'Triple Town' creator David Edery talks copycat apps, Zynga, and the future of original gaming

L: 'Triple Town'; R: 'Yeti Town'

All is not well in Triple Town. The much buzzed-about puzzle game, which successfully launched on Facebook and Google+ in October and on iOS and Android in January, is engaged in a fierce legal battle with a rival company accused of ripping it off.

Triple Town co-creator David Edery confirmed on his blog last Sunday that the development studio filed a copyright infringement suit against competing studio 6waves Lolapps (also known as 6L) in response to Yeti Town, a virtually identical game released two months after Triple Town, which one review called “the exact same game, only this time with snow.” Edery alleged that, among other offenses, 6L entered into a nondisclosure agreement with Spry Fox, only to abruptly end negotiations when Yeti Town was released. Today Rex Ng, the CEO of 6L, fired back, telling Venturebeat, “This accusation is unjustified and plainly not true. We have not broken the NDA signed between 6L and Spry Fox.” 6L also released this statement to EW:

6 waves Lolapps is disappointed that David Edery has chosen to file a lawsuit, and believes his claims are factually inaccurate. We respect others IP and did nothing to violate any contracts our team had in place. The copyright infringement claims are unjustified.

As the lawsuit heats up, the gaming community is up in arms about the legal rules for copycat games – referred to as clones – and the suit’s comparisons to a similar situation involving Zynga, the developer of FarmVille and Mafia Wars. Edge recently ran a hefty story tracking Zynga’s record of taking less-visible games like MyFarm and Mob Wars (sound familiar?) and successfully cloning them for Facebook and mobile platforms. (In fact, since Facebook filed for a $5 billion IPO on Wednesday, Zynga’s stock rose nearly 20 percent yesterday, according to Time.)

The history of Zynga’s supposed cloning is not brief: FarmVille allegedly came from SocialApps’ MyFarm; Dream Heights from Nimblebit’s Tiny Tower; Mafia Wars from David Maestri’s Mob Wars (Maestri sued Zynga and went on to win a reported seven figure settlement out of court). And the list continues. But is there anything legally wrong with Zynga’s approach of altering competitors’ products? The United States Copyright Office has this to say about video games:

“Once a game has been made public, nothing in the copyright law prevents others from developing another game based on similar principles.”

One tricky question is whether or not Game A is a clone of Game B, or if it’s simply “inspired” by it. To be considered a clone, a game generally has to replicate another game’s basic mechanics or appearance while only changing other minor details. For example: Znake is a cookie-cutter clone of Snake, whereas Dr. Mario is inspired by Tetris. Don’t be discouraged if that makes no sense; it’s a fine (and often confusing) line. The word isn’t always derogatory, but it’s typically not a term with which you want to be associated, whether you’re accused of cloning or on the verge of being cloned yourself.

So what does it mean for the future of the clones and the cloned? It’s something of a David and Goliath story, two cautionary tales about development studios, industry reputations, and companies “technically” not doing anything wrong. Spry Fox is the innovative youth willing to fight for itself and applauded for doing so. (App Store reviews for Yeti Town urge potential customers to eschew the alleged rip-off in favor of Triple Town.) Zynga is the behemoth, the household name behind Words with Friends responsible for a full 12 percent of Facebook’s earnings in 2011. Yet as the business community praises Zynga’s success, the gaming community raises its eyebrows. (At the present time, Zynga could not be reached for comment.)

EW talked to Edery this morning about Triple Town (which is itself inspired by the classic Bejeweled series), Zynga, and what it feels like to be in the middle of a clone war… without the Jedis.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What is your personal definition of a clone game?
DAVID EDERY
: These things can tend to be, unfortunately, a pretty gray area. The closer another game is to the original game that it’s “inspired from,” the closer it gets to being a clone. In some cases, unfortunately, you see games that are virtually identical to the game that they were “inspired by,” so that’s obviously a clone.

So imitation is not flattery when it comes to video games, I assume. When is a clone a compliment?
My personal opinion is, when a game builds on a previous game in some significant way – adding new gameplay mechanics or something like that to a previous game – then for me personally, it’s a compliment. I don’t know what to call it, but it’s legitimate. It’s a useful iteration of the experience for players. I actually enjoy seeing when someone takes something we’ve done and substantially evolves it. It’s always very interesting for us.

It seems like there are two types of clones: ones that will greatly improve on an old game, and ones that are just not original in any regard.
I think that in general most people would agree that [those are] probably not a very useful thing. In most cases, the line can be pretty fuzzy, and in general we as a company try really hard to remind ourselves that if someone made an effort to really adapt something that we’ve done in some fundamental ways, that’s good. That’s important for the creative evolution of our industry. In general, everyone’s building on the shoulders of everyone else. It’s only when the copying gets really extreme that a developer might get upset.

What actually led up to the decision to take legal action?
It was a combination of the extent of the copying and the fact that we had been in conversations with them to publish Triple Town. That’s really the bottom line.

What seems to be the general opinion among the gaming development community about Zynga?
I can’t speak for the entire gaming development community, but in general… Zynga, from what I understand, has been making an effort to hire a lot of people from the traditional game [station] in an effort to reinvent who they are. So I think on some level, when you see those kinds of hires, you think on the one hand, it looks like they’re making a real effort to start to create original new things, because those guys are not going to be willing to just simply sit around and copy other people. You think, “Okay, well, gosh, that seems like a move in the right direction.” And then on the other hand, obviously [Zynga has] suffered more than their fair share of controversy around cloning as well. So I think it just depends on who you talk to. Some people are going to look at the hiring and hope that it’s a sign of really good things to come. And other people, particularly the people whose games Zynga has made games that are similar to, are obviously going to say something different.

How frustrating is that to you as a developer?
At the end of the day, we’re rooting for the people who are out there making original content. If Zynga starts making really great original games on a regular basis, we’ll be rooting for them, too. If they don’t, we’ll be rooting for the other people who are. We’re pretty black and white on this.

How do you feel about all of the support you’ve gathered from the community? Most of the reviews of Yeti Town urge people to go download your game instead.
I obviously can’t encourage anyone to go and speak ill of Yeti Town, but I can say that we’re really grateful. We’re really grateful for the support that we’ve gotten from the community and just in general. We’ve heard from game developers, we’ve heard from lots of people who are players of our games. Everyone has just been really incredible and really supportive. We’re just very grateful.

How can future game developers avoid getting into a situation where they end up making a clone – or being accused of it?
I think it’s pretty simple. When there’s a game that you enjoy and a game that you think you can do something interesting with, just make an effort to evolve it in some significant way that brings something new to the genre. Not only is that a better thing to do, but it’s likely to bring you more success over time. At the end of the day, if you’re bringing something new to game players, they’re going to appreciate it.

What does the future look like for the industry in terms of curtailing clones?
It’s my hope that the industry as a whole will continue to do everything it can. There’s no unifying force. You can’t really speak about the industry as a single organism that should move forward and do a certain thing. I hope that collectively the industry will start to recognize that we need to be doing a lot more to encourage original game development. And there is already a lot that happens. There are game development competitions; at GDC [Game Developers Conference] there’s this phenomenal session every year, I think it’s called the Experimental Gameplay Session. There are efforts to feature original content, and I think we just need to keep doing more about that. It’s just a question of how much more is necessary, and I don’t really know the answer to that, but I think as a whole we all make an effort to support original games. We’ll get there.

Read more:
Rival social-gaming companies Zynga and Nexon are both going public 

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