Monday, August 13, 2012

The Idea of Stealing a Game

This article has been cross-posted from where it was published on Player Attack

Zynga is in the news again, and this time it’s not because its major investors dumped a bunch of stock prior to the share price plummeting. No, this time it’s because EA is suing them over similarities between The Ville and The Sims Social.
Skin tones from both The Sims Social and The Ville
Comparison: The Sims Social and The Ville
This feels like an old debate, especially because we’ve had it before . It seems to be a well-known fact that you can’t copyright an idea, but if there are enough similarities in the execution, a case can be made. That’s exactly what EA is doing, and exactly what it’s entitled to do. It’s just a shame that it took so long, and that the company making the claim is EA.
I understand, really. NimbleBit is only a little guy, despite being beloved by its fans. It can’t take on a (now-failing) corporate giant and win. While moral outrage is still a minor currency, getting enough of it to reach critical mass is virtually impossible. And, the fact remains that, as with any subset of the online world, some people just don’t care. Now, if they’d managed to log the individual IPs of all the people playing Zynga’s Tiny Tower rip-off and flier-drop a statement into their home mailbox… Well, they’d probably be sued for stalking. But it would have gotten results. Creepy results.
Apart from that, what can you do? Unless you’re EA, of course. In some cases – and I’m about to be controversial here, yo – the clone can be better than the original. There was some discussion over whether Tiny Wings was a rip off of Wavespark. Probably. But I don’t enjoy Wavespark, and I do enjoy Tiny Wings. There have been bunches of copies of Tiny Tower – e.g. Pixel Story and Lil Kingdom – but I enjoyed both of those games for the improvements they made, and even the fantastical settings.
As to whether making a similar game on a handheld devices rather than a home console is really copying, I’m not sure. If you want to play Halo on your phone because, well, you love not being able to see who you’re shooting at, good for you. Someone has filled that niche, and if the game is suitably high-quality and differentiates itself by showing some level of ingenuity, then sure. Go right ahead. People will complain that any game is a copy of an older one anyway (“OMG did u c behtesda totes ripped off Daggerfall w/skyrim? Lol n00bs!”).
Comparison: Tiny Tower and Dream Heights
But what does this mean for games, as a whole? Let’s stop for a moment, and seriously consider the implications. EA is suing Zynga over similar animations, similar assets, similar ideas and a similar look. Understandably, their argument would be the same as other lawsuits in the past, including the recently successful suit against Mino, where if the two games could be confused when played side-by-side, the defendant can be considered to have copied the original. The reasoning behind this is pure business – a similar-looking product could draw users away from the original and cause a loss of income.
Let’s take this to its next logical conclusion, though – I can shoot in both Fallout 3 and RAGE. They’re both set in a post-apocalyptic universe that includes mutants. And perky female NPCs! No way! What a rip-off!
Uh, no. But that’s already being claimed by irate fans, of pretty much every game ever made. When it gets scary is when lawsuits, like the ones from The Tetris Company and EA, start appearing and the courts start limiting just what is and isn’t covered by copyright law.
The real reason it’s scary? Because small devs still won’t have a chance to fight back against large companies that copy their games – precedent is fine, but you have to have the money to get to court, first – but when the precedents are set, those large companies will have a set of rules that define what they can copy. If some aspect of a game is dismissed in these court proceedings as having minimal value to the overall recognition and therefore success of a game, guess which parts will be targeted from now on?
Sometimes, by attempting to discourage, you only provide the means to work around the law by giving a roadmap to what is and isn’t acceptable. The problem being that, while a precedent for copying the execution of games is intended to protect developers, a precedent establishing which parts ‘don’t count’ is going to be just as difficult to overturn.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Reward Your Early Adopters: A Consumer’s Tale

This article has been cross-posted from where it was published on Player Attack

It’s in the nature of current social games to be adaptable. It’s easier than ever to update, and push that update to thousands of customers. Facebook games are always up to date; iOS games will let you know when an update is available. This allows for an unprecedented potential of bug-fixes and gameplay adjustments to be made based on user feedback, almost instantaneously. We’ve never been closer to our devs. And yet, this ability to constantly update is also encouraging studios to put out products that are less than ideal.

