On December 9, 2010, the United States Patent and Trademark Office published US Patent Application 12/857,402, entitled “Squad Vs. Squad Videogame,” assigned to Microsoft.
In 2011, a year that promises shelves of team-based sequels, prequels, midquels, and interquels, the subject matter sounds trite. Go ahead and laugh at the application’s drawings. Crude sketches of the first Halo. Wired controllers and wired network connections. And that overcooked dreadnought, the original Xbox. Relics, all. Archaeology. And the apparent subject matter? Decades old. In videogame years, it’s Jurassic.
As an antecedent, take the squad-based 1994 Genesis gem General Chaos, which gave players the power to mobilize a pack of mercenaries and battle across mutant, bombed-out continents. Imagine the portly bases of Missile Command morphed into iron-jawed soldiers that slid with the agility of one of Madden’s football teams while operating a cache of bazookas, dynamite, and flamethrowers. It was a taste easily acquired.
So why would Microsoft fight tooth and nail for an apparently been-there-done-that, ill-fated patent? Well, patents don’t derive much value from titles or illustrations – the name of the game is the claim. Microsoft wouldn’t dare to lord over every squad-based shooter, just the narrow band covered by its 32 claims. The property, originally pursued in 2003, could prove to be valuable along its blast radius.
Consider the first claim-
“1. A method comprising:
enabling play of a third-person, squad-based shooter game by multiple players where at least a first player controls a first squad of characters and a second player controls a second squad of characters in competition against the first squad of characters; and
presenting different views of the competition so that the first player views the competition from a first perspective of the first squad of characters and the second player views the competition from a second perspective of the second squad of characters.”
Most patents are written with a provocative first independent claim. Through prosecution, the examiner and practitioner jettison words, redistribute clauses, and enlist new phrases to (hopefully) eventually arrive at a truce. Only a reckless patent agent or attorney would relinquish ground before the battle begins.
When it takes eight-plus years to hammer out a few dozen sentences, it’s no surprise that outsiders dismiss the patent process as unwieldy. Like any art form, it breeds myopic detractors. Only the initiated can appreciate the tango with the USPTO, the poetically clipped claim language, and subject matter with edges as fuzzy as MoMA material.
Dare I say that patent prosecution is choreographed, poetic, abstract squad-based gameplay?
As in General Chaos, a mere two outcomes exist – credit-unveiling victory or controller-chucking defeat. Your team is made up of the big guns (grizzled, veteran attorneys), the weak but nimble front-liners (expendable interns), and, of course, your medics (underappreciated paralegals). The illustrator, a long-range threat, lights up the sky. The inventor, the controller. No one achieves immortality, and death is not final. There are reissues, reexams, abandonments, revivals, final actions that aren’t final, and iterative appeals.
You heal by mending the application, tweaking language like firing positions. You constantly scan for threats, for cheap trolls who insult the elegance of the battle with their brute force. During the button-mashing, one-on-one scuffles, you curse your luck if you lose and, upon victory, you deny that chance exists.
So chuckle if you’d like at the absurdity of the dusty Halo application’s landscape. Me, I see the patent game as a battleground whose terrain I’d like to cover with well-armed comrades. And upon victory, the credits will roll.