I joined the Nemesis Jam on a punkish whim, and because something about the Nemesis system had always appealed to me. Just a few weeks prior I had been having a conversation with Asymmetric Publications’ Zack Johnson about how it was odd that everyone had praised the Nemesis system’s amazing possibility space and yet nobody had really done anything more with it. Serendipitously, the patent stuff reared its head only days later.
We’d forgotten about the looming patent.
My understanding of the whole patent situation is that now that Warner Bros. has secured a patent on the Nemesis system (a phrase which never appears in the actual patent, but it’s an easy shorthand), they have a legal foothold which will allow them to (attempt to) sue developers/studios for infringing upon their patent.
From their perspective, it is a tool. From the outside, it is a minefield.
I designed this Android: Netrunner Agenda card to attempt to express what it is the Nemesis Patent feels like: it is the executioner’s axe looming overhead, the consequences uncertain but potentially very dangerous to an independent designer.
In terms of the game Android: Netrunner, having one of your programs trashed might be very, very bad, and getting tags might be very, very bad. Under the wrong circumstances, either one could mean the end of the game for you. Agenda cards with a Hosted agenda counter ability can strike at any time.
Since this is a competitive game, this means that the Corp will choose the worst possible moment to demand that I lose a key piece of my rig, or take 3 “tags”, which are a messy anti-resource that have uncertain — but at best, wasteful — consequences, much like getting embroiled in a legal conflict with Warner Bros. would.
And… this is how it feels to me, as a designer, to have a sloppily-worded patent over a set of game mechanics held by a real-world corporation. The problem isn’t that I’m not allowed to steal their Nemesis system, it’s that it’s terrifying to even take inspiration from it, because I don’t know when they will pull the trigger, or what the consequences might be.
The worst part is, I fucking loved reading the Nemesis patent. Not just the system from the outside, but the guts-deep technical document that had to be produced in order to make the claim.
I found it incredibly inspiring and educational. But having read the whole thing, the question I have is: what am I allowed to learn?
Even understanding what a patent is and does, there is an unknown fear of what might happen if I spend my time and effort building a game on top of such a legally questionable foundation.
So obviously, I did. 🙃
And not just on itch.io, the indie games haven; I released it on the App Store too, just to really rub it in. (P.S. if you clicked on that second link and are wondering “who dat”, yes that’s me, my name is Alexander Martin. I just haven’t figured out how to make it say ‘droqen’ yet or if Apple even officially supports this kind of vanity naming. Well, maybe people will be more likely to buy a bird game from someone who sounds human anyway.)
Okay, so it doesn’t look like a game that represents a thumbing of the nose at the idea of a legally enforceable game design patent but to some degree that’s the point: “Tic-Tac-Crow” being a game about silly birds playing a children’s game distances it from the thematic undertones of the Nemesis system & shows that the consequences of the patent don’t just apply to games about murderin’ orcs.
So what do they apply to? I mean, what is the cool, core videogames aesthetic which the Nemesis mechanics are key to unlocking?
I wrote a (very short) blog post at the beginning of this year, Should I continue to dream of impossibly large and complex worlds?, in which I ruminated hopelessly on the sense of aliveness I want a game system or a game world to have. At the time I was feeling a bit pessimistic, defeated and came to the conclusion:
But as I really embrace my desire to simulate little self-contained worlds full of life and detail, I run into dead end after dead end, because I can’t make living worlds. It’s just not possible.
But then the Nemesis Jam happened.
For those that don’t know, a patent grants “a property right by a sovereign authority to an inventor. A patent provides the inventor exclusive rights to the patented process, design, or invention for a certain period in exchange for a complete disclosure of the invention.”The introduction to the Nemesis Jam on itch.io by CannibalInteractive (aka @TheWorstRPGDev, the best and most evocative twitter handle I’ve ever seen)
I read this specific piece of writing (itself mostly a large quote, haha) and in particular the idea of having access to “a complete disclosure of the invention” struck my fancy. What would a complete disclosure of such a lauded videogame system look like?
So I read the entire Nemesis characters, nemesis forts, social vendettas and followers in computer games patent, cover-to-cover.
It is an awful read, but apparently I have the head for these kinds of things so I took a lot of notes and by the end of it I had gleaned a wonderful sort of soft understanding of the system.
I can feel my manic blog-post-writing energy winding down now, but I still want to write a total breakdown of / guide to the patent, encouraging and empowering you and others to use what I learned to help you make your game-worlds feel more complex and alive.
But that’s a (big) project for another day. For now you’ll just have to slog through the damn thing yourself.
I’m on Patreon! I don’t know what the future holds, but I post WIPs of stuff I’m working on in a private Discord and I’m certainly going to show off my breakdown/guide there before it’s done, if you’re interested in that kind of thing.
Check the contact/follow page of this website if you just want to keep an eye out for when it’s done; you can follow me on twitter, or subscribe to this blog, or to my monthly-ish mailing list there.