Studios Shouldn’t Be Allowed To Patent Game Mechanics

WB Games patenting the Nemesis system and never using it again showcases how this practice is anti-consumer.

Story Highlights

  • Patents only restrict amazing new innovations in gaming from other creative input and hence prevent them from reaching their full potential.
  • Furthermore, patents kill ideas as studios fail to implement revolutionary ideas in enough titles, like WB Games’ Nemesis System.
  • The limited use patents place on gameplay mechanics is also anti-consumer, as their scarce use in games hinders the overall quality of video games from increasing.

Human beings have been inventing things to make life more convenient for over 2 million years now. What started with simple stone tools led to remarkable creations like the computer and the Nintendo Switch. Every year we see new inventions that completely change how we view a certain aspect of life. To protect these innovative discoveries and prevent them from being copied, we use patents.

Patents have been around since the dark ages; some even say the Greeks had a similar system. By using this practice, a creator can officially own their invention and prohibit any other party from using it. Obviously, industries like medicine, which are not only significant for our progress but also highly profitable, extensively use patents. But, this practice is also widespread in the modern entertainment world, especially gaming.

You see, game development is a complex process and involves a lot of intricate details. Much work goes into translating ideas into gameplay mechanics and making them work perfectly. Hence, when someone comes up with brand-new innovations, they make sure to patent them. Patents are a very common exercise in the gaming industry and give us info about future innovations.

For example, a recent Sony patent suggests that the company will use AI to study gameplay and help future players. Similarly, the Japanese company is also utilizing AI to personalize narration for each individual player. These changes target specific components of a video game and don’t have any use outside that mechanic. However, these small upgrades collectively improve the quality of games and lead to progression.

Innovations like unique in-game music for every player and challenges based on real-life events may seem smaller in scale. But, all of them improve the user experience and result in technological advancements. Practically, who wouldn’t like to generate assets in games just by using their voice? However, studios don’t use patents to share a gameplay innovation but rather to own it.

Take the EA patent that allows you to re-enact playable moments from gameplay videos as an example. Only EA can use this mechanic in its video games after patenting it, and other studios can’t recreate it. Hence, such a creative new gameplay innovation is restricted to one publisher only. For sure, the creators deserve the rights to their achievements, but is withholding such upgrades from the masses really the way to go?

I personally think that patented gameplay mechanics should have remedies that allow other developers to use them. Not only will more consumers get to enjoy them, but if the idea is not in use by the original studio, other developers can use them.

Patenting Gameplay Mechanics Restricts Creativity In Gaming

Competition is the primary source of innovation for every industry in the world. Likewise, the will to become better than your rival leads to progress and advances in the gaming medium. Studios come up with new creative ways to make video games more fun and make their product stand out. But, the action of patenting game mechanics just to stop others from using them completely opposes this ideology.

You see, by doing so, companies don’t give other developers the opportunity to improve the idea and make it even better. Hence, the patented mechanic doesn’t reach its full potential, and you can say this drives competition, but in my opinion, it does more harm than good. Working to make existing elements of gaming better serves as the basis of competition and leads to even more creative avenues.

For example, id Software basically invented the FPS genre with Doom and Wolfenstein back in the early 90s. If they had patented the idea, shooting games would have never become the phenomenon they are today. Developers from different companies all around the world added their creative input into this genre resulting in its evolution to its current form.

We would have never got Call of Duty and the million other iterations of FPS games if patenting genres was possible. Granted, a simple mechanic influencing only a specific part of gameplay is a much smaller thing than a whole discipline. But, further improvement of these minor new ideas makes the overall gaming experience better for all users.

Hence, by restricting these exciting new innovations in gaming to one studio, patents limit them from reaching their creative potential. As a result, the consumer base also doesn’t get more varieties in these mechanics and arguably never sees their best form. When you add how only a single publisher’s game can implement these ideas, the concept becomes even less exciting.

Patents Kill Ideas

Another negative aspect of these restrictive patents is how rarely games employ these creative mechanics, as only one entity is allowed to use them. For example, Warner Bros. created the ingenious “Nemesis System” for 2014’s Lord of the Rings game Shadow of Mordor. This concept was a core feature in both the Middle-Earth games and completely overhauled enemies in role-playing titles.

We kill hundreds of NPCs in video games without even batting an eye. But, there are some tough enemies besides the bosses that give us a hard time and even kill us on some occasions. To reward such adversaries, Warner Bros Games and Monolith came up with the Nemesis System for Shadow of Mordor.

In short, this feature was a unique amalgamation of hierarchical enemy relationships and in-depth tracking of your every action to form an advanced narrative within the game. Basically, the Nemesis System tracked every Uruk that so much as maimed you throughout the game and promoted them based on how they performed against you.

Nemesis System patent
The introduction of the Nemesis System in Shadow of Mordor transformed enemy interaction in RPGs.

If you got killed by an Uruk in Shadow of Mordor, it would become stronger, and your next encounter with it will be harder. Consequently, as many times the same enemy kills you, the stronger and tougher to beat it becomes. Even more interestingly, if an Uruk survives an encounter with you but gets badly injured, it will remember how it got disfigured and will want revenge.

Furthermore, you also learn about the Uruk’s weaknesses and can exploit them if you face off again. Hence, Shadow of Mordor made enemies in RPGs more engrossing and fun to beat through this mechanic. You might be thinking why other titles in the genre haven’t used this brilliant system yet, considering its benefits. The reason for that is pretty obvious; WB Games patented it.

It applied for a patent in 2015 and got the exclusive rights to use the Nemesis System until 2035. However, that’s not even the worst part about this situation. Warner Bros Games itself hasn’t used the creative idea in any of the company’s titles besides the Middle-Earth games. Hence, one of the best RPG gaming innovations in recent times is just lying around collecting dust at the company.

This example goes on to prove how patents restrict these new ideas and essentially kill them. No one has the creative freedom to improve them, and in cases like these, they don’t even see the light of day.

Patents Are Anti-Consumer

Besides preventing ideas from growing, patents also limit their use in video games. As seen in the Nemesis System example, only a handful of games get to use these innovative mechanics. Most titles in the related genre are deprived of these ideas and their utilization becomes even more infrequent if the original publisher just doesn’t use them.

Therefore, the players don’t get to play games with these gameplay mechanics as they are barely in use. Considering how most of them massively refine user experience and even revolutionize certain gameplay aspects, this is anti-consumer. Users should see different variations of these remarkable ideas in all related titles so their overall gaming experience can improve.

Universally employing these new mechanics would lead to the general enhancement in the quality of games. As a result, players would get a much better end product and will also be willing to pay more. So, if you think about it, confining these ideas to a single publisher is just holding back the industry as a whole. And, the way things are looking, patents are here to stay and won’t go anywhere.

But, I hope we can have a conversation about their application and if they really are the best for the competition. Making creative new mechanics open to fresh interpretations from all developers would vastly progress gaming. And, their unlimited use in any video game, with certain conditions, would only increase revenue. Hopefully, we will see a change in patents and their applications in the near future.

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Ahmed Mansoor


Your average video games enjoyer with a deep passion for single-player adventures who writes about his favorite hobby.

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