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Talking Copycats with Zynga's Design Chief

Amid the heated discussion over "copycatting" and plagiarism in the games industry, Brian Reynolds, industry veteran and chief game design chief at FarmVille house Zynga talks to Gamasutra about inspiration, rip-offs and how he feels Zynga drives innovation in this exclusive interview.

Kris Graft, Contributor

January 31, 2012

18 Min Read

In creative industries, the one who appropriates another's creation and calls it his own quickly earns the ire of those who place value in creativity. The same goes for innovation-driven industries.

The video game industry -- in an ideal sense -- values both creativity as well as innovation. So when an entity sullies those values by plagiarizing or even outright stealing from those who are regarded as creative and innovative, perhaps the wrath against the violator is two-fold.

While not a new debate, the subject of "copycatting" in the games industry gained some traction in recent days when three-person San Diego indie developer NimbleBit released a mocking infographic that pointed out striking similiarities between the studio's hit iPhone game Tiny Tower and a new Zynga Canadian App Store title, Dream Heights.

For all the criticism Zynga had received in the past about "ripping off" others' games, there was finally a game connected to Zynga that was undeniably similar enough to another, and instead of using the term "rip-off," people were using more pointed words like "theft" and "plagiarism."

Amid the heated discussion, Zynga gave Gamasutra an exclusive chance to talk to Zynga's game design chief Brian Reynolds. A true industry veteran, Reynolds has been a game designer for over two decades. His past credits include revered PC strategy games Civilization II, Alpha Centauri and Rise of Nations. His most recent credit? 2010's successful FrontierVille for Zynga.

Zynga would not allow its game design chief to talk specifics about the Tiny Tower situation, but Reynolds, who was not involved in the development of Dream Heights, argues that Zynga does have a culture of innovation, and claims today's environment of copycatting isn't really much different than when Doom launched in the '90s.

From your perspective, what are you seeing lately in these “copycat” reports and what’s your take on that overall?

Brian Reynolds: Well, I’ve been making games, I’m actually coming up on 21 years [laughs]. So when I put it in perspective, with having been around the game industry a long time, I’m not exactly sure why it’s considered such a big deal right now, or why someone thinks there’s anything really surprising going on.

At Zynga, of course, I feel like we’ve got lots of innovation going on, so I certainly want to talk about that. But I was there in the '90s when Doom came out and then everybody made a shooter, and I was there when Warcraft and Command & Conquer came out in 1997, and then like 50 different [real-time strategy] games launched, and it was the year of the RTS.

And we don’t remember very many of them any more. So when there’s a new genre or a new thing, then everybody gets their game in. And the main thing for us, our goal is to have the highest-quality thing. Obviously it’s competitive, and we may not always end up being the one to have the best thing in every space, but we certainly try to.

One of the subtleties about the social games space is you’re kind of updating and changing a lot, so what you ship when you first launch isn’t always where the game ultimately goes. And there’s certainly something to be said for just kind of getting something up and running in the space, and then you then you keep on innovating it. That’s a little bit more of a web model then a traditional game industry model, but it’s certainly also something that kind of applies.

The vibe that I’m getting is that ... you’ve been making games for a long time and you don't see this as a new trend.

BR: Actually you know, some of the best games ever made, I’ve felt like were actually, the best way to put it -- the most favorable way to put it -- might be a "glorious synthesis" of stuff in previous games. I bought the very first Civilization, I think one of the greatest games really of all time. I felt like, "Hey wow, what a great synthesis between the Empire game from the PC and the Civilization board game, you know? So it was like some of this and some of that, and then some completely new stuff thrown in.

Well, that’s the thing, though. With that example in particular, you've got "some of this" and you've got "some of that" and it’s got some new stuff thrown in. The games in question are games that are being accused of taking too much, and not adding enough.

Like Dream Heights -- it’s being accused of not taking anything from anywhere else, that it’s not taking a little bit from there or a little bit from here or adding new stuff. A lot of people are seeing, "Hey, this is a reskinned Tiny Tower," and I think that’s the difference, though, between the example you gave and what’s happening now.

[PR steered the conversation away from Dream Heights at this point.]

BR: You know, when FarmVille came out there was a lot of [criticism]. We certainly weren’t the first to market and all that. It was a farm game, but there had been several other farm games, and there was My Farm and there was Farm Town, and I felt pretty good about the farm game we came up with, because I just felt like it was the one that was better, that we won because our game was better. It had better art. It had the simplest, most accessible interface, and that’s what it was. It was farm games-meet-mass-market-accessibility, and it had really good simple art.

Do you think Zynga is being ganged up on because it is the big kid on the block?

BR: Well it’s certainly never a surprise when you’re big and people come after you. I mean, I think that’s to be expected, the more well-known Zynga has become. We’ve certainly been in the news a lot lately having IPOed and all that stuff -- it catches a lot of attention.

I guess now Zynga's market cap turns out to be one of the bigger ones in games, and so yeah, we get a lot of attention, and there will always be that. It's not like EA’s never gotten attention like that either, and so nothing about that surprises me.

