Zynga and Open Source

On May 12, 2011, in cocos2d, by Steffen Itterheim

I did a little research to figure out more about Zynga’s involvements in open source projects. The research is not comprehensive nor conclusive but provides a little more insight. At least as much as is possible from a corporation with PR departments.

Membase

Membase is a NoSQL database.

This article reports on Zynga’s involvement as follows:

Casual-game provider Zynga found that its efforts to manage the load of its database operations dovetailed with work being done at NorthScale and NHN and decided to contribute research findings and to the open-source community, as well as sponsoring continuing efforts to maintain and enhance the software.

Sponsoring efforts to maintain and enhance. Sponsoring means there’s money or manpower going into the project. Zynga looks forward to advancing Cocos2D. Notice the difference.

Another article on the same subject quotes Zynga’s CTO Cadir Lee:

“Zynga’s objective was simple: we needed a database that could keep up with the challenging demands of our games while minimizing our average, fully-loaded cost per database operation — including capital equipment, management costs and developer productivity. We evaluated many NoSQL database technologies but all fell short of our stringent requirements. Our membase development efforts dovetailed with work being done at NorthScale and NHN and we’re delighted to contribute our code to the open source community and to sponsor continuing efforts to maintain and enhance the software.”

All except one project on Zynga’s github repository are related to Membase: moxi (forked from membase), zstored, mcmux and pecl-memcached.

In an interview, the Zynga country manager for India Shan Kadavil, refers to Moxi:

Our developers have been involved in various open source projects, including development of open source tools to bug fixes. An example is the Moxi project–when we were looking at scaling our infrastructure, we needed a technology that could help us scale horizontally, add new Web servers as when needed without being bottlenecked at the storage layer. Having examined and scrutinised all the proprietary options, we looked towards open source and found the Moxi project, which worked like a load balancer for the caching layer. We helped scale the Moxi project specifically by adding modifications to handle large cloud computing environments.

This statement did make me wonder what those other open source projects are that Zynga has been involved in? It’s hard to find anything because submitting a code change rarely causes a press release to be issued.

FontLabel

The FontLabel project was released as open source by Zynga. It enables you to render any truetype (ttf) font on the iPhone, not just the built-in fonts provided by Apple. It’s not to be confused with bitmap-font rendering, instead it behaves like UIFont but allows you to use non-system fonts.

FontLabel was added to cocos2d-iphone in September 2009.

To be honest, FontLabel is not the kind of project that would have stopped the world from spinning. But it’s a kind of project that benefits from many developers using, and thus testing it. So making it open source makes sense.

Others OS projects?

It’s hard to find references of Zynga contributing to open source projects, because usually there won’t be a press release issued when a coder submits a fix to a more or less obscure open source project.

I was only aware of one other OS project, that was FontLabel which was actually started by Zynga. If you know an open source project that Zynga contributed to and that I missed, please mention it in a comment, thank you!

But if that is the entire involvement Zynga has with Open Source, then it doesn’t give me the impression that they’re open-source friendly. They support it when it makes sense, for PR, for free beta-testing, or if they need open source technology and want to play nice. In that regard they are no different than any other big company.

Zynga’s view on Open Source

The interview with Zynga’s country manager for India published over a year ago provides some clues.

We think of open source as a movement and not as a particular project. The success of the projects using open source is possible only when multiple people contribute and when the industry endorses them.

Which means that without industry support (read: finances, manpower, marketing) open source projects can not be successful. At least not by their definition of success.

The next statement makes one hopeful:

We have multiple models to involve the community. We have had members from the open source projects work commercially for us to build a platform or tool for us. To that end, we gave the entire output back to the community.

This is practically identical to hiring Ricardo and Rolando. However, I think this statement refers more to contracting agreements rather than employment.

I suspect that Ricardo and Rolando were already working as contractors for Zynga for the past months. From Ricardo’s commits to the cocos2d-iphone project over the past months I always wondered what kind of secret project he was working on. To me the commits looked like by-products of a different, bigger projects. Some commit phases included many smaller changes, not something that you’ll spend your entire day working on.

Before actually moving from continent to continent you almost certainly have to have worked together in some way or another, if only just to get to know each other. So I can imagine something already being developed in secret on a contract basis. The question is, if this is true, what it is and when or if we’ll be seeing it.

The statement following the last one:

Second model is the non-commercial model that involves us getting into open source threads, sharing ideas and work collaboratively with the community with our code fixes.

