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Zynga Staff Told To Copy Competition, Claims Senior Ex-Employee
Zynga Staff Told To Copy Competition, Claims Senior Ex-Employee
September 10, 2010 | By Simon Parkin

September 10, 2010 | By Simon Parkin
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    32 comments
More: Console/PC



A former employee of Zynga, the social game developer behind the seven most popular titles on Facebook this month, has spoken out against the company's business approach and studio culture, calling it "one of the most evil places I've run into."

Staff were explicitly told to steal competitor's ideas, said the anonymous senior staffer, speaking to alt.paper SF Weekly. "I don't f***ing want innovation," the ex-employee claims company founder Mark Pincus told him. "You're not smarter than your competitor. Just copy what they do and do it until you get their numbers."

The paper said that it spoke with other former Zynga employees who echoed the same sentiments. None of the sources gave their names. Zynga did not offer SF Weekly a comment on the claims.

Zynga's business model has proved successful for the company. An investors' brief compiled for financial-research site Track.com estimated its revenues would be nearly $530 million in 2010, up from $300 million in 2009 although, as a privately-owned company, its true income and worth remain unknown.

Meanwhile, despite dropping 24 percent of its players since its peak, Zynga's flagship game, FarmVille, still dominates gaming on the Facebook platform, with 62 million users each month -- almost double that of the second-best performing title.


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Comments


Dragos Inoan
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There was a lecture held by Joe Hayashi of Palm on competition that boiled down something like "To become nr 1, do whatever it takes. To stay nr 1, copy nr 2".

If you look at today's leading companies in pretty much any field you will see this pattern emerge to some extent. Well, apart from Apple who don't do ANY market research whatsoever.

Jonathan Jennings
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it is true for most industries, I do feel like nintendo managed to go against the grain with that statement in the game industry with the wii. I mean it's two rival competitors came out with technological power houses and nintendo went the simple route with a motion device on a much weaker set of hardware. there's a lot of debate about what makes the wii appeal so much to so many people and it looks like 4 years of unstoppable success the wii's sales are finally beginning to slow. Still it's hard to ignore how nintendo has influenced the other two leading competitors in the console market. However I do think that statement describes the modern entertainment perfectly though.



with that said though I would love to see an in depth interview with actual developers of these games , I imagine the difficulties and challenges they face must be at least a tad bit different than other developers.

Tadhg Kelly
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We've been debating this this week here:

http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/NicholasLovell/20100908/5924/Snobb
ish_Arrogant_and_Elitist__Why_Attitudes_to_Zynga_Suck.php

august clark
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Social games are for the most part, lowest common denominator game making. If it wasn't painfully obvious that this is the standard M.O. for about 90% of the games out there, then it should be now.



This isn't to say that they have to be like this.

Scott Macmillan
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I would recommend looking at the newer games coming out in the social media space. They are evolving, and quickly. Playdom's City of Wonder is taking a great shot at "Civ for Social Media". If we look at this space and compare the games of last year to the games coming out now, I think the evolution is coming hard and fast.

Tim Carter
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This is the ultimate manifestation of game development using the software development culture.



Time to move to a free agent / art patronage culture - as with film, architecture, music, visual arts (etc)...



Are games an art form (yes, with a commercial upside), or only a type of crack cocaine that we use to pry money from people?

Matthieu Poujade
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The Force is strong with this one. But he does not come quite close to Bobby Kotick, though.

Tony Dormanesh
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LOL

Luis Blondet
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The IP Laws need to change to prevent this type of abuse and exploitation. Innovation needs to be the best profitable approach, not cunning.

Andy Lundell
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Why? If Farmville is honestly better, even a little, than the game it was copied from, hasn't the gaming public benefited?

Luis Blondet
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When Copying is a better way to make profit that Innovation, no one benefits except the Copiers. Farmville is a Mirror Image of myFarm for the exception of the little YoVille character. Did the myFarm dev benefit from his hard work? Did all his hours of coding and doing graphics and carrying the whole app by himself pay off? No and unless he has a small fortune to invest into attorneys, because as you know, you can't get Justice in this system if you don't have the coin, then he won't get any. Good thing that the Mob Wars dev did and has sued Zynga and now they will be getting sued for copying the game name Mafia Wars.



