This little exchange yesterday on Twitter says a lot about why Electronic Arts is suing the Facebook gaming giant Zynga, and how the publishing giant really sees itself in doing so.
Nimblebit is the outfit behind Tiny Tower, which Zynga blatantly ripped off with Dream Heights earlier this year, and did little more than shrug when Nimblebit complained. Nimblebit more or less had to take it, because it doesn't have the kind of legal services budget that can cut a $27 million check and consider it a nearly unconditional victory. Electronic Arts, however, does.
We've seen this sort of thing from EA before. Sure, it has legal standing to sue for alleged infringement when so much of The Ville appears to be a straight-up copy of The Sims Social. But as the company made clear in its statement yesterday, it has other reasons for doing this. Such as great PR.
Remember Tim Langdell? The guy who thought he owned the word "edge"? He got away with his trademark terrorism simply because no one wanted the headache of taking on a guy who sues people for a living. EA, a company that could otherwise toss a C&D from a guy like Langdell in the trash if it wanted, decided to battle it out over Mirror's Edge. Not only did it end up canceling all of Langdell's trademarks, it exposed his entire operation as a fraud.
It takes a hell of a situation to make a publisher like EA, the object of such constant gamer wrath, distrust and abuse, into a sympathetic party, much less a hero. But taking on a figure more despicable to hardcore gamers is a great start. No matter how pissed off the average Madden, Battlefield or Mass Effect gamer is at EA, they pretty much all view Zynga as a parasite that publishes candy-assed, pay-to-win piffle designed to bleed big-spending "whales" who don't know any better, and harvest and sell the personal information of anyone unfortunate to be spammed with an invitation.
Other lower profile actions since then have been taken under a pretense of industry leadership, too, including a pre-emptive lawsuit against Bell Helicopter that could, conceivably, have beneficial ramifications for the development community at large, not just Electronic Arts. It was expressed to me, more than once, that that case was EA deciding to probe the real protections afforded by the Supreme Court's 2011 ruling that video games are works of art, on behalf of the games industry as a whole.
It could be that Electronic Arts really is calling out Zynga out of altruism, grabbing an arriviste loudmouth by the collar and telling him his behavior isn't acceptable around here. I don't see how this lawsuit could extract some kind of broad promise from Zynga to no longer steal others' games, though. Analysts expect this grudge match to end in a settlement, with good reason. That's usually how it ends when huge companies battle it out in court. Never mind the cost, the murky nature of what is and isn't acceptable in game cloning—hell, Tiny Tower could be seen as a clip job of SimTower, owned by EA—makes it a big risk for Electronic Arts to carry this kind of legal adventure to its conclusion. Who's to say it wouldn't establish a precedent that creates future litigation against the company.
That's why this looks mostly like a great PR move. Go up to the biggest asshole on the playground—it helps that Zynga has had a pretty bad week—and make a big public show out of telling him to cut the crap. Now, you still have to be prepared to fight, and Electronic Arts certainly is. But it's already taken care of the hard part—gathering up a cheering section.