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Talking Copycats with Zynga's Design Chief

January 31, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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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Bernardo Del Castillo
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What? such a coward approach. Can't believe how someone can "rationalize" such a blantant clone (although he avoids ever actually responding the questions he is asked), I fail to see where there is innovation in something so shamelessly copied. It's beyond me how someone can play both games and not realize how much of a rip-off Dream Heights is.

Hey, Zinga guy, at least have the decency of recognising that this IS a re-skin (and no, this is not a change from Age of empires to Star Wars, that actually changes the whole context of the game).

Tiny tower is not just an undeveloped idea, it doesn't have busted technology or under-developed aesthetics, and it clearly isn't 100% original, but it does innovate in areas that make it that much more adequate to the iOS interface, and it clearly adds quite a bit of its own. Don't even compare your "contribution" to the game with any form of improvement...

just reading how he defuses the very valid accusations fills me with indignation.

I agree, you can have original ideas in similar genres. Hell I would give you reasonable doubt this if this was a sci-fi starship building simulator, or a medieval castle tower builder.. but this? Sorry, I'm not buying this sort of "Innovation".

At least give it the credit it deserves. Repeat after me: "YES, we copied the game because we thought we could make a metric ton of money of it. And now I'm trying to justify our copy by saying the industry has always been taking inspiration from each other, so we're gonna try to bury the original with our monstruous marketing power".

"Keep Innovating?" that you can keep stealing? (oh sorry, did I say stealing? I meant getting inspiration)


Chris Bell
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Dogs sure bark a lot when backed into a corner. Though it's all indecipherableóthey're not human after all.

Mike Lopez
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It's all good competition...unless someone smaller "borrows" from Zynga and their army of lawyers and has success from that.

Sid Krishna
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I can't understand why he even bothered to give this interview. It just enrages people more when you dance around the subject like a politician. Zynga, its best to stay silent if you have nothing meaningful to say about an accusation. Better yet, apologize, move on and prevent such blatant copying in the future. Mike L, you hit the nail on the head, how they deal with other smaller developers "innovating" on their games says everythign about their how they do business.

Henrique Sousa
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So, if I were to make a game called "FarmVillage" that is basically a reskinned "FarmVille" with every core mechanic and concept unchanged, Zynga wouldn't have a problem with it and wouldn't sue the hell out of me? Well, I find that very hard to believe, Mr. Reynolds.

Zynga clearly knows that they're in a position of privilege and that they can do whatever they want without fearing any consequences. As an up-and-coming indie developer, I fear that this will severely affect innovation within the games industry, instead of promoting it. No original idea will be safe, 'cause the "big guys" have the go-ahead to copy any IP they want without having to justify their actions. This must be stopped.

Eric McQuiggan
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Well, this is upsetting.

Zynga would get more sympathy if they weren't so cavalier in their ripoffs, as Pincus (allegedly) said:

"copy what [Zynga's competitors] do and do it until you get their numbers."

Chris Taran
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You -really- had to have this on four pages?

Josh Kermond
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Brian is probably referencing LucasArt's Star Wars:Galactic Battlegrounds game that licensed the same game engine as some titles in the Age series, not Petroglyph's Empires At War.

Kris Graft
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Thanks for the spot Josh, I updated the article.

Jeffrey Crenshaw
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I try not to comment before fully reading articles, but I nearly choked on my lunch when I got to "weíre a substantial driver of innovation in the industry."

Tami Baribeau
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You know, I'm just as critical of Zynga as the next person. However, I have to disagree with you. In the social games industry, Zynga are driving almost all features. When Zynga puts a mechanic in their game, literally every social game developer follows suit.

For example: Neighbors. Random animals that show up in your play area that friends to help save them. Buildable decorations that require friends to send you pieces (or money to buy the pieces). Reputations between friends that you can go visit. Gifting as it is currently done on Facebook. Sending welcome gifts to your new friends. "Questing" style tutorial systems. These are all things that Zynga either created or perfected that are now cloned left and right in other games.

Say what you want about Zynga cloning overall game themes and mechanics (which I think is ridiculous) but they do have a working formula that they layer on top, and this is what has made them so successful.

Luis Guimaraes
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"Weíre a substantial driver of innovation in the industry."

I'll say they are, indirectly.

"Hm, how do I design a game that can't be cloned?"

Raymond Holmes
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Zynga did not "invent" neighbors that definitely came from Farm Town, though FT may have gotten it from elsewhere.

