The man behind Pot Farm thinks cloning can be a good thing [Interview]

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You get up there, you say some shit, and if it wakes everybody up, as long as everybody's talking that's a good thing. It creates a conversation," East Side Games CEO Jason Bailey tells us, reflecting on his recent talk at a Full Indie event in Vancouver. During the talk, Bailey proceeded to pontificate on the hot topic of 2012 in the gaming world: copycatting. (Before reading on, we highly recommend you watch his six-minute rant, if not for context then hilarity.)

"Sure, I could have gone in there and blown a bunch of crap about how they're all so wonderful and moving the industry forward, and I'm proud of them to be brave enough to do independent things. That'd be boring," Bailey says. But he also points out that, while he likes "to play an asshole on TV," he has an important message: It's never been easier to break into the games industry and come out making millions, thanks to Facebook and the iPhone.

While we're not sure about that as far as Facebook is concerned these days, we sat down with Bailey to learn more about what he really thinks of the current state of the social game industry amidst the rampant claims of copycatting. Regardless of whether many agree with it, Bailey gives us a refreshingly honest opinion:

The title of the lecture was "Virality in Facebook Games." It was that general idea, right?

That's what the intent was, but like with many things, I don't always prepare something. So, when I got up there, I talked about the news of the week instead of the title of the talk they'd given me the month before that.

Is that what was just on your mind at the time? Is that just something you just wanted to get off of your chest?

Yeah, I mean it was the hot news of the week, right? I didn't go in with an agenda, but I know that's a hot topic amongst indie game developers, especially, that tend to spend months or a year building some sort of vision of their IP [intellectual property] and make some innovative new story. And they all love to pick on the big guy.

I like to get up there and play devil's advocate and defend the big guy. I'm sure I've given Zynga my share of shit over the years. It's the reality of the industry. We all build on each other's past success. It's like Hollywood and saying, 'I'm going to direct a space movie with this, that and the other thing, and I'm not influenced by Lucas or Scorsese or whatever.' It's bull shit.

I was about to say, we both know that copycatting is nothing new to the games industry. So, why do you think that it's come to a head this month?

Well, two thing. One is the whole Triple Town-Yeti Town thing, which I think was on the wrong side of the line, clearly. It wasn't just a plus one or an inspiration from, or a cloning. It was a photocopying. The values were identical. It was absolutely the identical game in every way [if it wasn't for] the art layer. That I think started some of that bubbling up.

With the community of game developers that I hang around and talk to, it's been a hot topic. We all really love Triple Town. It's kind of the independent studio, game industry darling right now. You look at my Triple Town leaderboard and it's a who's who of the games industry. People who love games, love something fun and love that game. Spry Fox wasn't able to bring it to the public. You look at their MAUs [monthly active players], after three-four months, they're still at 180,000 MAU. Everybody knew they were going to do iPhone, and there was a lot of insider gossip around the relationship that 6L [6waves Lolapps] and Spry Fox had when they launched the Yeti Town clone.

And then the NimbleBit-Zynga story hit the wire, and it was funny and humorous and hilarious how they went about it. That's what was kind of the tipping point to it becoming a sensation. Otherwise this would have just been a topic that we all talked about for 10 years. It's nothing new. Nobody can act shocked that Zynga copied some game. This is not new news.
Spry Fox's Triple Town and 6waves Lolapps' Yeti Town (left to right).

We know that it's a common thing, but you mentioned that there's a line. Where do you think the line is drawn between downright copycatting and drawing inspiration from previous games?

Now, this is not meant to be legal advice by any means and do not take this to court, but my understanding of the law is that you cannot copyright gameplay mechanics. Like the idea of having your man dance around the board with the roll of the dice and then you buy properties as you go cannot be copyrighted.

But what can be copyrighted is, "This is Boardwalk, it costs $600, and this is Mediterranean and it costs $60." The language, the descriptions, the story, the very specific art and the values of the game can be copyrighted. But the concept of a tower game or a city-building game or any of these things can't be. Then there's that whole gray area in between.

So, where something like Zynga and [Dream Heights], and, trust me, Zynga know what they're doing--they know how to copy a game properly, because they've been through it many, many times. And [they've] lost cases a few cases too where they were sued and had to pay out.

The differences between Dream Heights and Tiny Tower are a bunch of social elements. You know, the art is completely different: The core is the same, but it's that bubbly kind of Zynga avatar. Also, the values are completely different. You know, it costs $1,000 to buy one floor and $1,200 for the next floor. It's not, 'buying and stocking your store gives this kind of return in dollars.' Those numbers, in [Dream Heights] are completely different than Tiny Tower.

