Dutch Company’s Questions To No Man’s Sky About ‘Superformula’ Used To Generate Planets

Upcoming exploration sim No Man’s Sky [official site] could be using a “superformula” which already belongs to a company in the Netherlands to generate its alien worlds, according to a Dutch newspaper. While the claim is still being looked into, it comes as the developers enter the final stretch before its release on August 12th.

The company, Genicap, which began life as a software company for graphic artists in 2003, says that it has not given permission for Hello Games to use the mathematical formula (called the “Superformula”), which was patented by the company’s co-owner, Professor Johan Gielis, as far back as 2004.

“We have not licensed to Hello Games,” one of the company’s representatives told the Telegraaf. “We certainly do not want to stop the launch, but if the formula is used, we will have to sit at the table at a given time.”

“We are ourselves developing a gaming application based on the Superformula. It would be great if we could exchange knowledge with Hello Games. We have contacted [them], but received no response.”

Sean Murray of Hello Games has previously acknowledged the use of the “Superformula” to create geological formations in this interview with the New Yorker. In the interview, Murray is faced with the problem of creating geology that is varied enough for the game.

“The problem nagged at him, until he found an equation, published in 2003 by a Belgian plant geneticist named Johan Gielis. The simple equation can describe a large number of natural forms—the contours of diatoms, starfish, spiderwebs, shells, snowflakes, crystals.

“Murray, sitting before his monitor, typed the Superformula into the terrain of a test planet. He began simply, creating walnut-shaped forms that floated in an infinite grid over a desert. The image resembled a nineteen-eighties album cover, but the over-all look was not the point. Whenever he refreshed the rendering, the floating shapes changed. Many were asymmetrical, marred by depressions and rivulets. Game designers refer to lines of code that require lots of processing time as ‘costly.’ The Superformula is cheap.”

The formula itself was first described by Gielis in the American Journal of Botany in 2003. He has described it as having great potential to save processing power when used in computer programs.

“When I found the formula,” he told Nature, “all these beautiful shapes came rolling out of my computer. It seemed too good to be true – I spent two years thinking ‘What did I do wrong?’ and ‘How come no one else has discovered it?'”

The Superformula can be used to create 2D or 3D shapes with a huge amount of variation. The mathematics behind it are described in the patent (but don’t ask us to explain them to you), which also outlines some of its uses:

1. A method for the creation of computer graphics images, comprising:
a) generating at least one shape with a computer based on a parameterized formula;
b) having said computer suggest a plurality of variations of said at least one shape.
2. The method of claim 1, wherein said at least one shape is a two-dimensional shape.
3. The method of claim 1, wherein said at least one shape is a three-dimensional shape.

Creating the geometry of planets or the shapes of alien species might fall under these uses, but it is important to note that there has been no confirmation from Hello Games that the formula as it is described in the patent is being used in the game’s procedural generation. Neither is there any lawsuit underway on Genicap’s end. It is possible both parties are trying to discover exactly what has happened behind the scenes. We have reached out to both Hello Games and Professor Gielis for comment and will let you know just what the dickens is going on as soon as we can.

This hasn’t been the first upset for Hello Games. They recently had to settle a three-year dispute with Sky TV for using the word ‘Sky’ in their title. Lawyers gonna law.

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  1. Sp4rkR4t says:

    You can’t patent a formula, only the product of a formula and the patent they held seems to have expired in 2006 because they never paid the fees.

    • Owais says:

      Not being a patent attorney, I also thought it was impossible to patent mathematical formulae – although they could potentially be protected as trade secrets. And isn’t it generally poor form to publish first and then apply for the patent?

      • Luciferous says:

        The formula is freely available to view through Wiki, so as far as trade secrets go it is a piss poor kept one! But yeah, this whole thing stinks of desperation on the claimees side.

        • Beanbee says:

          If it is a as good as it seems to be, they also deserve a fair bit of the money since it’s half of the pull of the game. That’s some good work, never mind if they followed the rules properly.

          • DailyFrankPeter says:

            I’d argue about ‘half’ but yeah, would be nice to see some gratification if it’s in fact due.

