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Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Patented Insanity

Ever wonder what would happen if people in the past had been as big as twerps as everyone else?

What if Eugene Jarvis had patented a "system for detailing objects surrounding a player in a tactical and real-time manner". I mean, how many games today have some kind of radar system?

Or if MIT had patented a "method of handling gameplay mechanics between two or more players simultaneously within the same domain of virtual structures"? Well, I guess multiplayer would cost a little more to play these days, now wouldn't it?

Or if Will Crowther decided to patent "an interactive text parser to deliberate decisions between objects remember in software and human inputted words and/or phrases"? Well, perhaps Adventure wouldn't have spawned such a great genre after all?

Nintendo has filed a patent for a Insanity System, wherein players may go more crazy for encountering strange situations they aren't prepared for or equipped to handle. In other words, it's precisely the same mechanism used by the pen and paper Cthulhu RPG since it's conception. Unlike, say Ralph Baer, who owns the first patent on a home video game, we aren't talking about hardware here. There's no diagram of an Insanity Machine. Nor are we talking about source code (which is protected under it's own licenses and copyright).

We're just talking about a concept. Not a terribly original concept either. In fact, once you boil it down, the patent isn't even that much different from your standard health system. Encounter bad situation unprepared - lose health. Be prepared, keep health. A sanity system is exactly the same with a few different parameters.

By trying to patent a concept which has the possibility of being a staple for horror genre games, Nintendo is threatening the creativity and evolution of such games. They're laying claim to an idea in what can only presume is an effort to keep others from using it. Now go back to the examples above and ask yourself again ... what if others acted the same way?

Video games are like literature in that over time, they borrow from each other quite liberally. This allows the entire medium to move forward. Patents like this can only stifle game development as a whole. For one thing, it starts to make game concepts the domain of large companies who can afford the kind of lawyer capable of writing a phrase like "...preferred embodiments of the instant invention have been described herein, it is noted that various changes and modification may be made, as one skilled in the art will readily understand from the description of the invention herein. Thus, the description of the invention herein is not meant to be limiting to the true scope of the invention".

Keep that up and modders won't be able to bother to go around inventing things like Capture the Flag. I don't think I would have bothered experimenting with three team play, or mixed akimbo systems, or new turn based interfaces if I had thought that someone else would have gone and payed a lawyer to control those ideas. Concepts that are free and clear will force developers to adopt them, improve them and move on. Concepts which are caged to one owner will end up being niche ideas that will eventually be forgotten.

1 comment:

Corvus said...

I think I'm going to patent a couple of guys making a really sweet game that everybody will love.

Nintendo may have a hard time with that one, since the Cthulhu game that has been in development for ages uses a reduction in sanity too.

I hope the patent issue doesn't get a lot worse before it gets better.