Hurrah! Loading Screen Minigame Patent Expires

This is delightful: Namco’s patent on playable minigames while you wait for the main game to load has expired, meaning we’re almost certainly going to see a whole lot more of that kind of thing in the coming years. Imagine a Fallout 4 in which you could play Missile Command while it booted up, rather than stare at a stationary Deathclaw statue for the four thousandth time. Play Doom 1 while nu-Doom loads. Actual inventory Tetris while the Witcher 3 lumbers into being.

Namco have had the patent on these so-called “auxiliary mini-games” since 1995, and while some have found a way around the issue by making loading screen mini-games in some way affect the main game rather than being their own thing, by and large our loading screens have been static since then. Namco have done stuff like stick a retro space shooter on Tekken 5’s loadscreens in the past, and I don’t doubt that there are tons of publishers with vast archives of old games who’d happily do similar. The concept’s not just good for retro revival though (because God knows there’s enough of that already) – it’s also an opportunity to riff off a game’s central ideas in alternative, more experimental ways.

The good news is that, as of 27th November this year, anyone’s free to stick in a mini-game wherever again. I think we’re going to see some excellent ideas fall out of this, and no shortage of “if only Big Franchise Game X was as good as the minigame on its loading screens” articles.

There’s a game jam to celebrate the patent expiry, because there’s always a game jam. Have a look at the results so far here.

Of course, it’s probably going to become academic before too long as more and more of us get faster and faster SSDs, but OH WELL.

53 Comments

  1. ansionnach says:

    It’s stupid that they could patent such a basic idea in the first place. I see it didn’t include having a game while the installer ran, like the DOS version of Broken Sword.

    • Twitchity says:

      I assume the patent was filed before 1993, since Strike Commander would otherwise assuredly be prior art.

    • TheSplund says:

      I was about to mention the very same thing – good call

  2. celticdr says:

    There will always be loading screens in games regardless of how fast our hard drives get [insert some example relating to an inverse Moores law here]

    • Runty McTall says:

      I dunno, modern games do a much better job of streaming assets on the fly, so even if the scope of “levels” or whatever gets bigger to counter IO improvements through SSDs and the like, you’ll still hardly ever be loading all of those assets in one chunk before the player can get going as we did in ye olde days of yore.

      Most annoyingly this has deprived me of the chance to read tool tips (or background lore!) In fact the worst of all worlds is where you get about 5 words into a tooltip, realise that it’s genuinely useful to you, and then it’s gone before you can finish it.

      • gunny1993 says:

        lol I had to google all the tooltips in F4 because my SSD was loading stuff too fast #firstworldproblems

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        Angstsmurf says:

        I was under the impression that most of the “loading” times in modern games is actually spent compiling shaders.

        • pepperfez says:

          If it’s not reticulating splines then I want it to stop wasting my time.

        • Malarious says:

          With Vulkan finally adding support for pre-compiled shaders, then maybe the dream of an open-world game with zero loadscreens is a possibility after all.

    • Premium User Badge

      Phasma Felis says:

      Thousands of NES games say you’re wrong.

      Loading screens only exist when the read rate from secondary memory (disks, ROMs, etc) is slow compared to the capacity of primary memory (RAM). With solid-state ROM cartridges, the relative speed was very high, but the price and capacity couldn’t keep up with demand, so they eventually became obsolete in favor of rotary storage (optical disks, magnetic platter drives). Now we’re seeing solid-state secondary memory making a comeback in the form of SSDs. No technology lasts forever.

  3. Premium User Badge

    Harlander says:

    Maybe, rather than simply rehashing Invadaload, they could make the minigame actually have some bearing on the gameplay.

    • Kelduum Revaan says:

      They did. This all comes from the mini Galaxian game you can play while Ridge Racer on the PlayStation 1 loaded into RAM, and as mentioned had other versions on the old 8-bit computers.

      In the event you managed to kill all the Galaxians in that, it unlocked almost the full range of other car skins.

