#oneaday Day 928: Begun, The Clone Wars Have

EA has filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against Zynga. The reason? The uncanny resemblance between Zynga’s latest “invest-and-express” game (their term, not mine) The Ville and The Sims Social. I won’t cover the case in detail because my friend and colleague Mr Mike Thompson has already done a fine job of doing so over at Inside Social Games.

Despite the clash between EA and Zynga looking to many like Darth Vader fighting Sephiroth (I know that would actually be awesome, but it’s more the “evil” thing I’m going for) I’m actually sort of glad that this is going ahead, even if EA is actually on shaky ground due to, as Zynga’s general counsel Reggie Davis noted, the uncanny resemblance between EA’s own SimCity Social and Zynga’s CityVille.

But then Zynga doesn’t exactly have the best track record. FarmVille, one of the company’s biggest hits, was accused of being a clone of Slashkey’s Farm Town on its original release. Its iOS title Dream Heights was rather publicly called out by Tiny Tower developer Nimblebit for being a ripoff. CityVille’s roots can be traced back to a number of similar titles. And… you get the picture. Zynga is good at one thing: marketing. They are not good at thinking up original ideas, as we’ve seen a number of times previously.

Zynga is by no means the only one to blame in this situation, however. It is a widespread problem that is simply brushed under the carpet by developers, publishers, press and public alike. Clones are taking over the market and oversaturating it. At some point, we are going to reach critical mass, and there’s the potential for a real mess when that happens.

I review mobile and social games every week. In any one week I can guarantee that I will come across at least one of each of the following:

  • An isometric-perspective citybuilding game where you have to complete quests and construct buildings to increase your population cap. More effective buildings either cost real money or require you to bug your friends for “materials” before you can construct them. Usually involves farming.
  • An isometric-perspective ranching game where you have to complete quests and construct buildings to allow you to expand your territory in several directions by clearing mist/chopping down forest/”exploring”. Usually involves farming.
  • An isometric-perspective farming game where you have to complete quests and construct buildings to allow you the ability to plant and harvest better crops. Almost definitely involves farming.
  • An isometric-perspective pet/monster care game where you have to complete quests and construct buildings in order to attract various different pets/monsters, which you can then care for and/or sell by clicking repeatedly on them. Usually involves farming.
  • A slot machine simulator where you can pay real money in order to win virtual money which cannot be used for anything except playing that particular slot machine simulator. Does not usually involve farming.
  • A “match-3″ puzzle game in which you create horizontal or vertical lines of three or more like-coloured gems (always gems) in order to make them disappear and score as many points as possible in 60 seconds. Rarely involves farming.
  • A “match-3″ puzzle game in which you create horizontal or vertical lines of three or more like-coloured gems (always gems) in order to make them disappear and complete a linear series of levels. Almost never involves farming.
  • A “match-3″ puzzle game in which you create horizontal or vertical lines of three or more like-coloured gems (always gems) in order to make them disappear and either score as many points as possible in 60 seconds or complete a linear series of levels. (Yes, some games feature both modes!) Does not generally involve farming.
  • A “match-3″ puzzle game in which you click on groups of three or more contiguous like-coloured gems to make them disappear and score as many points as possible in 60 seconds. Usually free of farming.
  • A “match-3″ puzzle game in which you click on groups of three or more contiguous like-coloured gems to make them disappear and complete a linear series of levels. Generally lacks a farming component.
  • A “match-3″ puzzle game in which you click on groups of three or more contiguous like-coloured gems to make them disappear and either score as many points as possible in 60 seconds or complete a linear series of levels. (Yes, some games of this type also feature both modes.) Usually lacking in the farming department.
  • A “bubble shooter” puzzle game in which you fire coloured bubbles from the base of the screen in an attempt to attach groups of three or more like-coloured bubbles together and make them disappear in order to score as many points as possible in 60 seconds. Generally farming-free.
  • A “bubble shooter” puzzle game in which you fire coloured bubbles from the base of the screen in an attempt to attach groups of three or more like-coloured bubbles together and make them disappear in order to complete a linear series of levels. No farming here, no sir.
  • A “bubble shooter” puzzle game in which you fire coloured bubbles from the base of the screen in an attempt to attach groups of three or more like-coloured bubbles together and make them disappear in order to either score as many points as possible in 60 seconds or complete a linear series of levels. (You’re getting the picture now, huh?) Farming? Nope.
  • A hidden object game where your uncle has gone missing in time and/or space and the only way to save him is to build a mansion and then repeatedly search the same rooms over and over for a selection of arbitrarily-discarded bric-a-brac which, for some reason, you need to find as quickly as possible.
  • A hidden object game where your uncle has gone missing in time and/or space and the only way to save him is to repeatedly search the same rooms over and over for a selection of arbitrarily-discarded bric-a-brac which, for some reason, you need to find as quickly as possible — but hey, you don’t need to build a mansion.
  • A hidden object game in which your uncle has not gone missing in time and/or space, but in which your mansion has become invaded by ghosts and the only way to get rid of them is to build a mansion (again, presumably) and then repeatedly search the same rooms over and over for a selection of arbitrarily-discarded bric-a-brac which, for some reason, you need to find as quickly as possible.

Of course, you can probably boil most of gaming down to a selection of basic formulae like this, but for some reason the issue of cloning is always particularly apparent in the social and mobile gaming space. Perhaps because the developers of these titles generally make no attempt to hide the fact that they’re simply cribbing from the unwritten template. (Currency, energy and experience meters go at the top. The Shop button goes at the bottom right. You must start your game with a non-skippable tutorial that treats the player like a complete idiot. You must present map screens from an isometric perspective. GOD HELP YOU if you go top-down or — heaven forbid — 3D.)

In mainstream gaming, the closest we get to a “cloning” problem is the number of similar first-person shooters we have on the market, but in this case, these titles do enough to distinguish themselves from one another with their aesthetic, narrative, gameplay modes and general “feel” to make them unique from one another. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 and Battlefield 3 may both be brown-coloured manshoots, for example, but play them both and it’s clear that there are marked differences between the two of them, because they’re different games that just happen to be in the same genre, not clones.

Play something like CityVille then SimCity Social, however — or indeed The Ville then The Sims Social — and you’ll be hard pushed to tell them apart.

This is not a positive direction for one of the most exciting, creative industries in the world to be moving. There’s a huge amount of potential in both the social and mobile gaming markets, and only a few developers tap into this. Most, sadly, choose to take the path of least resistance and make one of the games on the list above.

Come on, folks, we’re better than this. Stop trying to tell me that your isometric-perspective FarmVille clone is somehow “innovative” and make something that actually is innovative.

One thought on “#oneaday Day 928: Begun, The Clone Wars Have

  1. Pingback: Zynga are a bunch of rip off artists… « The Squadron of Shame Squawkbox

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