NimbleBit accuses Zynga of copying Tiny Tower

Mobile dev issues open letter highlighting similarities with Zynga's Dream Heights

Mobile developer NimbleBit has issued an open letter highlighting the similarities between its iOS hit Tiny Tower and and Zynga's latest mobile game, Dream Heights.

The letter was posted on Twitter by Ian Marsh, NimbleBit's co-founder. The actual text comprises brief, ironic sentences, showering Zynga with insincere praise.

"We noticed you are about to launch a new iPhone game called Dream Heights. Congratulations!" the letter reads.

"We wanted to thank all you guys for being such big fans of our iPhone game of the year Tiny Tower. Good luck with your game, we are looking forward to inspiring you with our future games."

The text is accompanied by a series of images that place screenshots from Tiny Tower and Dream Heights side-by-side, illustrating clear similarities in numerous areas of the game: the title screen, menus, levelling mechanics and gameplay.

David Marsh, who founded Nimblebit with his brother Ian, also joined the conversation on Twitter.

Zynga did go the honest route and try to acquire us first

Ian Marsh, NimbleBit

"Pretty sad when a company of 2789 people can't even come up with their own game ideas. What a large scale failure of imagination," he said.

"I don't wish Zynga any ill will, I just think it's depressing for all the devs at Zynga that don't have creative freedom."

As the Marsh brothers' Twitter followers began to respond, Ian also noted that, "[Zynga] did go the honest route and try to acquire us first."

NimbleBit's accusations of plagiarism have already begun to spark a strong response from other mobile and social developers.

Daniel Cook, CCO of Spryfox, was particularly forceful, describing those that spend their days "copying and selling the works of others" as "horrible human beings."

"It doesn't matter if it is your job. Or if you need the money. Or if some boss told you to do it," Cook said. "You pushed the pixels that hurt someone."

Zynga is no stranger to such accusations. Last year, the social gaming giant won a preliminary injunction against the Brazilian developer Vostu, after claiming that a number of its games infringed Zynga copyrights.

"Vostu has brazenly appropriated the copyright-protected aspects of Zynga's games...with scant effort to mask their strategy, and then offered games virtually identical to Zynga's games to prospective players in the United States and elsewhere," the company said at the time.

Growth in the mobile market is a key part of Zynga's current strategy. Earlier this month, the company's chief mobile officer David Ko revealed that it had acquired four mobile developers in the second half of 2012: HipLogic, Astro Ape Studios, Page44 Studios and Gamedoctors.

Zynga's performance and practices have been under intense scrutiny since its IPO last December. New releases like Hidden Chronicles on Facebook and Scramble With Friends on iOS have not matched the early performance of comparable titles in the company's history, and its shares have traded as much as 20 per cent below the IPO price of $10.

More stories

Zynga reports revenues of $705m in Q3

Mobile firm sees 40% income increase year-over-year, and strengthens bottom line with reduced losses

By Danielle Partis

Zynga grants $1.4m to North Carolina A&T college of engineering

New partnership with university announced to address racial disparities in gaming industry and establish career pipeline

By Jeffrey Rousseau

Latest comments (24)

Bruce Everiss Marketing Consultant 9 years ago
Virtually every video game is derivative.
Just research the top iOS games, for instance, and many of them have their roots in the rich heritage of flash games.
So it is just a matter of how blatant the derivation is!
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Wesley Williams Quality Assurance 9 years ago
I've always wondered why we never seem to see innovation in video games patented like you would see in business software? Not that I'm advocating patents for video game ideas, but why is there a difference?
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Unfortunately our poster boy/gal Zynga is happy to protect its derivative games against such practicies but is happy to turn a blind eye when developing new titles. Pot Kettle. Dishwasher! yeah!
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Show all comments (24)
Sandy Lobban Founder, Noise Me Up9 years ago
We have had so many clones of Wipeout its impossible to keep count. We'd welcome any competition and aim to blow it away. They should make a better version or their original franchise. Reinvent of be reinvented - thats games for you.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Neil Alphonso Lead Designer, Splash Damage Ltd9 years ago
Wesley, the patent system simply moves too slowly, in the US anyway. It can take years for a patent to get approved, which of course is enough for a few releases in the games industry.