        • Medo says:

          If it is patented then it is public anyway, since patent descriptions are public (and there is really no way around that, else how could you even find out if you violate a patent?) This is a common issue and the reason many companies decide NOT to patent clever techniques if they can keep them secret instead.

          • froz says:

            This is not an issue, it’s actually one of the main goals of patents (to make knowledge public) and reason why patents last relatively shortly.

    • Captain Joyless says:

      The formula isn’t patented. What patented is the method of using the formula to generate graphical worlds. Just like it says in the article.

      “Lawyers gonna law” indeed. Sadly we RPS doesn’t give us anyone with legal experience + video game experience to comment on such goings-on, though. Might have spared readers a little confusion here.

  2. ScubaMonster says:

    Patenting mathematical formulas is something that should not exist and is absurd on the face of it. Similar to patenting plant seeds.

    • ryanrybot says:

      It’s not the math that is patented, it’s the way the algorithm is used. This is the basis for almost all software patents.
      You can’t patent wood, but you can patent a wooden chair. This is something along those lines.

      • Premium User Badge

        Oakreef says:

        This is also the basis for seed patents. The genetics of the seed aren’t patented, the concept of using seeds that are genetically altered in a specific way to be immune to a specific weedkiller in conjunction with said weedkiller is patented.

    • Tomba says:

      This is a pretty complicated formula that someone put a shitload of work in. And unlike the usual patent trolls, this time it’s actually the gay who came up with this formula that has the rights, and is entitled to some profit for it. Saying it should not be patented, is like saying that a program’s code should not be patented. Codecs are patented, and they’re also just formula’s used to compress media,… I’m quite sure Hello Games would not like it if someone just copied No Man’s Sky’s code…

      • Tomba says:


      • GenialityOfEvil says:

        Actually, it’s a generalisation of a formula that already exists, and has for 200 years. It’s also not particularly complicated, Gielis says that himself and how he was surprised that no-one had documented it before.

        • kingprawn says:

          Seconded. The formula is just a bunch of dressing put on top of the equation for a circle. Trust me, anyone who’s ever played with generative art has done something similar, and anyone could have stumbled on to this. It’s remarkable how many natural looking variations can come out of this, but that says more about the prevalence of circles in nature than it says about anything else.

          • kingprawn says:

            Hopefully I didn’t sound overly harsh there. I’ve got a lot of respect for stuff like this, it’s just so crass for someone to discover something cool like this and then when someone finally puts it to good use you try to jump inside their pocket.

          • lglethal says:

            Most patentable things sound obvious in hindsight. But the fact that no one else HAD actually patented this before him, seems to state that no it wasn’t actually as obvious as it sounds.

          • kingprawn says:

            Sure, that’s a good point, but where does it end? I can take a simple, common formula like:
            y = mx+b

            and start adding crap onto it like:
            y = sin(cos(m^n*x^n/n-1+b)

            and I might be really happy with the shape it makes, but am I going to call it the “revolutionary hyperline” and demand payment when someone uses it to draw pictures?

          • GepardenK says:

            The patent is not for the mathematical formula itself but for a specific application of the formula to make procedually generated 2d and 3d software art. It’s completely valid, this is how all software patenting works.

            It would be like me coming up with a new way of handling physics in games and then patenting it. I don’t get to own the actual math I use, but I do get to own the combine usage of that math in the context of making software physics.

      • FriendlyFire says:

        Except No Man’s Sky isn’t protected by patent law, but by copyright law. Very different purposes and logic.

      • girard says:

        Actually, many would argue that a program’s code should never be patented, and the shift from copyrighting code to patenting software is precisely what gave us the Patent Troll phenomenon.

      • HeavyStorm says:

        Software code shouldn’t be patented. Only copyrighted.

      • FrumiousBandersnatch says:

        This is a pretty complicated formula that someone put a shitload of work in.

        You are joking, aren’t you? The formula is utterly banal. That’s like saying round corners are a pretty complicated design concept that someone put a shitload of work in.

      • James0 says:

        Mathematical and scientific results can’t generally be patented, no matter how much work has gone into them – that’s not how maths and science are funded. And this particular formula is straightforward and doesn’t seem to be particularly special. Or at least there doesn’t seem to be much discussion of it apart from this current controversy, which would be odd if it was a major mathematical discovery.