  4. h_ashman says:

    I’m surprised this was even patented, especially by Namco, as Fifa has had arena modes & training drills in during loading since Fifa 07. I can’t imagine Namco selling that patent to EA, so I’m trying to work out how they got around it.

    Best I’ve got is that it’s part of the main gameplay, not a separate mini-game, so therefore not covered by the patent.

    • ButteringSundays says:

      Well you don’t have to sell a patent for someone else to use the protected technology, you license it. That’s pretty much the entire point of patenting something in the first place – it’s not like Namco just didn’t want anyone else to play with their toys.

      (although you may well be right about the justification/loop-hole used by Fifa, rather than it being licensed, patent law is a big ball of mess).

    • TheOx129 says:

      Actually, I believe that was exactly the language in the patent: devs could use a stripped-down version of the main game for a loading screen, but a completely separate loading screen mini-game required licensing from Namco.

  5. madve2 says:

    Test Drive 2002, being the first game in the series under the Atari flag, had Pong on its loading screens… and indeed 110% of the reviews stated that it was a lot more fun than the races themselves. Were they related to Namco somehow? Or did it actually had an in-game effect I didn’t realize at the time? Oh boy, those are interesting legal mysteries!

  6. Great Cthulhu says:

    This particular patent is a US one. There may still be patents in other countries covering this idea. And since most games are intended for global(ish) audiences, it takes just one patent in one country to create a headache for developers.

  7. wu wei says:

    This should never have been patented, given there was prior art roughly 10 years earlier.

    • Baines says:

      It never should have been patented for several reasons. Unfortunately, it is very easy for people with money and power to flagrantly abuse the patent system.

      Remember that last yeah Capcom sued Koei over the Xtreme Legends games unlocking content in vanilla titles. Yes, Capcom sued Koei over the idea of one game unlocking and/or expanding content in another game.

    • Baines says:

      Since I can’t edit, I’ll add that Namco’s patent called for the recording medium to be CD-ROM. That lets them dodge many prior use cases.

      While it should also mean that their patent shouldn’t have meaning with DVD, BD, HDD, SSD, or any other storage or delivery formats, most companies likely just decided that it wasn’t worth the hassle or the risk to bother with loading screen minigames while the Namco patent existed. (Which is part of how patents stifle creativity and ideas.)

    • Urthman says:

      Earlier than Major Havoc? I guess Namco got that when they bought the Atari arcade division.

  8. demicanadian says:

    America…
    America…
    America, fuck yeah!

  9. The Worm In Your Brain says:

    I swear Splatoon has loading mini-games. Or is that technically while waiting for matchmaking while the map has already loaded? Eh. I always wondered why games didn’t do this.

    • wondermoth says:

      Splatoon does have a loading minigame, and the minigame does not affect the main game in any way whatsoever. I suspect they got away with it because the game is played n the joypad’s screen, not the main one.

  10. Kefren says:

    I remember playing loading games on my C64 – ideal when loading times were up to 10 minutes.

  11. mukuste says:

    Assassin’s Creed 2 and its direct sequels (not sure about the more modern ones as I haven’t played any) had this weird thing during loading times where you’re stuck in a featureless white cyber-expanse and can… run around. That’s all you can do. I guess that’s not enough interactivity to qualify as a “game”, then? I do wonder why they bothered to put it in at all since it seems so pointless.

    Also, I remember very fun loading screens in Rayman Origins where you could run around but also engage in fisticuffs with your local co-op partner. How did that not get into trouble, then?

  12. Wulfram says:

    Not sure if this is actually a sensible concern, but it bugs me if I don’t feel like all my computers resources are focused on getting the loading done.

    • mukuste says:

      Loading times are usually bottlenecked by hard disk reading speed (that’s why SSDs speed that up so much), so once you have the (presumably light) assets for the minigame loaded, you’re not really impacting anything worth worrying about.

    • EhexT says:

      In the best cases, the thing you do on the loading screen is the part you’ll need regardless of what you’re loading. For example, a training room with a move list to practice moves in a character action game. You’ll have to load the character anyway, so there’s no waste.