Gil Salvado
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@tami baribeau

Adding a list of required features or requested feature is neither innovative nor copycatting. But implenting them in the near identical manner and thus with all features of the original title or competitors is actual plagiarism and needs to be dealed as such. No matter the size of the company. And with Zynga reskinning the title of a 3-person studio almost identical, there's much of rightful anger about it and we shouldnt point our fingers at others developers, should they reuse some features used by Zynga titles. It's the amount and comparability which is questionable and not the single fact at all.

Jeremy Glazman
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I first saw the "neighbors" mechanic in Animal Crossing DS.

phil fish
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christ, what an asshole.

Joshua Dallman
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Hey Gamasutra: you mislabeled this article, it should say "Sponsored Feature."

Kris Graft
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Ha, give me some credit here! I was direct with the questions, but I can't force what kind of answers come back.

Joshua Dallman
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Kris your questions were great. I jumped out of my seat excited over this one:

"Dream Heights -- itís being accused of not taking anything from anywhere else, that itís 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 thatís the difference, though, between the example you gave and whatís happening now."

And I stopped reading with this reply:

[PR steered the conversation away from Dream Heights at this point.]

Not criticizing Gamasutra, just using snark to criticize Zynga as the measured responses by their design head (and the putting him up for this interview in the first place) is a transparent PR stunt to save face for what is now a publicly traded company where the perception of the company now affects its real stock value.

Ian Bogost
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No face was saved here, Joshua.

Robert Green
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You're to be commended for asking the tough questions Kris, but when a company like zynga agrees to do an interview following a controversy, but refuses to actually address that controversy, what you're doing is being a part of their PR.

All that aside though, I can't entirely agree with the spin either. He's entirely right that any popular game will inspire others to try something similar, but there's a difference between inspired by and copying, and in videogames, the difference is this: does your game actually attempt to innovate the gameplay or change the narrative in any meaningful way? Just having better graphics and usability just means you have more money and experience. It may well be that your game is better, but it doesn't mean anyone would really consider it a different game. Imagine taking Doom and remaking it with better graphics and a tutorial, for example. Is it now a better than the original? Sure. Is it a different game though? No.

Brad Borne
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Yep, that's exactly the point where I stopped reading too.

Thanks at least for the warning, Kris.

Luke Mildenhall-Ward
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If I'd been Kris I would not have let them "steer" the interview in ANY direction. I would've kept pressing the issue until he either answered the question or Zynga PR stopped the interview. Then I would've posted it up.

Jeffrey Crenshaw
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I challenge someone to name a Doom clone (that is not a licensed port or sequel of Doom :]). Even games like Heretic or Duke Nukem 3D added completely new levels (which is an enormous portion of the uniqueness of a game) and changed the theme. If someone rereleased Doom with the same levels and gameplay but the monsters were given new sprites (but still had 8 angles of orientation) and if they kept the quirks of the engine (infinitely tall monsters, no jumping, etc) instead of challenging these and asking if they are beneficial design decisions or merely limitations that the original developers did not have time to overcome, that would be cloning.

If Zynga was around in 94, that is what they would have done.

Joshua Dallman
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"Why are there 5 different business types like Tiny Tower? Why do 5 people fit in an apartment instead of 4 or 6? Why are there VIP elevator riders that perform the same functions as Tiny Tower? Why do businesses employ exactly 3 workers and produce exactly 3 products that are stocked in exactly the same way as Tiny Tower. Even the tutorials at the beginning of the game follow the exact same steps. All of these things are poorly hidden underneath an uninspired veneer which has become Zynga's trademark." - NimbleBit's Ian Marsh

"It's hard to disagree with the NimbleBit guys on this one, and it's equally difficult to find the "improvement" Zynga claims to have packed into Dream Tower. From where we're sitting, it seems that the main "improvement" that they're seeing is the Zynga dog in the top left corner of the Dream Tower app icon." - Toucharcade

Gary LaRochelle
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Zynga CEO and founder Mark Pincus said, "I don't fucking want innovation. You're not smarter than your competitor. Just copy what they do and do it until you get their numbers."

"One former Zynga game designer says that the company's interns were instructed to do "recon" on competitors' games, isolating features that their higher-ups would try to copy. "They would sit and look at competitive products and write down all the features and make it obvious to us," the designer says. One contractor says he was offered freelance work from Zynga, related to mimicking a competitor's application, with explicit instructions: "Copy that game."

