Aug. 6, 2012 at 4:42 PM ET
Facebook gaming giant Zynga is about to launch the latest in its ongoing series of "Ville" games. It's called "ChefVille" and as the name implies, the game puts Facebook players in the shoes of a chef trying to create and run a successful restaurant.
But this week's launch of "ChefVille" comes at a dark time for Zynga. The company is facing multiple lawsuits -- two accusing the top brass of insider trading and a third accusing the company of blatantly copying another company's game. Specifically, Electronic Arts is accusing Zynga of copyright infringement, alleging that Zynga's brand new "The Ville" rips off EA's game "The Sims Social."
When it comes to these accusations of copycatting, the launch of "ChefVille" highlights an interesting question: What's the difference between copyright infringing copycatting and good-ol' game development evolution?
It's a murky area for sure. For its part, Zynga has been frequently accused of borrowing heavily from a whole host of games.
Way back in the company's early days, the creator of "Mob Wars" sued Zynga for copyright infringement after it launched the surprisingly similar Facebook game "Mafia Wars." The case was settled and the maker of "Mob Wars" walked away with about $7 million. Then, when Zynga launched its massively popular game "FarmVille," critics couldn't help but notice that it seemed like "almost an exact duplicate" of a game called "Farm Town."
More recently, the three-person mobile game development team at NimbleBit accused Zynga of ripping off their hit iPhone game "Tiny Tower" with the launch of "Dream Heights." NimbleBit even posted side-by-side screenshots showing the similarities between the two games.
And many of us who follow gaming couldn't help but notice the similarities between Zynga's recently launched match-three game "Ruby Blast" and PopCap's "Bejeweled Blitz" -- or more specifically, the Diamond Mine mode in "Bejeweled 3."
As for "ChefVille," it does seem remarkably similar to another game -- Zynga's own restaurant-simulation game "Cafe World" (first launched back in 2009). But if you want to go back even farther, months before Zynga launched "Cafe World," there was a similar game called "Restaurant City" -- created by Playfish ... who is now owned by (guess who!) Electronic Arts. And many game critics couldn't help but notice those similarities, too.
But well before there was "Restaurant City" there was the restaurant-themed time management game "Diner Dash" and as far as cooking games go, there was "Cooking Mama."
So while some sling about words like "cloning" or "ripoff" -- others use words like "evolution" and "iteration." That is, on the flip side of things, game developers almost always learn from the games that have come before. For example, plenty of developers have taken, say, PopCap's famed match-three "Bejeweled" gameplay, tweaked it and come up with their own game. That's how we ended up with the superb role-playing match-three game "Puzzle Quest."
Meanwhile, one can't help but look at any one of the new first-person shooting games and crank out a list of similarities to first-person shooting games that have come before.
When it comes to "ChefVille," Zynga believes it has taken an older concept, improved upon it and made it fresh again. "I think ChefVille represents a huge evolution in the restaurant genre," studio general manager Jonathan Knight told me recently during an advance look at the company's newest game.
Not only does "ChefVille" boast some of the highest production values you'll find in a Facebook game, he says, but they've baked in some unique gameplay elements.
The basics of the game are this: you create your dream restaurant, designing the layout and decor as well as the menu. French bistro, Italian cafe, American-style eatery ... it's up to you. And as you progress, you unlock new cuisines, cookware, crafting stations, ingredients and recipes.
But what makes this game unique is the multiple ways you can acquire ingredients, Knight says. You not only find different ingredients in the game as you play and unlock the board, but you can borrow them from your Facebook friends and you can "craft" different ingredients by combining other ingredients you've acquired.
Need dough for pizza? Cook it up using the ingredients you've pulled together. Need meat for a burger? Visit your friend's restaurant and they'll gift it to you.
"The ingredient game is really the heart ofthe game," Knight says. "It’s what makes it the most social cooking game."
Meanwhile, Zynga has added a real-world element to the game. That is, as you play, recipes are emailed to you so you can use your real kitchen to cook up dishes that you've dished out in the game world.
Here's a look at the "ChefVille" trailer for some of the highlights:
"ChefVille" is due to launch on Facebook "sometime this week." When it does, you'll be able to find it right here.
Will "ChefVille" stand out as a unique offering on a familiar genre ... or will it feel like yet another all-too-familiar "Ville" game? Only time will tell.
For his part, Knight makes this promise, "This is the definitive game made about food. It’s a social game that’s going to last for a long time."
Winda Benedetti writes about video games for NBC News. You can follow her tweets about games and other things on Twitter here @WindaBenedetti and you can follow her on Google+. Meanwhile, be sure to check out the IN-GAME FACEBOOK PAGE to discuss the day's gaming news and reviews.