In a complaint filed in the Northern District of California, EA, the publishers of the game The Sims Social, accuses Zynga of copying their game with their release of The Ville in ways that descend into what EA Maxis general manager Lucy Bradshaw calls “blatant mimicry.” In the complaint (embedded below, courtesy of Gamasutra), EA goes to list their history with The Sims franchise as well as the various ways that The Ville infringed their copyright.
They included a video that demonstrated the ways characters get into the shower in both games, as well as reviews from various press outlets noting the similarities.
The suit itself also claims that Zynga engaged in acts of corporate espionage, hiring away three high-level executives from EA who had access to confidential data regarding the game. The Sims Social was released in August of 2011, and The Ville came out in June.
Zynga’s general counsel Reggie Davis forcefully defended his company in a statement to Gamasutra:
“We are committed to creating the most fun, innovative, social and engaging games in every major genre that our players enjoy. The Ville is the newest game in our ‘ville’ franchise – it builds on every major innovation from our existing invest-and-express games dating back to YoVille and continuing through CityVille and CastleVille, and introduces a number of new social features and game mechanics not seen in social games today. It’s unfortunate that EA thought that this was an appropriate response to our game, and clearly demonstrates a lack of understanding of basic copyright principles. It’s also ironic that EA brings this suit shortly after launching SimCity Social which bears an uncanny resemblance to Zynga’s CityVille game. Nonetheless, we plan to defend our rights to the fullest extent possible and intend to win with players.”
Zynga has been accused of copyright infringement and outright copying the games of other, smaller companies almost since their inception. In a write-up, SF Weekly quoted an employee who once accused Zynga CEO Mark Pincus of telling his employees to “copy what (competitors) do until you get their numbers.” Most recently, the company was accused of copying NimbleBit’s Tiny Tower with their own Dream Heights. All of Zynga’s past cases of accused infringement are brought up as cases in EA’s favour in the complaint.
Zynga has had some financial difficulties of late, causing their share price to drop steadily. As of this writing, the company is trading at just below $3, which is well below their IPO of $10. They are also the subject of an investigation by the Federal Exchange Commission into potential insider trading due to their executives selling off stock at $12 a share during the locked-in period.
Analysis: In the SF Weekly article mentioned above, someone asked internally at Zynga what would happen if someone had an air-tight case, and the answer was always, “That’s just fine; we’ll settle.” With Zynga routinely going after smaller developers—NimbleBit had three employees at the time of the Dream Heights release—that was always the best bet for those developers: get a settlement, get some money, and watch as their hard work was eaten alive by Zynga’s marketing and cross-promotional muscle.
Something tells me they’ve finally bitten off more than they can chew.
It’s simply not in EA’s best interests to accept a settlement here. The company notes that they’re doing this on behalf of all of the other smaller companies that can’t fight back, but in plain English, that’s bullshit. If that were the case, they would’ve stepped in years ago as a friend of the court and offered to bankroll someone else’s suit or complaint. Regardless of their spin, this has the potential to be a big case if EA wins. Simply put, if EA pushes this to the limit, it has the effect of seriously curtailing the blatant copying that is going on in the mobile and social spaces. It’s not just Zynga, to be fair: 6Waves had access to a closed beta of Triple Town, broke off their deal with Spry Fox, and then went on to copy it for Yeti Town. EA’s lawsuit here just has the added issue of seriously affecting Zynga. EA doesn’t want a settlement here; if they think they have a strong case, it’s in their best interests to go for the throat. A settlement here does nothing for them and could actively hurt if Zynga keeps their numbers up.
Granted, there’s the question of how the courts are going to see this. This needs to be proven out. With that said, EA seems to have an open-and-shut case from the first look. Mr. Pincus is on record as saying that Zynga doesn’t have to be the first to market, they have to be the best to market. That’s well and good, but they’ve been blatantly copying games for years and bullying other companies out of the way, all while strongly enforcing their own copyright (ask Vostu). Zynga has two hopes here: one, that a court will see that video games tend to evolve from earlier games—a disturbing trend I’ve noted in the past as being a problem with developers as well; and two, that there are therefore enough differences between the games so as not to be infringing or that EA’s shareholders get trigger-shy at long litigation. There’s also the issue that The Sims Social bases a lot of its economy around microtransactions and the abominable energy system that limits movements for non-paying customers, a concept that Zynga perfected. However, that would look to be a case of evolution and not outright stealing.
Outside of that, this isn’t really a defensible case. None of them are, to be honest. In the absolute worst case, Zynga would have to pull one of their biggest games, something thatwould have a direct impact on their business. Beyond that, it could open up further litigation from companies who haven’t outright settled. The chance for there being a strong precedent here is big and could be seen as precedent for other companies who are guilty of copying the games of smaller developers. On the other hand, it could be flipped by the gaming equivalent of patent trolls, who sue for the simplest reasons possible.