Ok, so that “model” is basically what any developer does at some point in time. Making code fixes is definitely the easiest way to get something contributed to an open source project, and we all share ideas and collaborate (speak: posting in forums). That sentence made me laugh. Because you can’t really call it a model – it’s what we all do.

How Zynga Germany came to be

By chance I came across another acquisition Zynga made in September 2010. They bought german startup Dextrose (at the time located less than 20 km from where I live) to get ahold of their Aves HTML5 engine and have them become Zynga Germany. Paul Bakaus is co-founder of Dextrose and a jQuery core team member (jQuery UI creator), and now CTO of Zynga Germany.

The interesting aspect here is the Aves engine. It was supposed to be licensed as middleware to other game developers and publishers. But after Zynga’s acquisition it became a proprietary engine and won’t be licensed. All websites of Dextrose and Aves as well as their social networking accounts have since been removed, and Zynga Germany relocated by 80 km to Frankfurt/Main: the city with one of Europe’s busiest airports and many direct flights to overseas. Obviously to make Zynga Germany more accessible for corporate.

Have a look what the engine is capable of and you’ll understand why Zynga had to have it. And why they wanted no one else to have it.

Meaning?

I don’t want to read too much into this, but I’m skeptical. For most corporations, doing good for the community is just not in their program – except of course their PR department. I haven’t found any indication that Zynga is any different. Although they like to be the “google of games”, they’re a far cry from google when it comes to open source projects it seems.

It’s clear that hiring Ricardo and Rolando is providing value for Zynga first and foremost. If it were any other way, the two would not be moving to San Francisco but would be working on a contract basis. Zynga could not possibly buy cocos2d-iphone, so they simply “acquired” the next best thing, which means hiring its key contributors. The cocos2d-iphone project remains untouched, but I worry the emphasis is on remains.

On the other hand, Zynga apparently registered the domain ZyngaCocos2D.com … so maybe there do have bigger plans for cocos2d-iphone?

I assume you’ve heard the news: Zynga hired the cocos2d-iphone lead developer, Ricardo Quesada.

I’d like to try and shed some lights on the open questions that arose. Of course this is my opinion and speculative, so take it with a grain of salt.

What does “acquisition of certain assets of Sapus Media” mean?

Sapus Media products have been bought by Zynga.

In fact, Sapus Tongue Source Code and LevelSVG are no longer for sale. All “buy” links have been removed and all references on the cocos2d-iphone.org store too.

These products may be gone for good, or they may be released for free as a concession to the Cocos2D community.

Why did Zynga buy these products?

Buy-out.

It’s the cash carrot of the deal. Generally you can expect to receive somewhere around 2 years worth of revenue from a software product as buyout price. Whether Zynga wants or uses the products is irrelevant. It’s the price they paid in order to hire Ricardo and Rolando.

It’s common to bring in new employees by acquiring their legal assets. This keeps the new employees focused on the company’s interests rather than their own, and they no longer have to spend time maintaining and supporting their products. After all, they should focus all their efforts on their new job.

It’s also insurance for the company. By removing in the buy-out what once provided the daily income, the new employees are less likely to leave and more loyal to the company.

Did Zynga also acquire cocos2d-iphone?

I don’t think so.

The cocos2d-iphone engine is a product of Sapus Media. It may be a free and open source project, but legally speaking it has always been an asset of Sapus Media. This means that the copyright of all the cocos2d-iphone.org source code originating from Ricardo or Rolando could have been transferred to Zynga if it was part of the acquisition.

But I think it’s more likely that cocos2d-iphone was merely separated (legally speaking) from SapusMedia, making it an independent project which is owned by those who contributed to it.

The fact that you can still donate to cocos2d-iphone seems to validate this. If cocos2d-iphone were entirely Zynga’s now, I’d expect the donate button to have been removed as well. It would be bad PR for Zynga to take donations from the community for a project that they own.

Why can we still donate to cocos2d-iphone?

Likely to cover running costs.

Zynga did not acquire the cocos2d-iphone.org website and its assets (eg the website design, technology and content). That means donations don’t go to Zynga, and may be used to cover the website’s running costs.

It might also mean that it’s an incentive to keep working on the cocos2d-iphone project, like so many other open source project’s donate buttons.

Whether donations are even necessary, and how much money is needed, we don’t know. Unless there’s more transparency regarding expenses I wouldn’t feel comfortable donating at this point.