I just want to make sure that people realize how much innovation goes on at Zynga, and how many times we’ve delivered games that really are just fantastic and bring new things to the market. I feel like Zynga is substantially a driver of innovation in the space, and so I just want to make sure we get credit for that.

Can you speak specifically to that innovation? What kind of innovations and designs are you referring to?

BR: Sure, sure absolutely. So my first game that I personally lead at Zynga was FrontierVille, and that was certainly an example of something where we really tried to innovate a lot. So we added a bunch of things that hadn’t been seen before in social games.

It was the first time the concept of quests had been done in social games. There have been quests in MMOs and RPGs, but nobody had really done them on any significant scale in social games, and we added the idea. I call them "goobers," it’s like the little pieces of loot that fly out of things, look pretty and make it clear that "Oh, you just got a bunch of neat stuff here." It makes it clearer what your loot has been, rather than just having something scroll by in a window.

And then we added a bunch of other things. Some of them were social innovations. Like FrontierVille created the idea of what I call the "neighbor visit replay," where when you go visit somebody’s space -- their farm or frontier or whatever -- and sort of just kind of click and go. And your friend never even barely knows you were there, and certainly doesn’t see you on their screen.

Zynga and Reynolds' FrontierVille

Say I can visit you, I click on maybe your trees and your crops and your flowers or something, and what I get when I click on them, I get rewarded as if I had clicked on those kinds of things on my own farm. I’ll see them vanish and go away [in my browser], and you come back and those things are still there. But you see my guy there and you click on my guy and it kind of replays the things that I did. So what that ends up doing is it makes it a more social, personal experience. Essentially it recognizes that we’re both playing at different times but it kind of puts the illusion of synchronous play into an asynchronous situation.

We also invented the concept of what we call "reputation," which is where you get a heart every time you click on one of your friend's things. It's the idea of giving you credit for playing socially. Then those kinds of things have then been taken by some of our other teams.

So the CastleVille team -- which are some guys in Dallas but I know a lot of them were Age of Empires guys -- so I’ve been working with them and competing with them for a decade. They were like, "Man, we’re going to take the stuff we did in FrontierVille," and then they took a bunch of it to a whole new level. So they took the reputation and turned it into a currency, to spend the hearts and actually buy things with them.

But FrontierVille and CastleVille, those games aren't the ones that are under scrutiny.

BR: Well, but I mean those are our big games, right? Those are our biggest games, and CityVille is another game that was both widely-acclaimed as innovative when it came out, and then it has continued to innovate as it goes along. So you know one of the points is, if you look at the main stuff we’re doing, we’re a substantial driver of innovation in the industry.

But like you said early on, and I want to make sure to make this clear, do you think that with the rise of these platforms, where you can rapidly make a game and release it, do you think that today the [occurence of "rip-offs"] is about the same as it was, say, back in the '90s, when you’ve got a lot of Doom-like FPSes coming out and Command & Conquer-like RTSes coming out? Do you think it’s comparable?

BR: I think there’s something. I think it’s comparable. You do see, in any time in industry history, when the development time is really short, then you certainly see a  shorter cycle of iteration and competition. When it used to be really, really quick and cheap to make PC games, well then you know, the iteration time was faster. It's gotten more expensive now to make an RPG, so nobody’s going to be rushing out with their Skyrim game [laughs].

Right, yeah. That would be difficult.

BR: Thirty million dollars to get in the door or whatever. Yeah, so when the genres come out, everybody wants to get in the genre. Our idea is to get into genres and try to be the best game in the genre. Certainly, there’s no question we want to be in all the genres. Now that we're an established platform game company, then that’s definitely you know the kind of publisher we want to be.

So it's advantageous for companies like Zynga, or any other company in this space, to copy heavily from one another? Is that something that should continue? What about the value of innovation?

BR: Well I think innovation is really valuable. I think that there’s also the question that in the course of the industry, games build off of each other, and you see what others are doing and you get inspired and you build and innovate in the space. So I think you kind of have both, and it works. You’re the most successful when both are working really well.

And as far as your definition of "copycatting," as someone who works in this space, you have to see this stuff going on, right? Let's not even talk about Zynga specifically, but the space in general, you do see that right? That a lot of developers are really just ripping off of one another?

BR: Well you know, negating the definition of "ripping off" [laughs], because certainly there’s intellectual property and we definitely don’t believe in taking other people’s intellectual property and all that kind of stuff. There are lines, and you don’t want to cross those.

Tiny Tower and Dream Heights, from NimbleBit's infographic

I can give you my idea [of "ripping off"], just to give you a point of reference. I think it’s basically when a game is pretty much reskinned from the original, and nothing new is added. It's basically plagiarized.

BR: Well so in theory you want to add something, right? You want to, if you’re working in the genre, add something to the genre. You know it’s funny you were talking about "reskinned," but I just think back in the industry, I’ve actually seen some things that kind of felt like reskins, but were pretty cool, you know? You can do a really good "reskin" and people like it? You take the Star Wars game [LucasArts and Ensemble's Star Wars: Galactic Battlegrounds], that was kind of a reskin of Age of Empires. I mean in fact, they licensed the engine and used the engine, I felt, "Oh that was kind of cool."