Nitin Venugopal
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Its sad to see someone like Brain Reynolds trying to justify what Zynga is doing. Obviously he works for them so he has to but this man is responsible for some of my all time favorite games.

Joshua Dallman
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I had the same reaction for a designer that I previously highly respected until the publication of this very interview. What's truly sad is that he believes what he's saying with conviction, and betrays no self awareness about being used as a PR tool in defense of the indefensible to justify screwing hard-working game developers. He's drunk the Kool Aid and is no longer in the part of the game industry that finds joy in the discovery of creating new things, only ripping things off to clone them, slap a veneer of art changes on for plausible deniability, then optimizing the profits (the "innovation" part). Zynga stock doesn't buy integrity back - enjoy that stock while it's still over-valued.

George Blott
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Bart Stewart
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Hmm. On page 3, BR's comment: "[C]ertainly thereís intellectual property and we definitely donít believe in taking other peopleís intellectual property and all that kind of stuff. There are lines, and you donít want to cross those" is instantly followed by the graphic showing side-by-side screens from Tiny Tower and Dream Heights.

This has the appearance of stealth editorializing by Gamasutra -- expressing an opinion about the content of a story, through the choice of images (flattering/unflattering) or ironic juxtaposition, instead of directly stating those views to readers. If that's the case here, it's disappointing.

(And before anyone springs unnecessarily to Gamasutra's defense, I'll point out that I'm on record as seeing cloners as little better than piratical opportunists who hurt the computer game industry. I have no interest in defending Zynga. This comment is about whether Gamasutra will trust news consumers by communicating straight information -- including interviews -- separately from editorial opinion, or if we need to be wary of covert commentary.)

Adam Saltsman
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I think this would be a very good point except the images in question are actual screenshots from the specific products in question that prompted this PR blitz from Zynga. So on the one hand I think you could view this as "editorializing", but on the other hand you could view this as "addition of facts to otherwise slanted PR campaign".

If the PR handler for the company is going to step in and simply stop parts of the interview from going forward, the journalist providing un-doctored screenshots of the products in question really seems like just the barest, most minimal journalistic responsibility they could possibly exercise.

There's a line here that Gamasutra has to walk, there's no doubt. But there's an issue here about informing as well as trusting. I don't believe that journalism is about simply presenting, without context, the doctored and curated opinions of a large corporation who do have a very specific agenda here.

Without some factual context from the journalist here, we would just have a press release. Even if that means Gamasutra is trusting ME more, it means that I will trust Gamasutra LESS in the future.

Ryan Rigney
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I agree with both of you, Bart and Adam. All of the facts should be laid out, and I think it's right to include comparison screenshots, so that the reader has context for the argument. At the same time, the placement of the image in that particular spot does have the slightest (slightest) feeling of editorializing. It probably wasn't even intentional, but it would have been wise to place the image after a different question.

All that said, GREAT work, Gamasutra.

Bart Stewart
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It's worth noting that that graphic in question isn't just any random image, nor is it a graphic created by Gamasutra staff -- it's "the" image provided by NimbleBits, who are not a neutral party in this story.

I thought this was an appropriate interview, with the PR person's intervention properly and sufficiently noted. I ask about the use and placement of that image because I think the interview (and any news story in general) is stronger without anything that looks like it's quietly nudging the reader toward someone else's conclusions.

Eric McQuiggan
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I'm sorry Bart, but completely objective news doesn't exist. It's best to expect and assume editorializing. Regardless, a feature isn't news though.

Bart Stewart
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zpoc and Eric, you're making excuses.

I fully endorse editorial commentary... in editorials clearly marked as such.

And the reality that humans can't achieve perfection in anything is not and must never be a justification for not trying to make the best product possible. In serious journalism, which Gamasutra normally does very well, that includes not sneaking opinion-based jabs into otherwise straight factual reporting -- we said this, he said that -- and respecting readers as competent to form their own conclusions.

Joe Wreschnig
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"that includes not sneaking opinion-based jabs into otherwise straight factual reporting -- we said this, he said that -- and respecting readers as competent to form their own conclusions."

The focus on "we said this, he said that" is one of the most damaging aspects of American journalism today. It's critically important to get the facts - the statements - right, but it's equally important to present the reality the statements exist in. That reality is that Zynga cloned a game. My main complaint is that Gamasutra didn't push harder when Zynga followed up with such obvious derailing crap.

