Clones, Schmones: Buffalo Studios, Nimblebit’s jabs at Zynga garner publicity and not much more

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.”

He reiterated again in an internal memo this week that:

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.

Here we take a look back at various Zynga social and mobile titles, and whether they worked or not according to AppData statistics and ranking history from App Annie: