Aug 09 2012

Can Zynga Pass Off ‘Social Mechanics’ as Innovation?

Published by at 11:00 am under Editorials,Video Games

Innovation is a word we heard a lot in the world of game production. It’s one of those buzz words that developers like to use when promoting an upcoming title or doing some sort of industry interview.  It’s used with such frequency that I’m beginning to think developers aren’t really sure what the word means, often using it as a catch-all descriptive word for every game under the sun.

It’s one of those “I know it when I see it” concepts, easy to identify, but more difficult to describe. So what exactly is innovation? The literal dictionary definition states that innovation is “something new or different introduced,” and while that doesn’t seem very specific it does outline the key ingredient for true innovation; something new.

With news this week that EA is suing Zynga over The Sims Social, I thought it would be important to identify exactly what it is they’re arguing over. This isn’t your average copyright case; there isn’t a lot of legal precedent and Zynga has never claimed to have come up with the ideas for their games on their own. No, this will be a case about what counts as innovation in the game industry.

How I picture the case in my head.

Back in February Paul posted a leaked memo on Forbes from Zynga CEO Mark Pincus in which he described that Zynga’s innovation is not in their gameplay, but in the social aspects of their games, “as Zynga grows by further innovating on best of breed social mechanics, we should expect the industry to sit up and take notice of our growing portfolio.” Later he goes on to mention that it’s their “social innovations” that have helped to make the social game industry grow.

According to Pincus, Zynga’s innovative contributions are in their robust and active social network, and that they can polish someone else’s game, place it within their “innovative” social system and call it their own. Personally their whole perception of innovation gives me a headache, but given that our court system hasn’t generally shown a great understanding of technical issues such as this, it’s an argument that I’m afraid could be successful.

The honorable Judge ‘I have no idea what I’m doing’ presiding

If The Ville wasn’t a social game, if it was just a plain out-of-the-box release then I would say EA is about to make a fool of Zynga in court, but it is a social game. Zynga may argue that their monetization, connectivity, and other social aspects are actually part of a social game’s gameplay, and that just because things look the same and act the same doesn’t mean that they didn’t create their own product. It’s a stretch, I know, but having witnessed the OJ Simpson verdict in real time anything is possible.

I’m not trying to defend Zynga (my preemptive no, no, no, response to anyone who thinks I am), but I don’t think this case is as cut and dry as everyone thinks. EA’s success in this case will affect countless other developers who have been or currently are victims of Zynga’s shady business practices; possibly giving them a legal precedent to file their own suits after EA has paved the way. If Zynga manages to convince the court that their monetization system and other social bells and whistles change the game just enough to be considered unique, or if they settle without going to court, this type of copy-and-polish strategy could become even more widespread.

Just the tip of the iceberg in the off-chance they win. 

I’m not suggesting that I know Zynga’s legal strategy, but their mentality in the past hasn’t been to deny outright theft, but to say it’s a necessary evil in order to give these games access to Zynga’s massive social system. Almost as if they’re doing the fans a favor by polishing other people’s for them. Ridiculous.

You’ve got to hand it to Zynga though; it takes a really crappy company to get everyone on EA’s side, it wasn’t long ago that they were “The Worst Company in America” after all. They’ve even had a little fun with some of their PR, offering smaller developers, specifically NimbleBit, their shield via Twitter. While I think EA does deserve a bit of a curtain call for challenging Zynga, the only way for EA to be the shield they claim, is to allow this to go all the way to court. A settlement, while damaging, will not set the same legal precedent that smaller companies would need in order to file suit.

After this year, EA can use all of the good PR they can get. 

So what’s the point in bringing all of this up? Well as fans, gamers, and consumers it’s our responsibility to hold developers accountable when they claim their product is innovative. It’s not just a buzz word, it actually means something. When some talking-head associate producer goes on to claim how innovative their game is, are they actually adding anything new? Are the really doing something that hasn’t been done before or is this just all polish? Otherwise we end up with companies, such as Zynga, who take liberty with the term, pretending that prettier versions of existing games are innovative.

If I were a betting man or more accurately  if I could bet on court cases, I would say that Zynga will probably lose in court to EA, and that all of my paranoia about a potential failure on the part of EA’s legal team will be for naut. But it’s sad that it’s gotten this far, after all consumers are the ones that made Zynga successful. It says something about the way business is conducted in this country and about us as consumers, when the company with the sleaziest business plan is one of the most successful. Maybe we just need better consumers.





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One response so far

  • Bad Acid

    I shamefully used to spot what innovation games had back in the day of DOS/Windows 3.1/Win95 and SNES

    Like Doom, which was 3D with multiple possible elevations (over that of Wolf3D, which was on flat 2D planes. It wasn’t until later that you could really have 2 planes overlapping each other, i.e. you could have stairs rise from the ground, but none of the spiral staircases would continue below any of the steps above.

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