Zynga's copycattin' around, and it's not the first time

Copy Cat
Copy Cat

This week, FarmVille maker Zynga barked up the wrong tower. When the company released Dream Heights for iPhone on the Canadian App Store, its striking similarities to NimbleBit's critically-acclaimed mobile game, Tiny Tower, were obvious. And the three-person independent game studio cried foul with a snarky open letter to Zynga.

NimbleBit is the most recent studio to publicly call Zynga out on such a thing, but this is far from the first time the publisher has been, erm, inspired by previous games. According to our calculations, the company has practiced the sincerest form of flattery for the better part of its four years on the scene.

The ethics this practice aren't up for debate, even though this type of thing happens often in the entertainment world. Zynga has not made fast friends with the game development community (remember when FarmVille was booed when it won an award?), and the fact that Zynga has taken legal action against other game makers for allegedly stealing its game ideas is, in a word, ironic. We take a brief look at Zynga's other sources of inspiration.

Mafia Wars
Mob Wars

Mafia Wars and Mob Wars

Shortly after Zynga released Mafia Wars in April 2008, the creators of an earlier gangster-themed social game, Mob Wars, took Zynga to court for copyright infringement. In Sept. 2009, Mob Wars creator David Maestri settled for roughly $7 million. Mafia Wars went on to become one of Zynga's most successful games ever, while Mob Wars fizzled out with just 100,000 monthly players today. But, after nearly four years, not much has revolutionized this game and thus Mafia Wars continues to hemorrhage players to its current total of 2.4 million every month.

Farm Town

FarmVille and Farm Town

FarmVille, released in June 2009, already bore unmistakable similarities with Farm Town, which released earlier in the same year. From the game's interface to the big-headed characters, FarmVille looked nearly identical to Slashkey's Farm Town. FarmVille has come a long way since 2009 without doing much to transform players' day-to-day in-game. In the meantime, Farm Town has suffered to the tune of just 230,000 players logging in daily, compared to FarmVille's 6 million daily players.

Pet Society

PetVille and Pet Society

Playfish, now owned by Electonic Arts, launched its pet simulator, Pet Society in August 2008. In December 2009, Zynga set PetVille loose, which looked eerily similar to the Playfish game. PetVille employed pseudo-3D visuals, while Pet Society's went with a more anime art style, but the layout and play style similarities were unmistakable. However, Zynga's doppelganger failed to gobble up Pet Society's player base. The latter is healthy, while the former ain't doing so hot with just 220,000 daily players.

Cafe World
Restaurant City

Cafe World and Restaurant City

Zynga's eatery simulator launched September 2009, six months after Playfish's Restaurant City launched on Facebook. Cafe World looked like its predecessor in almost every way, from the 3D-like visuals to the general play experience. Cafe World has made considerable improvements to the formula, but not nearly enough to forget its origins. Regardless, it looks like it was enough to draw players away, as Cafe World is faring much better than Restaurant City in both monthly and daily players.

Social City

CityVille and Social City

Both Zynga's crown jewel and Playdom's Social City are rooted in classics like SimCity, but the former's blatant similarities to the latter are undeniable. Social City released in March 2010 to critical acclaim, garnering the first ever "Best Social Network Game" award at GDC Online. CityVille, however, took off in a way no one imagined was possible, shattering records since its Dec. 2010 launch. The game brought plenty more features, but again, not much has changed the core game play. Regardless, Social City was unable to compete, and died off in December 2011.

Pioneer Trail
The Oregon Trail

Pioneer Trail and The Oregon Trail

Zynga's Pioneer Trail (formerly FrontierVille) is not without its inspiration, namely Blue Fang Games' now-defunct social game based on the classic adventure, The Oregon Trail. Zynga was forced by The Learning Company to change the expansion's original title from The Oregon Trail, but the final product still took cues from Blue Fang's game, including the importance of using three specific friends to fill vital roles on your journey across the trail.

Hidden Chronicles
Gardens of Time

Hidden Chronicles and Gardens of Time

Gardens of Time tapped a genre on Facebook that has been saturated elsewhere, but Zynga appears to have simply echoed that with Hidden Chronicles, its most recent Facebook game. The game looks nearly identical to Playdom's hidden-object game, and even employs much of the same ulterior play hooks like building up a property and a challenge mode. Gardens of Time capitalized on what Playdom thought was missing in hidden-object social games, which garnered critical acclaim, while Zynga simply brought more mini games to the table. And, thanks to the all-powerful Zynga promotion machine, Hidden Chronicles already has more players.

Tiny Tower Dream Heights
Tiny Tower Dream Heights

Tiny Tower and Dream Heights

Tiny Tower and Zynga's new mobile game that kicked off this week's controversy.

It's tough to defend alleged quotes from Zynga CEO Mark Pincus, such as, "I don't want f**king innovation," when looking at these games side by side. And, based on the company's track record, it's hard to say that Dream Heights will be the last offender.

Are these "inspired" games better for the players in the long run, or do you think they do more harm than good? Sound off in the comments. Add Comment.

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