BaZynga!

by Greenberg Glusker Fields Claman & Machtinger LLP
Contact

Free-to-play games are all the rage these days.  Many people while away their days playing Angry Birds, or Words with Friends before going home to watch Monday Night Football.  Nerds — and, increasingly, “normal people” — do the exact same thing, except instead of watching football, we play games like Super Monday Night Combat.  This summer, the remarkable viability of the free-to-play business model gained extra attention when Forbes reported that the most-played PC game in the world is now a free-to-play game called League of Legends.  For those of you struggling to understand the profitability part, just take a look at League of Legends character Teemo (pictured left).  I mean, seriously, who can resist purchasing all the adorable “skins” for him?!  (Clearly, not me.)

Nevertheless, the business world of free-to-play gaming is not without its dark, seedy underbelly, where even the cute and cuddly characters are forced to work in digital sweatshops and sell virtual drugs on simulated street corners just to make ends meet.  Well, ok, maybe it’s not that extreme.  But as a recent (and bitter) dispute between game makers Zynga and Kixeye demonstrates, the gaming business can be just as ugly (and fascinating) as some of the game battles themselves.

You Know the Games, But Who Are the Players?

Zynga and Kixeye are both companies based in San Francisco that publish online social games for Facebook.

Most people know Zynga for their popular Facebook games like Words with Friends or Zynga Poker.  Others know them for games like FarmVille where players can engage in make-believe farming with their friends.  (Others know them for their reputation for aggressive firings and generally employee-unfriendly conduct…more on that soon.)  And before you laugh about who in their right mind would want to engage in virtual agriculture, you should know that Zynga currently has more than 280 million monthly active users and that FarmVille 2 currently boasts more than 8.5 million users per day.  That’s one heck of a lot of digital manure.

Kixeye, by comparison, is a much smaller company, with just under a million daily average users. According to Kixeye’s CEO, Will Harbin:

“Our games have little in common with the ones that Zynga is known for.  We make synchronous, combat strategy games.  They make asynchronous cow clicking games.  We have 2 of the top 7 highest grossing games on Facebook.  Why on earth would we want to emulate a business that has seen a 75% decline in share price since their debut?  According to their S1 their games average $.06 ARPDAU.  Our games generate up to 20x that.  You do the math.”

In terms of their markets, Zynga targets “casual gamers” whereas Kixeye targets “mid-core gamers” (i.e., gamer mini-geeks who are not quite geeky enough to be considered “hard-core”).

Or at least that used to be the case.  Zynga now appears to be making inroads into the “mid-core” market space, as evidenced by a recent acquisition.  At the same time, Kixeye recently poached one of Zynga’s employees, Alan Patmore, who ran one of Zynga’s more lucrative games, called Cityville.  (As a huge SimCity fan, I really can’t make any jokes about the joys of being a virtual mayor.  When my virtual citizens are happy, I am happy too.)

The (Inevitable) Lawsuit

About a month after Patmore left Zynga for Kixeye, Zynga sued him, claiming that Patmore misappropriated company trade secrets and breached his company confidentiality agreement by transferring over 700 documents from his work computer and backing them up online.  Zynga then obtained a protective order preventing Patmore from accessing or using the files in any way, and subsequently amended its complaint to include Kixeye as a defendant in the lawsuit.  Kixeye then turned around and counterattacked Zynga with a scathing cross-complaint.

In the cross-complaint, Kixeye alleges that while Zynga is struggling mightily in the marketplace and that “important talent [is] leaving the company in a mass exodus,” Kixeye, by comparison, is doing quite well for itself.  Kixeye further alleges that Mr. Patmore “responded to the lawsuit by cooperating fully with Zynga” and that “despite [his] cooperation and the fact that none of the forensic computer analysis done by Zynga show that he disclosed any documents containing trade secrets to Kixeye,” Zynga nevertheless added Kixeye as a defendant in the lawsuit.

According to Kixeye, “Zynga’s lawsuit has two aims…(1) to send a message to its employees about the consequences of leaving Zynga to work at Kixeye…and (2) to use the litigation as a Trojan Horse to gain access to Kixeye’s own confidential, valuable information and trade secrets and bog Kixeye down in the wasted time and expense of litigation while Zynga tries to enter the midcore market.”  (Yup, there’s that reputation for employee-unfriendly conduct.)

If that wasn’t enough, Kixeye goes on, in excruciating detail, to explain its theory that Zynga is engaging in unfair competition, including a recitation of how Zynga employees allegedly described how Zynga’s leadership openly admitted to copying its competitors internally.  According to the cross-complaint, “One former Zynga senior employee recalled a meeting with Zynga CEO Mark Pincus, in which Pincus stated:  ‘I don’t f***ing want innovation….  You’re not smarter than your competitor.  Just copy what they do and do it until you get their numbers.”  The cross-complaint goes on to discuss other interviews “where ‘several former Zynga workers indicated that the practice of stealing other companies’ game ideas — and then using Zynga’s market clout to crowd out the games’ originators — was business as usual.”

To paraphrase a famous gaming meme, Kixeye essentially alleges that Zynga’s business strategy is to go around to its competitors saying:  “All your trade secrets are belong to us.

Can Zynga Do that?

Because the bar for obtaining discovery with respect to trade secrets is high, a company pursuing a strategy of “find the other guy’s trade secrets by suing over your own” has a tough legal path to tread.  In California, a party alleging the misappropriation of a trade secret has to “identify the trade secret with reasonable particularitybefore it can obtain discovery from the other side.  Even after identification of the trade secrets, there are a number of obstacles that can get in the way based on the circumstances of the case.