    • Pantalaimon says:

      I feel like much like a lot of software development, it’s not in the spirit of things to slap patents and licensing clauses on everything you develop – in order to get anywhere you have to read up on what others have done and use the tools that they created to do what you do, so it’s fairly questionable to turn around and slam the door shut behind you. This kind of attitude should be decried in general, whereever it exists.

      I know that is idealism, but I think it’s worth sticking to, even though the practicalities of modern commercial life create tensions like this, where someone has put in thousands of hours and someone else may or may not have benefited from that work financially without giving anything back.

      At the end of the day, I think it is better to put your work out there, open source, in the spirit of pushing things forwards, even if some people will abuse your generosity – there are surely more people who will ‘pay it forward’ (or at least, that’s what I choose to believe).

    • tiberiousr says:

      You can’t patent mathematical forumlas or software in the EU or UK. Genicaps patent appears to be for specific implementations of the code but even that’s a legal grey area as far as I can see. Also, the superformula is just some extra stuff built on top of the formula for a circle. The patent would never survive being challenged in court and I suspect Sony has a lot more legal clout to throw at something like this than Genicap.

  3. Zaxwerks says:

    If only Einstein had had the forethought to patent, trademark and copyright E=mc2 he could have been rich!

    “Oh I see you appear to have mass, that will be £200 please… and all that energy you are expending swearing at me that’ll be another £200…”

    • JarinArenos says:

      This is more like patenting an atomic clock, which relies on Einstein’s equation. It’s not the formula, it’s the specific application of it.

      • Sirius1 says:

        But Hello Games have developed *their own* specific application of the formula, from what I can tell.

        Also looks to me like they are basing their objection on use of the formula itself.

        Not impressed. Not quite as bad as Sky TV having a trademark on the word ‘Sky’ (How is that possible? It’s a common bloody word!) but bad enough.

        • Shuck says:

          “How is that possible? It’s a common bloody word!”
          The thing about trademarks is that they’re supposed to be for a particular business – so you can trademark a very common word, like “Apple” and it only applies to, say, recorded music or computers – and so long as no one else in that specific business is already using it, it’s fine. So Apple computers and Apple records can both exist without problem – until, for example, the computer company starts selling recorded music… “Sky” shouldn’t have even been a problem so long as the TV company wasn’t planning to start producing games and “No Man’s Sky” wasn’t connected to a television broadcaster. Apparently it took three years for lawyers to write that down in lawyer-speak.

          • ooshp says:

            Maybe it came down to potential brand confusion due to No Man’s Sky containing precisely the same percentage of fiction as a Sky News broadcast.

      • HeavyStorm says:

        Maybe Einstein should have sat down and thought about some implications of his formula and patented them. I think that you should at least forfeit a patent like this if no one uses it (yourself!) in a few years.

        Curious enough, Einstein worked for the patent office in his youth.

        • lglethal says:

          Umm just to bring some balance, it says they are developing their own program, so they are using it…

  4. Jediben says:

    I knew this game looked formulaic but that really takes the biscuit.

    • ooshp says:


      • mariusmora says:

        Replying here just to say your comment on the upper thread about sky news made me laugh out loud. *clapping intensifies*

  5. Rumpelstiltskin says:

    Classy job holding it until the very last moment so that even Sony lawyers can’t do anything before the release (that’s assuming there is some legal way to protect formulae).

    • GenialityOfEvil says:

      They’ve already said they don’t plan to interfere with the release.

      • Juan Carlo says:

        Doesn’t make sense for them to. They want a cut of the profits, retroactively. By waiting until it’s no longer possible for “Hello Games” to change things, they actually increase their leverage as Hello can’t just switch to a different formula.

        Of course, that’s all contingent on whether or not they win in court.

    • Raoul Duke says:

      As a legal concept in the common law world, if you know someone is or may be infringing your rights and rather than immediately taking action to stop them, you sit back and let them rely on the fact that they can do whatever they are doing, then you will quite likely be prevented (estopped) from complaining about that conduct later.

      I.e., if I see you building a new house and I know that you are mistakenly building it on my land, and I just sit back and let you build it, I might well lose my right to complain about it later and would almost certainly lose my right to get an injunction against you just before you hammer in the last nail.