The IP Laws are broken. They give an unfair advantage at companies that have the most cash and they barely protect Innovation, if they would have, a company like Zynga couldn't have never came across their deeply undeserved success.

Tim Carter
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IP laws already exist that can prevent developers from copying existing gameplay. It's called patent. The problem is that patenting inventive gameplay is 1.) very expensive to do, and 2.) hard to enforce.



At the end of the day it is only a system of etiquette that will prevent this kind of thing from happening.

Peter Christiansen
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In the case of Farmville and other Zynga games, they don't necessarily sell better because they are improvements upon the originals, but because Zynga already has a huge audience and a massive advertising budgets. Even if the original games were better (which may or may not be true), the amount of people who will hear about them is a small fraction of the number that will hear about the Zynga versions.

jayvee inamac
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^

^

THIS.



sometimes its not the quality of the game that makes it successful, but how many people knows about it.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Sherman Luong
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If they do this we would only have one of each type of game. One FPS whoever made it first and no one else can make another one.

Tim Carter
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No, patent has a limited time duration. The idea is to balance the reward to the inventor while eventually allowing the invention to enter the public domain for the benefit of all society. We've produced a lot of good inventions because of the protection offered by patent.

Luis Blondet
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"1.) very expensive to do, and 2.) hard to enforce."



...and thus, the IP protection laws are broken. They should be cheap to do and easy to enforce.

Luis Blondet
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It's more blatant that that, Sherman. The similarities between the first version of FarmVille, the other farm games and myFarm were almost identical.



myFarm was developed by just one indie dev and I was one of the first batch of players for it, then competitors started to pop out with his same exact formula, same camera angle, similar texture of graphics, same mechanics, etc.



If the IP protection laws worked properly, copiers would have to think twice before taking a huge risk.

BobbyK Richardson
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So Zynga is the stock market incarnate on facebook. Playdom has to be just as bad... look at their prices... like $10 for a little virtual item that does almost nothing, the hell??

Nicholas Lovell
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Because "doing" isn't important any more. "Evoking feelings" is.

Caleb Garner
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i think this statement is self evident... while calling it evil may be a bit skewed, cloning in this industry is wide spread. of course they don't want innovation, any new idea introduced by one company quickly gets copied..



i'm not supporting this, but it's been the culture of social games pretty much since they got coined as such.. take the completion bar.. the one that every game has now. "Bookmark, like, etc.." a few months ago i'd never seen that before but then suddenly every game i visited after a long break had this bar appear.. and for the time being it works.



these companies will continue to do this till the market demands something different. regardless of how some of us feel about the argument of "they are not even real games" is pointless because as long as the market supports it, this culture will continue.

Peter Christiansen
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What this really boils down to is how the videogame industry views games. If games are a commodity, like wingnuts or dvd players, then the way to succeed is to streamline your production, cut corners wherever you can and try to make a product that is either slightly better, slightly cheaper or slightly more well known than that of your competitor. If, however, you think of videogames as a creative works, such as a painting or a novel, then the way to succeed is to create something that expresses your idea. It is something that you want to be as well-made as it can be, within practical constraints. If you look at it one way, Zynga is doing things the sensible way. If you look at it another way, they are everything that's wrong with the videogame industry.



One thing to note is that these two philosophies have very different long-term business models. The latter model's profitability is based upon the companies ability to keep producing quality works. With the former, however, profitability only lasts until the market is saturated. Once everyone makes roughly the same product, profit margins are minimal, as companies can only get ahead by edging out the competition by a few cents.



Personally, I'd rather work in a creative setting than on an assembly line.

Adam Bishop
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I think this hits the nail right on the head. And I think the fact that Zynga garners so much criticism from game developers shows that, to a much bigger degree than people seem to want to admit, the craft and the artistry of what we do is actually the primary driving factor for most people who do this for a living.

Bart Stewart
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As far as I can see, the various social game developers are all copying each other -- Zynga's hardly the only one taking that approach.



What's sad is that they're only cloning the little features. I may just not have seen it, but it doesn't appear that any of the major players is innovating in that space with novel ways of connecting friends through games. It's just interface tweaks covering the same set of features.