I recognize this, but it’s a question of adding something, that's the thing. I think that the teams that don’t add enough aren’t going to be the successful ones. I think that the people who are going to have the most success as game developers are going to be ones who are both inspired and aware of what has gone before, but are actually adding something to the ecology. I don’t want to be the one that formulates the rules on what it is you have to add, though.

So I just just want you to level with me. Do you see this as a problem, the level of copycatting that's going on in the mobile and social space?

BR: So the thing is, in the course of the industry, it doesn’t feel like to me that it’s usually been a problem, that basically the people that add stuff and innovate and make the best games are usually the ones that succeed. I can’t think of an obvious example where somebody made a worse game, and profoundly beat out somebody who made a better game. Can you think of an example?

I’m sure once I quote you on that in the article, I’ll get a whole bunch of comments answering that question [laughs].

BR: You’ll get some ideas, you’ll have some ideas. But some of those are always tinged with, perhaps, they were bigger franchises and had better marketing, I think that’s part of the thing. So when you launch a game you want, you need everything to go right. A hit comes not because you did this one thing, but you did a whole bunch of stuff right. So you can have better art, you can have a better, more compelling game, more addictive game, you can have a better story, you can have better marketing, you can do better at running the backend, you can have better performance so it doesn’t crash. It’s their technology. You can have better metrics, better response to what your players are asking for, and so on and so forth.

And what everybody does is you try to get as many of those going right, and that’ s what creates a hit, right? Because if you have a glorious game design and crappy technology, you wouldn’t succeed, and maybe you can’t have everything be perfect. But you probably try to have nothing be terrible, and instead try to have as many things as possible be really good. Those things, they kind of multiply together into something that’s cool. It's not always the people that have the best marketing.

So as the chief game designer for Zynga, is there anything that you are telling your game designers amid these reports and accusations, relating to the environment of social game design right now? I mean, I know that you guys look at other games.

BR: Yeah. First of all just to be clear, the chief game designer is kind of a first among equals title [laughs]. I don’t get to tell them much what to do unless they’re in my division. There are some games where I actually run the games, and there are others that I’m kind of really close to. And then there are others that are further away.

But in terms of a first among equals, I think I say, "Keep innovating." You know, make your games better. Make them more social. Make them more accessible. Make them higher quality. And that’s what we’re supposed to be doing, and if you want to give credit to the game designer for being a great game designer, those are the things you do that you do to succeed.

Should social game makers, if they make a successful, innovative game, should they just expect to get copied?

BR: I don’t know if they should expect to get copied. They should certainly expect to get competed with [laughs].

Right. Well for some people that’s one and the same, Brian. Or at least they go hand in hand.

BR: Well those developers will probably not be the people who are successful, to be clear. I don’t know if you remember Rise of Nations.

Yeah, of course.

BR: But it was where I wanted to get in. I decided I wanted to get into the RTS space. I’d been doing the Civilization-y Alpha Centauri games, which were turn-based, but I was kind of more an expert in history games than anything else. So it was logical I’d do a history of the world game.

But of course there was already an Age of Empires, and so how do you compete with Age of Empires? And so Rise of Nations was my idea of competing with Age of Empires and some people said, "Oh, it looks just like Age of Empires," and other people said, "Holy crap, this is so much better. I love this and it’s better than Age of Empires." And I think that’s a reasonable difference of opinion. It didn’t surprise me that people said both of those things. It just kind of depended on your perspective.

We brought a whole bunch of things that were different, and yet we were an RTS, right? And to be an RTS you had to get to a certain place to be a history game. You wanted to visualize history in a certain way, and so we did it, and a whole bunch of people bought our game. And yet, Age of Empires was completely successful, and also probably benefited from the competition we gave them. They had both competitive pressure, and some of the ideas we contributed to the genre.

To be fair to Rise of Nations... you know, I’ve heard from people that have defended Zynga say, "Well look at Battlefield and look at Call of Duty and today's FPSes. They copy off of each other," much like how you use the example of Age of Empires and Rise of Nations. But game designers and people that know about video games, and aren't casual observers, know that those games have real differences.

BR: Well, I would say those wouldn’t be the examples. I wouldn’t be telling you to look to Call of Duty and Battlefield [as examples of plagiarism]. I would be telling you to look at, like, Doom, and all the other shooters that came out right after it, you know?

Or Command & Conquer and all the other ones that came out in ’97, right after it. It's that early era when a new genre is being established where you can get a lot more entries, and because you get a lot more entries, a lot more of them are more of the same.

But in the end, what you get when the thing consolidates, when the genre consolidates and the genre’s been kicked around, at that point you can give the genre those unique twists that are going to end up being successful.

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About the Author(s)

Kris Graft


Kris Graft is publisher at Game Developer.

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