Video Games and Patents: A Worrying Trend?

Let's discuss whether patenting video game mechanics could be bad for development, and gaming as a whole. It could become a big issue in game development. With how greedy some developers and publishers can be, what's to stop them from snapping up all the great ideas that make our games so enjoyable? Whether it's for money or power, it should be a concern for many gamers.

Video Games and Patents: A Worrying Trend?

With the news of Warner Bros securing a patent for its trademark Nemesis system, used in Shadow of Mordor and its sequel, it got me thinking; if developers and publishers can take ownership of entire game systems, how is that meant to be good for the industry? Plenty of developers have weighed in with their thoughts—Josh Sawyer, an Obsidian design director, and Thomas Was Alone developer Mike Bithell both were less than thrilled by the news.

Let’s be honest, there are plenty of stories of developers and publishers who get up to some pretty shady stuff, so who could blame them? Whether it’s rinse and repeat sports games, aggressive, overpriced microtransactions and releasing unfinished games.

But, it is my opinion that this could become a real issue in the future, with the potential to have unpleasant effects on games and their development.

Hey, That’s my idea!

Let’s clear up some definitions first, just so we’re on the same page. 

In case you haven’t played Shadow of Mordor or the sequel Shadow of War, the Nemesis system is the game’s unique mechanic. It creates randomly generated orcs all with different stats, strengths, weaknesses and looks. These orcs have different reactions and responses to the player, that can affect how they respond to situations and make the game a bit more organic and dynamic. For a more detailed explanation, you can watch this great video by Game Makers Toolkit below.

How the Nemesis System Creates Stories

In simple terms, patents are essentially documents that give an inventor (in this case, the developers) the right to be the only one to make or sell their invention for a certain amount of time. In essence, it means no one else can use this idea, unless they pay the inventor for the right to.

Studios have been doing it for years. Bioware for instance has the patent for the dialogue wheel that is famously featured in Mass Effect, or Sega who once had a patent on the corkscrew loops in the original Sonic games. If infringed upon, the consequences depend on the country and different factors. The same applies to punishments, with some being compensation and blocking any future attempts to make the invention or product in question.

Anti-creative or protecting their work?

The more I think about this, the more split I am on which side of the discussion I land on. I have my concerns much as other developers do, but that doesn’t mean I’m blind to why developers and publishers might do this. Building a mechanic like the Nemesis system takes a lot of development time and resources and naturally, they might want to protect their creative work. Especially if you put so much time, effort and money into creating something unique.

The Famous Bioware Dialogue wheel

The Famous Bioware Dialogue wheel

But isn’t building on what’s come before part of what makes this industry so successful? I’ve no doubt if you ask any creative person, they would in some way share this sentiment. 

Think of a popular game released in the last few years. What often helps set them apart is how they improve upon mechanics or systems that have come before. Be it additions that make them more robust or little adjustments that change the way you play in small but meaningful ways. Yes, developers can pay to use this system if they want, but it’s how other creatives use and build on previous work that makes gaming enjoyable for both the developers and the gamers. If developers and publishers take ownership of these systems, how does that promote diverse and interesting games?

Business smart or just plain greedy?

Think of companies like EA or Activision, that, let’s be frank, aren’t in a lot of players’ good books. What if they took ownership of multiple endings in games? Or Crafting systems? It’s not a stretch to imagine some of these publishers and developers being very active in enforcing this patent. What’s to stop them from using this as a way to stifle competition? Or screwing over other developers with similar systems? Or even indie studios? That doesn’t sound very creative friendly if you ask me.

Game Patents - Protecting Crazy Taxi's Arrow, Nintendo's D-Pad & More

Maybe that’s a very cynical view, but a lot has happened in recent years that hasn’t built good faith. Just look at Cyberpunk‘s troubled launch or the constant discussion about crunch culture. That’s not to say every developer is guilty of this, but it certainly has left people slightly jaded towards them and their motives.

The point is having a patent on a system or mechanic can be a big hindrance to developers in the long run. With how broad patents can be and the well-documented greed of some studios, I worry this may become a trend amongst studios. Buying up ideas, keeping them to themselves and racking in money for those willing to pay.

Should gamers be worried?

There are a plethora of reasons for and against patenting these ideas, with both being valid in their own ways. But it is hard for me to shake this feeling of profit before creativity when I think about this. Too many times over the last few years have some developers and publishers shown their true colours, being more interested in their bottom line than creating good games and art. I’m more sceptical than hopeful for the time being, and just hope that this doesn’t end up becoming companies next money-grabbing stunt. I’m interested in creativity and collaboration, not hogging ideas.

What’re your thoughts on this topic? Do you think it’s cause for concern or the nature of the business? Let us know in the comments below.

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