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Video Game Clones: Zynga Gets Ville-ified In EA Lawsuit, Though Cloning Isn't New

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Posted August 10, 2012 - By Matt Swider


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Video Game Clones: Zynga Gets Ville-ified In EA Lawsuit, Though Cloning Isn't New

Jim Carrey said it best when commenting to David Letterman about the Dumb and Dumberer spin-off he wasn’t a part of: “You know what they say, imitation is the sincerest form of PLAGIARISM,” shouting the punchline in a very Jim Carrey fashion.

Electronic Arts has the same sentiments about Zynga’s The Ville, claiming the newly launched Facebook game infringes on the copyright of The Sims Social. Only EA isn’t taking its accusations to the court of comedy, it’s suing Zynga and, according to the company’s statement, doing it for the little guy in “protecting the rights of other creative studios who don’t have the resources to protect themselves.”

But Ville-ifying Zynga for allegedly cloning The Sims Social may not be that easy in court. First, as Zynga points out, EA just released SimCity Social on Facebook, which the defendant says takes cues from Zynga’s signature games, FarmVille and CityVille. There’s a lot of Will Wright’s SimCity in there, but there’s a lot of similar friend-pestering gameplay too. Second, some of the most successful video games are based on other games - where does the line between evolved games stop and cloned games start? The outcome of this lawsuit could lead to a very slippery slope in the video game industry.

Video Game Clones: Zynga Gets Ville-ified In EA Lawsuit, Though Cloning Isn't New

Zynga’s Mafia Wars Connections And FarmVille Roots

It’s true that Zynga has been accused of blatantly lifting game designs by smaller developers, ones which sue and settle out of court or simply draw sympathy from the court of public opinion. The first such case reportedly netted Mob Wars creator David Maestri $7-$9 million out of court, estimates TechCrunch. He sued Zynga for cloning his Facebook game with Mafia Wars, a very similar crime family-based game on the same platform. The trend continued with no legal action, however, as Zynga’s FarmVille seems to have “roots” in Farm Town by Slashkey, Cafe World bears a striking resemblance to Restaurant City by Playfish, and Dream Heights, a skyscraper-erecting game, has the company being accused of building on top of Tiny Tower.

Video Game Clones: Zynga Gets Ville-ified In EA Lawsuit, Though Cloning Isn't New

Tiny Tower by independent developer Nimblebit was one that went with a public with its outrage. The three-man iOS team went about it in a classy way, though: with an infographic. It thanked Zygna’s 2,789 employees for being “such big fans” of their game when making Dream Heights, and, along with side-by-side comparisons of the two games, signed the infographic “Sincerely, (all 3 of us) NimbleBits.” This indie developer, along with the maker of Mob Wars, is certainly a few of the “other creative studios who don’t have the resources to protect themselves” that EA refers to in its statement about the lawsuit.

Video Game Clones: Zynga Gets Ville-ified In EA Lawsuit, Though Cloning Isn't New

As Old As Pong... Literally: Games We Love That Have Been Cloned

Of course, Zynga isn’t the first to be accused of ripping off games for profit. The practice is literally as old as Pong. Atari was sued because Pong was too similar to a tennis game that shipped with the very first video game consoles, the Magnavox Odyssey. This case was settled out of court for $700,000, but Atari struck back five years later when it sued over Odyssey 2 game K.C. Munchkin. It bore a striking resemblance to chomping forerunner, Pac-Man, which Namco created and Atari had the rights to distribute on its consoles.

Video Game Clones: Zynga Gets Ville-ified In EA Lawsuit, Though Cloning Isn't New

Even Mario isn’t immune to being cloned, and it’s not just Luigi that’s stealing his charming good looks. Nintendo’s classic 2D platform game Super Mario Bros. was aped by The Great Giana Sisters, which was pulled from shelves in the late 1980s. It has since returned as an iOS game and, ironically, a Nintendo DS game, and has even been funded for a sequel via Kickstarter.

Video Game Clones: Zynga Gets Ville-ified In EA Lawsuit, Though Cloning Isn't New

Attract Of The Clones: Games We Love That Are Clones

At the same time, some of our favorite video games are themselves “evolved” versions of other games. Galaxian colorized Space Invaders and Arkanoid added fun power-ups to Breakout. This same practice, in fact, created an entirely new genre: the first-person shooter. It spawned (or respawned) from Wolfenstein 3D and Doom. Among the earliest “Doom clones” on the PC are Duke Nukem 3D, Star Wars: Dark Forces and Quake. The John Carmack-developed FPS forerunners also influenced console shooters like GoldenEye 007, Halo and Call of Duty. In turn, these games spawned their own clones.

Video Game Clones: Zynga Gets Ville-ified In EA Lawsuit, Though Cloning Isn't New

Grand Theft Auto had the same effect on open-world gameplay, influencing whole franchises like Saints Row, The Getaway and Mafia, all of which are known as “GTA clones.” Warcraft is one of many RTS games that owe its foundation in part to trailblazer Dune II. Of course, Warcraft lead to the most subscribed MMORPG, World of Warcraft, which has seen its own share of WOW clones lift its core gameplay mechanics, completing the “circle of lift.”

