In 1995 Namco released Ridge Racer, the first in the long-running racing series. Ridge Racer also saw Namco’s first implementation of a loading screen minigame, in this case 80’s arcade classic Galaga. It was a time when PC gamers were used to seeing loading screens, but console gamers weren’t thanks to the prevalence of Nintendo’s cartridge technology. Ridge Racer was on the new CD technology, so Namco used the minigame to fight the tedium of the loading screens. They even incorporated the minigame into the main game – if the player could defeat all enemies before the main game loaded, they would unlock extra vehicles.

Namco liked the idea of having a minigame in loading screens so much they had it patented, which is why you’ve never seen a loading screen minigame in anything that wasn’t made by Namco. But that may be about to change. Namco’s Yoichi Hayashi filed the patent, number 5718632, on November 27 1995, which means it expires on that date this year. Does that mean we’ll see loading screen minigames on November 28? Well, it’s not likely, because working on those minigames before the expiry date, even with the intent of releasing them after, still violates the patent. So we’ll be waiting a while before we see anything. This patent remains one of the most controversial within the games industry, with Namco accused of abusing the patent system to block innovation. But as much as I hate to defend big companies patenting things, it’s unfair to blame Namco for trying to work within a broken system.

Patenting has existed in US law since the 1700’s. It enabled inventors to invest their time and money in their inventions because they had a guarantee that they would be able profit from it without having to compete with copycats. It gave them 20 years of exclusive rights to their creations. Of course, back then having a patent was an honour. Now, thousands and thousands of patents are granted every week. Is this because everybody is just more inventive these days? Of course not. Patents are just much easier to come by, and it’s ruining the very thing they were created to protect.

Patents exist for the purpose of enabling innovation. Today, for something to be patentable, it must meet three requirements; novel, non-obvious, and useful. In the case of Namco’s minigame patent, its usefulness is obvious. Anything that makes loading screens less boring is a blessing. But non-obvious? Well, this point is debateable, but most people would agree that it’s quite obvious. To qualify as non-obvious, it must be something that a person of average skill within the industry would not think of. Would a game developer of average skill think of putting minigames in loading screens to make them less boring? It seems clear that a lot would.

Namco’s patent really falls apart when it comes to the first requirement – that the idea is novel. Namco was not the first to include minigames in loading screens. A notable example is Invade-A-Load, a space-invaders minigame created by Richard Aplin for Mastertronics titles in 1987, 8 years before Namco filed its patent. Even if we assume the minigame idea was non-obvious, nobody can deny it wasn’t novel.

What does this mean? Basically, it means Namco never should have received the patent. So why did they? Well, that’s not entirely clear. It beggars belief that the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) would grant a patent when it so clearly didn’t meet the requirements. But since then, the situation’s only gotten worse. One just needs to look at the Apple-Samsung patent war to see the ridiculous “innovations” companies can patent.

So shouldn’t these greedy companies just back off? Well, no. I hate to defend these companies, but in this case, they’re just doing what they have to do. In 1991, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos patented 1-click buying (having a website store your credit card information so you can buy something with one click). This move was heavily criticised and with good reason. Jeff Bezos himself acknowledged the patent system is broken, but said he had no choice but to file for the patent. The system may be broken, but he, and all other businesses, still have to work within it.

Bezos suggested that, at least when it comes to the internet sector, patents be granted for 3 years instead of the current 20 years. Technology advances too quickly for 20 year patents to do anything but hinder innovation. This would be a good step forward, but it would only fix one of the litany of problems plaguing the patent system. There’s still the matter of how prohibitively expensive challenging a patent can be. But real issue with patents is the three requirements I mentioned earlier, or rather, the lack of their being upheld.

In 1998, Sega patented the core mechanic of its Crazy Taxi game. Patent Number 6200138 itself is worded terribly, but is also vague enough to include any game where a car drives around a city, with an arrow indicating the next objective hovering above, where pedestrians and other cars move out of the player’s way to avoid collision. Having virtual people move out of the way of a virtual car so they don’t virtually get run over doesn’t sound like a revolutionary new idea, but this patent has actually been enforced. In 2003 Sega sued Fox Interactive, EA, and Radical Entertainment over The Simpsons Road Rage for its inclusion of missions where the player has to pick up passengers and drive them somewhere quickly. Oh, and its inclusion of pedestrians that don’t want to be run over. The case was settled for an undisclosed amount, but it’s clear that this is another case of a patent that never should have been granted. There’s nothing non-obvious about driving people around and pedestrians that don’t want to die.

Over the years, the patent situation has grown more and more out of hand, now to the point where there’s almost nobody left who doesn’t agree that the system is broken. But in addition to Bezos’ suggestion of limiting some patents to 3 years, there’s a really obvious solution. Follow your own patent requirements and stop handing them out like lollies on Halloween. Sooner or later, somebody at the patent office is going to have to start doing their job.