Social network game developer Zynga, notorious for their panoply of ‘Ville and Wars games that clog up Facebook walls the way damp matted hair clogs up drains, have been publicly called-out by mobile games developer Nimblebit. By way of JPEG Nimblebit laid out the startling (read: obvious) similarities between their iPhone game of the year, Tiny Tower, and Zynga’s forthcoming iPhone title Dream Heights. In short they accuse Zynga of ripping off their game, repackaging it and flogging it as their own, albeit in a tongue-in-cheek way. Presumably to avoid becoming the latest in a line of people and companies Zynga have hit with lawsuits. So naturally everyone turned out in droves to support the indie underdog getting pissed on by the corporate pitbull, right?
Not exactly. Some gamers with longer memories than others quickly pointed out Tiny Tower is itself little more than a snazzy iOS reworking of the classic SimTower, created back in ye dim and distant days of yore by SimCity progenitors Maxis. Others cited a flash game called Corporation Inc by Armor Games as a more recent likely inspiration for Nimblebit’s mobile hit. Naturally this changed everything so it’s a case of “Boo! Shame!” on Nimblebit for ripping off the ideas of Flash developers! Well Corporation Inc credits SimTower with being its chief inspiration so it’s purely a case of Nimblebit copying Maxis. A company long since lost in the cavernous bowels of EA where it gropes blindly in the dark beside a half-digested Bullfrog. Clearly we must direct our pitchforks and ire at the evil Nimblebit for playing the victim whilst ripping-off poor half-alive Maxis! It’s all so obvious now!
Except it isn’t really. One small detail few have brought up is that one of SimTower’s big inspirations was an even older game called Little Computer People, released by a pre-evil Activision for the Commodore 64 in 1985 (yes, they’ve really been around that long). Developed by David Crane and based on an original idea by Rich Gold, Little Computer People had you looking after a little person that “lived” inside your computer. You could furnish his little three storey computer house, give him little computer presents, relay simple orders for him to fulfil and even play little games with him. Spookily he’d also communicate with you of his own volition in different ways, like sending you a letter, to tell you you’re a horrible person. Will Wright cites Little Computer People as an inspiration for The Sims and even received advice from Rich Gold himself during the game’s development.
SimTower and Little Computer People are merely the tip of a vast iceberg. Arcade favourite Ms. Pac-Man was originally an unlicensed ripoff of Pac-Man before Midway bought the rights to it. Donkey Kong was supposed to be an officially licensed Popeye game until circumstances meant Nintendo no longer had the rights to it, thereby forcing them to develop the game we know and love today: one of two official Popeye games released years later coincidentally bore striking similarities to Donkey Kong. Blizzard took the “build base, build army, destroy enemy” gameplay of Westwood Studio’s 1992 RTS Dune II, transplanted it to a fantasy setting with some new mission types and called it WarCraft: Orcs & Humans. For a period of several years after 1993, any game in which you shot things from a first-person perspective was instantly branded a DooM-clone. Darksiders takes so many elements from so many different games, primarily Zelda, that spotting its “inspirations” is a game in itself. Saints Row has come a long way from the straight-faced GTA rip-off it started out as.
The line between plagiarism and inspiration can be a blurry one, particularly with regards to the gaming industry, and people should be careful of lightly throwing around accusations of plagiarism. Make fun of Nimblebit for taking more than a few cues from Corporation Inc or Sim Tower if you like, but if that makes them plagiarists then Blizzard have done nothing original since Lost Vikings. By that criteria you can level the same accusation at any developer or publisher you care to think of. Like it or not, stealing and iterating are part and parcel of the industry. Zynga are still a scummy, creatively and morally bankrupt corporation with zero imagination whose entire business model from the get-go has been all about taking successful games and repackaging them under a different name, but bigger publishers and developers have done exactly the same. As cynical as Zynga might have been with Dream Heights (Tiny Tower), FarmVille (Farm Town) and Mafia Wars (Mob Wars), even those come nowhere close to the shamelessness of something like Limbo of The Lost.
Music journalist David Quantick coined the term “Pop will eat itself” to explain the theory that because popular music simply recycles good ideas continuously, the perfect pop song could be written by combining the best of those ideas into one track. Gaming has been chewing its own face off since Space Invaders and we have some truly amazing games to show for it. The most blatant rip-offs will either innovate to the point where they become their own unique, individual games, like Saints Row, or fade away into obscurity like Dante’s Inferno. It’s all part of the gaming circle of life.