But in most of these cases between big fish and little fish, the real issue is the cost of litigation for the little fish.  For smaller companies, it can be hard to compete with competitors (or soon-to-be competitors) that have Scrooge McDuck sized coffers, which are presumably used  to host daily money swims.  Even in this case, where Kixeye is going on the offensive and looks ready to fight tooth-and-nail, finances (or the lack thereof) will probably dictate exactly how long the fight will last.

This case is a good example of why it is particularly important to be careful when poaching valuable employees from competitors.  As one might suspect, if there is even a hint of smoke, we lawyers are very, very good at making it look like there might be a fire.  Even if Zynga’s claim is ultimately bogus, as Kixeye contends, Kixeye may find itself feeling a bit like Leonard Hofstadter chasing fellow physicist Sheldon Cooper around in the ball-pit, trying to be the mature party, while Sheldon keeps frustratingly dodging Leonard, all the while shouting: “BaZynga!

 

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

© Greenberg Glusker Fields Claman & Machtinger LLP | Attorney Advertising

Written by:

Greenberg Glusker Fields Claman & Machtinger LLP
Contact
more
less

Greenberg Glusker Fields Claman & Machtinger LLP on:

Readers' Choice 2017
Reporters on Deadline

"My best business intelligence, in one easy email…"

Your first step to building a free, personalized, morning email brief covering pertinent authors and topics on JD Supra:
Sign up using*

Already signed up? Log in here

*By using the service, you signify your acceptance of JD Supra's Privacy Policy.
Custom Email Digest
Privacy Policy (Updated: October 8, 2015):
hide

JD Supra provides users with access to its legal industry publishing services (the "Service") through its website (the "Website") as well as through other sources. Our policies with regard to data collection and use of personal information of users of the Service, regardless of the manner in which users access the Service, and visitors to the Website are set forth in this statement ("Policy"). By using the Service, you signify your acceptance of this Policy.

Information Collection and Use by JD Supra

JD Supra collects users' names, companies, titles, e-mail address and industry. JD Supra also tracks the pages that users visit, logs IP addresses and aggregates non-personally identifiable user data and browser type. This data is gathered using cookies and other technologies.

The information and data collected is used to authenticate users and to send notifications relating to the Service, including email alerts to which users have subscribed; to manage the Service and Website, to improve the Service and to customize the user's experience. This information is also provided to the authors of the content to give them insight into their readership and help them to improve their content, so that it is most useful for our users.

JD Supra does not sell, rent or otherwise provide your details to third parties, other than to the authors of the content on JD Supra.

If you prefer not to enable cookies, you may change your browser settings to disable cookies; however, please note that rejecting cookies while visiting the Website may result in certain parts of the Website not operating correctly or as efficiently as if cookies were allowed.

Email Choice/Opt-out

Users who opt in to receive emails may choose to no longer receive e-mail updates and newsletters by selecting the "opt-out of future email" option in the email they receive from JD Supra or in their JD Supra account management screen.

Security

JD Supra takes reasonable precautions to insure that user information is kept private. We restrict access to user information to those individuals who reasonably need access to perform their job functions, such as our third party email service, customer service personnel and technical staff. However, please note that no method of transmitting or storing data is completely secure and we cannot guarantee the security of user information. Unauthorized entry or use, hardware or software failure, and other factors may compromise the security of user information at any time.

If you have reason to believe that your interaction with us is no longer secure, you must immediately notify us of the problem by contacting us at info@jdsupra.com. In the unlikely event that we believe that the security of your user information in our possession or control may have been compromised, we may seek to notify you of that development and, if so, will endeavor to do so as promptly as practicable under the circumstances.

Sharing and Disclosure of Information JD Supra Collects

Except as otherwise described in this privacy statement, JD Supra will not disclose personal information to any third party unless we believe that disclosure is necessary to: (1) comply with applicable laws; (2) respond to governmental inquiries or requests; (3) comply with valid legal process; (4) protect the rights, privacy, safety or property of JD Supra, users of the Service, Website visitors or the public; (5) permit us to pursue available remedies or limit the damages that we may sustain; and (6) enforce our Terms & Conditions of Use.

In the event there is a change in the corporate structure of JD Supra such as, but not limited to, merger, consolidation, sale, liquidation or transfer of substantial assets, JD Supra may, in its sole discretion, transfer, sell or assign information collected on and through the Service to one or more affiliated or unaffiliated third parties.

Links to Other Websites

This Website and the Service may contain links to other websites. The operator of such other websites may collect information about you, including through cookies or other technologies. If you are using the Service through the Website and link to another site, you will leave the Website and this Policy will not apply to your use of and activity on those other sites. We encourage you to read the legal notices posted on those sites, including their privacy policies. We shall have no responsibility or liability for your visitation to, and the data collection and use practices of, such other sites. This Policy applies solely to the information collected in connection with your use of this Website and does not apply to any practices conducted offline or in connection with any other websites.

Changes in Our Privacy Policy

We reserve the right to change this Policy at any time. Please refer to the date at the top of this page to determine when this Policy was last revised. Any changes to our privacy policy will become effective upon posting of the revised policy on the Website. By continuing to use the Service or Website following such changes, you will be deemed to have agreed to such changes. If you do not agree with the terms of this Policy, as it may be amended from time to time, in whole or part, please do not continue using the Service or the Website.

Contacting JD Supra

If you have any questions about this privacy statement, the practices of this site, your dealings with this Web site, or if you would like to change any of the information you have provided to us, please contact us at: info@jdsupra.com.

- hide
*With LinkedIn, you don't need to create a separate login to manage your free JD Supra account, and we can make suggestions based on your needs and interests. We will not post anything on LinkedIn in your name. Or, sign up using your email address.