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Talking Copycats with Zynga's Design Chief
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Talking Copycats with Zynga's Design Chief

January 31, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 4 Next

But like you said early on, and I want to make sure to make this clear, do you think that with the rise of these platforms, where you can rapidly make a game and release it, do you think that today the [occurence of "rip-offs"] is about the same as it was, say, back in the '90s, when you’ve got a lot of Doom-like FPSes coming out and Command & Conquer-like RTSes coming out? Do you think it’s comparable?

BR: I think there’s something. I think it’s comparable. You do see, in any time in industry history, when the development time is really short, then you certainly see a  shorter cycle of iteration and competition. When it used to be really, really quick and cheap to make PC games, well then you know, the iteration time was faster. It's gotten more expensive now to make an RPG, so nobody’s going to be rushing out with their Skyrim game [laughs].

Right, yeah. That would be difficult.

BR: Thirty million dollars to get in the door or whatever. Yeah, so when the genres come out, everybody wants to get in the genre. Our idea is to get into genres and try to be the best game in the genre. Certainly, there’s no question we want to be in all the genres. Now that we're an established platform game company, then that’s definitely you know the kind of publisher we want to be.

So it's advantageous for companies like Zynga, or any other company in this space, to copy heavily from one another? Is that something that should continue? What about the value of innovation?

BR: Well I think innovation is really valuable. I think that there’s also the question that in the course of the industry, games build off of each other, and you see what others are doing and you get inspired and you build and innovate in the space. So I think you kind of have both, and it works. You’re the most successful when both are working really well.

And as far as your definition of "copycatting," as someone who works in this space, you have to see this stuff going on, right? Let's not even talk about Zynga specifically, but the space in general, you do see that right? That a lot of developers are really just ripping off of one another?

BR: Well you know, negating the definition of "ripping off" [laughs], because certainly there’s intellectual property and we definitely don’t believe in taking other people’s intellectual property and all that kind of stuff. There are lines, and you don’t want to cross those.

Tiny Tower and Dream Heights, from NimbleBit's infographic

I can give you my idea [of "ripping off"], just to give you a point of reference. I think it’s basically when a game is pretty much reskinned from the original, and nothing new is added. It's basically plagiarized.

BR: Well so in theory you want to add something, right? You want to, if you’re working in the genre, add something to the genre. You know it’s funny you were talking about "reskinned," but I just think back in the industry, I’ve actually seen some things that kind of felt like reskins, but were pretty cool, you know? You can do a really good "reskin" and people like it? You take the Star Wars game [LucasArts and Ensemble's Star Wars: Galactic Battlegrounds], that was kind of a reskin of Age of Empires. I mean in fact, they licensed the engine and used the engine, I felt, "Oh that was kind of cool."

I recognize this, but it’s a question of adding something, that's the thing. I think that the teams that don’t add enough aren’t going to be the successful ones. I think that the people who are going to have the most success as game developers are going to be ones who are both inspired and aware of what has gone before, but are actually adding something to the ecology. I don’t want to be the one that formulates the rules on what it is you have to add, though.

So I just just want you to level with me. Do you see this as a problem, the level of copycatting that's going on in the mobile and social space?

BR: So the thing is, in the course of the industry, it doesn’t feel like to me that it’s usually been a problem, that basically the people that add stuff and innovate and make the best games are usually the ones that succeed. I can’t think of an obvious example where somebody made a worse game, and profoundly beat out somebody who made a better game. Can you think of an example?

I’m sure once I quote you on that in the article, I’ll get a whole bunch of comments answering that question [laughs].

BR: You’ll get some ideas, you’ll have some ideas. But some of those are always tinged with, perhaps, they were bigger franchises and had better marketing, I think that’s part of the thing. So when you launch a game you want, you need everything to go right. A hit comes not because you did this one thing, but you did a whole bunch of stuff right. So you can have better art, you can have a better, more compelling game, more addictive game, you can have a better story, you can have better marketing, you can do better at running the backend, you can have better performance so it doesn’t crash. It’s their technology. You can have better metrics, better response to what your players are asking for, and so on and so forth.

And what everybody does is you try to get as many of those going right, and that’ s what creates a hit, right? Because if you have a glorious game design and crappy technology, you wouldn’t succeed, and maybe you can’t have everything be perfect. But you probably try to have nothing be terrible, and instead try to have as many things as possible be really good. Those things, they kind of multiply together into something that’s cool. It's not always the people that have the best marketing.

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