Twice in the last month, we’ve seen studios come forward to criticize Zynga for being too inspired by their work.
Nimblebit, which recently won Game of the Year from Apple, said a forthcoming Zynga title called Dream Heights unfairly cribs from their hit Tiny Tower. Then this week Buffalo Studios said Zynga copied some user interface and design details from their bingo game.
Frustrating as it may be to indie studios, this has always been part of Zynga’s strategy. It’s almost silly to address it. As long as games from proven genres earn outsized returns compared to ones from unproven categories and the cost of losing or settling lawsuits remains low, developers will keep doing copycat games.
Zynga’s chief executive Mark Pincus even euphemistically referred to the practice in December’s IPO roadshow by saying: “We have a rule of thumb inside Zynga. For any category we launch a game in, we expect it to be three to five times the size of the then category leader.”
Google didn’t create the first search engine. Apple didn’t create the first mp3 player or tablet. And, Facebook didn’t create the first social network. But these companies have evolved products and categories in revolutionary ways. They are all internet treasures because they all have specific and broad missions to change the world.
We don’t need to be first to market. We need to be the best in market. There are genres that we’re going to enter because we know our players are interested in them and because we want and need to be where players are. We evolve genres by making games free, social, accessible and highest quality.
Zynga does market research by looking at leading titles, designs similar games that don’t require a learning curve, optimizes them for monetization with its data prowess and then spends and cross-promotes relentlessly.
If Zynga’s titles appear too close to other games, it’s hard to take the company to task because of its deep pockets and fearsomely litigious history. Few small studios have the resources to pay for lawyers, especially against a company that has been so historically eager to sue others for theft of trade secrets and copyright infringement.
It also helps that the intellectual property system is quite fragmented for protecting games. Copyright covers the art and potentially the underlying source code while trademarks covers the brand and logo. Patents, the weakest form of protection for game developers, can cover code and mechanics.
Another factor is that as the gaming industry has moved away from a packaged goods model toward a highly iterative and serviced-based one, it makes less sense to pursue protection like patents. Like in the broader consumer Internet industry, waiting at least two to four years for a patent is absurd considering that a hit game can flame out in months.
The more interesting question to ask here is whether Zynga’s approach can do as well on mobile platforms as it has on Facebook. Zynga does not have an outsized lead on either Android or iOS. It has 13 million daily active users, which is very respectable. But it’s not enough to produce network effects that would shut out rival games from the top 10. Unlike Facebook, which signed a five-year agreement with Zynga, Apple does not have a vested interest in seeing Zynga achieve user growth targets. Smartphones also support more diversity than Facebook. The past month has proved that indie developers like Imangi Studios can nail freemium in more than casual sim or mafia games too.
Mafia Wars and Mob Wars: Launched in August of 2008, Mafia Wars triggered one of the several lawsuits Zynga went on to become ensnared with. Creator David Maestri and his company Psycho Monkey LLC went onto sue Zynga for infringing on his creation Mob Wars and settled for a reported $7 to 9 million. (But it’s also worth noting that Maestri had to settle with his former employer SGN because he launched the game while working for them when they were called FreeWebs.)
After Zynga launched Mafia Wars, it went on to reach around 10 million monthly active users in about half a year, while Maestri’s game stalled at about 2.5 to 3 million MAU.
PetVille, Happy Pets and Pet Society: Launched in December 2009, PetVille riffed on a long history of casual, animal care-taking games that have existed long before the Facebook platform even launched. It followed Playfish’s Pet Society, which came out more than a year before in the fall of 2008, and Crowdstar’s Happy Pets, which launched the previous month. Both PetVille and Happy Pets saw decent starts but then leveled off while Pet Society kept on growing.
Cafe World and Restaurant City: Zynga’s restaurant sim game Cafe World came out in September 2009 after Playfish’s Restaurant City had accumulated 16 million monthly actives. It added steps by making players chop up or dice ingredients before cooking dishes and requiring users to add friends as neighbors if they wanted to expand their restaurants. Restaurant City actually hit its peak usage two months after Zynga launched its game before it began a slow and steady decline. Cafe World also peaked shortly after at around 32 million monthly actives.
Gardens of Time and Hidden Chronicles: It’s not surprising that Zynga would want to get into the hidden object genre after Disney Playdom’s Gardens of Time topped growth charts for nearly five months in a row. It is a little surprising that it took Zynga so long to do it, however. Hidden object game designer Cara Ely was brought on at Zynga in July — three months after Gardens of Time’s launch — and it wasn’t until January 2012 that Hidden Chronicles saw the light of day. In addition to similar presentation of story elements, Hidden Chronicles also cribs Gardens of Time’s decoration-based progression system.
Mobile has been a more interesting story this past year because Zynga actually started out as the underdog on iOS. Several games like Playforge’s Zombie Farm and Storm8’s Restaurant Story were taking genres that social gaming companies had nailed on Facebook and were executing them well on the iPhone. Nevertheless, Zynga managed to accumulate 13 million daily active users by year-end, largely because of its acquisition of Words With Friends maker Newtoy, but also because it started getting its core franchises right on mobile.
Zynga Poker and Texas Poker:
Poker is a more than 150-year-old game, so it’s hard to say that any company could own it. However, Russian developer Kamagames said Zynga copied user interface details from its hit Texas Poker early last year.
Zynga started fading out non-active players on the board and added a vertical bar to raise and lower bets. Before last year, Texas Poker was trouncing Zynga’s Poker game on the iOS grossing charts and consistently had a top 10 ranking. But in the spring, Zynga Poker began a steady climb and now outranks Kamagames’ title.
Tap Zoo, Tiny Zoo Friends and Dream Zoo: Pocket Gems had an undisputed run as one of the highest-earning developers last year after Tap Zoo held on to a top 10 grossing spot for about a year. Unsurprisingly, Zynga took note and launched Dream Zoo just ahead of Thanksgiving. It took the same zoo concept but added some complexity with feeding and washing games along with more levels for each of the animals. In anticipation of such a move, Pocket Gems phased out its old game Tap Zoo and launched a new version called Tap Zoo 2: World Tour.
None of the games have managed to hold onto a top 10 ranking. In fact, a different zoo game from developer TinyCo is actually the highest ranked one in the genre right now at #17. Dream Zoo remains at #44 and Tap Zoo 2 holds at #77. It looks like all of these companies effectively split the market.
Pocket Gems hasn’t complained, with chief operating officer Ben Liu telling us, “Look. Our games have copied extensively by many, many companies.” He added, “The way we can stay ahead of Zynga is by listening to our users and putting the best features in our game. Consumers are going to judge what’s the best product.” Pocket Gems has been busy launching a number of new games in the last few weeks like Tappily Ever After and Zombie Takeover.