Zynga vs. Vostu: A Tale of Two Cities

Zynga vs. Vostu: A Tale of Two Cities

Zynga is a company that ought to be saluted for its tenacity, its drive, and its successful linking of friends and families through familiar, free games that are easy to play. But let’s back up and study one particular word in that sentence: “Familiar.” Zynga knows how to make money, but the social game giant doesn’t have an original bone in its body.

That’s probably why Zynga’s lawsuit against and alleged imitator, an American-Brazilian social game company called Vostu, is garnering a lot of snickering and eye-rolling from the online community. After all, as the kids say, “Karma is a bitch.”

Zynga disagrees. Reggie Davis, Zynga’s General Counsel, referred to the lawsuit and stated that it’s okay for a social game to take “inspiration” from Zynga’s works, but it’s less okay to copy the company’s “key product features, product strategy, branding, mission statement and employee benefits lock, stock and barrel”–which it claims Vostu has done.

Zynga says that Vostu’s Mega City game plays so closely to its own CityVille that the former title even copies the latter’s bugs:

“Remarkably, Vostu’s copying includes ‘mistakes’ in Zynga’s games. For example, in CityVille, the Zynga developers forgot to add the requirement that Community Buildings be connected to a road in order to function within the game – a requirement for all other buildings in the game. The game was released without that requirement, and the bug was never fixed in Zynga’s game. Vostu’s MegaCity replicated this ‘mistake.'”

Vostu has since issued its own statement about the accusations leveraged against it. The company denies aping Zynga, and added that Zynga ought to take a hard look at its own creative practices before “bullying” other companies with “frivolous lawsuits.”

Ideally, every story about a behemoth company versus a tiny start-up would be a David and Goliath scenario: The little guy standing toe-to-toe with the monster, unfailingly virtuous and true compared to the soulless, money-hungry machine. As far as Vostu versus Zynga is concerned, though, that fantasy fizzles out.

Yes, Zynga’s hottest games are familiar–and that familiarity is a bit close for comfort at times. Harvest Moon and FarmTown fans doubtlessly said “Hey, wait!” when they first tried FarmVille. And Will Wright himself might recognize a few of the ideas that make up CityVille. Still, Zynga has managed to make FarmVille and CityVille its own thanks to the addition of unique aesthetics and the addition of social elements. If you put Empires and Allies next to Civilization, there’s no doubt which title is which. In 2009, Zynga was accused of looking a little too closely at Mob Wars‘ paper when it put together Mafia Wars, but even in that close call, the difference between the games was still apparent.

When you put Mega City and CityVille shoulder-to-shoulder, however, it’s difficult to tell the two apart. The same is true for Zynga’s PetVille and Vostu’s Pet Mania. Most damning of all is the “street bug” issue that’s shared between the Mega City and CityVille: If every one of Vostu’s games is uniquely drawn and coded by 500 employees as Vostu spokesperson Davidson Goldin claims, that’s one hell of a coincidental glitch.

Until Zynga’s trial versus Vostu has concluded, we need to assume that Vostu is innocent of copying Zynga’s work. However, Vostu is guilty of another “crime:” The creation and distribution of stale social games.

Social gaming is mushrooming at an unprecedented rate. It’s also stagnating at an alarming speed. By all means, smaller companies should be welcomed into the fray, because good ideas often come from a handful of guys and gals working out of a garage. What counts as a “good idea” in the social games market? That’s subjective, but a decent start is a game that’s not about farming, building a city, or raising a wacky-looking pet.

Or, as one commenter quipped in Techcrunch.com’s comments thread, “I’m obviously biased here, but Vostu, just because everyone is peeing in the pool doesn’t mean you can do it from the diving board.”

Zynga is not looked upon fondly by the core gaming community. The company has certainly dealt with its own accusations of “imitation” in the past, and it’s also rich enough to name themselves the inventors of agriculture in a lawsuit against God. If you can’t bring yourself to support Zynga’s lawsuit, that’s understandable: The company hasn’t done much to garner sympathy and affection over these past couple of years. But don’t automatically position yourself against it either, at least not until the trial is over and done. Even the big guys get ripped off wholesale from time to time, and big company or not, it’s still wrong.

About Nadia Oxford
Nadia is a freelance writer living in Toronto. She played her first game at four, decided games were awesome, and has maintained her position since. She writes for 1UP.com, Slide to Play, GamePro and other publications, and is About.com’s Guide to the Nintendo DS.

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