  6. Sam says:

    I could almost understand if the parameters were inter-related, but each one is separate. It’s just taking two fundamental functions, multiplying (or dividing) each by literally any value, raising each to literally any power, adding them together and raising that to literally any power. Can you hold a patent on “carving wood into any shape and then attaching it to another bit of wood also carved into any shape”? People have been adding sine and cosine together for quite a while before that patent was filed.

    As is perhaps obvious, I really don’t understand patent law. Maybe the patent is for a specific use of the function. They mention applying random perturbations to the parameters with user feedback as a drawing aid. In which case No Man’s Sky should be fine, because they’re not having the user feed back into the automated generation process.

    • TheAngriestHobo says:

      As is perhaps obvious, I really don’t understand patent law.

      You could even say it’s… patently obvious?

    • Baines says:

      Software patents can sometimes be as vague as “carving wood into any shape and then attaching it to another bit of wood also carved into any shape”. You only have to give the details in the detail section, but you can get away with using your intentionally super-vague abstract for your legal threats. Patent lawsuits are long and costly battles, and the winner can have little bearing on logic or common sense, so many are settled out of court without the validity of the patent ever being truly tested. (This is also part of how companies get and use patents for stuff that legally shouldn’t be patentable. Once the patent is issued, it is “legal” until successfully contested in court, and logic and common sense don’t necessarily win the day in court.)

  7. Doubler says:

    Couple of things:

    1: The Telgraaf is a horrible rag of a paper, light on facts, high on rhetoric and with an interest in generating controversy.
    2: The tone is pretty non-confrontational. There’s no threats or talk of a lawsuit in the article by the company in question. The only mention of damages or ceasing distribution comes from some lawyer the paper apparently contacted.

    In fact the whole thing reads to me as a non-story the paper (correctly, apparently) hoped would generate some buzz.

  8. Jetsetlemming says:

    That patent doesn’t look remotely like any other patent I’ve ever read. It’s comes off as part scientific paper and part press release, imo. The idea could arguably be patented as software based on existing US law (though I think that’s stupid and software should only be copyrightable and never patentable), but they’re not patenting it as software. They’re… just kinda describing a preferred way to do math???? This is really academic, almost a “what if” in tone.
    Maybe Dutch patents are just super fucking weird or something, but I don’t see how this is enforceable in the US. They use some fairly basic algorithms that turn out to be okay at generating approximate landscapes. Hello Games used those same algorithms for similar purposes, but did not use their specific “preferred embodiments,” but rather created their own functions based on the idea. They can’t own the equations themselves, those are preexisting, and they didn’t make a specific implementation that they patented as software here, just a general idea.

    Of course, the way the law and lawsuits work, they might be able to get a settlement “we’re trying to release a video game, please go away” payment, and create a precedent, if they try to. Who knows! Hope RPS keeps us updated on this thrilling courtroom drama about landscape math.

    • FriendlyFire says:

      Since Hello Games is a UK company, US patent law has little bearing. They’re still subject to EU patent law, and since the Netherlands are part of the EU, their patent laws can affect UK companies in a fairly direct manner.

      • tiberiousr says:

        Thankfully under EU patent law you can’t patent maths or software.

        • Pistols says:

          That’s not true. There are many many software parents in the EU and UK. It’s just harder as you need to show that the software causes a technical effect in the real world.

      • Cederic says:

        If they release the game in the US, they’re subject to US patent law. US patent law is patently stupid, but that’s due to corrupt law making so it’s not easily fixed.

      • Jetsetlemming says:

        The patent linked in this article is a US patent, or at least an article describing a US patent.

  9. haldolium says:

    And why didn’t you contact those apparent “patent holders”? This is just repeating the awful shit from the original article, which is horrible factless. Adding some irrelevant facts about the patent as such.

    Do some journalism once in a while, not just opinions and steam charts.

  10. paxundae says:

    The specific patent that you reference in this piece (U.S. patent publication no. 20050140678) was never granted. The USPTO lists its current status as “Abandoned — Failure to Respond to an Office Action”.

    There are other similar patents in that family, fwiw, but they certainly won’t be bringing a law suit on that one.