The story about Sega patenting the directional arrow in Crazy Taxi is a good read.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Stephen Parkes co-founder, Distorted Poetry9 years ago
I remember when WipeOut was called an F-Zero clone, Sandy :)

The vast majority Zyngas output is little more than a clone of an already successful title by a smaller studio which is different to taking existing ideas and using them as a starting point for your own.

If Zynga took Little Computer People and gave us The Sims or F-Zero and gave us Wipeout people would be impressed with their vision and execution but cloning an existing IP and putting a little polish on it isn't the same by a long shot.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Matthew Handrahan European Deputy Editor, GamesIndustry.biz9 years ago
The issue is compounded by the size of mobile games relative to products like The Sims or Wipeout. The Sims has more scope to embellish on the ideas and games that inspired its creators, but the simplicity of most mobile games doesn't offer developers the same luxury. In this case, Zynga's adherence to the design of Tiny Tower is at least as blatant as Vostu's alleged facisimile of FarmVille.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Wesley Williams Quality Assurance 9 years ago
Neil, I could understand that, but a patent is valid (if it goes on to be accepted) from the moment a filing is made. So for example, say that today I file a patent around a new kind of mechanic in a platform game that has never been used before and while my patent is being processed (which may take a couple of years) you release a game containing that mechanic. As long as my patent is eventually accepted and I can prove I came up with the idea first (e.g. there's no prior art issue), I "win". Speed of the industry doesn't seem that relevant, especially when we look at the mobile phone industry right now, arguably the fastest moving industry around. Maybe I'm missing something?

Will take a look at the Crazy Taxi story though, thanks for pointing it out.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 9 years ago
Wait, there is an impossible to count number of Wipeout clones? if he said modern military shooters, then I would have been inclined to agree, but Wipeout does not have that many clones. Especially not on current generation consoles. Mybe Powerdrom for the original Xbox and XGRA for Gamecube.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Kingman Cheng Illustrator and Animator 9 years ago
+1 on Dr. Wong.

Zynga - It's ok for us to be derivative, but derive our derivatives and we'll come down on you like a ton of bricks!
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Dan Porter Game Designer, Gameloft Montreal9 years ago
@Bruce Everiss -- Absoultely! Almost every game out there has some if not most of its mechanics taken directly from something else.

I think what we are seeing as a reaction to this most recent Zynga title is more of a reflection of people disliking Zynga's business practices than the origin of their ideas.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Robert McLachlan Game Designer 9 years ago
@Sandy Lobban
Wipeout was released in 1995
F-Zero was released in 1990
Powerdrome was released in 1988

From Wikipedia Wipeout entry:
"Nick Burcombe, the game's future designer, was inspired to create a racing game using the same types of vehicles from his experience with Powerdrome [and] F-Zero"

Most games are derivative. Tiny Tower bears more than a passing resemblance to Sim Tower.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Sandy Lobban Founder, Noise Me Up9 years ago
@Stephen. Yes, F Zero was a decent game. Im old enough for that one too :) Good example of a franchise that just didnt move along and evolve, which is my point.

@Klaus. Obviously it is in fact possible to count them. I use it as a figure of speech in saying that they pop up all the time on all sorts of devices with an attempt at an abstract design style which has become strongly identified with Wipeout. Military shooters would obviously share the same game mechanics and similar scenarios of war and human conflict, but you cant exactly say they are clones of eachother because of that. It may be some other feature you see as being cloned, Im not sure. Most try and look or feel a bit different and offer some unique level design or game play in my experience. Some manage it, some dont. The ones that do take a slice of the market and they go on and build on it.

I can see how it can be problematic for indies though with someone who has a lot of cash at their disposal, but that will always be the case. Ultimately someone can take the Zynga version of it and improve it further, which I am sure is entirely possible given the fact I havent seem a single game from them worth spending any of my time far!

