Interview

Ian Marsh on why NimbleBit wouldn't sell to Zynga, why it won't sue, but will be quieter about games in development

Ian Marsh on why NimbleBit wouldn't sell to Zynga, why it won't sue, but will be quieter about games in development
Game cloning has been the big discussion point of the past couple of weeks.

First, NimbleBit accused Zynga of cloning Tiny Tower with its Dream Heights release, publishing of a tongue-and-cheek letter of congratulations that rapidly made the rounds of the games press.

Then, this week, Buffalo Games sent a similar letter to Zynga, accusing it of cloning Buffalo's game Bingo Blitz into Zynga Bingo.

The news also broke that Spry Fox had filed suit against 6waves Lolapps for alleged cloning of its Triple Town for Yeti Town.

Hence it was no surprise that in last night's analysts call, EA CEO Riccitiello said he wouldn't talk about its upcoming social games because of the industry's level of mimicry.

So, following on from part 1 of our interview with NimbleBit co-founder Ian Marsh, in part 2 we focus on the subject of cloning.

Pocket Gamer: Where do you think the line is drawn between "design inspired by" and "cloning?"

Ian Marsh: I think nearly every game is inspired by other games to varying degrees, and [that's] completely acceptable. Mixing elements from different games and adding some of your own original ideas has led to many successful games and entire new genres.

I think designs venture into "cloning" territory when they borrow all "inspiration" from a single source and take pains to implement even the smallest details of gameplay exactly the same.

In an interview with us in 2011, you said "When designing Tiny Tower, we wanted to take what people enjoyed about existing building/sim/management games and make it feel at home on the iPhone with lots of charm and character."

What games were you drawing inspiration from?


The only sim or building games that we've had experience playing are SimCity and The Sims. We weren't able to find a Mac version of Sim Tower to try it out and only loaded up Yoot Tower on the iPad for about 3 minutes before I became lost in the user interface and gave up.

From my understanding, Sim Tower is more of a transportation efficiency game where smart placement of many different elevators and staircases maximises traffic throughput in your tower. I don't believe there is any focus on individual inhabitants or hundreds of unique floor types.

After trying Corporation Inc for the first time last week for a few minutes, it seems much closer to Sim Tower than Tiny Tower.

But the one thing we were trying to emulate from Sim Tower is the feeling of progression you get by a structure getting taller.

We also wanted to build a relationship between the players and the individual bitizen inhabitants who have their own names, dreams, outfits, bitbook posts, and birthdays. We knew each bitizen wouldn't have as unique a personality as a character in The Sims, but we wanted that kind of feeling.

What can you tell us about Zynga's offer to acquire NimbleBit?

Our dealings with Zynga consisted of around 15 emails back and forth trying to convince us to sit down and talk about acquisition.

We've never gotten to the point of actual offers with any of the companies that contact us since we're always brutally honest about our wishes to remain independent. This genuinely surprises some companies and it takes awhile to convince them we are serious.

When were you made aware of the existence of Dream Heights?

The game was brought to our attention by a fellow indie developer after seeing this article.

Do you expect to lose revenue as a result of Dream Heights?

It is really hard to say, but I don't think it will make that huge of an impact.

The marketplace is so huge that there will still be huge numbers of players who have never heard of either game. I think it will benefit Zynga to be able to channel their players into a new Zynga game that strays from the same old isometric re-skin.

Do you have any copyright protection on Tiny Tower?

We try to keep legal dealings to a minimum since we didn't get into game development to play lawyer.

We do make sure that literal copies and games that use the same names or icons as ours get taken down.

Did you contact anyone at Zynga with the "letter" you created last week regarding Tiny Tower and Dream Heights?

We haven't heard from anyone at Zynga and I wouldn't expect them to publicly comment on any of this. The smartest thing for them to do is wait and hope it all blows over, and Zynga knows it.

We have received a large number of virtual high fives from other developers large and small though, and even some props from Zynga employees!

Will you be seeking legal action against Zynga?

The last thing I personally want to do is take away resources from developing new and original games to chase down those who can't.

I think our fans would prefer a new game to a lawsuit, and so would we. We have been contacted by lawyers with experience in these matters should we ever have to go down that road though.

Buffalo Studios sent a similar letter to Zynga regarding its game Bingo Blitz and Zynga Bingo. What was your reaction?

I haven't personally played both so I can't speak from experience, but I see some similar power up and prize elements which are probably shared by many types of games.

I would say it might be difficult for any two bingo games to differentiate themselves too much. Again, I'd have to play both to have a firm opinion about it.

What do you think accounts for how brazenly developers in the social and mobile markets engage in cloning?

I think it can be attributed to the size of the market.

You can clone a game with known appeal with minimal effort and just as much success or more since it is near impossible to saturate the market with either the original or the clones.

Do you have any views on Spry Fox suit against 6waves Lolapps?

I think the close dealings both companies had with each other around the game itself prior to the clone being released provide a different circumstance than with most game cloning.

But unless you have massive resources, I don't think it is smart for small studios to attack cloners legally. The best thing they can do is continue to make games successful enough that people will want to clone them.

Do you think cloning can actually serve developers by increasing visibility?

I think cases where cloning significantly helps the game getting cloned are few and far between. I'm pretty sure if any developer could chose they would rather their games remained un-cloned.

Will your experience with Zynga will have any affect on how you do things in future?

I don't think it will have any affect other than perhaps us being a bit quieter and less public about games that are still in development.

I'd much rather a clone pop up six months after launch rather than two or three.

Thanks to Ian for his time. You can read part 1 of our interview here.



Dennis Scimeca is a freelance game journalist and critic from Boston. You can reach him through his blog, follow him on Google+, or drop him a line via Twitter.


Dennis Scimeca is a freelancer from Boston. His weekly video game opinion column, First Person, is published by Village Voice Media. He occasionally blogs at punchingsnakes.com, and can be followed @DennisScimeca.

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