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What happened to innovative games?

Indie developer Nimblebit dropped a PR bomb on Zynga yesterday, arguing that Zynga copied it's game. Unfortunately, the line between inspiration and duplication is blurry at best. What constitutes copying? Should game companies be punished for doing it?

NimbleBit feels that Zynga shamelessly ripped them off with their new Dream Heights game
Indie developer Nimblebit dropped a PR bomb on Zynga yesterday with it’s letter addressing the similarities between their hit iPhone game Tiny Tower and Zynga’s upcoming release, Dream Heights. This galvanized the gaming community, with thousands of people, from prominent bloggers to gamers on Reddit criticizing the company.

However, just after the new year, Atari ordered the removal of Black Powder Media’s Vector Tanks, a game strongly inspired by Atari’s Battlezone. This galvanized the community in a similar way, except this time, gamers were furious that Atari shut down an indie game company that made an extremely similar game.

Unfortunately, the line between inspiration and copying is incredibly blurry at best. The one thing that’s certain is that copying is here to stay. Copying has been present in some form since the dawn of capitalism (if you need proof, just go to the toothpaste isle of your local supermarket). The game industry is no stranger to this trend: game companies have been copying each other for years. Given it’s repeated success, there’s little reason to think that this practice will stop. Indie flash game studio XGEN Studios posted a response to Nimblebit, showing that their hit games were also copied:

XGEN's response to Nimblebit

Some would even argue that the incredibly successful iOS game Angry Birds was a copy of the popular Armor Games flash game, Crush the Castle, but then Crush the Castle was inspired by others that game before it. Social games even borrow many of their game mechanics from slot machines to increase retention. So what is copying, or more importantly, which parts of it are moral and immoral? Everyone seems to have a different answer, but it’s safe to say that people always copy the most successful ideas. The one thing that those in the Zynga-Nimblebit conversation seems to have overlooked is that everyone copies others in some way.

Imitation is not necessarily a bad thing as long as you make the idea your own

 

Of course, while imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, it doesn’t feel good to be imitated when a competitor comes after your users. In this case, people may question Zynga’s authenticity and make a distinction between inspiration and outright duplication. But at the same time, Zynga’s continued success with the “watch, then replicate” model shows that marketing, analytics, and operations can improve on an existing game concept. Or just give them the firepower to beat out the original game, depending on how you look at it.

I want to hear your thoughts: Should game companies be encouraged or punished for taking the best ideas from other games? Where do you draw the line between inspiration and duplication? Sound off in the comments.

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