Every Facebook game I know has ‘beta’ somewhere on the title screen. The problem is, these games never move out of beta, because they’re constantly being updated. But I’ve also played a lot of social games that have basic functionality and nothing else. It’s only six or even twelve months later that they begin to resemble games, and by then I’ve long forgotten it.
The problem for me is that I enjoy giving feedback. I will find an email address and write to devs with suggestions for improving their games. I don’t expect or receive any replies, but when I see the word ‘beta’ my brain replies with ‘playtest!’ so it’s difficult for me not to see the potential of what’s in front of me, even if currently all I can do is pat a duck.
I get the feeling that many other early adopters must be the same, because many Facebook games (Country Story and Pet Society are examples of this) improve by leaps and bounds months after their release. Troublesome UI gets culled, interactions take fewer clicks, and tasks are more rewarding. These are the changes made by listening to user feedback. Yet there’s nothing more disappointing in my mind than logging into a social game you’ve been playing for six months, only to see your friend who just signed up is ahead of you in every conceivable way.
Country Story

I use Country Story and Pet Societyas examples of this, not because they’re bad games, but because I did enjoy them, once. Country Story was incredibly difficult to understand if you hadn’t already played Harvest Moon, but I stuck with it and eventually grew my farm to an amazing 12 plots of land. Twelve! I was so giddy with joy that I spent all my worldly currency to acquire a duckling, which cheeped and hopped around and made me ever so more giddy. I noticed one of my friends had finally accepted my invitation, and, with the new social system in place, I could visit him. I clicked, and was destroyed.
In Pet Society, originally you could earn 30 coins by washing your pet – if you did a really good job and were consistent with your stroking motion for around 20 seconds – and buy new furniture for your pet’s home. But at 300 coins for a shelf (the most basic item of furniture) it was back to hoping your pet would get dirty so you could wash them, or running races in the stadium, which were limited to 10 a day. Yet again, I stuck with it, and eventually had a whole two furnished rooms and 3 different outfits for my pet. I clicked on my 6-year-old cousin’s house to visit her pet, and immediately closed my browser.
Why such an adverse reaction in both circumstances? The answer should be clear: my friends had surpassed all of my accomplishments by simply making a new account.Country Story now gave the user 8 plots of land, a duck, a chicken, and three trees, just for signing up. Pet Society gave new players a completely furnished room filled with items that weren’t available for purchase, and the new rewards included clothes and more furniture. These were all suggestions I and other players had made to the devs at one point or another, but we weren’t allowed to have the improvements we’d championed. The soul-crushing disappointment of this discovery may seem moot, but let’s just say I didn’t return to those games afterward.
So what can devs do? Improvements must be made to draw in new players, since, as I said, what’s usually released first is basic functionality and the fun comes later. Players now expect updates, and any game that remains stagnant for too long will find its user base dropping sharply. The answer is not to stop improving your games, but to reward the players who stick with you and make those improvements possible.
Unfortunately, examples of this kind of thinking are hard to come by. The only game I know of that’s already following this plan is Trivia Adventure. After a recent update made a bunch of changes that provided greater rewards to new players, in line with comments from current players, they provided their early adopters with a bunch of free random loot, some of which was pay-for currency. Needless to say, it’s one of the few Facebook games that I still visit.
The answer, to me, seems clear: keep your players updated, and give them the same rewards as everyone else. If performing a particular action daily suddenly rewards twice as much XP, ask a seasoned player next time they log in if they’d like the appropriate amount of extra XP for having performed that action X number of times. If combat suddenly becomes easier based on user feedback, give long-standing accounts a special weapon or armour, or even a non-combat pet, to show that you appreciate them sticking with you. It’s about loyalty, not from your customer to you, but the other way around.
After all, we’re choosing to play your game above everything else we could be doing. The data gathered from the first run of players is invaluable in determining your future feature list, so reward your early adopters for their patience. Without their support, you wouldn’t have a game to improve.