0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Shaun Farol Studying Computer Information Systems, California Polytechnic State University9 years ago
Well if you want to get into semantics I am a fan of Yoot Tower myself. Its named after Yoot Saito the designer for SimTower and is basically the post-Maxis direct sequel to his first game.

What do you know? That game was ported it iOS aswell.
Not as stylized as other Tower games but the OG certainly has its appeal. Since it is borne from an Elevator Simulation program its stressed vertical logistics a lot more than others.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
How about we see a totally new original IP from Zynga. No ripomatics, no smoke and mirrors but some high quality gaming
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Unfortunately or fortunately, game mechanics are not protected except if you find a way to patent one. That said, many of the most successful indie titles of the last decade have simply taken a proven game mechanic and stylised or buffed it. Angry Birds for one obvious example. Defence Grid for another. Torchlight for a third. Mainstream successes fall in similar vein.

BUT imagine a law against plagiarising mechanics!? That would keep lawyers in clover _forever_ :(
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Phil Morris Audio Producer 9 years ago
All credit to David Whittaker and Lazy Jones from 1984, who is copying who?

[link url=

Lazy Jones is a computer game for the Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, MSX and Tatung Einstein. It was written by David Whittaker and released by Terminal Software in 1984. The Spectrum version was ported by Simon Cobb.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Alex Hutchinson Creative Director, Ubisoft Montreal9 years ago
Are we really having this discussion?

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Alex Hutchinson on 25th January 2012 6:49pm

0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Andrew Jakobs Lead Programmer 9 years ago
haha, this is really not done for a company that sues other companies for recreating their copies..

Looking at 99% of all mobile games and you'll see they all look alike.. The ammount of simcity clones for example is also too many.. but hey if you can get away with it and even make a bit of money, then why not..

I play tinytower on my android device, and must say it looks great (yeah yeah, I'm a blocky pixel lover), but the game isn't really something to write about as it has soo little gamemechanics or options.. I was even thinking of making a tinytower clone myself (at least for getting to know about developing on android and mobile devices) not for release (unless it has a different setting and gameplay (or at least extended gameplay))..

Also tinytower itself isn't that original to begin with, but the zynga version is an exact clone with 'better' graphics..
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Steven Hodgson Programmer, Code in Progress Ltd9 years ago
I think my main issue with zynga in this instance, is their hypocrisy. Only last year they sued Vostu for their clone of CityVille, called MegaCity. Has anyone seen screenshots of Megacity? They pretty much copied what zynga did but gave a new skin, akin to what zynga appear to have done with nimblebit's Tiny Tower.

Copyrights and patents hold us all back from making some games really amazing, while also being restricted does force us to explore new avenues and sometimes find better solutions.

It maybe isn't the correct route to stop direct cloning of a game like this, but I would have thought there to be at least be some kind of unwritten agreement between professionals, otherwise we're no better than programmers making Minecraft clones on XBLI.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Steven Hodgson on 25th January 2012 8:08pm

0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Rick Underhill Level Artist, EA DICE9 years ago
drama! go!
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Ove Larsen9 years ago
Yoot Tower and TinyTower? Really?! That was the kicker?
We're talking about a game getting practically reskinned, and you bring up Yoot Tower as some kind of skeleton in the closet?
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Andrew Wilson 3D Artist 9 years ago
I don't mind playing a game that was designed by someone who had played another game and wanted to build on it, but playing a game that was designed by someone who had the original game open in the other window so he didn't forget to copy everything is a bit much...
Incidentally, I thought Tiny Tower was kinda crap anyway - just another "wait 4 hours for something to happen or pay me some money" grab for cash. No wonder Zynga wants in!
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Justin Manning Senior Producer, EA Bright Light9 years ago
SimTower anyone? Nimblebit might be in a bit of glasshouse...
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply

Sign in to contribute

Need an account? Register now.