In 1998, Namco was granted a patent on the usage of small minigames which can quickly be quickly loaded and played while waiting for the main game to load. On November 27 of this year, the patent finally expired, 20 years after it was first filed. The duration of patents in the US is based on the date the patent was filed, not the date the Patent Office granted the patent. During that time, anyone who wanted to use another game during loading screens would have had to pay royalties to Namco. Some games, like Bayonetta, allow players to practice combos in an empty space during loading screens. This did not infringe on the patent because it make use of the game’s core mechanics in a more limited fashion and the Namco patent only covers “auxiliary games.”
Groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation are using this as an example of how broken the US patent system is, contending that Namco never should have been granted the patent. Patents should only protect original ideas, and shouldn’t be granted if someone else has already been using the idea for years. In 1987, Richard Aplin created Invade-a-Load. It was a utility that could be used by Commodore 64 developers to run a Space Invaders clone while the main game was loading. Since Namco filed the patent in 1995, and their first actual usage of the idea was one year earlier for the Playstation release of Ridge Racers, Aplin beat them to the punch by several years.
In celebration of this patent finally expiring, the Loading Screen Jam has been announced. The purpose of the game jam is “defiling the patent that held back game design for so many years.” The games will be judged based on their loading screens as well as commentary on patents or trademarks that hold back game design. Submissions are being accepted for next 2 days.
Was this patent holding back game design, or was it much ado about nothing?