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EA to Zynga: Pick on Someone Your Own Size

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EA hopes to regain the respect of the gaming industry from an infringement challenge.

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MINYANVILLE ORIGINAL Following the public notice last Friday, tech sites and gaming blogs have been buzzing about the new lawsuit launched by major developer Electronic Arts (EA) against social gaming kingpin Zynga (ZNGA). Zynga has earned its fame and fortune off FarmVille and similar casual, Facebook (FB)-based micropayment amusements, while EA is better known for publishing console and PC series as such Madden NFL, Battlefield, and Mass Effect.

While the actual legal challenges will no doubt delve into every arcane volume and dusty tome of the nation's copyright code, in broad strokes the case is refreshingly simple. Seeking to expand its social gaming presence, EA spun off its popular The Sims series of urban social simulators into a Facebook version, The Sims Social. EA alleges that Zynga's similar title, The Ville, unlawfully infringes on the pre-existing property.

All this is outlined in a blog post by the manager of Maxis, the original developer of The Sims, which was acquired by EA in 1997. A closer reading of the announcement by manager Lucy Bradshaw hints that the case may claim a much grander platform.

Bradshaw notes, "Maxis isn't the first studio to claim that Zynga copied its creative product," hinting at Zynga's reputation for ripping off independent developers to craft its own chart-topping titles, "But we are the studio that has the financial and corporate resources to stand up and do something about it." But this case won't be confined to EA's own grievances: "We hope to have a secondary effect of protecting the rights of other creative studios who don't have the resources to protect themselves."

You can see the message here -- the playground invocation of the one kid strong and brave enough standing up to the frothing bully. The plaintiff wants the public to view the case not as just another scuffle between restless legal teams, but as EA's knightly crusade to defend the peasants of the gaming industry against the hoarding claws of the Zynga dragon. And in doing so, EA may regain the public adoration it has squandered over the past few years.

EA knows that you don't become the biggest gaming company in the Western world without making a few enemies. The Redwood City giant has gazed down the barrel of several intellectual property disputes, on accusations ranging from stealing a college fight song to unauthorized use of helicopters. The company has even endured barrages of complaints (and a class-action lawsuit) from its own customers for defending its intellectual property too zealously, following EA's temporary adoption of the notoriously tyrannical SecuROM copy protection method. The company most recently achieved a surprise "victory" in The Consumerist's readership poll as the Worst Company in America, surpassing such luminaries as Wal-Mart, Ticketmaster, and Bank of America.

Of course, the demonstrated ability to take the hits and keep on going makes EA even less likely to cut its rivals any slack. Zynga, meanwhile, is no small player in the infamy industry. In only five short years since its founding, Zynga has proven itself prodigiously productive, both in releasing successful titles and in earning the ire of its trade fellows.

Zynga's rap sheet is almost as long as its resume. Mafia Wars, Dream Heights, and of course FarmVille are only a few titles accused of copying the work of smaller studios. SF Weekly ran an in-depth examination of Zynga back in 2010 when the company had already earned notoriety for its derivative development process. An unnamed former employee reported a particular directive from CEO and founder Mark Pincus: "I don't ****ing want innovation. You're not smarter than your competitor. Just copy what they do and do it until you get their numbers."

Judging by its $2.3 billion market value, this humble adage has worked out pretty well so far. But with the EA offensive, it remains to be seen whether or not Zynga has ripped off more than it can chew.

The incentive for EA is not hard to divine: It's finally found a rival more reviled than itself, and with it, the opportunity for a compelling narrative. EA it is fighting not only for its own sake, so the story goes, but for the sake of every earnest indie developer who has poured his or her blood, sweat, and tears into a game, only for it to be wrung dry, reprocessed, and assimilated into the Zynga clone legion. If EA can demonstrate that resistance is no longer futile, it could both cripple a competitor and restore its good name. That second part is what modern dramatists call a heel face turn.

An about face into crowd favorite is probably too much to hope for. But if the company can deliver some appropriately excoriating rhetoric as it sends Zynga to the stocks, EA could at least earn a begrudging upgrade from villain to antihero.
No positions in stocks mentioned.
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