An interviewer is doing more than regurgitating PR talk is an interviewer doing their job right. Adam's comment nailed it.

(More on why "x said, y said" is failure: ,
ing-he-said-she-said-journalism-at-npr/ )

shayne oneill
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Hows the image inapropriate. Its pretty clear that the image thats been going around is what actually prompted all this. Hell its in paragraph one, which if you put your "i was a journalist in another life" imagination hat on will tell you that pyramid-rule-of-writing, its the actual back-focus of the story.

The dude is defending himself against alegations of copying. Including the image is actually necessary to clarify the specific alegation that started this. Bit of reading comprehension here friends!

Jeremy Glazman
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I thought the image was well placed, as it's the crux of the entire interview and to that point Reynolds had done nothing but avoid the issue. The question is "are you reskinning games or not?" and the only answer is semantics about definitions. If Reynolds doesn't want to give an answer then that image lets the audience judge for themself.

Andy Lundell
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When I read articles like this I always get rather irritated when side-by-side comparisons are *not* provided. It's a reporters duty to anticipate the questions I would ask, and then answer them. If an allegation is made that Game A is functionally a re-skin of Game B, then I want to see the two games next to each-other. We all do. Making me run off to google to get a complete understanding of the story is a journalistic failure.

I understand your point about ironic juxtaposition, but the interview was pretty one-note. I'm not sure where a side-by-side comparison would have fit without being ironically juxtaposed.

Austin Ivansmith
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"it doesnít feel like to me that itís usually been a problem, that basically the people that add stuff and innovate and make the best games are usually the ones that succeed." "...and had better marketing"

I found this to be the most interesting part of the interview because Brian is basically saying "Don't worry the best one comes out on top" as if, often, the game being copycatted is the best one. But as other articles have pointed out, Zynga spends hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising, so ostensibly Brian is justifying Zynga's actions with copycatting and putting more marketing behind it.

Just because something is common doesn't make it not deplorable.

Jeremy Glazman
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Exactly, and Reynolds conveniently ignores this fact in EVERY interview he gives.

Reynolds: "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."

I absolutely refuse to believe that he is this naive about how Zynga's operation works. They "won" because they have the most marketing dollars and a priveleged status in the eyes of Facebook execs, who rely on Zynga "winning" to push their own bottom line.

If Reynolds really believes he's just this genius game designer who make all the best games, then his narcissism is out of control and he might consider checking into an asylum.

Matt Hackett
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> What kind of innovations and designs are you referring to?

> It was the first time the concept of quests had been done in social games.

> FrontierVille created the idea of what I call the "neighbor visit replay," where when you go visit somebodyís space -- their farm or frontier or whatever -- and sort of just kind of click and go.

> We also invented the concept of what we call "reputation," which is where you get a heart every time you click on one of your friend's things.

So they took quests from RPGs, increased visualization of social interactions and think they invented reputation. Is he serious? Also, this is just a lie:

> we definitely donít believe in taking other peopleís intellectual property and all that kind of stuff

K Gadd
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Zynga weren't the first to do quests in social games. Maybe the first super profitable case of it, but IMVU added them back when facebook and myspace were in their infancy as an experimental feature. (They didn't turn out to work well, but I don't have any particular clue as to why.)

Charlie Cleveland
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I'm sorry but this is a ridiculous response. The attitude here seems to be "Because games are built on the shoulders of other games, there cannot be such a thing as plagiarism".

I'm not buying this one bit. Anyone with half a brain can see tell when a game copies more than it is inspired from.

Chad Wagner
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I think the industry as a whole had a problem with copycats in the past, which strategically drove the big publishers to multi-million $ games to extend the turnaround time. Tetris, for example, has a reduced ability to make money, since it is so easy to reproduce. The time, and resources necessary to replicate something with many professional level assets gave each company a period of time to recoup their investment before the copycats cluttered the market. (IP protection being another strategy).

In today's world, independant bedroom programmers can easily release novel ideas and expect to make some money from them. Unfortunately, by definition, their products will require less resources to produce -- therefore they are sitting ducks for quick turnaround. And there is no convenient practice, or protection to allow them to profit from their innovation.

If larger publishers would license the ideas, or offer to purchase the developer, etc. All would be happy...but presently, there's no motivation when they can cherry pick for free.

We must find a way to rectify this, as the larger publishers did, or indie developers will never prosper -- the more successful you are, the more likely your game will be stolen and trumped! What a reward...

