EA Calls Out Zynga for Stealing in More Ways Than One

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Social game titan Zynga (Nasdaq: ZNGA  ) has a problem: its ability to internally come up with creative and innovative content is highly questionable. If you look through the history of its most popular games, you’ll find that many, if not all, of them were either developed by someone else and then acquired, or developed by someone else and then copied.

If you can’t beat ‘em, copy ‘em
Most of the time, Zynga’s targets are small-time players that may not have as much recourse against the larger company. For example, when Zynga ripped off NimbleBit’s Tiny Tower, which even won Apple’s (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) iTunes Rewind iPhone Game of the Year award in January with Dream Heights, it was hard to imagine the three-person company starting a drawn-out and expensive legal battle.

Source: NimbleBit co-founder Ian Marsh's Twitter feed in January.

NimbleBit had spurned an acquisition offer from Zynga, leading Zynga to blatantly copy its popular game instead. There’s no shortage of examples of this behavior. Here’s one of Zynga’s most popular games, FarmVille, and its "inspiration," Farm Town.

Source: SF Weekly.

The list goes on.

Zynga game Precursor
FishVille TallTree Games’ Fish World
Café World PlayFish’s Restaurant City
PetVille PlayFish’s Pet Society
Word Twist GameHouse’s TextTwist
Zynga Bingo Buffalo Studios’ Bingo Blitz
Mafia Wars Psycho Monkey’s Mob Wars
Bubble Safari Taito Corporation’s Puzzle Bobble (known as Bust-a-Move in the U.S.)
Ruby Blast PopCap Games’ Bejeweled

In fact, most of these companies don’t opt to sue Zynga but, sometimes, Zynga lands in hot legal waters, like when Psycho Monkey sued Zynga years ago over Mafia Wars.

Messing with the big wigs
Now, Zynga has chosen to rip off a heavyweight that isn’t taking too kindly to the company’s ways. One that is willing to duke it out in copyright court: Electronic Arts (Nasdaq: EA  ) , who, incidentally, owns PopCap Games.

One of EA’s most popular game franchises is The Sims, dating as far back as 2000, with the newest addition to the family being The Sims Social on Facebook’s (Nasdaq: FB  ) platform. Zynga followed up with The Ville, which was just released, and is a clear knockoff of the game. EA has responded by filing a copyright infringement suit against Zynga. This time, EA is even taking it one step further than mere copying, alleging that the social gaming slumlord poached high-level execs, who had internal knowledge of The Sims Social for the specific goal of ripping it off.

The older game maker maintains that Zynga even copied the smallest of details, from the specific color palette, to the animation sequences, and the character personality types. Its court filing is chock-full of examples of what it calls "obvious replication."

Source: Court filing.

For example, both games feature eight possible skin tones for characters and, out of 16 million possible colors, Zynga used the exact same eight that EA used in The Sims Social, measured in their component red, green, and blue, or RGB, numerical values. EA’s court filing says, "There is an infinitesimally small chance that the use of the same RGB values for skin tone in The Ville as The Sims Social is mere coincidence."

There are also three high-level execs that Zynga has poached from EA, while The Sims Social was on the home stretch of its development: Barry Cottle, John Schappert, and Jeff Karp.

Source: Zynga.

Cottle now leads Zynga’s acquisition strategy, playing a key role in the controversial purchase of OMGPOP. Schappert was EA’s COO, and took the same role at Zynga, while Karp has become Zynga’s Chief Marketing and Revenue Officer. All three were hired between early 2011 and early 2012, and had sensitive strategic information on The Sims Social, according to EA.

A bad playbook
This goes beyond a limited number of transgressions. Instead, it seems like Zynga’s entire business strategy hinges on either acquiring strong brands, like its With Friends franchise through the Newtoy acquisition, or simply copying them when an acquisition isn’t possible, such as with Dream Heights and The Sims Social.

All of Zynga’s most popular games fall into one of these two categories, which doesn’t inspire any confidence in its ability to come up with creative or innovative titles internally.  Instead, it relies on others to do the hard work. EA aptly sums up Zynga’s business strategy in its filing:

As The Sims Social increased in popularity and visibility, Zynga turned to its well-known competitive playbook: Steal someone else’s game. Change its name," then cross-promote the Zynga clone to its extensive user base.
Source: Court filing.

That’s hardly what I’d call a sustainable business worthy of your investing dollars.

For even more on why Zynga might not be worthy of a spot in your portfolio, grab yourself a copy of this brand new premium research report on Zynga, penned by yours truly. You’ll also get quarterly updates included, as Zynga reports earnings and other developments occur. Sign up today.

