Warner Brothers Interactive Entertainment, publishers of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor and its 2017 sequel, Shadow of War (both developed by Monolith Entertainment), have finally managed to secure a patent for the franchise’s signature Nemesis System.
The US Patent and Trademark Office released an issue notice on February 3, 2021, stating that the patent would go into effect on February 23 of this year. Warner Bros. has the option to maintain the patent through 2035, providing they keep up with the necessary fees.
The patent, filed as “Nemesis characters, nemesis forts, social vendettas and followers in computer games,” effectively codifies the functions of Monolith’s Nemesis system and the sum of its parts as the property of WB.
While the language in the application is fairly obtuse – as most patent claims tend to be – the “short” version is that the patent covers a system featuring procedurally-generated NPCs that exist in a hierarchy and interact with and will remember the actions of players, have their appearance/behavior altered by players, and whose place in that hierarchy can change and affect the position of other NPCs in said hierarchy (and yes, that’s the simplified version).
It also covers the Social Conquest battles from Shadow of War, wherein players can fortify or attack one another’s strongholds to see how their army of orcs fares against their friends’.
Warner Bros. has been trying to secure the patent for the system since 2015, but has had to repeatedly revise and resubmit the application. Initial rejections claimed that there were too many similarities in the application to other patents – including ones held by Square Enix, the mobile game QONQR, and even Webkinz – though recent rejections were more focused on the specificity of language throughout the patent.
While it’s unclear what would happen were a game to release with a Nemesis system of its own between now and February 23, after that date any developer wishing to build a feature with all the aspects detailed in the patent (or at least enough to be considered infringement) will have to secure a license from WB.
Developers can still create similar systems that aren’t a 1:1 recreation of Monolith’s program, however – the Mercenaries in AC Odyssey or Watch Dogs Legion’s fascinating Census system are recent examples of dynamically-generated NPCs and social networks that would likely not be met with a legal challenge – though as members of both the Mordor games and Ubisoft teams have said, such systems are a major collaborative effort requiring considerable resources and development time.
Rumors late last year year hinted that WB Games was potentially going to be acquired by Microsoft after reports that Time Warner was interested in selling its interactive division, though any talk of sales seems to have gone the way of an unfortunate orc captain.