When you come up with a really good idea, you might try and get a patent for that really good idea so no one can copy it. Here are some video game patents that granted certain video game makers exclusive rights to certain game related innovations. Patents keep rival game makers from doing anything remotely approximating the patented idea whereas sometimes games get away with doing something pretty similar regardless. And of course sometimes they get sued.
NEMESIS SYSTEM 1:06
The two Lord of the Rings games Shadow of Mordor and Shadow of War were brilliant. That’s mostly because they allowed you to engage with Tolkien’s rich genre-defining fantasy world and because of the Nemesis System. The Nemesis System created the most deliciously annoying enemies in all of gaming. The Nemesis System’s genius was that it gave each enemy a unique personality in history as they battled you, occasionally cheated death and were promoted up the ranks of Sauron’s army.
The publisher Warner Bros has patented the whole concept until 2035. The extensive patent describes a broad range of enemy behaviours in such a general way that few developers would dare to produce anything close to the Nemesis System. And just to be sure, the Warner Bros patent even covers off stuff the series hasn’t attempted yet like an asynchronous multiplayer version where your nemesis could go off and bother your friends in their games. Having started the process of securing this particular patent in 2015, Warner Bros was finally granted it in February 2021.
CONVERSATION WHEEL 4:24
Engaging in confrontational conversation with a total stranger is a favorite feature. The reason Mass Effect conversations are so enjoyable isn’t just that sometimes you can be less than painfully polite to a very annoying character. We also have to thank the distinctive Mass Effect style conversation wheel which keeps the dialogue flowing as we pick our way through options that are intuitively labeled and placed. As a result, trying to chat up attractive acquaintances is fun, easy and natural.
The conversation wheel is indeed a fine way to offer dialogue options to the player. The makers of Mass Effect got a patent for this specific design of dialogue interface. That’s why other role-playing games don’t do interactive conversations like Mass Effects’ and instead they have the typical straightforward list of text lines to choose from.
In 2007, BioWare filed a patent for a “graphical interface for interactive dialog”. The patent application described the arrangement of dialogue options around a wheel. Where those options are placed in consistent slots around that wheel according to their tone and purpose. That way the player gets familiar with where to look for a hostile response or a friendly one. The patent was granted in 2011 and is set to expire in 2029.
CRAZY TAXI 7:15
When Crazy Taxi burst onto the scene in 1999, it was a brand new take on the driving game. Instead of casting you as a racing driver, it cast you as a taxi driver. Your objectives were much the same as a real taxi driver too. Pick up fares, send them to the destination, and avoid being subliminally influenced by all the roadside advertising. The difference was, with this sort of driving the game actively encouraged a real taxi driver would be picking chunks of sick out of the footwell after every trip. There’s a reason it’s called Crazy Taxi and not a sensible taxi.
Sega clearly knew it was onto a winner here and decided to patent its brilliant concept. In practice the patent wasn’t for the invention of a taxi game instead it protected a collection of game features and mechanics that when combined would create a game like Crazy Taxi. Those features included the concept of racing around an open world where you could take shortcuts rather than a closed circuit. The idea of a rotating arrow to direct the player to the next objective in that open world. And even pedestrians that would dive out of the way as you approached. For the patent to be violated, a game would have to exist that combined all these elements. Like 2001’s The Simpsons Road Rage.
You might not be aware but in addition to creating the world’s most inexplicably marketable plumber Nintendo also invented what would go on to be a key component of the console controller. A component that was arguably crucial in the success of the popular mustachioed tradesman.
Nintendo filed a patent for the D-pad or as Nintendo called it the multi-directional switch. Nintendo left a loophole, one big enough to fit several multi-million selling consoles through. When you read the text of the patent, there’s a lot of mentions of a cross. It turns out, Nintendo’s patent application was very specific about the cross shape of its directional pad, which meant other console and peripheral manufacturers were able to find inventive ways around it. That’s why we got circular 8 direction pads like on Sega’s controllers, separated out directional buttons like on the PlayStation controller and the Philips CDI controller. The patent expired 20 years laters in 2005.
SIMULTANEOUS PLAYING IN SINGLE-PLAYER VIDEO GAMES 12:54
Polish game studio Bloober Team is adorably named after a game it released back in 2010 called Double Bloob. Bloober Team became a notable developer of terrifying horror games such as Layers of Fear, Observer and Blair Witch. They also released The Medium, a psychological horror game about a spirit medium called Marianne who could traverse both the physical world and the parallel spirit world. Over the course of the game, Marianne spends time in both the physical and spirit realm frequently at the same time. Marianne’s synchronized existence with one foot in each world is the video game innovation for which the makers of The Medium were granted a patent.
The patent application title Method of Simultaneous Playing in Single-player Video Games outlines the way in which “one controller simultaneously controls at least two characters while each of the characters controlled by the same user is displayed simultaneously in a separate viewport”. The upshot of which is The Medium’s split screen dual reality where the input from your controller in effect controls two synchronized characters in two situations. Both displayed at the same time in two different on-screen areas. The idea of a game character moving between parallel similar worlds isn’t new in and of itself.
The patent for The Medium’s approach to presenting a game with a dual reality is distinct from for instance the kind of warping between two parallel worlds which we’ve seen before. The patent for this specific simultaneous dual reality gameplay was filed in 2016 and granted in 2019.
SANITY METER 17:28
Sanity Meter was a key gameplay mechanic in the psychological horror game Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem. Essentially every time you were spotted by an otherworldly enemy in Eternal Darkness, you risked reducing a green on-screen sanity bar which represented your ever-crumbling mental state. The further you let your sanity bar drain, the weirder the game becomes with hallucinations, changes to the environment and other strangeness. To represent the fact that you were being driven slowly mad.
Nintendo was clearly rather keen on this piece of game design and patented it for future use. That’s in spite of the fact that this was the company’s very first mature rated game as a publisher.
MINI GAMES IN LOADING SCREEN 19:54
Putting a mini game inside a loading screen is such a neat fun idea that you might wonder why more games don’t do it. Namco applied for a patent back in 1995, patenting the concept of “auxiliary games” that would pop up while the main game loaded up in the background. The upshot of Namco’s successful patent application was that only Namco games could have proper mini games in their loading screens. The patent did expire back in 2015.