Video game patents are a tricky business. The first company to an idea may be able to protect their brand but for video games it typically stunts the growth of the industry. Sometimes even the most simple of ideas can be locked behind a legal patent – meaning the industry has to struggle around it. We figured it would be a good time to take a look back at 10 video game patents that we felt were designed to handicap the industry on the whole – and explore their long-term impact.
Nintendo’s patent on the Cross-Shaped D-Pad
Take a look back at all the consoles released in the 1990’s and you’ll notice something peculiar – they all have very different D-Pad’s. The reason for this is simple, Nintendo (until 2005) owned the patent for the iconic D-Pad design; which forced other game companies to modify the design heavily. Developed by engineer Gunpei Yokoi for the Game & Watch series of devices, Nintendo was very quick to protect the iconic design – which it still uses to this day.
The patent stopped competitors from stealing the iconic design for themselves, meaning developers had to create their own take on the form factor. The patent officially expired in 2005 – meaning developers could finally make use of the one size design that’s featured prominently on all of Nintendo’s consoles.
What was the impact?: The quality of other console D-Pads has been anywhere from adequate to awful (See the Xbox 360). The patent arguably held back the development of console controllers a good number of years.
Midway Ghost Cars for Time Trails
Interestingly Midway have held a patent for the use of ghost cars in racing companies for well over two decades – although it wasn’t them that came up with the idea. The first instance of this mechanic came in the form of 1989’s Hard Drivin’ – a game that let players race against a translucent recording of their previous races. The feature appeared several more times until Atari patented the feature in 1996 – just as the company was being snapped up by Midway.
The patent has since been updated in 2004, with the company licensing out the feature to other developers. So at the very least it’s not being held out of developers reach. Unlike the following….
What was the impact?: The feature is fairly ubiquitous in racing games; it’s hard to imagine a time trial mode without ghost cars. Yet the fact that the feature is licensed out has at least allowed gamers to reap the benefits of it beyond Hard Drivin’.
Namco’s Loading Screen Mini-Games
Perhaps one of the more famous instances of video game patents gone wild was that of Namco’s loading screen games. Before the PlayStation brought loading screens to video games en-masse, the Commodore 64 used to take anywhere between 30 seconds and 8 minutes to load into a game. Back during this time Namco cottoned on to the idea of inserting mini-games into its loading screens as a means of keeping gamers engaged. It worked and so the company went ahead and patented the idea; meaning other developers couldn’t use the idea in their games.
Anyone who’s played one of Namco’s titles will likely have seen the likes of Galaxian and StarBlade being used as loading-screen fluff in the likes of Tekken and Ridge Racer at some stage. Other series have tried to circumvent this; Bayonetta, Assassins Creed and FIFA using the loading screens as extensions of the main game experience. But it’s not the same and thankfully for gamers; Namco’s patent expired recently.
What was the impact?: Games have tried to get around this one, leaving us with various awkward loading screens in the process. Whether developers use this one effectively remains to be seen.
Midway Patents Unlocking Secrets with Peripherals
Something of a precursor to the Amiibo/Skylander popularity boom, Midway tried to move ahead with the idea of tying certain video game secrets to hardware devices. The idea was that gamers would have to buy certain third-party controllers if they wanted to unlock certain features or characters within the game.
Consider that this was originally intended to be utilised in the Mortal Kombat series, a line of games which has a cast of iconic characters and it’s easy to see how this could have been abused. The likes of Scorpion being locked away behind hardware barriers – forcing gamers to stump up huge amounts of cash for third-party peripherals (That would have been dodgy at best). The idea never made it past concept stage, but given the insane popularity of Mortal Kombat in the 1990’s, it’s hard to see how this wouldn’t have been seen by many as a massive cash grab.
What was the impact?: Mercifully the idea was suffocated before it hit the market. Imagine if the industry had gone DLC crazy in the mid-90’s – we shudder to imagine.
Sega’s In-Game Directional Pointer
Sega has a wealth of odd patents stashed away in its vault (Sonics running animation from the original Sega Genesis games is oddly one). Perhaps though the weirdest patent Sega has on its books is that of the huge directional arrow that made its appearance in Crazy Taxi. The arrow helps show gamers the direction of their target, changing colour the closer they get to their target and making it easier to navigate the world.
