Talking Copycats with Zynga's Design Chief
January 31, 2012 Page 1 of 4
In creative industries, the one who appropriates another's creation and calls it his own quickly earns the ire of those who place value in creativity. The same goes for innovation-driven industries.
The video game industry -- in an ideal sense -- values both creativity as well as innovation. So when an entity sullies those values by plagiarizing or even outright stealing from those who are regarded as creative and innovative, perhaps the wrath against the violator is two-fold.
While not a new debate, the subject of "copycatting" in the games industry gained some traction in recent days when three-person San Diego indie developer NimbleBit released a mocking infographic that pointed out striking similiarities between the studio's hit iPhone game Tiny Tower and a new Zynga Canadian App Store title, Dream Heights.
For all the criticism Zynga had received in the past about "ripping off" others' games, there was finally a game connected to Zynga that was undeniably similar enough to another, and instead of using the term "rip-off," people were using more pointed words like "theft" and "plagiarism."
Amid the heated discussion, Zynga gave Gamasutra an exclusive chance to talk to Zynga's game design chief Brian Reynolds. A true industry veteran, Reynolds has been a game designer for over two decades. His past credits include revered PC strategy games Civilization II, Alpha Centauri and Rise of Nations. His most recent credit? 2010's successful FrontierVille for Zynga.
Zynga would not allow its game design chief to talk specifics about the Tiny Tower situation, but Reynolds, who was not involved in the development of Dream Heights, argues that Zynga does have a culture of innovation, and claims today's environment of copycatting isn't really much different than when Doom launched in the '90s.
From your perspective, what are you seeing lately in these “copycat” reports and what’s your take on that overall?
Brian Reynolds: Well, I’ve been making games, I’m actually coming up on 21 years [laughs]. So when I put it in perspective, with having been around the game industry a long time, I’m not exactly sure why it’s considered such a big deal right now, or why someone thinks there’s anything really surprising going on.
At Zynga, of course, I feel like we’ve got lots of innovation going on, so I certainly want to talk about that. But I was there in the '90s when Doom came out and then everybody made a shooter, and I was there when Warcraft and Command & Conquer came out in 1997, and then like 50 different [real-time strategy] games launched, and it was the year of the RTS.
And we don’t remember very many of them any more. So when there’s a new genre or a new thing, then everybody gets their game in. And the main thing for us, our goal is to have the highest-quality thing. Obviously it’s competitive, and we may not always end up being the one to have the best thing in every space, but we certainly try to.
One of the subtleties about the social games space is you’re kind of updating and changing a lot, so what you ship when you first launch isn’t always where the game ultimately goes. And there’s certainly something to be said for just kind of getting something up and running in the space, and then you then you keep on innovating it. That’s a little bit more of a web model then a traditional game industry model, but it’s certainly also something that kind of applies.
The vibe that I’m getting is that ... you’ve been making games for a long time and you don't see this as a new trend.
BR: Actually you know, some of the best games ever made, I’ve felt like were actually, the best way to put it -- the most favorable way to put it -- might be a "glorious synthesis" of stuff in previous games. I bought the very first Civilization, I think one of the greatest games really of all time. I felt like, "Hey wow, what a great synthesis between the Empire game from the PC and the Civilization board game, you know? So it was like some of this and some of that, and then some completely new stuff thrown in.
Well, that’s the thing, though. With that example in particular, you've got "some of this" and you've got "some of that" and it’s got some new stuff thrown in. The games in question are games that are being accused of taking too much, and not adding enough.
Like Dream Heights -- it’s being accused of not taking anything from anywhere else, that it’s not taking a little bit from there or a little bit from here or adding new stuff. A lot of people are seeing, "Hey, this is a reskinned Tiny Tower," and I think that’s the difference, though, between the example you gave and what’s happening now.
[PR steered the conversation away from Dream Heights at this point.]
BR: You know, when FarmVille came out there was a lot of [criticism]. We certainly weren’t the first to market and all that. It was a farm game, but there had been several other farm games, and there was My Farm and there was Farm Town, and I felt pretty good about the farm game we came up with, because I just felt like it was the one that was better, that we won because our game was better. It had better art. It had the simplest, most accessible interface, and that’s what it was. It was farm games-meet-mass-market-accessibility, and it had really good simple art.
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