This decision is a classic one concerning two items on the list of excluded subject-matter: gaming rules and the presentation of information. The European Patent Office granted a software patent on graphical layout aspects of a video game which improved its functional quality. Here are the practical takeaways of the decision T 0928/03 (Video game/KONAMI) of 2.6.2006 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.5.01:
This European patent application relates to an interactive video game (e.g. a virtual soccer game) in which a user controls at least one player character displayed on a screen.
One aspect of the invention is to display a ring-shaped guide mark (see G1 in the image below) around the foot of the active player character. Further, a team mate of the active player is accompanied by a pass guide mark (G3) so that the active player character can easily pass the ball to the team mate. A central aspect was that the pass guide mark is displayed on the end of the display area even when the other player character and the pass guide mark come out of the display area of the monitor screen so as to properly indicate the direction in which the ball is to be passed by the player character.
Here is how the invention is defined in claim 1:
Claim 1A guide display device for use in a video game system of the type in which a couple of teams, each having a plurality of player characters (P1, P2, P3) displayed on a monitor screen (13), compete with each other on a single game medium (b), at least one of said teams being under the control of a game player through a controller (8) said guide display device comprising:
monitoring means for identifying the player character (P1) which keeps said game medium (b), and
guide displaying means for displaying a guide mark (G1, G2) which accompanies the player character (P1, P2, P3) identified by said monitoring means and which indicates that said game medium (b) is kept by said player character (P1) identified by said monitoring means,
characterized in that
[a] said guide mark (G1, G2) is ring-shaped and displayed on the image of the field plane (f) around the player character (P1, P2, P3) at a location near a [indefinite article reinserted by the Board] foot of said player character (P1, P2, P3),
[b] said guide displaying means further displays a pass guide mark (G3) accompanying another player character (P2) which belongs to the same team as said player character (P1) keeping said game medium (b) and to which said game medium (b) can most easily be passed from said player character (P1) keeping said game medium (b), and
[c] said guide displaying means displays said pass guide mark (G3) accompanying another player character (P2) such that [corrected from “said”] a portion of the pass guide mark (G3) is displayed on the end of the display area even when said another player character (P2) and said pass guide mark (G3) come out of the display area of the monitor screen so as to properly indicate the direction in which the game medium (b) is to be passed by the player character (P1).
Is it technical?
First of all, patent-eligibility was not an issue in the present case in accordance with the established case law:
Eligibility for patent protection has not been called into question by the Examining Division. The guide display device according to claim 1 indeed represents a physical entity in particular comprising displaying means which have a technical character by their nature.
Concerning inventive step, one difference over the closest prior, which indicates the active player character by displaying a small triangle above its head, was that the guide mark is ring-shaped and displayed around a foot of the active player character. The Board assessed the technical character of this difference as follows:
The aforementioned difference implies an enlarged size of the guide mark which avoids any risk of the mark being concealed by a neighbouring player character. Making a possibly concealed indicator clearly visible on a display screen to the user of an interactive video game does not exclusively address a human mental process (i.e. it is not exclusively determined by the cognitive meaning of the information presented) but contributes an objective technical function to the display. The functional quality is not cancelled by the fact that the visualised information will also enter into a decision of the user interacting with the video game displayed on the screen.
In conclusion, the enlarged size of the guide mark will enter into the appraisal of the display device and method with respect to inventive step (T 641/00-Two identities/COMVIK, Headnote I, OJ EPO 2003, 352).
However, the Board ruled differently with respect to the ring shape of the guide mark and its arrangement near the foot of the player character:
On the other hand, the Board is not convinced that the precise geometrical (ring-)shape of the guide mark achieves any effect other than an aesthetic impression. The shape of the guide mark relates to mere artwork in the menu design which the Board considers as non-technical (see T 244/00-Remote control/MATSUSHITA, point 12 of the Reasons).
Consequently, the ring-shape of the guide mark is merely an aesthetic creation and, thus, cannot constitute an inventive step within the meaning of Article 56 EPC.
The same goes for the precise (foot-related) location of the guide mark (G1) with respect to the player character to be marked. In view of the preferred embodiment of the video game (soccer), it may be added that – in accordance with the Examining Division’s finding – marking the foot zone of a player character may also be driven by the non-technical rules of the game, which confirms the non-technical character of that contribution.
By the way, if you are interested in a deeper look into how the European Patent Office examines software-related inventions, this 30-minute video gives a concise overview of the “two hurdle” approach with lots of examples:
Another difference over the closest prior art was that a team mate of the active player character is accompanied by a pass guide mark so that the active player character can easily pass the game medium (e.g. ball) to the team mate:
When the non-technical, game-rule-driven aspects of this feature are stripped off, the underlying technical contribution relates to the highlighting of a second point of interest, in addition to the active player character, on the display screen in order to draw the user’s attention to the second point on the screen. That is a technical contribution to be considered in the inventive step discussion.
A third difference over the closest prior art was that the pass guide mark is displayed on the end of the display area even when the other player character and the pass guide mark come out of the display area of the monitor screen so as to properly indicate the direction in which the game medium (e.g. ball) is to be passed by the player character:
The technical problem underlying this feature relates to conflicting technical requirements: On the one hand, a portion of an image is desired to be displayed on a relatively large scale (e.g. zoom in); on the other hand, the display area of the screen may then be too small to show a complete zone of interest. Resolving that conflict by technical means implies a technical contribution which has to be considered in the inventive step discussion.
The first two differences, albeit being technical contributions, were found to be obvious by the Board. The third difference – highlighting a second point of interest in addition to the active player character on the display screen to draw the user’s attention to the second point on the screen – was found to be non-obvious:
The technical contribution by feature [c] addresses the conflicting technical requirements of displaying an enlarged portion of an image (into which the user may have zoomed) and keeping an overview of a zone of interest which is larger than the display area. Conventional video game GUIs (as acknowledged by the appellant, see point V, last paragraph supra) compromise by superimposing a down-scaled map of the zone of interest on the enlarged portion of the image (covering a considerable part of that portion), or by zooming out (losing detail), or by shifting the viewing perspective (losing focus).
Feature [c] allows an enlarged portion of the image to be displayed and overview information to be provided to the user without sacrificing surface, detail or focus of the enlarged image portion.
In the Board’s judgment, the first and second instance discussions have not revealed any obvious pointer to a display device displaying a guide mark on the end of the display area in order to indicate a second point of interest which is being outside the display area of the monitor screen.
Therefore, the Board decided that claim 1 involves an inventive step.
You can read the whole decision here: T 0928/03 (Video game/KONAMI) of 2.6.2006
Patrick is a European patent attorney at BARDEHLE PAGENBERG. He specializes in software patents in Europe both from a prosecution and litigation point of view.