    • Borodin says:

      The wait is almost entirely disk read time. As noted by others above, just using an SSD may make this delay unuseably short, but it means that there are tons of spare CPU time with which you can easily play an in-memory game. Leaving the CPU unused during loading won’t accelerate the loading one jot

  13. Solidstate89 says:

    I’ve got the most egregious loading time games (Civ V, Fallout 4, Witcher 3, etc) installed on my SSD. So this does me no good!

  14. Turkey says:

    This is great news for the loading screen mini-game community.

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    phuzz says:

    I only found out the other day that you can rotate the statues on the loading screens in Skyrim and Fallout 4.
    Ok, it’s not as good as an actual game, but I can’t believe how long I spent staring at them without realising that.

  16. DarkFenix says:

    Sadly this came too late for Fallout 4, whose frequent and lengthy load times really did need something to do during them.

    • criskywalker says:

      They already have those Pip-boy minigames! maybe they can somehiw add it to the loading screens?

  17. wondermoth says:

    Not just games, either.

    Rob Hubbard’s Mix-E-Load

    (Hope that link worked).

  18. A Gentleman and a Taffer says:

    Huh, who knew. Splatoon has loading screen mini games, did they breach a patent then?

    • Baines says:

      It could be that Nintendo felt using the gamepad screen was enough to argue theirs was different. It could be that Nintendo felt Namco wouldn’t try to defend an expiring patent. It could be that Nintendo felt Namco wouldn’t try to extort them.

      Mind, the original patent specifically mentions that it is for CD-ROM titles, but that is the kind of detail that is only mentioned in the details, while companies successfully settle for infringement based more on the insanely vague and all-encompassing abstracts.

  19. wraithgr says:

    This is what handhelds/mobile games are for…

    Although to be fair there have been occasions where I got so engrossed in the other game that I forgot I was waiting for a different game to load…

  20. TheAngriestHobo says:

    So what were those hidden item minigames during the Sims 3 loading screens branded as, then?

    • Wulfram says:

      The article mentions “some have found a way around the issue by making loading screen mini-games in some way affect the main game rather than being their own thing”. The Sims loading screen game gave you lifetime happiness points so I guess it was allowed under that dodge.

      • TheAngriestHobo says:

        Oh, that’s right. I forgot all about the rewards.

  21. Big Murray says:

    I’m struggling to think of a game these days with loading screens so long that I’d be able to get any kind of gameplay out of a minigame.

  22. Uhuru N'Uru says:

    Problem is I wouldn’t play a game, if loading took that long, I could play any crappy mini-game, while waiting.

    I don’t want my PC doing anything other than loading the game I’m playing as quickly as it can.
    If a blank screen produces the fastest loading times, I only want to see a blank screen.

    • Noirpunk says:

      My concern isn’t that it would cause more computing resources to be used, but rather that developers could become complacent and not bother to minimize and/or manage the loading to make it seem less intrusive.

      It’s sort of like how the ability to easily patch games after release has been a double-edged sword.

  23. Radthor Dax says:

    An SSD with even a mid-tier rig will cut your loading screens to a mere couple of seconds most of the time anyway. This patent really did last almost the full lifespan of the idea’s usefulness.

  24. BiggerJ says:

    The sad thing is that many, many people have probably assumed that you can’t have playable game during a loading screen because the computer or console is too busy loading. Fuck you for that, SHAMco.

  25. AlexV says:

    I would really like to know where the bottleneck is in load times. I had assumed it was disk access, and sure, an SSD speeds it up a bit, but you still end up sitting at loading screens for a fair old wait in some games. Most recent example being Dying Light, I think, which was at least 15 seconds.

    So what’s it doing? Tests indicate the CPU isn’t heavily used, the disk transfer rate is nowhere near maximum (and experimentally, sticking the game onto a RAM disk doesn’t make any difference), so what is it that is slowing it down? If I could build a system that would give me load times in the 1-2 second range, I’d do it, but I can’t figure out what’s holding it back.

  26. Nouser says:

    …at least until the TTP comes into effect.