On November 27th, Namco Bandai’s patent, US5718632 A, finally expired. What’s so important about this patent? It gave Namco ownership over ‘interactive loading screens’, which are the ability to play auxiliary games/minigames during a loading screen. But now that the concept has gone public any developer is free to create loading screen games without fear of reprimand from Namco. This is great news for me, as for the past year I’ve been watching movies during Destiny’s lengthier load times. And there are only so many times you can watch Batman Begins.
Of course, in the past 20 years, some games have created innovative ways to get around Namco’s patent. Games like Fifa, Bayonetta and Rayman Legends all feature some sort of playable loading screen, allowing players to practice techniques or earn a bonus in the next level. These methods are allowed because they’re not auxiliary games, but extensions of the games themselves.
As David Hoppe writes on his blog, Namco’s patent isn’t based on the most solid ground. Prior to its listing in 1995, loading screen minigames had existed as early as 1987 in the form of the Invade-a-Load program on the Commodore 64 which allowed users to play a Space Invaders clone while the main game loaded. That sounds kind of similar to the Galaga clone you could play during loading screens in Namco’s Ridge Racer Revolution.
In 2006, the D3 Publisher Inc. game, Onechanbara, nobody’s favourite bikini samurai game, utilised a separate minigame for its loading screens. As Hoppe notes, Namco seemed to understand that its patent wasn’t completely secure, and starting a lawsuit over a small game wasn’t worth losing a valuable patent. Plus Namco went on to acquire D3 anyway, so they probably didn’t want to damage their own asset.
So when are we going to see more loading screen games? Maybe soon, but probably not for a while. Namco’s patent didn’t just stop interactive loading screens from being released, but also from being developed, meaning it’s unlikely we’ll see many AAA titles with an enjoyable load screen for a year or two at least. However the door is also open for indie developers, with Loading Screen Jam having been created to celebrate the end of Namco’s patent. It has the goal of “defiling the patent that held back game design for so many years,” and encourages anyone to submit anything that would have previously infringed upon the patent.
Hopefully that inspires someone to make a mod for Fallout 4 so players can use Pipboy games between loading screens. Until then you can always read LoadScreen articles while your games load. Or you can watch Batman Begins for the twelfth time.