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Zynga Is the Dane Cook of Facebook Gaming

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There was a time, not too long ago, when Dane Cook was the face of stand-up comedy. Good looking, animated, and beloved by millions. But unlike his adoring fans, many fellow comedians despised Cook for being hollow, repetitive, and devoid of any real creativity. But above all, his biggest detractors have provided proof that Dane Cook was a joke thief -- most notably for the similar jokes off of comedian Louis CK's earlier album Live in Houston. To them, Dane Cook essentially repackaged existing material and presented it with a massive PR campaign.

And to many former employees, FarmVille creator Zynga has done the exact same thing.

In an illuminating article from SF Weekly's Peter Jamison, folks who have worked for Zynga founder and CEO Mark Pincus accused him of purposely ripping off the look, premise, and game mechanics of several online games. According to one of the former employees who chose to remain anonymous, Pincus allegedly said, "I don't f***ing want innovation," and that the Zynga business motto is the exact opposite of Google's.

"Zynga's motto is 'Do Evil,'" he told SF Weekly. "I would venture to say it is one of the most evil places I've run into, from a culture perspective and in its business approach. I've tried my best to make sure that friends don't let friends work at Zynga."

Beyond just the name, Zynga's FarmVille is so similar to Slashkey's earlier harvest-based game Farm Town that Jamison claims the two "would likely be indistinguishable to most players."

"In both games, tiny avatars with big heads plant square plots of soil with different crops, harvest them to earn virtual coins after a time, and acquire Facebook friends as 'neighbors' to help out on the farm and exchange goods. The mechanics of the games -- down to screen commands and layout -- are more or less identical," Jamison wrote.

Intellectual-property lawyer Robert Taylor told the news site, "I'm surprised there hasn't been litigation. Because from what I've seen, they did copy it."

Taylor represented game developer David Maestri in a suit that alleged Zynga "cloned" his gangster game Mob Wars to create its own Mafia Wars. Zynga settled for an undisclosed amount, which falls in line with a former employee's experience.

"I was around meetings where things like that were being discussed, and the ramifications of things like that were being discussed -- the fact that they'd probably be sued by the people who designed the game," he told SF Weekly. "And the thought was, 'Well, that's fine, we'll settle.' Our case wasn't really defensible."

And the similarities continue with Zynga's virtual duplicates to titles by developers Electronic Arts' Playfish and Disney's Playdom. Worse yet, Pincus has placed innovative games on the backburner to release the derivative ones and even sued seven former employees for imparting trade secrets to their new employer. That's just unparalleled arrogance.

Justice might be doled out, however, in terms of subscriber fallout and competitor dependence. Zynga's number of monthly users have shown a significant drop and, despite apps on the iPhone and Android devices, Zynga still relies on Facebook for its chief number of players.

With any hope, Zynga realizes it must release a wholly original and innovative game to maintain its revenue.

Then someone else copies it.
POSITION:  No positions in stocks mentioned.