The Mechanics of Video Game Patents
Although it is probably correct to say that video game mechanics are not patentable, that has not stopped video game makers from obtaining patents on them or even suing for infringement of those patents. Video game mechanics are essentially the rules and idea that govern how a game is played. This is a broad area that includes both what objectives must be completed to finish the game and how the user can interact with the virtual world to complete those objectives. In a piece by Mark Methenitis discussing copyrights and patents in video games, he mentions that both Crazy Taxi and Dynasty Warriors have patents on what are essentially game mechanics. Dynasty Warrior’s patent describes a mechanic where the playable video game character’s attacks are made stronger by being close to other non-playable characters. Crazy Taxi’s patent basically deals with the idea of a floating arrow or other directional device above the character which points to the direction the character must go to achieve objectives. The patent for Crazy Taxi in particular is interesting. Among the claims for the patent are: “game display method for displaying a game in which a movable object is moved in a virtual space” and a “display means for, when a current position of the movable object is away from the destination by a prescribed distance.” The first, of course, describes every game. While the second is a mechanic used in virtually every modern video game. While not necessarily an arrow, most games have some visual marker above the next objective often involving some indication of distance.
There are other examples such as Namco’s patent on mini games during loading screens. There are two modern games that arguably infringe on this patent. Both Assassin’s Creed and Bayonetta allow the user to control video game characters while loading a level in those games. Although strictly speaking, these are not games in the sense that there are no objectives (one simply can move the playable character around in an empty white game space) one can still “play” the character by controlling him exactly as if the level had already loaded.
Many of these patents are over 10 years old. They could suggest confusion about what is or is not patentable in what was then an industry in relative infancy. Interestingly, however, courts have not cleared up that confusion. There is scant case law regarding these issues. Sega did sue Electronic Arts (EA) and the developer of Simpson’s Road Rage for infringing its patent. However, the issues were never presented to a court since the parties settled.
More recently, EA, has in turn sued Zynga for allegedly copying its game The Sims Online. However, this is not a case involving patents but rather one of copyright infringement. EA has suggested that it will use its considerable financial resources to see the case through to the end so we might get to see a court’s opinion on these issues in the copyright context, an area in which there is also little case law. Assuming EA makes good on its threat, it should be interesting to see how a court holds in so far as EA will be claiming that the art, design and mechanics of the infringing game are so similar that Zynga has violated EA’s copyright.