  11. notcoffeetable says:

    As a PhD student in number theory, this patent is a load of shit. Any science major with calculus 3 and linear algebra works with these kinds of objects. In number theory they are studied as elliptic curves or Diophantine equations.

    Maybe this guy deserves it to be named after him within biological modeling contexts. But this patent should be laughed out of court.

    • notcoffeetable says:

      I see the patent was never granted. That’s good the biologist who found it and called it the SUPERFORMULA should be embarrassed.

      • ooshp says:

        Probably should’ve just taken a punt at copyrighting SuperFormula.

    • FriendlyFire says:

      I’d skipped over the patent itself out of laziness, but your comment made me take a look at it. Wow, you’re not kidding. There’s like zero insight into a formula like this, someone could easily derive it independently.

      It’s too bad the guy failed to follow through with due procedure on the patent application, I’d have preferred to see it be rejected on the grounds of not being novel at all.

      • Mahaku says:

        Patents don’t require expert insight, but an inventive step which is non-obvious to the average expert.

      • Mahaku says:

        Patents don’t require expert insight, but an inventive step which is non-obvious to the average expert. And novelty in this very step of course.

        • Mahaku says:

          Oh, dupe blocky almost worked, bit my browser didn’t originally show the dupe so I didn’t believe it — sorry!

    • LennyLeonardo says:

      The patent is a PhD student? Now I’m confused.

  12. Premium User Badge

    AutonomyLost says:

    Very interesting.

  13. racccoon says:

    How pathetic is this dutch company? It crazy, after all this time to come with this bullshit!
    This is a theoretical example of a presumption of the use if any was used which I very much doubt. As I believe it was based on theory if it was then every student in world is liable for there use of theory’s. anyway here we go…
    “I was doing it, it was just a theoretical examination & i put out my poor coding practices for everyone to see & use, it was just experimental after all, a sort of bodged up mock up code! oh! & you completed this after many years of your own labor and thoughts, you created a working code and now have a game that’s complete & ready for release!! Well that’s partly mine isn’t it?”
    N O !! Its not!
    I have put out loads of code for people to use over the years and they have made loads of stuff form it and good bloody luck to them!
    When we code and we give out the code!
    its no longer ours its for people to get excited about and go do some more coding and mashing themselves!
    End of story!

  14. froz says:

    Why all the hate for patents? The copyright law is actually much much more restrictive to patents. The idea behind patents is quite great, even if sometimes they are abused. Copyright protection, on the other hand, is one big horseshit. I’m not a lawyer, but I believe some differences between patent and copyright is that patents are paid (and you need to pay a lot), they are in general valid for way shorter period (10-20 years versus copyright until your death and another 40-70 years) and with patents you are forced to share your discovery. Because of this we can get cheap medicine that have the same content as some known brand (after some time since it was created).

    Of course patents law is a tool and a lot depends on people who use it. But what I’m trying to say is just that copyright protection is simply much worse and harsh in every aspect. Just to get you an idea – if penicillin production was protected by copyright, it would be still protected.

    • bp_968 says:

      This. Copyright (at least in the USA) is downright evil compared to patents. A new patented product could come out tomorrow and there is a reasonably chance I’ll still be around when the patent expires and everyone can use the idea/invention. With copyright, stuff written when my 80 year old grandfather was a child will still likely be under copyright when my *children* are great grandparents themselves!

      I think most of the hate for software patents comes from how their used. When companies or people patent sections of code instead of entire programs and the fact that it disproportionately harms open source code more than it does traditional “closed” code. With closed code if you accidently violate a patent no one is likely to ever know. Both you and the original patent holder came up with tepee same solution to a similar problem. But with open source code a company with lots of patents and lots of resources can have people comb through your code (because it’s open source remember?) and when they find something they have a patent on they can shut you down and end any chance of competition your software might have had.

    • Cederic says:

      Patent law had a level of sense to it when it was related to physical items.

      The moment companies pushed patents into the mathematical, business process and software space, it just became an abusive stupid costly waste of time that damages innovation.

      In the US in particular you can patent pretty much anything, and it’s very costly to get even the most idiotic of patents overturned. Since it’s pretty much impossible to write a single line of programming code without violating five patents just IBM own, let alone the rest of the IT industry, and that’s before you even try and compile it.

