How do you solve a problem like Zynga?

By George Osborn on August 20th, 2012

“Steal someone else’s game. Change its name.” That, according to EA in a filing for copyright infringement, is the title of Zynga’s strategy playbook for competing in the social market. In a pretty damning document, the long established software giant has launched a ravaging assault on Zynga’s latest title The Ville, accusing it of stealing gameplay mechanics, animation sequences and even skin tones to turn a rapid profit by peddling it to their large, and largely loose with cash, user base.

And across the world, the boys and the girls who follow the gaming industry have been quietly toasting EA and whispering hoorahs in the completely metaphorical secluded taverns of their minds. Why? Because Zynga has developed a reputation for being parasitic; for churning out hit games that have a nagging similarity to something you’ve seen before. Like a certain game that feels like Farmtown. Or another that’s kind of similar to GardensofTime. Even Scrabble can’t escape from their copying clutches.

So it’s deliciously satisfying to watch someone finally having a crack at them. Unfortunately, EA’s decision to pursue the case through the courts plays almost entirely into the hands of the bootlegging board at the social games company. That’s because proving a copyright breach in a computer game is incredibly difficult to do: there has to be proof that the code has been substantially pilfered, rather than simply the execution of an idea.

For the most part, code-based proof is a good thing. It protects innovation. It keeps the industry diverse by allowing and encouraging developers to update and refresh genres. The indie app Anodia is a good example of this. Released last year, it managed to breathe fresh life into the brick-breaker genre by significantly adapting gameplay to present the players with new challenges. Without this freedom, the genre would either be utterly dead and buried or shambling along in some tired form which would be of no interest to the average  player.

But one of the guiding lights behind this approach is a sense of honour between games developers. It relies heavily on a communal sense of fair play and decency. So if one company decides to break that trust, it has significant effects. Vlambeer, developers of the browser game Radical Fishing, saw the attempt to launch on IOS throttled by a straight-out clone of their Ninja Fishing game that was launched by another company ahead of their own unveiling.

Although their rivals had done nothing outright illegal, by changing the code slightly and repackaging it they successfully screwed Vlambeer out of cash it deserved. And it’s that freedom that Zynga knows it can hide behind. In the build up to the launch of The Ville, the company hired John Schaeppert, Jeff Karp and Barry Kottle. All were key personnel from EA involved in the launch of The Sims Social. All had access to the development process of the title.

That means they have almost certainly been able to advise Zynga how not to replicate the code in EA’s title. And it means that Mark Pincus, Zynga’s chief executive, can calmly wheel out the PR line that he is merely iterating other ideas, or counter allegations by claiming the complainant has stolen his ideas. These defences were trotted out by Zynga’s defence against plagiarism allegations from the developers of Tiny Tower and Bingo Blitz, mis-stating the first game’s genre type and claiming the latter stole from Zynga itself.

By choosing to sue Zynga, EA may have painted itself into the copyright corner, where justified foot-stomping could come to nothing, even if everything down to the door frame sizes have been swiped. So what other routes are available? How could EA expose Zynga’s behaviour in a way that it would have to seriously reconsider its business strategy?

The answer, and I’ll admit this is the first time I’ve ever touted this as a solution to a problem, could well come from an intelligent and aggressive use of social media. Obviously, this is something of an unorthodox route. Twitter, Facebook, et. al. have a tendency to live a life of their own. And, as many banks have found out,  it’s a potentially toxic battleground when engagement with the media is either half-heartedly executed or badly managed.

But the medium offers something that can be particularly valuable to companies in a tight squeeze: namely, social media regularly becomes a vehicle of valuable righteous fury that can quickly mobilise rapidly around instances of impropriety or injustice. Furthermore, when it comes to gaming, the kind of users who are engaged with online discussions are those who are, shall we say, particularly vehement about their opinions.

Most of the time, that leads to pointless, Console Wars-style yelling. But, on occasion, gamers have a real knack for sticking it to people in the wrong. This was particularly evident a couple of months ago in a small spat on a frontier few cared about. An indie game called J.S. Joust, developed by Copenhagen based Die Gute Fabrik, which used Playstation Move controllers to create special balancing was ripped off in an iOS game called PapaQuash.

Within days of the release, a backlash gathered against the guilty developers, USTwo. The game’s review score on the App Store plummeted as angry gamers took to the comment sections to brand it a knock-off. Furious tweets and emails lamented PapaQuash’s lazy half-inching. Eventually, the tech press picked it up. Within days, the app had been removed with an apology from the developers – and all without the wronged game designers lifting a finger. Die Gute Fabrik could even lean back and post a balanced blog about the affair that supported their position whilst still claiming that the freedom from copyright handcuffs was a good thing. Talk about a social media win.

Now, of course, EA’s position in the hearts of gamers is markedly different from those Danish developers. Whilst Die Gute Fabrik are the kind of bootstrapped indie developer, with commitment to open source sharing, likely to mobilise angry fanboys who normally spend their time ranting about Android, EA is seen by many as equivalent to Zynga in the way it acquires franchises.

Indeed, EA’s habit of acquiring talented developers, including Criterion, Maxis and Bioware, while perfectly legitimate, has often been seen as similarly parasitic. And, where those series have taken notable changes in direction, such as in the Mass Effect series, the results have often been poor for engaging with the key “angry gamer” Twitter demographic.

But a strategy that includes other developers that have been affected by Zynga’s actions could be the stuff of an epic viral hit. If the success of Nimblebit’s letter to Zynga earlier this year is anything to go by, perhaps a concerted effort by all the companies affected by their practices, to create an easy to read copy of the “playbook”, could be a powerful PR weapon against them. Imagine the effect of placing all the affected games side by side with Zynga’s for comparison.

Identifying Zynga as a copycat to a broader audience at a time when its employees are revolting and its share price continues to nosedive would leave the company few options but to respond dramatically. Training EA’s legal firepower at Zynga did have an effect on the target’s confidence but, with tech followers getting increasingly tired of constant legal cases between companies, its impact is likely to be limited among purchasing gamers.

Yet, letting the world know that Zynga’s “ideas” are either non-existent or pathetically unoriginal would hit them where it hurts: in the social arena, across their millions of users.

Previous cases involving Zynga suggest that this is unlikely. What’ll probably happen is an out of court settlement that receives a few column inches before disappearing off into the ether. But I really hope that EA takes the chance to call them out on this. Spreading their alleged malpractice across the web could end up as the equivalent of sticking a criminal’s head in the stocks and letting everyone pelt them with rotten food.

Let’s face it: that’s a Twitter mob we could all get behind.