Warner Brothers Interactive Entertainment, which published the 2014 game Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor and its 2017 sequel, Shadow of War, has secured a patent for the series’ famous Nemesis System.
First reported by IGN, The US Patent and Trademark Office released an issue notice on Feb. 3, 2021. The issue notice states that the patent will go into effect later this month on February 23 and that it can be maintained until 2035.
A patent is a limited duration property right relating to an invention, granted by the United States Patent and Trademark Office “in exchange for public disclosure of the said invention.” It allows an inventor to exclude others from making, using, selling, or offering to sell a specific invention throughout the United States. It also prevents others from importing the invention into the United States.
WB Games has attempted to successfully patent this system since 2015 — and it’s easy to see why. The Nemesis System acts so that procedurally-generated NPCs and enemies exist in the worlds of Shadow of Mordor and Shadow of War. Each enemy has an individual name, with individual visuals, stats, and traits. The system allows the games to remember the player’s actions, such as killing or losing to these enemies. Then, it adapts. The enemies will evolve within a hierarchal system, becoming more powerful, toppling others in the hierarchy, changing appearance, and ultimately making battles feel unique. It’s a renowned and really dope system. But now, implementing some of its aspects may lead to some legal troubles.
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IGN states that after February 23, any developer wanting to build a gameplay system consisting of the aspects detailed in the patent — or at least to a degree that it’s considered infringement — will have to secure a license from WB Games. If not, they will face legal action. Other games will still be able to have systems like Watch Dogs Legion’s Census system as long as they’re not direct recreations of the system made by developer Monolith Productions. WB Games acquired Monolith Productions all the way back in August 2004.
As a result of the patent, WB Games can do as it wishes with the Nemesis System. It could keep its access solely for any other studios under its helm, or let others use it in their games in exchange for monetary compensation — though the latter isn’t too likely. This move has expectedly received plenty of backlash. There’s the argument that, since Monolith Productions designed and implemented the system, they should have the right to protect it as theirs. But this ignores the fact that games largely build on each other, sometimes blatantly and sometimes more subtly. But build on each other they do nonetheless.
Placing ownership on this system and its aspects severely limits the creativity and innovation of other developers. Now, studios will have to go out of their way to make sure that they’re not risking infringing on the patent. Some developers, especially smaller teams, will shy away from making something even remotely inspired by the general aspects of the Nemesis System in order to be safe. And the idea of an open-world game with enemies who react to the player’s decisions in battle isn’t a novelty by any means. It all sets an incredibly poor precedent for the medium going forward.