The Idea of Stealing a Game

Zynga is in the news again, and this time it’s not because its major investors dumped a bunch of stock prior to the share price plummeting. No, this time it’s because EA is suing them over similarities between The Ville and The Sims Social.

Skin tones from both The Sims Social and The Ville

Comparison: The Sims Social and The Ville

This feels like an old debate, especially because we’ve had it before . It seems to be a well-known fact that you can’t copyright an idea, but if there are enough similarities in the execution, a case can be made. That’s exactly what EA is doing, and exactly what it’s entitled to do. It’s just a shame that it took so long, and that the company making the claim is EA.

I understand, really. NimbleBit is only a little guy, despite being beloved by its fans. It can’t take on a (now-failing) corporate giant and win. While moral outrage is still a minor currency, getting enough of it to reach critical mass is virtually impossible. And, the fact remains that, as with any subset of the online world, some people just don’t care. Now, if they’d managed to log the individual IPs of all the people playing Zynga’s Tiny Tower rip-off and flier-drop a statement into their home mailbox… Well, they’d probably be sued for stalking. But it would have gotten results. Creepy results.

Apart from that, what can you do? Unless you’re EA, of course. In some cases – and I’m about to be controversial here, yo – the clone can be better than the original. There was some discussion over whether Tiny Wings was a rip off of Wavespark. Probably. But I don’t enjoy Wavespark, and I do enjoy Tiny Wings. There have been bunches of copies of Tiny Tower – e.g. Pixel Story and Lil Kingdom – but I enjoyed both of those games for the improvements they made, and even the fantastical settings.

As to whether making a similar game on a handheld devices rather than a home console is really copying, I’m not sure. If you want to play Halo on your phone because, well, you love not being able to see who you’re shooting at, good for you. Someone has filled that niche, and if the game is suitably high-quality and differentiates itself by showing some level of ingenuity, then sure. Go right ahead. People will complain that any game is a copy of an older one anyway (“OMG did u c behtesda totes ripped off Daggerfall w/skyrim? Lol n00bs!”).

Comparison: Tiny Tower and Dream Heights

But what does this mean for games, as a whole? Let’s stop for a moment, and seriously consider the implications. EA is suing Zynga over similar animations, similar assets, similar ideas and a similar look. Understandably, their argument would be the same as other lawsuits in the past, including the recently successful suit against Mino, where if the two games could be confused when played side-by-side, the defendant can be considered to have copied the original. The reasoning behind this is pure business – a similar-looking product could draw users away from the original and cause a loss of income.

Let’s take this to its next logical conclusion, though – I can shoot in both Fallout 3 and RAGE. They’re both set in a post-apocalyptic universe that includes mutants. And perky female NPCs! No way! What a rip-off!

Uh, no. But that’s already being claimed by irate fans, of pretty much every game ever made. When it gets scary is when lawsuits, like the ones from The Tetris Company and EA, start appearing and the courts start limiting just what is and isn’t covered by copyright law.

The real reason it’s scary? Because small devs still won’t have a chance to fight back against large companies that copy their games – precedent is fine, but you have to have the money to get to court, first – but when the precedents are set, those large companies will have a set of rules that define what they can copy. If some aspect of a game is dismissed in these court proceedings as having minimal value to the overall recognition and therefore success of a game, guess which parts will be targeted from now on?

Sometimes, by attempting to discourage, you only provide the means to work around the law by giving a roadmap to what is and isn’t acceptable. The problem being that, while a precedent for copying the execution of games is intended to protect developers, a precedent establishing which parts ‘don’t count’ is going to be just as difficult to overturn.

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