Warner Bros. roils game industry with patent on Nemesis gameplay mechanic by Kirkland’s Monolith

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. (WB press picture)

Analysis: Warner Brothers has received a US patent for the Nemesis system, the signature mechanics of two successful video games in the universe of Lord of the Rings.

WB’s patent for the Nemesis System # US20160279522A1 is listed as “Nemesis Characters, Nemesis Forts, Social Vendettes, and Followers in Computer Games”. In particular, WB has been trying to approve this patent since March 2015, shortly after Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor was first published in September 2014. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office issued a notice on February 3 stating that the patent would go into effect on February 23 and could stay in effect until 2035.

This has resulted in widespread setbacks in the industry, from indie developers (one of whom started an ongoing “Game Jam” project, the Neme-Jam, to work on the concept in the two weeks prior to the patent’s entry into force) play) to AAA studios. It’s a low-key debate, but one that could have far-reaching ramifications for the already strange relationship between video games and intellectual property rights.

Shadow of Mordor, developed in Kirkland, Washington, by Monolith Productions for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Windows, takes place in the decades between the events of JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit and the first book in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Community of the Ring. As Talion, a ranger in Gondor’s army, players are accused of guerrilla campaigning against the orcish armies of Sauron. Shadow of Mordor enjoyed both commercial and critical success, leading to the sequel, Shadow of War, in 2017.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. (WB press picture)

One of the main reasons for the success of both games is the Nemesis system, a sophisticated game mechanic that can turn random orcs in Sauron’s army into unique antagonists for the player. When one of the Uruk-hai you encounter in the game performs a unique feat, e.g. B. Beating you in a fight or surviving the encounter with you, the Nemesis system will remember and begin turning this previously nameless soldier into a returning antagonist.

Your nemesis can earn promotions in the ranks of the army, memorize details about their battles with the player, and ultimately transform into a bespoke non-player character (NPC) who can be re-fought and beaten for greater rewards. In the late game, they can even be turned into double agents for the player, working from within to weaken Sauron’s army.

In practice, it is not uncommon for game companies to file a patent for the unique properties of their products. For example, the Japanese company Namco Bandai has applied for a patent for its Katamari Damacy series, which was filed in 2003 and granted in 2008.

The Katamari games’ unique central mechanic, where the player rolls a sticky ball around an arena to collect loose items, is legally protected until 2026. This explains to a large extent why there haven’t been a few hundred “Katamari” -likes “by now.

So what is sparking the controversy with WB Games’ patent on the Nemesis system is not simply the establishment of a patent, but from two different sources. One of them is how broad the language of the patent goes, which could allow WB to incriminate competitors for licensing or simply take them to court if they are trying to implement something that is even related to individual elements of the Nemesis system is vaguely similar.

This may include features in newer games like Watch Dogs: Legion that let you recruit virtually any person you pass in the game world as a playable member of your team, or the unique mercenaries that may show up to hunt you down in Assassin’s Creed : Odyssey.

Since I was forced to learn about it, having a patent isn’t copyright and having one doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll enforce it or win a case.

What it means is that they took a step to make sure they could legally and that in itself “meh” enough that I hate it. https://t.co/jHzffdjPto

– Rami Ismail (Rami) (@tha_rami), February 6, 2021

The other point that was made comes from the iterative nature of game design. Video games are not naturally made in a vacuum. As with any other creative process, game developers will take systems that were effective, or at least popular, from previous versions and then improve them for their final product. Each new game is often visibly inspired by the features and mechanics of the other games, previously filtered through the unique ideas and perspectives of the current developers.

“The gaming industry is built on the backs of the giants before us and all of those who not only share what they’ve done, but show how they did it,” said Chet Faliszek, ex-Valve writer and current co-founder of Seattle Indie studio Stray Bombay, in a statement to GeekWire. “This is a key part of modern industry, where other developers are not seen as competitors, but rather as colleagues attacking the same goals. Software / design patents like the Shadow of Mordor patent are a slap in the face of these ideals and should be labeled for what they are: an aberration, not the new way forward. “

In that sense, the Nemesis system is unique in its manufacture and marketing, but its individual characteristics are a collection of elements found in several previous games. Depending on how seriously you want to take the conversation, you can refer to hostile recruitment / manipulation tactics in Japanese strategy games like Disgaea, procedurally generated rivalries among racers like Burnout, or collecting monsters in Pokemon or Shin Megami Tensei.

In that light, it looks like WB not only violated some kind of unspoken rule in modern game design, but also filed a patent on systems that it didn’t fully create at all. At first glance, it looks like the patent to the Nemesis system is meaningless at best, especially considering the number of times WB had to file, adjust, and re-file its application before it finally succeeded – it would kick in only when a rival company should develop a game of something essentially identical to the Nemesis system – and at worst, a legal stick.

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