In which EA does a good deed

It hasn’t been a good week for Zynga, what with their stock going through the floor, their veteran COO (chief operations officer) having been ‘restructured’ away from creative duties, and now they’ve been hit by a lawsuit from Electronic Arts around copyright infringement.

I predict EA will win this case, if it gets as far as court. The formal complaint document is very thorough, very readable, and pretty much sums up every accusation everyone has ever made about Zynga and copying games, as well as specific claims about how The Ville ripped off Sims Social, including poaching EA executives who had inside information about the game pre-launch.

There is one thing you need to know about patent suits. (This is also true of other lawsuits but sometimes people do it anyway to make a point.)

1. There is no point pursuing a defendent who doesn’t have much money with which to pay large fines.

Zynga is now a large public company. They have assets. That makes them worth suing. EA has genuine commercial interest in protecting The Sims, one of their tentpole IPs, and they’ve clearly decided to make some solid PR out of the whole affair.

Much as EA garners a lot of hate from gamers – they are after all an investment company whose main goals are to monetise their games into the ground – I always felt that Riccitello was speaking from the heart when he talked about promoting new IPs, even if he does close studios down swiftly when they underperform. They have also shown some desire to foster the independent gaming ecosphere, some of which fell wide of the mark, and others may have shown genuine appreciation for crowd sourcing and indie developers who can grow their own fanbase.

So yeah, I think this is a positive development and I wouldn’t be too quick to cry doom or foresee EA and Activision suing all and sundry for games with similar looks and feels if this is successful. Zynga will deserve what comes from this. Indie and social gaming devs will only benefit from the protection against having their ideas stolen by more unscrupulous dev houses.

Nimblebit (the devs who made Tiny Towers, which Zynga then notoriously ripped off) seem to agree.

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5 thoughts on “In which EA does a good deed

  1. Reading this reminds me that at one time EA was just another game producer that came out with some really good titles, such as The Bard’s Tale. Of course, that was back in the days when a certain game company called Microprose was more dominant with games like Civ, Master of Orion, and Pirates.

    • Honestly, it’s a who’s who of great C=64 games:
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electronic_Arts#Notable_games_published

      Wow. I’ll always remember the giant paperboard square packages, but looking back at that list, it’s really amazing the talent they gathered. Mail Order Monsters was so far ahead of its time, it’s mind boggling. Adept, M.U.L.E., Wing Commander, One-on-One… it’s crazy. And they don’t have Adventure Construction Set on there. Wonder what else they left off.

      They’re too big for their own good now (I like Spinks’ take — “they are after all an investment company whose main goals are to monetise their games into the ground”), but wow, what a history.

  2. This could end up in court. Zynga may feel that their backs are to the wall – if they can’t rip off other people’s work then what can they do? (Hint: so far there’s no sign that they might make original games). Also if EA take a large settlement there are potentially a number of other game development houses who might start actions if EA are seen to be doing well.

    Another interesting aspect is what it might imply for “look and feel” games. WoW popularised the hotkey tab target UI used by Asheron’s Call and AC2. Which then got used in almost too many games to count: Lotro, WAR, Rift, SWTOR, and so on. Bartle’s infamous comment during the Warhammer beta springs to mind: “I’ve already played Warhammer Online, it was called World of Warcraft.” What if lawyers start telling designers they have to be more different? I think it would be of immense benefit to players if games designers move away from making WoW with a [Star Wars/Conan/Warhammer] skin.

    • Another interesting aspect is what it might imply for “look and feel” games.

      I was thinking that too. However, if corporations are going to play that game, SOE might come a knocking on Blizz’s door looking for some cash from WoW.

      I really doubt any of it would hold up in court, but I’ve been surprised before about what sticks.

      • I’m not a lawyer, but I strongly suspect in this type of case that the question of ‘what is considered normal within this industry’ is something that the judge would consider, in the context of whether Zynga has been operating outside the bounds of normality (which is what EA are trying to show in their document, quite persuasively IMO.)

        So I don’t actually think this would necessarily open up lawsuits for relatively minor look and feel issues. I do think it is important for the industry that EA win this one though.

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