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Zynga’s cloning protection racket

By on January 25, 2012
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Zynga has just launched a game Dream Heights which is a direct clone of Tiny Tower from independent developers Nimblebit.

Tiny Tower screenshot

Now it turns out that Nimblebit turned down an acquisition offer from Zynga.

For me, that puts the cloning in a different light. It’s not just shameless copying of creativity by a heartless corporation: it’s a punishment and a threat.

I can now imagine the approach from Zynga’s mergers and acquisition team to a small indie with an interesting game.

“Hi there, I represent Zynga. We’d like to buy your company for a knock-down rate. If you won’t accept our offer, we’ll just make an exact copy of your game and use our marketing muscle to kill you. And there’s nothing you can do about it because game mechanics can’t be copyrighted, and even if you try to sue us, we’ve got more money and nastier lawyers than you do.”

Sound like anything else to you?

“Have you considered fire insurance? Very flammable, these Chicago businesses in the 1920s”

About Nicholas Lovell

Nicholas is the founder of Gamesbrief, a blog dedicated to the business of games. It aims to be informative, authoritative and above all helpful to developers grappling with business strategy. He is the author of a growing list of books about making money in the games industry and other digital media, including How to Publish a Game and Design Rules for Free-to-Play Games, and Penguin-published title The Curve:
  • It is not about “good quality game vs bad quality clone” but about “big guy steals lil guy success” imo. Nobody likes the idea when situation like Biggy can come to you, take your stuff out of the box, pack it into his pretty box labeled “Big Guy’s Stuff” and declare “This is New Biggy’s Must Have!” will become ordinary.

  • Don’t care or have any pity or remorse sorry. You don’t get random FPS game maker here crying because someone else made a wargame. Plus tiny towers itself is basically inspired by many similar prior art games. If someone clones my shit I guess I’ll have to make a big stink too because its free marketing. But please, keep it real. This practise is as old as the hills.

  • Pingback: A More Vile Form of Copying()

  • JS

    “I’d probably ask the candidate to characterize their attitude/involvement, and disqualify anyone who thought Zynga’s behavior was perfectly acceptable.”

    That’s fine.  It’s the automatic black mark I object to.

  • Pingback: Zynga screws over Indie devs! Nobody’s surprised. | angrymeteor()

  • Lister

    No, guilt by collusion. I’d probably ask the candidate to characterize their attitude/involvement, and disqualify anyone who thought Zynga’s behavior was perfectly acceptable.

    You do have to hold lower-level associates accountable in some cases, or we wouldn’t have “accessory to” crimes. For instance, the contractors on the Death Star had it coming.

  • I think especially social games have much in common with fashion. In fashion there is no real copyright protection and imo it is good that way. You have to learn to deal with copycats. Indie game studios have to target innovators/early adopters who are gaming enthusiasts. What bugs me is when Zynga can successfully sue Votsu.

  • JS

    I wonder how many people angry about ‘cloning’ are not angry about ‘piracy’?

    Both, of course, are unethical.

  • JS

    Guilt by association?

    I think I’d rather not work for a company that applies that.

  • Talk about suing Vostu……

  • Brian Ortiz

    Yes, free market competition is exactly like arson.

  • Frédéric Lepont

    Very interesting case if you compare the mechanic differences and early performance in top growthing ranks of both games.

    From what it seems to be exactly the same game, the Zynga touch changes the softcash income of the player (which does not come regularly as the user comes back in the application to ensure he won’t be out of stock, but after a precise amount of time), introduces and enforces viral mechanics through a third currency, no hardcash given freely to the player… Which results in a player progression much slower than Tiny Tower. 

    If you watch the top growthing rank on Canadian Appstore, Zynga’s game is around the 700th place overall after one week of exploitation, whereas Tiny Tower was, after this precise amount of time, 3rd.
    Let’s be careful before making quick conclusions, since Dream Heights has been released 7 month after Tiny Tower, and since Zynga only released as a market test, the real deal will start when they’ll release it on US Appstore.

  • no.

    You’ve watched The Lion Kingh too much…

  • Sik

    Actually, probably yes. Lower position employees really have no say on what to do so you can’t blame them for anything, while higher position employees (those that do take the decisions) would only aim for companies that align with them anyways (making it a no brainer).

  • This is just like in African savanna. There are lions and there are hyenas and if the lion wants your prey, you just hand it right to it and get whatever is left after. I don’t think there can be any fair protection for this. Patents are already a problem as they are, patenting game mechanics would make it even worse.

  • And the worst thing is that our current copyright laws are completely unable to deal with this.

    I realize this is a bit unrelated, but in a time where we discuss SOPA, PIPA, ACTA, DRM and everything that is about protecting your own work from non-paying customers, there is no discussion on how to protect small business from the big ones that lobby for these acts.

    Zynga also bears a striking resemblance to Evony at the moment – questionable business models, very questionable business ethics, but raking in the cash anyway. If it works, it works, I guess.

  • Nothing new here, but the Acquisition -> Blatant Copycatting is pretty… mean.

    It’s similar to the whole Triple Town affair, but there the dev got acquired BECAUSE it copied the game.

    It’s a dirty business; but it’s always been like that. I just feel that the social/mobile sphere, with it’s quick turnover:. a big studio can see an idea and copy it before the tiny developer can (just look at Ninja-Fishing vs. Radical Fishing).

    As an indie, you often feel that; “Yes, the barriers of entry are lowered”, but the “barriers for copycatting are also lowered”.

  • Jasper Stocker

    @Nick – switch that round too – what would you think of someone who worked for Zynga? It’s getting more of a cv black mark than gambling, bomb making and tabacco put together. And would you hire someone who worked for Zynga? Ethically – it’s a must ask question in an interview…

  • Nick McCrea

    Pretty shameful. I’m normally rather indifferent about such copying, but this is altogether too cynical. I hope the reputational cost of such behaviour is rather higher than Zynga anticipate. Their mass audience probably will never know nor care, but there are consequences to being despised by your peer companies and others in the industry, notably when you’re trying to hire staff.