead reporter for DailyGamesNews, and a reviewer at Not A True Ending, also contributing to VIMM, SNESZone and Scotsmanality. Outside of the industry, he is a network engineer in Norwalk, CT and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.