Devin Wilson
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Raymond Holmes
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I was the designer on FV, and.....must not speak...must not....Zynga has too many lawyers. Sorry.

Danny Day
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This is why we have things like Wikileaks...

Jeffrey Crenshaw
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I'm working with some people on cleaning up the industry, and one idea we had was an anonymous forum for leaking game industry stuff that could bite you in the ass if traced back to you. Just a heads up to hopefully cheer people up. I'm putting my career on the line to fight things like this, and I recognize that not everyone can (having a family to support or a lot of debt are common scenarios), but I will do whatever I can to help those that are caught up in the system fix it.

eiyukabe at gmail if anyone wants to network, or just be updated on our progress.

Steven An
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Ugh this leaves a terrible, terrible taste in my mouth. Who's the lead designer of Dream Heights? Let his/her name be burned into the minds of the industry under "Never work with or hire:".

Jaques Smit
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You assume that the lead designer had any say in designing the game at all, anyone that has worked for a major player in mobile would be able to tell you that this is not so much the case at the majority of times. No designer wants to clone someone else's game, or at least I hope not. In my experience, and I am sure it is the same with Zynga, only the designer who is willing to fight tooth and nail, to the point of risking their job (or did it in the past and made a massive success), is able to innovate when they are part of such a big company.

Raymond Holmes
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It was not the designers fault. I know this from direct experience. Zynga has a culture of "fast following" and then improving with metrics when live.

Gil Salvado
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Well, I guess you don't need a graduated game designef for such a ripoff at all. They surely burned a dozen of interns to do the same job. If not, I rather feel sorry for the poor guy.

Joshua Dallman
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I'm confused why Zynga sent a creative to a banker's party. Zynga's strategy of cloning already successful games is a business strategy, not a game design choice. "Here clone this" - that's not game design, so why are you talking to a designer. Gamasutra should have been talking to a business rep at Zynga, not a design rep. Their business strategy has more relevance over why they're cloning than the particulars of the design of the clone job itself.

"Zynga's growth has flatlined in the past three quarters. The company is also only profitable because of an accounting gimmick: It changed the rate at which it amortizes previously booked sales as revenue. Why on earth should a company like that trade at more than 8X revenue? Answer: It shouldn't. And the fact that it's still trading at close to that valuation means that investors are still valuing it very generously, perhaps on the assumption that Zynga will now release a bunch more hit games that will re-accelerate the company's growth." - Business Insider (

Zynga NEEDS a bunch more hit games to re-accelerate their stagnating growth and to stave off the slide of the current stock price which is over-valued. My prediction is that need will be filled with risk-adverse clones of already successful games (which they'll call mere genres), and things are about to get a whole lot uglier with shameless cloning. Expect more PR spin from them in the future; I just hope Gamasutra features doesn't become the conduit for it.

Florian Dhesse
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I feel that this interview is pretty pointless. Reynolds was obviously not allowed to speak about TinyTower, and yet all the questions were focused on it. Outside the context of Tiny Tower (and I agree that that Zynga's game is a rip off), I feel that his opinion about building upon previous games is debatable but not scandalous.

I actually feel sorry for him. He was cornered into a very uncomfortable situation, and didn't really know how to give straight and clear answers. I don't think he would have approved himself the design of DreamHeights if he was in charge of it. He shouldn't be Zynga's scapegoat, but that's what this article makes him look like

Nathaniel Marlow
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I might be wrong or misinformed, but aren't Doom clones a false equivalence? Didn't a good chunk of Doom clones make id some bank via licensing the id tech engine?

Scott Pellico
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Now I hope I'm not about to throw myself in front of the guns, but I think it goes without saying that a lot of game development is built on the shoulders of those who came before, as most of you seem to have said. Game development is a rough field of trying to understand what works with gamers and what doesn't. Trying to understand competition is the key to not making the mistakes of your predecessors by tweaking and adjusting. I haven't played Tiny Towers admittedly, but I know I'm not an anti-Zynga guy either. I think they bring remarkable production value to a growing platform. Until someone gets in the code and tells me this is a blatant rip off and copy write infringement, I'll reserve my judgement.

Tom Baird
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A lot of people mention that it's a thin line between inspiration and ripping off, generally using the 'I know it when I see it' qualifier.

My method of qualifying one or the other is to use the phrase "It's like [x] only ...", where you list something added to the genre.


