As we reported earlier today, Zynga has upset three-man indie studio Nimblebit by cloning iOS resource management sim Tiny Tower in its new mobile game, Dream Heights. Yet this is far from the first instance of Zynga taking someone else's idea and passing it off as its own: it's been at it virtually since day one, with former staff describing it as a cornerstone of Zynga's business strategy.
Take FarmVille, which until the launch of Zynga's own CityVille last year was the most successful game of all time on Facebook. Last June, Zynga was sued by SocialApps, claiming that Zynga had done much more than simply base FarmVille on its own game, MyFarm, which launched in November 2008.
SocialApps's court filing claims Zynga approached it in May 2009 – a month before FarmVille's Facebook launch – and said it wanted to acquire the "intellectual rights and source code" for MyFarm. The two companies entered into an agreement which allowed Zynga sight of the game's source code as part of its due diligence procedure before the acquisition was completed, on the proviso that, if Zynga used MyFarm's "concept and distinct features," SocialApps would be compensated.
After SocialApps handed over its source code, Zynga fell silent. The following month, FarmVille launched and bore a more than passing resemblance to MyFarm; Zynga hadn't paid a penny. The lawsuit, from which SocialApps demands $100,000, punitive damages, a permanent injunction and Zynga's FarmVille profits – estimated at the time at $500,000 – is ongoing.
Then there's Mob Wars, whose creator David Maestri sued Zynga in February 2009. Zynga's Mafia Wars didn't just lift the "physical and operational aspects" of Mob Wars; it went much further than that.
"Mob Wars' main menu is creatively structured around 11 distinct command terms," the court filing reads. "Defendants copied all 11 command terms and arranged them, along with a similar description, in a format nearly identical to that of Mob Wars." The case was settled out of court, with Maestri reportedly receiving between $7 million and $9 million.
If those two suggest a standard policy – buy it if you can, steal it if you can't, settle if you must – Nimblebit's experience only reinforces that belief. "They did go the honest route and try to acquire us first," Ian Marsh wrote on Twitter last night. His brother David added: "Even when you refuse to work for Zynga, sometimes you end up doing work for Zynga anyway."
These are hardly new claims, but bear repeating. An eye-opening piece in SF Weekly in September 2010 painted a damning picture of Zynga's strategy, with former employees pouring scorn on CEO Mark Pincus' apparent lack of scruples when it came to ripping people off. Pincus himself admitted during a talk to budding entrepreneurs at UC Berkeley that he spent the company's early days doing "every horrible thing in the book just to get revenues right away."
One former senior employee told SF Weekly that he joined Zynga eager to learn how the company was making so much money amid global economic turmoil; during a meeting, Pincus spelled it out.
"I don't fucking want innovation," he said. "You're not smarter than your competitor. Just copy what they do and do it until you get their numbers."
A former designer claimed interns were tasked with examining competitor's games with a view to implementing successful features in Zynga's own titles: "I was around meetings where things like that were being discussed, and the ramifications of things like that were being discussed – the fact that they'd probably be sued by the people who designed the game.
"And the thought was: 'Well, that's fine, we'll settle'. Our case wasn't really defensible."
It doesn't end there – The Learning Company took action over Zynga's unauthorised use of The Oregon Trail; Trip Hawkins' Digital Chocolate brought proceedings over the Mafia Wars name. There's Business Insider's side-by-side comparison of Zynga's games and the works that inspired them. Zynga evidently sees the likes of Nimblebit as a negligible threat: three guys can't possibly match its legal spending power no matter how successful Tiny Tower has been, and Mob Wars' Maestri is alone in having wrung compensation out of the company.
That, it appears, is because he had copyrighted his work; US copyright law does little to protect the content or design of a videogame. "Copyright does not protect the idea for a game, its name or title, or the method or methods for playing it," state the US Copyright Office's guidelines.
"Once a game has been made public, nothing in copyright law prevents others from developing another game based on similar principles. Copyright protects only the particular manner of an author's expression in literary, artistic, or musical form."
What can be done, however, is register written elements, such as instructions, as a literary work; doing so means you can register pictorial elements as well. Maestri did this with Mob Wars, which is why Zynga paid up. Nimblebit, which does not appear to have registered Tiny Tower with the US Copyright Office, appears to have no real case.
Perhaps that's fair enough: a commenter was quick to point out that Nimblebit can hardly lay claim to the Tiny Tower concept given its resemblance to Maxis' 1994 title SimTower. If we're being reductive, FarmVille's roots can be traced back much further than MyFarm, to Harvest Moon. There are few truly original concepts in videogames, and the last thing we want is for innovation to be held back by copyright law; patents are bad enough.
But regardless, it sticks in the craw that Zynga should continue to so shamelessly appropriate the work of others, especially given that it successfully took action against Brazilian social game developer Vostu last year for doing much the same. Its court filing says it all: "Vostu's business model is simple: copy Zynga's successful games. While imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, the copying of valuable intellectual property rights is theft."