There's nothing innately evil about that. Microsoft has managed to succeed for many years by seeing what products are popular and then doing them better. (Although sometimes that backfires, as with Java, sometimes it works very well, as with Internet Explorer.) I would also say that Blizzard did exactly this with World of Warcraft -- they didn't innovate in any significant area; they used the "second-mover advantage" to take what worked in other MMOs and simplify and streamline those features. So has Zynga.



Basically, Zynga : FarmVille :: Blizzard : WoW. Is Blizzard evil?



I'd say no, and the same for Zynga. But at the same time, that lack of innovation does make their products not very interesting to me, and potentially not very helpful toward growing their respective game genres over the long term. (Short term, certainly; long term...?)



The good news is that the relatively low cost of getting a game up in the social gaming arena should allow for more developers to try more new ideas. Of course, the downside there is that it gets harder to find good games amid all the quick hacks, or -- as Apple recently put it with their usual tactlessness -- "amateur hour."



But better an active marketplace than a stagnant one.

Tom Baird
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I think the issue comes from that gray line between copying and taking inspiration from.



People feel that Zynga crosses that line and is not being inspired by games like Farm Town but cloning them. Part of the reason for that is that it is a challenge to distinguish Farmville from Farm Town in screenshots, whereas WoW and Everquest have matching mechanics and inspiration was definitely very heavy, but each is still distinctly and separately identifiable.



It's the equivalent of it being fine to take inspiration from the Mona Lisa and make something that feels similar but is not the same, it is another to clone the work and pass it off as my own.



That line between inspiration and cloning is an easy line to see, but a difficult line to define.

Mark Morrison
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@tim c., what you say about the honor system is exactly why there are very enforceable laws including copyright (which is IP), patent, and trademark. we will be hard pressed not to find every successful corporation and company agressively protecting their rights using the aforementioned.

Tim Carter
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It's easy to protect copyright and trade secret IP. Harder to protect trademarkable IP, and really tough to effectively patent IP.



But we're talking about inventive gameplay. I can take another guys gameplay, and "reskin" it with my own copyrighted content, and I've "stolen" the underlying gameplay - because he was easily able to protect his copyright, but didn't bother to patent the gameplay (which is what most game designers do).



Really what game designers rely on most is trademark. The Dungeons & Dragons mark is primarily associated with the tabletop RPG. If TSR patented the tabletop RPG gameplay, true no one else would have been able to do such a game for 17 years or so - but they didn't need to. The D&D brand was worth more and easier to lock down.

Mark Morrison
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i have experience with all three elements of legal protection in the professional game space but am not a lawyer. what you explain is from a different play book than i use tim. we have different ideas of what type of protection is used by who and in what case. eg. Pac Man is not necessarily patentable game play as a whole. but, the name is a trademark and ghost mode is a patent. it's a collection of names, words, ideas, inventions and processes that make certain games proprietary/protectable by any number of combinations, be it copyright, trademark, and/or patents. there really is no ambiguity there, and this legal system has been working for a long time. a story about a boy and a girl going up the hill is probably not a valid copyright. you give them names and a story and that is. i guess it's a bunch of semantics here, given the fact that we're talking about cow clicking flash games.



D&D is another PacMan case in my opinion. Plenty of various elements in combination make that a very protectable IP, and there are a ton of legal spin offs of that IP as well. And, TSR has probably sued a lot of parties and won….and also lost ;)



btw- @ gus, I don’t think these cow clickers define the genre ‘social games’. social games are here for a long, long time to come IMO.

gus one
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Social games are a fad. They will disappear as fast as they came. In 12 months we'll be back to leveraging off a small number of franchises to a willing and purchase proven console/pc base after the social networkers have long lost interest in milking virtual cows.

jayvee inamac
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i don't think so, its a bit "inflated" at the moment, but i do think social games will certainly be a big part of the future of gaming, especially with the recent growth of mobile phone games.

Mike Reddy
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How many books and films have plagiarised the ideas if not the words of others? Hell, even Shakespeare stole Romeo & Juliet from West Side Story.* this is utterly disputable, but profit will motivate the worst in some. Name and Shame can work sometimes, as can a benevolent supporter of the original creator stumping up legal fees. However, we should be addressing copyright not patents. Now THERE is broken legislation!



* overheard bus conversation


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