Video Game Clones: Zynga Gets Ville-ified In EA Lawsuit, Though Cloning Isn't New

MineCraft creator Markus “Notch” Persson openly talked about the inspirations for his browser-based building game. In a blog post, he mentions drawing from Dwarf Fortress and Dungeon Keeper, “But then I found Infiniminer. My god, I realized that that was the game I wanted to do.”

Like in many of the cloning examples, Notch found the source of his inspiration to be imperfect. “I played [Infiniminer] in multiplayer for a while and had a blast, but found it flawed. Building was fun, but there wasn’t enough variation, and the big red/blue blocks were pretty horrible. I thought a fantasy game in that style would work really really well, so I tried to implement a simple first person engine in that style, reusing some art and code (although not as much as you’d think).” MineCraft has since become the inspiration for other sandbox building games with voxel graphics: FortressCraft, GunCraft, Total Miner: Forge and Ace of Spades among them.

Video Game Clones: Zynga Gets Ville-ified In EA Lawsuit, Though Cloning Isn't New

A Pixel-Swap Too Far

With a storied history of video game clones and so many successful games to come out of the practice, when does game design influence go a pixel-pinch too far? Twisted Pixel Games co-founder Michael Wilford was confronted with this question when his company’s second Xbox Live Arcade game, ‘Splosion Man, was going to be duplicated by Capcom, which began developing MaXplosion for the iOS.

“We had a lot of mixed feelings,” Wilford tells G4TV. “But overwhelmingly it was disappointment towards one of our industry's most legendary creators. I do believe in coincidence but I also think most developers are smart enough to know the difference between something that happens to be similar versus something that shows signs of direct duplication. In our case, we wouldn't have minded if Capcom took our concept and built on top of it to create something new and awesome, but that's not what happened.”

Video Game Clones: Zynga Gets Ville-ified In EA Lawsuit, Though Cloning Isn't New

As Wilford points out, the line between borrowing concepts and digital theft seems to be whether or not the developer innovates on top of an existing idea. Guitar Hero added more buttons to Konami’s GuitarFreaks and brought the idea stateside. Dave Mirra BMX replaced skateboards with stunt bikes in the extreme sports genre pioneered by Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater games. Most recently, God of War clone Darksiders 2 adds more character customization to its lead character, Death. But what is the best route for developers when everything seems to have been lifted: gameplay, design, graphics, interface, etc?

“I am not a lawyer,” admits Wilford who graduated with a Computer Science degree, “But if someone plagiarizes your work and you don't take legal action then the courts can interpret that as waiving your right to defend it, which means you may not even have the option to defend yourself later against a potentially more heinous infringement.”

“But on the other hand, how can you expect an independent developer to afford the time and expense of dealing with occasional or even frequent lawsuits? The odds are certainly stacked in favor of the larger studios with a business model of ripping off the small guys, but not every indie is taking it lying down. Spry Fox is trying to send a signal to cloners everywhere by taking 6Waves to the mat for their blatant rip off of their game Triple Town.”

Video Game Clones: Zynga Gets Ville-ified In EA Lawsuit, Though Cloning Isn't New

Spry Fox CEO David Edery says that the 6Waves and Lolapps game Yeti Town is a “nearly perfect copy” of Triple Town down to the pricing scheme for in-game items. “How exactly did 6waves ‘independently’ decide to price 200 turns for 950 coins, or 4 wildcards for 1500 coins each? That’s quite a coincidence!” He answers this sarcastic question in a blog post by revealing that his company was under confidential negotiations to have Triple Town published by 6Waves, which had private access to the closed beta of the Facebook game for months. 6Waves actually beat Triple Town to the App Store, releasing Yeti Town on the Apple platform first.

Video Game Clones: Zynga Gets Ville-ified In EA Lawsuit, Though Cloning Isn't New

Feeding 6Waves information while it allegedly went off to develop its own version of the game sounds good enough for Aaron Sorkin to pen “The Social Gaming Network” movie. But Edery is hardly alone. The same thing happened to Dutch-based Radical Fishing developer Vlambeer. The two-man indie game studio had its unique Flash game cloned by Ninja Fishing developer Gamenauts in the App Store - before they could make the Flash-to-iOS transition themselves.

Video game cloning has existed since Pong, but these cases have only increased as game development has become cheaper, easier and more accessible. EA has the stamina to see its lawsuit through to the end, so for once a jury may decide where borrowing ends and digital theft begins. The free market could decide Zynga’s fate before that ever happens, though. The embattled company announced a major drop in its earnings late last month and its stock has plummeted 68% since the start of the year - the opposite of cloning its previous good fortunes.

Video Game Clones: Zynga Gets Ville-ified In EA Lawsuit, Though Cloning Isn't New
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