Minecraft is like Infiniminer, only it's non-competitive and open world.

But the best I can come up with for Dream Heights is

Dream Heights is like Tiny Tower only it's got bubblier graphics.

This is where the issue rises. Many doom clones had 'something' that differentiated them on a gameplay level, where it may have been more enemies, different types of weapons, slower gameplay, powerups, etc.. they were distinct in some way.

If you see a game, and don't see anything to add/change to it in any way, you are not inspired, you are ripping off.

Alan Au
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Personally I think this whole mess brings up the whole issue of copyright, and trying to decide how similar or different something needs to be in order to be considered an "exact" copy. After all, copyright was intended to prevent just this sort of thing from happening.

So yes, it's a bit of a cop-out to legislate this away, but my impression is that the system isn't working as intended. Presumably someone did some work somewhere along the line and expects to be compensated for it. I suppose it then comes down to an argument of where exactly the "work" is--is it in the design, the art, the marketing, or something else?

There's certainly "work" in implementing a copy, but I personally feel like it violates the spirit of innovation. That is, if you rely on copying the work of others, you're not advancing the field. Perhaps the thing that saddens me most about this is seeing a skilled designer like My. Reynolds working under a model which doesn't reward innovation, so his talents are effectively going to waste.

Jonathan Jou
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Does anyone here worry that the brilliant people who come up with great innovative titles may take their business elsewhere, or worse yet, move into an entirely different industry? Does anyone here remember the video game crash of the 1980s, when good games were lost among a sea of shiny boxes?

Does anyone here wonder what Zynga's business will be like if it drives the social gaming industry into a homogeneous, indistinguishable blob of re-skinned games?

I mean, stealing is bad and all, but even for Zynga's sake, I hope they learn their lesson, and fast.

P.S. I think this was a very courageous attempt to squeeze out an honest answer from a company with a reputation in jeopardy. Thanks for the article!

raigan burns
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Where oh where is Brandon "not afraid to call bullshit on bald-faced PR-speak nonsense answers" Sheffield when you need him?

Christopher Corbett
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Is there no legal recourse for companies that feel they've been wronged here? Perhaps I just haven't come across that article yet.

Bruno Xavier
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I couldnt keep on reading after he says Zyngas games are innovative and fantastic... Oh god, gtfo!

Jose Resines
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What a travesty it is to have someone with the talent of Brian Reynolds justifying Zynga's stealing (yeah, that's not innovating, it's STEALING) instead of making another Rise of Nations.

Mark Pincus, Zynga CEO: "I don't want f*cking innovation. You're not smarter than your competitor. Just copy what they do and do it until you get their numbers." 'nuff said.

Companies like Zynga are the worst thing of this industry. Hope they go broke (and their employees get to work in another company that really wants to make games).


Gil Salvado
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"only because everyone is doing it, doesn't make it right."

Joel Thoms
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When Zynga was looking to acquire our company, I was told directly by Mark Pincus that Zynga's strategy was, and I quote "clone and conquer".

Jeremy Glazman
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Great interview, well done sticking to the point and not letting Zynga PR off the hook. To me Reynolds' responses really come off as though he's trying to justify, almost to himself, that he's not doing anything wrong, when clearly he knows that he is and he's a bit ashamed of it.

It's not "copying" it's "competing", it's not a "rip off" it's "inspired by". Keep telling yourself that, Brian, whatever lets you sleep at night!

Bisse Mayrakoira
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For once I feel like the interviewer really made an honest effort to dig out something interesting instead of doing unpaid PR. Congrats!

Since Zynga apparently has all this innovation going on, I would have liked seeing a small line of questioning towards how Zynga credits/promotes its individual developers responsible for these innovations, what Brian would like Zynga to do in that vein in the future, and how he would feel about this recognition leveraged in marketing so "Sid Meier's XYZ" would be joined by "Brian Reynolds' XYZVille" in the future. :-)

I can't muster much outrage for what Zynga is doing. It's just a code factory diluting the market by cloning dull games and non-games into more dull games and non-games, and getting away with it without customer backlash because their target audience consists of people nearly indifferent to game quality and completely oblivious to the development ethics. Inevitable, really. Protecting game mechanics / designs with law (beyond trademark / product identification issues and copyright for specific assets) just to stop Zynga and its ilk would be a terrible idea. When real developers are able to improve upon the best ideas of other real developers, quality moves forward.