Last May, video game giant Nintendo released the highly anticipated Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom after years in the making. This latest entry to the iconic franchise was a much-hyped project that did not disappoint its fan base, as sales reached an impressive 10 million copies in its first three days of release, making it the fastest-selling game franchise while also receiving overwhelmingly positive acclaim from both critics and fans alike. Beyond that, the release also unexpectedly sparked a discourse about the patent side of video games.
From July to August, Nintendo filed patents for 32 inventions with the Japan Patent Office, 31 of which concern the newly released Zelda title. The patents in question involved several unique features that are present in the game, such as the mechanics of the Ultrahand ability” and a lighting attack mechanic that lets the player target enemies with a bow, which will bring down a blast of lighting along with the arrow.
Furthermore, other features, such as the mechanics of a game character riding on top of a moving vehicle, as well as the loading screen, are also subject to Nintendo’s patent filings. This has caused some backlash in the online video game community. Some perceive that said features are “common” features that exist and have always existed in other video games; thus, patenting is seen as cynical and greedy. One publication called these patent fillings “a loss of innovation for other developers”, while another even went as far to say that they’re “anti-art”.
Nintendo has a reputation for being protective of its patents. A report by Patent Result revealed that Nintendo ranked fifth among Japanese companies by the number of patents considered grounds for rejection by a competitor. In regards to the Zelda patents, however, are the negative reactions warranted?
It’s important to understand that in order to be granted a patent, Japanese Patent Law, similar to most patent norms, dictates that an invention must have qualities of novelty, industrial applicability, and the requirement of an “inventive step”. The patents that are filed by Nintendo do not concern what is achieved by invention but rather the mechanics and functionality necessary to produce the intended result.
For example, the patent filing concerning a character riding on top of a moving vehicle may seem generic, but the novelty of this lies in the mechanics behind it. As explained in the description, “the movement of movable dynamic objects placed in the virtual space is controlled by physics calculations, and the movement of the player’s character is controlled by user input. When the player’s character and a dynamic object come into contact in the downward direction relative to the character (in other words, when the character is on top of an object), the movement of the dynamic object is added to the movement of the player’s character”.
In other words, what makes this particular mechanic unique is that this motion is achieved by giving the character the same movement that the object is performing, without any physics working between the two. Rather than separating the physics of the vehicle and the character, the mechanics that Nintendo uses “merge” the two when they come into contact.
Such is the case for other related patent filings. To give another example, a “loading screen” might be a common feature in video games, but again, the descriptions point out its unique points: “a game processing method capable of enriching game presentation during a waiting period in which at least part of the game processing is interrupted”—this concerns the loading period that ensues during the “fast travel” sequence, in which an image of the starting point’s map transitions into a map of the destination.
While Nintendo’s recent patent filings for features in The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom have sparked some controversy in the gaming community, it’s essential to be mindful when dishing out accusations that Nintendo intends to stifle creativity or hinder the progress of the gaming industry. These patents primarily focus on the mechanics and functionality necessary to achieve specific in-game actions rather than the broader concept of what is achieved by the inventions. Nintendo’s dedication to protecting its intellectual property is in line with standard patent norms, and it underscores their commitment to fostering innovation in the gaming world. These patents are about safeguarding their unique creative efforts, not limiting the creative potential of others in the industry.
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