NimbleBit's note to Zynga

Part of NimbleBit's public note to Zynga

I’ve recently wrapped up a week at GDC (or the Game Developers Conference), a one week event attracting thousands of the leading players in console, mobile, social, and indie game development from around the world to San Francisco to learn about the newest technology and ideas in the industry.

This year’s event had a clear underlying theme, mentioned in some way at every single one of the talks I joined: idea theft. Idea theft / inspiration has been a part of innovation in every industry since the dawn of human history; it’s an inescapable part of public creation. In the gaming industry, the topic has recently heated up with the very public display of Zynga’s Dream Heights’ “theftspiration” from NimbleBit’s Tiny Tower, and now the lawsuit between Spry Fox (Triple Town) and 6L (YetiTown).
On the one hand, I am thrilled to see this becoming more publically shamed and pointed out. It’s especially disgusting when a multi-billion dollar company blatantly steals from a smaller indie developer, and we should hold these companies accountable for their actions (regardless of whether it was “accidental). However, many of the GDC speakers now seemed nervous to even mention that they looked at competitors. For example, when one speaker spoke about how she watches competitors’ games and uses the changes she sees as a way of judging what users like and do not, she was quick to say “not that we steal their data directly; we just watch their design choices and incorporate it into our decisions.” Or when another speaker mentioned how he was very inspired by a competitor, he was quick to add that “we were very careful to create a unique experience for our users.” In both cases, the thought that what they were describing might have even been mistaken as theft never crossed my mind. So why were they so nervous about it?
We may be creating a dangerous level of fear within our industry, which has just as much risk of stalling innovation as encouraging theft can: theft and inspiration dance on either side of a very hazy line. While we should continue calling out clear cases of idea theft, let’s not create an atmosphere where developers are afraid to look at existing products, draw inspiration from competition, and/or iterate a better product on one that they’ve found lacking.
Where is the line for you? How far do you think a company can go before an “Inspired by?” becomes a “Stolen from?”  I’m looking forward to sharing more next week on my personal definition of “Theft” vs. “Inspiration”, but I’d love to hear yours.
{Image from a note NimbleBit shared online to Zynga}

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