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One former game designer said that Zynga interns were instructed to do "recon" on competitors' games, isolating successful features that their higher-ups would then endeavor to replicate. "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."
The former senior employee who was present for Pincus' "No innovation" diatribe described Zynga's business model this way: "Steal somebody else's game, throw millions of dollars at it, and then, if it doesn't have it already, add virtual coins."
Bollich, the former Zynga employee, demurs when asked whether Zynga deliberately copied competitors. "Well, I mean, that's actually — a little bit," he sighs. "I'm sure at some point we looked at Mob Wars and took some of his ideas. As for just out-and-out copying, that tended to not actually happen."
Most former Zynga workers who spoke with SF Weekly about the company's approach to copying competitors' games did so on the condition that their names not be published, citing fears of retribution from the company. In 2009 alone, Zynga filed lawsuits against seven former employees.
Zynga sued a group of former employees who went to work for rival Playdom, for instance, claiming they imparted trade secrets to their new employer. Ex-Zynga workers who started their own iPhone app development company also found themselves targets for Pincus' lawyers, who asserted their new game concepts violated a noncompetition agreement. This trigger-happy approach to IP litigation is particularly galling, former employees say, given Zynga's own penchant for stealing concepts.
Any discussion of intellectual property in the video-games industry has to acknowledge that some level of copying among competitors is normal. Copyright law is loose when it comes to games of all kinds. The idea for a certain type of game, for example, cannot be patented, though design and brand elements can. Successful formulas inevitably spawn imitations.
Hence the dizzying number of similar games among the "Big Three" app developers on Facebook: Zynga, Electronic Arts (which in November acquired the social-game company Playfish for roughly $400 million), and Playdom (acquired by Disney in July for about $760 million). Zynga has Café World; EA has Restaurant City. Zynga has FarmVille; Playdom has (Lil) Farm Life. Playdom was also sued by Psycho Monkey, at the same time as Zynga, over its own mob-themed game, called Mobsters.
In fairness, the lineage and origin of games can also be more complicated than they first appear. The genesis of the Mafia Wars dispute, according to former Zynga employee Bollich, came after Maestri — who was wrapping up acquisition talks with Zynga — attended a lecture put on by the company on how to more successfully monetize games. "The deal was almost completely done," Bollich recalls. "Dave was there, learned everything, cancelled the deal, and then put all our suggestions in his game the next week, and started making money."
Even in this sharp-elbowed crowd, however, Zynga stands out. "The more aggressive you are, the more you're inclined to think you can copy just about anything," Taylor says. "I think Zynga's pretty aggressive. I don't think there's much question that they're probably the most aggressive." In January, The Business Insider, a business and tech blog, ran a slideshow comparing six of Zynga's hits to near-identical precursors from other developers.
"As it has grown in dominance in the game industry, Zynga has garnered a reputation for its predatory business and suspect marketing tactics," asserted a lawsuit filed in August against the company by rival developer Digital Chocolate over the trademark to the "Mafia Wars" name. (The suit claimed that Zynga was falsely trying to assert ownership of the name — the same as a 2004 title from Digital Chocolate — but did not allege that game-design elements had been copied.)
From a business standpoint, copying rivals' games makes some sense. With its marketing resources, brand recognition, and economies of scale, Zynga can quickly garner millions of additional users for apps that might have failed to go viral when managed by smaller shops. FarmVille currently has about 62 million users, according to AppData.com, while Farm Town, its virtual clone, has only 5 million. The revenue generated by this audience dwarfs the cash required to defray lawyers' fees and a settlement payment, even one that runs to millions of dollars.
Given Zynga's emphasis on user volume and revenue over product quality, efforts by its designers to create deeper, more artistic, or more original games were not always welcomed. A former high-level employee tells the story of Burning Realms, a sword-and-sorcery role-playing game that a group of Zynga designers "killed themselves to put together," only to have it placed on the back burner by Pincus, who was wary of a product outside the tried-and-true molds of apps like FarmVille, Mafia Wars, and Zynga Poker.
"It was just beautiful. It was innovation," the former employee says. "And it was like, his money is not going to go to innovating. For people who were creative and actually wanted to make something, it was really depressing."
One of the more common complaints among former Zynga employees is about Pincus' distaste for original game design and indifference to his company's products, beyond their ability to make money. "The biggest problem I had with him was that he didn't know or care about the games being good — the bottom line was the only concern," a former game designer says. "While I am all for games making money, I like to think there's some quality there."