Why Cloning Is The New Gaming Business Model

Game cloning controversies seemed to have died down over the past month, but the issue will blow up again once another successful game is inevitably ripped off. It’s not even that new of an issue. Still, it came to a fever pitch when Zynga shamelessly copied NimbleBit’s Tiny Tower, then presented this absurd defense of its actions.

You can’t protect an idea. That’s intellectual property 101. Although, it is true that you can protect the expression of an idea: level layouts, art, perhaps even scoring. I’m not a lawyer, but as far as I can tell Zynga is in the clear here.

You have to know the culture that produced social gaming to understand why cloning is the new business model for games. The social gaming industry was created by MBAs, not game developers. To an MBA, there is no difference between a game and any other web service. Both Orbitz and Travelocity sell plane tickets online–but nobody complains that Orbitz ripped off Travelocity. They are simply two competitors in the web airline reservation space.

To a company like Zynga, Tiny Tower is merely a pioneering entry in the Mobile Virtual Tower Simulation space. Zynga is simply producing another entrant and attempting to carve out their slice of the total addressable market for this type of service. There’s no creative soul to Dream Heights, perhaps, but neither is there one for airline ticketing websites.

This is abhorrent to a lot of developers who have been creating games since before the social gaming revolution. Yet, I meet a lot of young gaming entrepreneurs for whom this is the way of things. They speak in terms of attracting another game’s customers with cloned mechanics and a few changes–perhaps in platform, delivery, or other business model differences. Never in terms of creative twists.

Social gaming giants usually clone games from smaller developers and buy larger companies who produce games they’d like to be cloning. This is probably because well-funded startups often have the same cokeheads backing or advising them, and thus a cloning controversy will ruffle some valuable feathers. Smaller developers should be already well into the development of the next hit-to-be-cloned by the time the VC backed cookie cutters arrive.

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