Fool contributor Evan Niuowns shares of Apple, but he holds no other position in any company mentioned. Click here to see his holdings and a short bio. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple and Facebook. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Apple and Facebook. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended creating a bull call spread position in Apple. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

Read/Post Comments (14) | Recommend This Article (39)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On August 06, 2012, at 11:14 PM, TMFSpiffyPop wrote:

    Evan: outstanding work.

    As someone who deeply loves games and deeply values original creators of content, I continue to find these tactics noxious.

  • Report this Comment On August 07, 2012, at 2:23 AM, ZephyrPath wrote:

    I agree. I am an avid gamer - of all varieties. But I have yet to ever play a Zynga game, precisely because I refuse to play knock-offs of games that other people spent lots of time developing. I sincerely hope they lose a very large punitive sum as a result of this lawsuit. I further hope that more original developers start initiating lawsuits for this evil company's obvious plagiarism of others' work. Finally, I hope the company goes bankrupt and fades into obscurity so I don't have to read or hear about them every day.

  • Report this Comment On August 07, 2012, at 2:39 AM, dusty4444 wrote:

    I used to play Zynga Mafia Wars for years and spent over $100,000 building my account's strength. My children played and also myself. Then one day Zynga deactivated my account and never was a reason why given. I was just told to read "The Terms of Service" because they "SUSPECTED" irregular game play. This is how Zynga treats their customers and its all about taking your money and running. Zynga is a bad company and is managed by bad people. My advice to everyone is to not spend any money playing their games..

  • Report this Comment On August 07, 2012, at 10:51 AM, HectorLemans wrote:

    "I used to play Zynga Mafia Wars for years and spent over $100,000 building my account's strength."

    That you Mitt Romney? $100,000 is just...what...ten regular bets...right? You probably find that amount in your sofa every week.

  • Report this Comment On August 07, 2012, at 10:51 AM, TMFTwoCoins wrote:


    You spent $100 grand in REAL dollars on Mafia Wars?

  • Report this Comment On August 07, 2012, at 10:57 AM, TechJunk13 wrote:

    This is absolutely brilliant!!

  • Report this Comment On August 07, 2012, at 11:03 AM, JamesBofAshland wrote:

    "That you Mitt Romney? $100,000 is just...what...ten regular bets...right? You probably find that amount in your sofa every week." Obama supporter named Hector? Making a politically biased statement on an article about video gaming business? You probably find that everywhere, every week.

  • Report this Comment On August 07, 2012, at 12:17 PM, MrPecuniam wrote:

    I take it that he means the 100K as a figure of speach.... else we have a new top fool :p

  • Report this Comment On August 07, 2012, at 1:56 PM, EvanBuck wrote:

    Excellent investigative work, Evan. Yet another reason why Zynga might not be a good stock option and is certainly not going to be viable in the short term.

  • Report this Comment On August 08, 2012, at 11:00 AM, LilySelden wrote:

    I wonder what Zynga offered the three poached execs to get them over to the dark side...Personally, I would be embarrassed to be a former EA exec who now steals for Zynga...

    Go get 'em, EA.

  • Report this Comment On August 11, 2012, at 2:00 AM, jwray01 wrote:

    Neither Mafia wars nor Mob wars was at all original. Both are copies of which preceeded both by a decade. Then before that there were similar text based BBS games.

    Almost all games are very derivative, except for genre-creators and the top 1% like Portal, Escape Velocity, and Civilization. Same thing with books. Less than 1% of them are both original and good.

  • Report this Comment On August 14, 2012, at 11:46 AM, frogburger wrote:

    Nice article. Is Zynga a Chinese company? Looks like it by their tactics.

  • Report this Comment On August 15, 2012, at 2:50 PM, tdelahousaye wrote:

    Zynga is quickly becoming the Carlos Mencia of the gaming industry.

  • Report this Comment On October 03, 2013, at 4:51 AM, gunner2100 wrote:

    i am a shareholder of zynga. i have been hacked and money stolen from me by zynga employees and now been banned again for no freaking reason. well its war now these morons has stolen and banned me 3 times and thats to many. i am a disabled person who has copd and i cant get out much. i have very good friends on zynga. they encourage me to keep playing we help each other out.. Zynga has stolen my world from me no. they will reactivate my account but i can only have a mil chips. they want to keep 541 million chips that i won thru my games. i have no other reason to stay healthy. i am putting together a report and share my findings with other share holders. they have picked on the wrong person this time its war now heads are gonna roll before i am done

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