Publisher Sega of America has filed a patent infringement suit with a San Francisco federal court, claiming that Fox Interactive's Simpsons Road Rage copies patented gameplay elements from Sega's own Crazy Taxi series.
Naming Fox Interactive, Electronic Arts and developer Radical Entertainment as defendants, the suit claims that Simpsons Road Rage was designed to "deliberately copy and imitate" the Crazy Taxi gameplay formula, for which it would appear that Sega holds a patent.
Sega, which cites a number of reviews as part of its evidence of this patent infringement, wants a cut of the game's profits to date (a not insubstantial figure, given that Simpsons Road Rage has become a million-selling title since its launch in late 2001) and wants it taken off the shelves to boot.
Although, like many such cases, it's entirely likely that this suit will never see the inside of a courtroom, so no legal precedent will be set, industry observers are likely to watch it keenly regardless. Whichever way a ruling in this case was to go, it would be very important to the way that publishers and developers do business in an industry where a great many games are simply clones of a tried and tested formula developed elsewhere.
We're in two minds about the case. In general we don't support efforts to widen the scope of patent law, particularly in terms of the sort of broader software patents which enable this kind of gameplay patenting - and we were somewhat shocked recently to learn that a respected British developer is apparently planning to apply for a patent on a form of 3D lighting code used in its latest game, causing anger in the traditionally very open 3D graphics programming and research community.
Gameplay patents could arguably encourage more innovation in games and stem the flow of staid clones which follow on from every successful original title, which would certainly be a good thing. However, certain other less pleasant possibilities also arise from a verdict in Sega's favour in this case. Imagine a world where Bungie had patented the Halo control system - generally agreed as the logical best solution to controlling FPS games on console joypads. Other developers would be forced to adopt different and almost certainly inferior control mechanisms; and the person who really lost out in the end would be the consumer.