Steal someone else's game. Change its name. Make millions. Repeat.

Zynga did get sued for copyright infringement for one of its earlier hits, Mafia Wars, which debuted on Facebook in June 2008. (Its first success, Zynga Poker, was an obvious but legal rebranding of Texas Hold 'Em, which Zynga licensed.) In February 2009, application developer David Maestri — represented by Taylor — sued Zynga, alleging that the company had illegally "cloned" his earlier gangster game, Mob Wars. Maestri's LLC, Psycho Monkey, had created Mob Wars in December 2007; the lawsuit alleged that Zynga copied the game after negotiations to buy out Maestri broke down.

The resemblance between Mob Wars and Mafia Wars is striking. Many of the games' elements, characters, and place names — "The Godfather," "The Hospital," "The Bank," and so on — were identical, as were specific amounts of money and experience points attached to crime "jobs" players performed or "properties" they owned. These similarities were no coincidence, according to an early Zynga employee, who said he was present for frank discussions about the potential consequences of copying and rebranding Mob Wars.

"I was around meetings where things like that were being discussed, and the ramifications of things like that were being discussed — the fact that they'd probably be sued by the people who designed the game," he says. "And the thought was, 'Well, that's fine, we'll settle.' Our case wasn't really defensible." Psycho Monkey's suit was ultimately settled for an undisclosed amount.

Zynga founder and CEO Mark Pincus, who reportedly told his employees, “I don’t fucking want innovation.”
Jim Wilson/The New York Times/Redux
Zynga founder and CEO Mark Pincus, who reportedly told his employees, “I don’t fucking want innovation.”
Zynga’s smash hit FarmVille (left) is uncannily similar to Farm Town (right), a rival Facebook game published months earlier.
Zynga’s smash hit FarmVille (left) is uncannily similar to Farm Town (right), a rival Facebook game published months earlier.

Former insiders say that theft of other people's ideas can be traced to Zynga's origins. The company's first efforts to establish an online presence began with a close study of board games, according to the early employee who was present for discussions of copying Mob Wars. These games littered Zynga's offices, where the staff studied them and thought about how they could be adapted as online applications. "All the popular board games were purchased with the intent of copying them," he says. "This was in the early days. That evolved into [copying] digital games."

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.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help

Around The Web

©2014 SF Weekly, LP, All rights reserved.