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Zynga CEO: We aren’t the copycats on Bingo social game (exclusive interview)

Mark Pincus, chief executive of social gaming giant Zynga, denied that Zynga copied a rival’s Bingo game on Facebook. Instead, he said in an exclusive interview with VentureBeat that the accuser in this case borrowed from Zynga.

On Sunday, Buffalo Studios in Santa Monica, Calif., alleged that the upcoming Zynga Bingo was a copy of Buffalo’s Bingo Blitz game, which has a million daily players on Facebook.

The story reinvigorated one of the oldest memes in the game industry, where one company accuses another of being a copycat — only to see the accusations reverberate into the past where the accuser is alleged to have copied something else. In this case, Zynga alleges that Bingo Blitz copied one of its earlier games.

To those who hold up screen shots, as Buffalo Studios did, and say one game copies another, Pincus said, “It was a little ironic to look at Bingo Blitz. Pull that lens back. Look at our game Poker Blitz (comparisons below), and then Bingo Blitz, you see striking similarities in those pictures.”

He added, “You can go back to (Zynga’s) FarmVille. Look at Farm Town and say, ‘Those pictures are troubling. They look too similar.’ But you pull the lens back again, and you see Farm Town next to My Farm, and next to Happy Farm, and next to (Zynga’s) YoVille. What you see is a series of games innovating on top of each other. You see Farm Town had a very similar avatar to YoVille.”

“We think there is a massive body of work in the video game industry that is going to be reimagined for decades to come in a way that is free, accessible and social,” Pincus said. “That’s what we’re doing. I don’t think anyone should be surprised when they see us come out with games that they’ve seen before, a decade or more ago. I don’t think there are a lot of totally new games that are invented. We always try. But to us, they are like the crew mechanic in our games. They give you a new way to interact with your friends.”

The “crew mechanic” is a feature of Zynga games where you pick a small number of friends to play a social game with.

“The rest of the industry has followed the things we’ve done,” he said. “The different kind of revenue mechanics we have reimagined. We brought the mystery crate (pictured right) to social gaming.”

To Zynga, it appears that Bingo Blitz itself looks more like a copy of Zynga’s Poker Blitz game, which was launched in March 2010, well before Bingo Blitz launched in late 2010. Zynga later took down the Poker Blitz game in December 2010. But the screen shots below show that Bingo Blitz looks like Poker Blitz.

It’s also worth noting that Bingo Blitz wasn’t the first Bingo game on Facebook. There was also Bingo by Ryzing, launched in June 2010, and Bingo Bash by BitRhymes, launched in January 2010. Buffalo Studios declined to comment.

Pincus said in the interview that the innovations that Zynga focuses on are things such as the FTUE, or first-time user experience. The company studies data such as how many clicks or how many seconds it takes to get to the point in a game that the user understands what it is all about. Zynga will also simplify a game to make it more accessible to a wider group of people.

In essence, Pincus is not saying that it’s OK to copy someone else’s game. Rather, he is saying that a company can make a contribution to the canon of gaming if it takes an existing game and improves it. That company can reimagine the game and remove all the barriers that stand between the game reaching a billion people.

“I think people in the industry are defining innovation different from the way we are,” he said. “When you define innovation, you have to define what problem are you innovating against. The problem we are innovating against is how do we get a billion people to play together. That’s what we want to solve for. We need to innovate as an industry to make that happen. That’s a worthy goal. I think we are innovating as an industry and Zynga is contributing massively to it on many, many fronts.”

A game can also be differentiated on other fronts. A company can update the game much more frequently than a rival does and thereby differentiate itself based on a higher level of service.

In a letter to all employees, Pincus addressed the issue of copying last week after Nimblebit, developer of the Tiny Tower game on the iPhone, created an infographic that made fun of Zynga for copying Tiny Tower in the upcoming mobile game Dream Heights.

In the memo, Pincus says, “We don’t need to be first to market. We need to be the best to market. There are genres that we’re going to enter because we know our players are interested in them and because we want and need to be where players are. We evolve genres by making games free, social, accessible and highest quality.”

He noted that the Tower genre of games has existed since 1994, when Maxis launched SimTower, developed by OpenBook in Japan. The genre was popularized in 2009 when a game called Tower of Babel launched in China and snared more than 15 million daily active users. Since then, other Tower games on the iPhone include Yoot Tower, Tower Up, Tower Town, and Tower Blocks.

“You should be careful not to throw stones when you live in glass towers,” Pincus said. “When you pull the lens back, you saw that their tower game looked similar to five other tower games going all the way back to SimTower in the early 1990s.”

In this case, Zynga is evolving that genre further. In our interview, Pincus noted there are “rules of engagement” for creating games in the same genre where others already exist. You can’t, for instance, copy someone’s source card. And you can’t directly lift their art work, as Zynga alleged when it sued Vostu in Brazil for copying games such as Zynga’s Cafe World.

[Update: Ian Marsh of NimbleBit responded in a comment to Touch Arcade:  It is a smart idea for Mark Pincus and Zynga to try and lump all games with the name Tower together as an actual genre whose games borrow from each other. Unfortunately sharing a name or setting does not a genre make. The games Pincus mentions couldn't be more different. Sim Tower is a true "sim" with macroscopic management and fine tuning of a buildings facilities. Tower Bloxx is a timing based high score game.