What was the impact?: While patenting an arrow seems trivial, Sega has defended it quite aggressively. So heavily defended was this patent that when The Simpsons Road Rage was released, Sega instantly moved to sue EA for breaching its copyright. The issue was ultimately settled out of court, but it goes to show that even the simplest of ideas in video games can be patented.
Microsoft’s Patent for Gaming Finesse
Sometimes you hear about style over substance, in Microsoft’s case it’s very much real. The company actually owns a patent for gamers completing a level by “Scoring based upon goals achieved and subjective elements” while “sliding, spinning, jumping, blocking an opponent, passing an opponent, and avoiding obstacles”.
The patent was originally designed to protect Project Gotham Racing, a series that relied heavily on completing levels with style. The game featured a Kudo’s system that was unlike anything in the games competitors, although in the years since that series was put to bed, Microsoft hasn’t gone out of its way to defend the patent.
What was the impact?: A lack of Project Gotham Racing clones is probably the biggest tragedy from all this – the series being shuttered in the late 2000’s.
Activision Blizzard Patents Using Figurines with Games
Skylanders changed the game when it hit store shelves. Upon its release, gamers were greeted with a wide variety of colourful figurines that could be used in conjunction with the game. These unlocked more of the world and allowed gamers to vastly change the way that they operate. It was a hugely successful move by the company, which to this day has been on the receiving end of
The patent itself covers server-based interactive video game toys and the use of a platform to identify such toys. We suspect that the reason Nintendo and Disney were able to sidestep the issue is because they utilise the technology in vastly different ways. Nintendo’s Amiibo’s allow gamers to store small amounts of data on their figurines that can be transformed. As such the patent hasn’t stopped other developers from making use of the idea (Although Nintendo and Activision did collaborate on a joint Amiibo/Skylanders release, so who knows what the nature of their business relationship is.)
What was the impact?: We’d hazard a guess that there’s some kind of agreement between Nintendo and Activision; the Skylanders/Amiibo tie-up suggests the two are fully aware of the situation. It also has probably put smaller developers off the idea of using figurines.
Tim Langdell Patents the word “Edge”
If you’ve never heard of Tim Langdell then you’ll have at least heard of his actions. A former games developer, he managed to get a patent for several words; most prominently “Edge” throughout the video game industry. This prevented developers or publishers from releasing games with the word “Edge” in the title without reaching an agreement with him beforehand; usually with high financial benefits for Langdell. To add insult to injury, Langdell was a member of the International Game Developers Association throughout most of this.
Over a two decade long reign of terror, he forced the likes of Namco and Mobigame’s to remove the title from their game series; much to the dismay of all involved. Eventually EA stepped in and sued to have the trademark cancelled after he made noises about suing them for their Mirrors Edge game – which finally occurred several years later. While a name may not mean much to us, the fact is it shaped whole series of games and changed the direction of many game titles.
What was the impact?: Arguably the greatest victory in video games since Kratos ascended Mount Olympus.
EA Patents the Dialogue Wheel
Mass Effect is a game that relies heavily on dialogue options. To help gamers make their choice in the easiest fashion, the game uses an impressively straightforward dialogue wheel that allows gamers to use their analogue stick to pick the option they want. It’s so popular that EA actually owns the patent behind the idea; meaning that it can’t make an appearance in competing RPGs. This gives Bioware’s RPGs the edge in simplicity and means competitors have to go and find their own ideas.
The impact this has had on the modern RPG can’t be understated. Telltale games, which are very heavily text focused, make use of a list system instead. Meanwhile the likes of Elder Scrolls also make use of a selection system that comes in list form. The patent gives Mass Effect games the edge in an important sector of the market.
What was the impact?: A string of awkward dialogue options strewed across a genre that, at best aren’t quite as good. At worst can completely sink the games immersion.
Rampart Studios Patent on Dynamic Content Generation within RPGs
Speaking of the RPGs, the entire genre has given rise to a number of interesting patents that cover everything from weapon management through to NPC behaviour. The latter of these has made its appearance most prominently in Elder Scrolls and Fallout games, where NPCs were assigned tasks to complete during an in-game day. The system was intended to give the world a more real-world feel; however in reality it ends up more often than not with NPCs running off into their doom. It’s part of the reason why non-story NPCs can end up dying off-screen in such games.
What was the impact?: Who doesn’t enjoy watching Fallout Settlers run head-first into their demise?