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My Two Pence on #Zynga

August 10, 2012

So Zynga have been going through a bout of problems of late.  This comes after their much hyped flotation.   Yet the share price has fallen and there are lots of questions around about a number of company related issues.  This after a time when Zynga, a new kid on the gaming block, were once valued at more than EA!  There are a number of interesting commentaries doing the rounds.  This one caught my eye:

Two and a half years ago I wrote an article for Gamasutra that kickstarted my career in consulting and caused a huge stir inside the walls of various social game companies. Its title was “Zynga and the End of the Beginning“.

I essentially said that the main problem in social games was that the product was almost identical across all providers, and that social game makers had trapped themselves into thinking that it had to be so. I said that this had led them to treat the market as akin to fast food, as a necessary commodity rather than a quality relationship, and that this meant they were heavily dependent on new users and their sense of novelty. New users would eventually decline and, if the products didn’t get start to become genuinely sexy, then they would eventually stall.

In fact my theory was that social games could slide into the same death spiral that Atari did in 1983. In this model, rather than rejecting one game in favour of another, the market declares a plague on all their houses and stops buying into the platform as a whole.

I agree and I see this as a major issue for social games. How many block-puzzle games are simply clones of Bejewelled? Answer is loads. Remember the classic PS1 title Bust-a-Move (aka Puzzle Bobble) – well the same gameplay can be seen cloned across multiple social gaming companies. Of course there are exceptions, some great games being made, however innovation needs to happen and the Zynga/Ea row at least seems to suggest this is not the case. (And if EA win – there may be trouble, and if EA loose there may be trouble.)  However copyright law is very complex and it is unlikley that there will be a clear win either way:

EA has made broad claims, but when applying scènes à faire and merger doctrine many will probably fail.

For example, EA’s claim of uniquely creating an avatar game based on human interactions and functions probably won’t be any more convincing than Atari’s claim that PAC-MAN was protectable as an original maze game. It will prove difficult to defend the idea that TSS is a unique human simulation just as it might prove difficult to defend Petz as an original simulation of animals. In fact, at thirty thousand feet, all of these “simulations” are Tamagotchi-like.

Taking another step back, how different is TSS from an online fantasy role playing game or MMOG, where players are required to meet the needs of their characters, including food, love, companionship, quests, etc.? Isn’t the idea of improving your character key to Linden Labs’ Second Life and Blizzard’s World of Warcraft?

How about the idea of communicating via thought bubbles? Whether the need is sleep, a bathroom break, or love, it’s been repeated in comics and feature films for years. So no infringement there. Communicating via garbled language is something I enjoyed while watching Charlie Brown films as a child.[11] No infringement there either.

But it is not all bad for Zynga – they have advantages too!

Zynga may have a host of problems to worry about, but it’s also got an enviable set of advantages. Let’s start with $1.6 billion in cash; that’s a nice chunk of change that can fund many different initiatives. Even more important is a fact that seemed to have been passed over by many analysts: Zynga added $100 million to their cash hoard in the second quarter. So even when times were tough, and Zynga was not living up to expectations, they still tucked away $100 million in cash. They are not about to go away as long as they can keep doing that.

Ultimately the woes of Zynga will be reflected in the wider industry, just as its successes have. We are all too often an inward looking industry, which is why we tend to borrow ideas so freely from each other. However I do see that broadly as a good thing; we’re evolving the games we make based on real feedback loops from gamers. However as well as gradual evolution, we also need innovation to drive our own Cambrian Explosions.

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