If you take a quick look before "pulling the lens back" as Pincus suggests, you'll find an innumerable number of details in the game that were painstakingly crafted to be identical to Tiny Tower. These are core gameplay mechanics and rules, not similar settings or themes that games in the same genre might share.

Why are there 5 different business types like Tiny Tower? Why do 5 people fit in an apartment instead of 4 or 6? Why are there VIP elevator riders that perform the same functions as Tiny Tower? Why do businesses employ exactly 3 workers and produce exactly 3 products that are stocked in exactly the same way as Tiny Tower. Even the tutorials at the beginning of the game follow the exact same steps.

All of these things are poorly hidden underneath an uninspired veneer which has become Zynga's trademark.]

[Update 2: Here's a comment from Bingo Blitz vice president Salim Mitha: You should know that the screenshot of the Bingo Blitz Lobby is from our North Pole Christmas which has not been live since January 9th (the screenshot is at least 3+ weeks old, and our lobby is now significantly different).

I assume the screenshot came from Zynga, so the question arises: Why does Zynga have old historical screenshots of Bingo Blitz from our Christmas launch?  If indeed the screenshots came from Zynga, it only goes to corroborate our position that Zynga has been following our game, all the while capturing historical screenshots of all aspects of our game in order to reverse engineer the look & feel of BINGO Blitz.  It would be embarrassing for Mark if in the process of protesting his innocence, he has actually further implicated his company.

Additionally, many of Mark's points do not make sense, including his assertion that we copied a game that failed...that is quite nonsensical to suggest we copied a game that was so unsuccessful, Zynga had to actually shut it down.  Mark does nothing to dispel the notion that Zynga has turned plagiarism (of successful games) into a scalable business model for his company. ]

Zynga provided VentureBeat with the full text of the memo that Pincus sent to employees:

CONFIDENTIAL. PLEASE DO NOT FORWARD

Everyone,

There’s press today about one of our mobile games, Dream Heights, that just launched in Canada and worldwide soon. As we become the Zynga of Mobile and more broadly, 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.

I’m proud of the mobile team’s hard work and the industry has taken notice.

For the first time, according to App Data, Words with Friends is the #1 game on Facebook. Scramble with Friends, within 2 weeks of launching, has topped the App Store rankings in multiply categories including top free, top paid and top grossing. Last week, Apple recognized the team’s work by featuring Zynga’s games on the front of the App Store.

The mobile team is gearing up to launch more play across more genres and platforms. I want to congratulate them for working hard to bring great experiences to players around the world.

Google didn’t create the first search engine. Apple didn’t create the first mp3 player or tablet. And, Facebook didn’t create the first social network. But these companies have evolved products and categories in revolutionary ways. They are all internet treasures because they all have specific and broad missions to change the world.

We don’t need to be first to market. We need to be the best in market. There are genres that we’re going to enter because we know our players are interested in them and because we want and need to be where players are. We evolve genres by making games free, social, accessible and highest quality.

With regard to Dream Heights and the tower genre, it’s important to note that this category has existed since 1994 with games like Sim Tower and was more recently popularized in China with Tower of Babel in 2009 which achieved 15 million DAUs. On iOS there has been Yoot Tower, Tower Up, Tower Town, Tower Blocks and Tiny Tower. Just as our games, mechanics and social innovations have inspired and accelerated the game industry, its 30 year body of work has inspired us too.

And, this has always been the case for our company and the rest of the industry. Zynga Poker, FarmVille, CityVille and Words with Friends, none of these games were the first to market in their category but we made them the most fun and social, and the most popular. Our teams continue to build and improve these games every week which has been an important part of our success model. We run our games as a live service and we continue to iterate, innovate and improve on them to give our players the best possible experience.

As I’ve said, our strategy since the beginning has been to develop the best game – most fun and most social – for every category of play. We are rarely first since most categories in games go back decades, but we aim to be the best.

A few of you have asked how our approach to genres relates to the situation we faced with Vostu. There are rules of engagement in our industry. Companies have to respect each other’s legal and IP ownership rights in the form of copyrights and trademarks. In the case of Vostu, you can see for yourself that Vostu crossed the line and chose to use our copyrighted IP and artwork. That’s different than competing to build the best product or out-innovate us in the City category.

Play in the form of social and mobile gaming has become a mainstream activity, but it has the potential to be so much more. It can be one of the primary ways we connect with other people. It can surpass TV as the most popular and engaging medium of the 21st century. In order to make this vision real, we need to work as a company and an industry to continue innovating, improving and hopefully revolutionizing every major genre of games for social play.  Every successful game from developers big and small has pioneered some important new facet of this experience. We are proud of the mechanics we have pioneered that are now industry standards.

Part of what makes our industry cool and dynamic is the idea that small teams can build successful games. But at Zynga we will continue to innovate and expand our possibility space in order to delight our player base too.

Finally, I want to thank everyone who emailed me on this topic. Part of what makes our company special is the open transparent dialog we can all have, and its your passion that is shaping our future.

Thanks,

Mark


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