Nintendo has been awarded a patent for a video game messaging service that utilizes a buddy list and can display information about game activities and user status. Initially filed in 2000, a year before the release of Microsoft’s Xbox and two years before the official launch of Microsoft’s Xbox Live Internet service, Nintendo’s patent is relatively broad and could potentially lead to litigation against other major players in the game console market. Although the text of the patent itself refers to the Nintendo64 and Game Boy Color by name, some have speculated that this patent could portend an instant messaging system for the Wii.
In the claims section, the patent describes a chat system that uses a remotely stored buddy list, supports multiple statuses, broadcasts information about active gaming activities, displays notification of events including the arrival of new e-mail messages, facilitates transmission of player preferences, and enables users to communicate with each other either with voice or text messages. Keep in mind that this patent does not cover game-oriented chat in general; it specifically describes a console gaming chat mechanism that displays game information and uses a buddy list.
At first glance, it certainly appears as though Microsoft’s Xbox Live service may be infringing upon Nintendo’s patent. Although I doubt that Nintendo could shut down Xbox Live with this patent, the gaming company could possibly use the patent as leverage to extort a settlement out of the Redmond giant, assuming that the patent is valid and that Microsoft’s service infringes on it. Nintendo could also use the patent to force Microsoft into a cross-licensing deal. Cross-licensing deals are becoming increasingly popular, and many companies cultivate massive patent portfolios purely for defensive purposes and cross-licensing negotiations. Microsoft has several rather broad patents of its own that Nintendo may want to license, including a patent on a video game voice communication system that performs audio compression in real-time. Microsoft may challenge the validity of the patent by demonstrating that the patented invention is obvious, or that prior art exists. It is worth noting that the Dreamcast featured an Internet chat system that shares some (but not all) of the relevant features described by Nintendo’s patent.
This isn’t Nintendo’s first chat-related patent. In February of this year, Nintendo was awarded a patent for a voice-to-text chat conversion system for video games that uses speech analysis to generate text with specific styles and attributes.
Although the existence of a patent doesn’t necessarily imply that a particular invention will be included in a commercial product, it wouldn’t be all that surprising if the Wii ended up with support for Internet chat, if not at launch, then eventually. With the rumor of an integrated microphone for the Wiimote, one begins to wonder if voice chat could end up on the menu. I think that integrated voice chat would be a great feature for multiplayer Internet gameplay, particularly in games like Smash Brothers and Mario Kart that are typically more fun in a party setting. In the context of a single player game, it could get a lot more annoying. The incessant repetition of "Hey listen" in Ocarina of Time made me long for a flyswatter, so I doubt that I would enjoy something as invasive as listening to a real person babble about something comparably irrelevant while I am trying to save Princess Peach. I like my games to be immersive, and Internet chat could detract from the experience. Fortunately, the system described in the patent features a block list as well as a rather comprehensive status system that could potentially make it difficult for my little brother to beg me for hints and cheats while I’m trying to enjoy a game.
Will Nintendo be able to use this patent against Microsoft, or even Sony? At this point, it is hard to say. This patent is certainly indicative of the problems inherent to the patent system. Even though Nintendo applied for this patent in 2000, independently developed technologies that have emerged in the interim resemble it in many ways. Even though none of Nintendo’s products include the features described in the patent, the game company could initiate legal action against a rival and use the patent to stifle development of new technologies. Not that anybody at Microsoft has any right to complain, the Redmond behemoth is just as predatory as Apple, Nintendo, Sony, and just about every other major technology company with the rare exception of those that are committed to openness. As a system designed specifically to promote innovation, the entire patent process is becoming increasingly self defeating as companies continue to abuse intellectual property law to manipulate competitors and stifle innovation to the detriment of consumer needs and desires.