Building a bunch of businesses and a tower is the game mechanic, and you can't copyright that. So, that's why Zynga's perfectly safe in where they are. What 6L did was had a bush cost 200 coins. A tree cost 800 coins. I don't remember what all of the numbers are, but, if you look at those numbers in Yeti Town and those numbers in Triple Town and the build order and all of that stuff, it's all absolutely identical. That's where you draw the line. The only times in which you can be identical with it are things like real-life mechanics: A car accelerates like this, the physics of a bound ball are this.

Does giving a game the "plus one," (as you've said), the bits that make it special, or maybe even advance the sub-genre necessarily make it OK?

It's making it better. It's bringing it to a wider audience. It's creating a more compelling, funner gameplay mechanic. A lot of people build, especially in China, rip-offs of games in the App Store. You know, there's a billion Dynamite Fishing apps ripping off Ninja Fishing right now, but none of them are as good. They kind of miss the mark--all of the Angry Birds clones that are kind of crap.

Those aren't helping anybody, whereas what Zynga does as an example: They took what Dave Maestri had with Mob Wars, and copied it literally pixel for pixel, which is wrong and they caught a lot of shit for that and still do to this day. But eventually they did add a lot more to that game.

They made it a more fun game that appealed to more people, that monetized better, that really brought social games farther ahead and allowed more of an industry to grow around it. So, they're adding value to the community, the economy and the reach and they've done a great job of bringing social games forward.

If it wasn't for FarmVille, the farming mechanic would've never caught on. Farm Town had 2 or 3 million monthly users, but it didn't have the social phenomenon that was FarmVille. Now, I can build a farming game, and I don't have to teach people about the whole mechanic of "planting something, come back in a few hours and harvest it." That's just a known quantity. Zynga taught that to a couple hundred million players and we're all better off for it.
Tiny Tower and Dream Heights NimbleBit's Tiny Tower and Zynga's Dream Heights (left to right).

I think I'll level with you there and say that FrontierVille did a lot in that regard in terms of questing.

Yeah, exactly. And nobody ever complains. Like, Pincus pointed out in the email he sent the other day [Ed. Note: Zynga CEO Mark Pincus's memo to his staff following the Dream Heights incident.] that they invented the whole mystery box thing, which I will proudly stand up and say I ripped off in just about every game we have.

I love that mechanic. Pot Farm? We make a shit ton of money off of mystery boxes and jackpot boxes. I mean, we made with a flavor our own, but all of us look at Zynga. If you work in the social games industry and you don't play Zynga's games, then you're living under a log, because they do some really smart shit in there. And they measure the results of everything--they're a very data-driven company. So, you can almost always assume that, if Zynga's doing it, they're doing it because it works, and you should copy that.

If these "rip-offs" didn't exist, do you think the gaming industry would be any better for it?

No. It would be worse for it. Every game would be in its own little category. Honestly, and Triple Town, not to rip on Spry Fox because I do totally love those guys. But they made this great, innovative game, but it doesn't reach the general public. There's something missing. I'm not saying that I have the answers [or that] I'm some sort of guru. I'm in the dark too, just flinging shit at the wall to see what sticks.

But we built a game that takes a lot of the three, evolutionary, up the chain mechanic and added a new, fun bit that's a little bit more consumer reaching. We're calling it Nom Nom, and we just submitted it to the App Store, but it makes it more accessible. If I wasn't allowed to do that, I'm not allowed to be inspired by or take what somebody else has and add a plus one to it, then games like that would never get built.

FarmVille would have never been built, and therefore FrontierVille would have never been built and, for sure, CityVille would have never been built. CastleVille, I have to say, actually a really good, deep, intense quest-based game that generic gamers love. Now, my mother, my grandmother and my aunt played FarmVille, played CastleVille. And these are not people who will ever identify themselves as gamers.

And so, there is now a pool of two or three hundred million gamers that we all get to market our products to that otherwise would have never existed if a rule was made that, "There's Mob Wars and there will only ever be Mob Wars. There's to be no Mobsters, there's to be no Mafia Wars and no Kingdoms at War," that evolution wouldn't happen. If Star Wars was the only space movie that anybody was ever allowed to make, that would suck, because Blade Runner wasn't bad.

[Image Credit: Bytefish]

What do you think of Bailey's opinion on copycatting in the games industry? Do you see a similar picture of the entertainment world if "rip-offs" didn't exist? Sound off in the comments. Add Comment.
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