San Francisco-based social online games giant Zynga has been taking a lot of heat as of late from gamers and competitors for allegedly copying (or “cloning”) other games. Zynga’s upcoming Bingo title which is currently in beta, was called out for being overly similar to the hit Facebook game Bingo Blitz, and more recently, their mobile game Dream Heights generated a storm of controversy for utilizing identical game mechanics and gameplay from indie game, Tiny Tower.

What does Zynga’s leadership have to say about the matter? After Zynga’s game design chief Brian Reynolds entirely (and suspiciously) dodged the question about ripping off Tiny Tower in an interview with Gamasutra with the help of a PR rep, Zynga chief executive Mark Pincus defended Zynga’s position and accused other devs of copying games too.

In talking with VentureBeat about the Bingo Blitz situation, Pincus advises us to look at how Buffalo Studios’ Bingo Blitz is similar to Zynga’s own Poker Blitz. While it seems odd and somewhat childish to defend accusations with accusations of the same thing, Pincus’ point is that the industry uses each others’ ideas to keep innovating and evolving what these games can ultimately be.

“You can go back to (Zynga’s) FarmVille. Look at Farm Town and say, ‘Those pictures are troubling. They look too similar.’ But you pull the lens back again, and you see Farm Town next to My Farm, and next to Happy Farm, and next to (Zynga’s) YoVille. What you see is a series of games innovating on top of each other. You see Farm Town had a very similar avatar to YoVille.

We think there is a massive body of work in the video game industry that is going to be reimagined for decades to come in a way that is free, accessible and social. That’s what we’re doing. I don’t think anyone should be surprised when they see us come out with games that they’ve seen before, a decade or more ago. I don’t think there are a lot of totally new games that are invented. We always try. But to us, they are like the crew mechanic in our games. They give you a new way to interact with your friends.”

When it comes to Tiny Tower however, Pincus’ point is lost in the reality that Zynga’s Dream Heights isn’t a “reimagined” version of NimbleBit’s tower game, nor does it offer any added innovation. In response to the Canadian release if Dream Heights, NimbleBit responded with a funny David vs. Goliath-esque infographic that their small team of three put together for the Zynga employees (which outnumber NimbleBit’s by almost a thousand to one):

Tiny Tower - Dream Heights Side-by-Dide

Here’s where it gets interesting: In response to the infographic, Zynga sent an internal memo out to its employees, which said the following:

“We don’t need to be first to market. We need to be the best to market. There are genres that we’re going to enter because we know our players are interested in them and because we want and need to be where players are. We evolve genres by making games free, social, accessible and highest quality.”

And to VentureBeat, Pincus continued in his message against NimbleBit:

“You should be careful not to throw stones when you live in glass towers… When you pull the lens back, you saw that their tower game looked similar to five other tower games going all the way back to SimTower in the early 1990s.”

The gloves are off. Are “look similar” (because they’re towers after all) and “are the exact same game” the same? I’d argue not, and so does NimbleBit. Note the continuing the theme of firing accusations against developers they allegedly copied. NimbleBit’s Ian Marsh responded to TouchArcade about Pincus’ comparisons to previous Tower games, explaining that the games listed aren’t even comparable and that Pincus is missing the point.

“It is a smart idea for Mark Pincus and Zynga to try and lump all games with the name Tower together as an actual genre whose games borrow from each other. Unfortunately sharing a name or setting does not a genre make. The games Pincus mentions couldn’t be more different. Sim Tower is a true “sim” with macroscopic management and fine tuning of a buildings facilities. Tower Bloxx is a timing based high score game.

If you take a quick look before “pulling the lens back” as Pincus suggests, you’ll find an innumerable number of details in the game that were painstakingly crafted to be identical to Tiny Tower. These are core gameplay mechanics and rules, not similar settings or themes that games in the same genre might share.

Why are there 5 different business types like Tiny Tower? Why do 5 people fit in an apartment instead of 4 or 6? Why are there VIP elevator riders that perform the same functions as Tiny Tower? Why do businesses employ exactly 3 workers and produce exactly 3 products that are stocked in exactly the same way as Tiny Tower. Even the tutorials at the beginning of the game follow the exact same steps.

All of these things are poorly hidden underneath an uninspired veneer which has become Zynga’s trademark.”

Having downloaded, installed and played both Tiny Tower and Dream Heights on my iPhone, I can confirm that Zynga’s Dream Heights uses every game mechanic, game rule and parameter found in NimbleBit’s Tiny Tower. It’s not just the elevator on the left side and identical construction/growth mechanics, it’s even the two types of currency, one of which can be bought with real-life cash. It is the same game with a different skin.

The similarities of Zynga’s latest titles, combined with the bad buzz they’re earning for it and their responses on the matter coming off as sketchy, are not helping the PR side of things and we wonder how and if the gaming community will respond, or if there are legal potential legal implications. When I downloaded Dream Heights today, it sat with a 2/5 star user rating, so people are noticing.

What are your thoughts?

Follow me on Twitter @rob_keyes.

Sources: Gamasutra, TouchArcadeVentureBeat

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