Zynga Does What It Does Best

"Good artists copy; great artists steal."

While many like to link that quote to Steve Jobs, its origins date to Pablo Picasso. With Zynga's (NAS: ZNGA) penchant for mimicry, does that make the company a "good" artist, or a "great" one?

Fellow Fool Patrick Martin compiled a non-inclusive list last year of some of the social-game maker's more apparent reproductions, including FishVille, Mafia Wars, and Word Twist, among others. Patrick also quoted CEO Mark Pincus as once saying, "I don't [expletive] want innovation. You're not smarter than your competitor. Just copy what they do and do it until you get their numbers," according to an ex-employee who spoke with SF Weekly.

That original article also quoted another former game designer who also didn't have kind words regarding Pincus: "The biggest problem I had with him was that he didn't know or care about the games being good -- the bottom line was the only concern. While I'm all for games making money, I like to think there's some quality there."

Interns were told to do "recon" on rivals' games, keeping a look out for features worth copying. Some were even explicitly told to "copy that game."

On top of that, Zynga has been an acquisition machine. Last summer, it completed its 15th acquisition in just over a year, Toronto-based Five Mobile. It picked up another four smaller names during the tail end of 2011 as it tries to expand beyond Facebook.

Sometimes, Zynga doesn't get what it wants. It tried to pick up NimbleBit, maker of Tiny Tower, which took home the proud title of iOS Game of the Year, in Apple's annual iTunes Rewind 2011. What happened when the small three-person shop declined? Zynga did what it does best: copy.

Zynga's Dream Heights, available in Canada, is a pretty blatant ripoff of Tiny Tower. With imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, NimbleBit sardonically thanked Zynga for the gesture with this message:


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

NimbleBit's David Marsh added, "Even when you refuse to go work for Zynga, sometimes you end up doing work for Zynga anyway."

This is but one of the issues I have with Zynga. These dubious ethics hardly inspire confidence in the company's long-term business plan, and larger rivals don't rely on copying. Activision Blizzard (NAS: ATVI) and Electronic Arts (NAS: EA) have both created incredibly strong brands and franchises, like Activision's Call of Duty or EA's The Sims.

Throw in the fact that Pincus can strong-arm his way on just about anything with his super-voting shares that are inaccessible to mere mortals, and what do you get? A lousy investment.

Android and Apple iOS have started a revolution, and they have both inadvertently become powerful gaming platforms that have disrupted dedicated portable-gaming devices. Zynga is leveraging the promising potential of the platforms, but its future is far from certain as app development is a new gold rush. Competitors come from all angles, from long-standing incumbents to small independent developers. There's a better way to play the explosive growth brought on by the mobile revolution: hardware components. Check out this 100% free report on "3 Hidden Winners of the iPhone, iPad, and Android Revolution."

At the time thisarticle was published Fool contributorEvan Niuowns shares of Apple, but he holds no other position in any company mentioned. Check out hisholdings and a short bio. The Motley Fool owns shares of Activision Blizzard and Apple and has written calls on Activision Blizzard.Motley Fool newsletter serviceshave recommended buying shares of Activision Blizzard and Apple, creating a synthetic long position in Activision Blizzard, and creating a bull call spread position in Apple. Try any of our Foolish newsletter servicesfree for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe thatconsidering a diverse range of insightsmakes us better investors. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy.

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