Warner Brothers Granted Patent for Nemesis System from Middle Earth Video Games

The United States Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”) today (February 23, 2021) granted Warner Brothers Interactive Entertainment’s (“WB”) patent on the nemesis system from Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor and Middle Earth: Shadow of War. U.S. Patent No. 10,926,179 (“the ’179 Patent”) [Editor’s Note: The link is to the original published patent application, not the issued patent. We will update the link once the patent is available online.], titled “Nemesis characters, nemesis forts, social vendettas and followers in computer games” was filed in March 2015, after the September 2014 release of Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor. The ’179 Patent was rejected and revised six times before the USPTO allowed the case on October 23, 2020.

The nemesis system is a game mechanic in WB’s Middle Earth games that makes unique antagonists out of otherwise ordinary reoccurring orcs a player encounters during the game. If an orc survives an encounter with a player, whether that be escaping to fight another day, or killing a player, that orc may level up, become more powerful, and/or acquire new abilities. In its next encounter with the player, that orc’s dialogue may reference the previous encounter as it taunts the player.

Claim 1 of the ’179 Patent reads as follows:

“A method comprising:

controlling, by a processor, game events in a computer-implemented game, the game events involving an avatar that is operated in response to input from a player, and a first non-player character that is controlled by the processor to respond to and automatically oppose avatars based on first character parameters defined in a computer memory;

detecting, by the processor, occurrence of a predefined one of the game events involving an interaction between the avatar and the first non-player character;

changing, by the processor, second character parameters defined in at least one of the computer memory or a second computer memory for control of a second non-player character in the game based on the detecting, wherein the second non-player character is controlled by the processor to respond to and automatically oppose avatars based on the second character parameters defined in the at least one of the computer memory or the second computer memory; and

outputting, to an output device, an indication of the second character parameters that are changed by the changing.”

In order for the application to be approved, WB made several amendments to its claims. For example, in Claim 1, WB changed “occurrence of a predefined game event involving the first non-player character” to “occurrence of a predefined one of the game events involving an interaction between the avatar and the first non-player character.” Additionally, WB added “and automatically oppose avatars” to the language in Claim 1. More detail was also added with the addition of “wherein the second non-player character is controlled by the processor to respond to avatars based on a second set of character parameters defined . . . .”

In previous rejections, the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office noted that the nemesis system is similar to Crusader Kings II, and Warner’s own Batman: Arkham series. The USPTO also initially rejected many of the claims as unpatentable as obvious under 35 U.S.C. § 103 over U.S. Pub. 20070129418, titled “Method and System for Allocating Resources in a Video Game,” U.S. Pub. 20080139318 titled “Virtual Environment with Formalized Inter-Character Relationships,” U.S. Pub. 20040259613 titled “Gaming machine and computer-readable program product,” and U.S. Pub. 20150238862 titled “Game control method, system, and non-transitory computer-readable recording medium,” among others.

Oddly, WB did not submit any information disclosure statements (“IDS”) to the USPTO during prosecution—all art cited during prosecution was raised by the USPTO. An IDS is a submission disclosing relevant prior art that the applicant is aware of. WB is a sophisticated video game developer with knowledgeable software engineers, so it is somewhat surprising that by omission, it claims that it had no knowledge of any prior art even remotely related to the invention claimed in the ’179 Patent.

The ’179 Patent is valid until 2035, and gives WB the right to enforce its patent against others. However, any enforcement action would inherently expose the ‘179 patent to validity challenges based on prior art not identified while the application was pending at the USPTO.

Since the Alice v CLS Bank case, the USPTO has been trending away from granting patents on video game play mechanics. Whether the granting of the ‘179 patent is a reversal of that trend, an oversight, or an anomaly remains to be seen.

EA Sports College Football is Coming Back