      None of those patents is ‘not obvious’, but if your company annual revenue is $200k you can’t really afford the $2m needed to challenge them in court.

      IBM tend to use patents defensively, but other companies are less gentle.

      So people hate patents because they’re stupid, they’re not properly controlled, they create massive barriers to entry and they currently provide no societal benefits.

    • Jetsetlemming says:

      The thing is that it’s a hell of a lot easier to violate someone’s patent than someone’s copyright. Think of Infiniminer and Minecraft. Minecraft wouldn’t infringe on Infiniminer’s copyright, because it’s a new product. It WOULD infringe on Infiniminer’s patent for “a game world made of voxel blocks that you dig in.”

      Software patents are used as a cudgel to attack competition for any similarities, trend following, inspirations, etc, even if they’re made from scratch. Copyrights can’t do that.

      • Jetsetlemming says:

        If Disney had a patent rather than a copyright on Mickey Mouse, then they could sue anyone else who made a cartoon mouse, regardless of features, rather than just people who try to use Mickey directly. And if they had a patent instead of a copyright, it’d be patents that last 80 years + life of the owner.

  15. tiberiousr says:

    August 10th. The UK/EU release date is August 10th. Get it right, please.

  16. DrStrangeLug says:

    Two words : Mandelbrot Set

    This patent should not have been granteded as it’s declaration of a method for generating 2D image from a parameterized formula has clearly been done before.

  17. theirongiant says:

    I’m more shocked that Sky appear to have a copyright on the word ‘Sky’

    • Cederic says:

      Almost certainly a trademark rather than a copyright.

      At one level trademarks do have a lot of sense and value. At another (e.g. where a common word is being used with no colour/logo/brand commonality) it’s just downright fucking stupid.

      Guess which of those applies in this instance.

  18. whodafug says:

    I’m often filled with a warm fuzzy feeling when RPS don’t research their shit properly.

  19. Unsheep says:

    Why on Earth did Hello Games not check whether the technology was patented or not before using it ? That is simply astounding.

    Don’t they have anyone with Business or Legal training in their company ? This is common sense, basic stuff.

    Hello Games have their own negligence to blame if they used the technology without permission.

  20. Cimeries says:

    What gets me most about this story is Sky TV thinking they have a patent on the fucking word “Sky”, same as Bethesda and “Scrolls”. I mean, what the actual fuck, how can anyone claim to own the right to use a fucking word? It truly boggles the mind, it’s opportunistic bullshit and companies should be fined huge amounts for even thinking of trying to pull this bollocks.

    • Pistols says:

      They don’t say they have a patent, they say they have a trade mark. It’s like coca cola – they don’t own the words themselve, but you can’t start marketing a cola drink under that name. That said, the sky claim does sound pretty bogus which is presumably why it settled.

  21. Chaz says:

    Well I’m expecting a super game then.

  22. DantronLesotho says:

    As someone who worked with medical calculator software, I can tell you that formulae can definitely be patented and protected. It’s a huge pain, but that’s how it goes sometimes.

  23. Scrofa says:

    Patent laws are pure cancer. Just look at this and the SkyTV thingy. It’s fucking absurd.

  24. BlazeHedgehog says:

    The smell of money must be very intoxicating.

  25. zenzaber says:

    if there doing this for money and can the game they`d be stealing from the public there are people who payed for this online not only do these dutch guys have to give back there money with interest yes you can sue them for stealing if not then i,m stupid for saying this

  26. Looniper says:

    Given HG’s failure to respond, it suggests to me this is a non-case.

    As others have pointed out, only the specific usage of a formula may be patented, and if this were a case of that the proof would be absolute on examination, and HG knows it.

    If they used the formula claimed, that would be discovered easily by a court using a 3rd party examiner of the source code.

    Refusing to respond and cooperate in such a case would be the single worst option. So I suspect they aren’t bothering to respond because they don’t want to add credibility to the claim, but are waiting for the admission that they haven’t done anything wrong – or the attempt to take it to court to absolve them completely.

  27. cielblue says:

    for the love of games and to the respect I [YOU ALL] OWE
    you can guess and add or subtract thk you hello games cant wait but i have too and iv kept it all under control without watching or reading to much about it