Are you kidding me, SOE? You guys are a huge bunch of pricks. You patented my technique. I know you guys have a long history of basically using money to destroy competition, because hey, you have money, why not?
Because it’s wrong, and you guys are shit, that’s why.
This is relevant because the patent is a super-broad one — it patents the entire generalized idea explained in my article, and every obvious permutation they could think of. They actually have three different patents now, covering various elements of my meta-language idea.
The Boring Details
What does this mean? What’s the patent all about? In very simple terms, it makes translating games easier — in fact, it makes any grammatical construction easier — by abstracting away conjugations and different spellings of words.
Words have lots of conjugations. In English, a noun might have one form for singular and one for plural, e.g. “monster” versus “monsters”. Some nouns have gender, so they should be referred to as “he” or “she” or maybe “it”. And there’s always tons of crazy special cases. Suppose your game has a pair of sentient blue jeans… do you use “he” or “she” or “it”? No, you’d use “they”: “The pants come to life and start running! They flee to the north!” Great, that’s yet another weird special case. Getting all the possible special cases is hard.
The solution I described on GamaSutra simply makes all those details data-driven: you embed the various parts of speech right into your string tables, so that you don’t have to manually code all the different permutations in your game. A separate string-table-manager module can figure out how to conjugate entire sentences just by looking at the tags built into the various strings. The data is embedded via special characters and codes stuck into the strings.
This is really important when you want to support many languages with the same executable… you sure don’t want to have to write hundreds of C if-statements for all the different ways things can be put together in all the different languages you support! Putting this into data also makes it easier for the translators to do their job separately from your game coders… no game coder likes to take time away from their AI coding to add some more pronouns for the Italian version of the game. It’s a waste of time.
Yes, Yes, They Reworded It, Very Clever
Taking a look through the article and the patent papers, the similarities are quite striking. For instance, here’s my example set of meta-characters:
And here’s SOE’s example:
$: name (Bob) or base text
^: A proper possessive (Bob’s)
%: subject pronoun (I-you-he/she/it-we-you-they)
#: object pronoun (me-you-him/her/it-us-you-them)
&: possessive pronoun (my-your-his/her/its-our-your-their)
=: direct address (sir/sire/milord-madame/madam/milady)
+: count/number of the objects
<: indefinite article (a/an/some)
>: definite article (the)
*: used for locales other than the source locale
.about.: used for locales other than the source locale
Well I’m glad you went to the trouble of changing the example parts of speech and the little symbols, you thieving bastards. It makes all the difference in the world. No it doesn’t. You’re thieves.
The patent document certainly does go into more laborious detail than I did in the article. It points out all the obvious extrapolations: that a meta-language could store the permutations of speech in the noun strings rather than the final presentation strings, as my example setup did. The patent also drones on and on about every different configuration they could brainstorm, to make sure it covers everything in the known universe. But at its core, it’s theft. They stole it from my publication.
I know at least some people at SOE read my article because when I interviewed there years later for a contract gig, I mentioned it, and the people that interviewed me recalled it. (My wife Sandra actually worked for them for a year as a game producer, but I never did. And my wife never heard anything about the patenting of this idea while she was there… SOE’s a big company.) And really, why wouldn’t they have seen this article? It was back in 2003 and GamaSutra was king; everybody in the MMO industry checked GamaSutra religiously. It seems like it was the only industry source that people quoted back then.
The real question is, why wouldn’t their MMOG localization team have read my article, entitled “Localizing MMOGs”?
But SOE Didn’t Invent It
So here’s the thing, guys, this is prior art. My article describes this technique, which I had already successfully used on a published game prior to the article. I know the patent laws in the US are very squirrelly, and I’m not even remotely close to being a lawyer, but I don’t see how this patent could hold up.
The weirdest part of this patent is that it’s not even entirely my prior art. I solidified it, extrapolated a bit, and devised tools and techniques to work with it in a uniform way. But the underlying idea (of using meta-characters in strings to assist in string generation) is quite old… antique even. Whenever engineers have needed to solve this problem, they inevitably come up with this solution. It’s the only way to solve this problem. Hence the problem with SOE “owning” it.
I may have been the first to publicly describe this idea in English, but I wouldn’t be surprised if something like this was described in another language, since so many of the best translation companies are in Europe. When I explained this system to the company that translated Asheron’s Call 2, they already knew the basic idea. They said they had already worked on several other applications (some games, some not) that used similar techniques. I don’t remember most of the examples they mentioned, but one concrete example was Dungeon Siege by Gas Powered Games in 2000. That game used a primitive meta-language for their randomly-generated treasure items.
This is What SOE Does
What evidence do I have that SOE would steal this? Maybe they invented it at around the same time and just didn’t do any research, or they forgot that I had already described it a year earlier, and literally think they invented it. Weirder mistakes happen. I would like to assume they aren’t intentionally stealing my idea. But it is in fact their MO: whenever possible, they seem to use their lawyers to screw over their competition.
I remember back in the day when Turbine and SOE were competing: Asheron’s Call 1 versus EverQuest 1. SOE did every dirty legal trick they could think of. Here’s one that haunted us years later:
What’s that? Oh, just a trademark on the word “Empyrean.” What’s that for? Well it wasn’t intended to be used by SOE… it was just to screw over their competition. Asheron’s Call’s backstory had a progenitor race called the Empyreans. As soon as SOE found out about that, they [rightly] presumed Turbine would want to make an expansion pack with that word in it. So they trademarked it. They actually trademarked a lot of different words that Turbine might want to use. Trademarks are cheap, like $1000. So they just bought them up like candy.
This example had a somewhat ironic ending because by the time Turbine wanted to make an AC2 expansion pack, Turbine actually used SOE as their publisher! But even though SOE was publishing the game, Turbine still couldn’t use those words. Too much lawyer hassle to get the paperwork through. Ugh.
SOE, please. Come clean here. Do the right thing on these patents. I don’t even know what the “right thing” would be in this case. But do something. Don’t just be evil.
This is What Is Wrong With Everything
I know SOE isn’t the only big company that uses their lawyers for evil. And yes, I’m quite familiar with the old “we have to collect these patents in order to have leverage against other people’s patents” tripe. But it’s all tripe. It crushes indies’ hopes and dreams, and it’s not fair. I wish I knew how to help solve the problem. Over the years I’ve donated a fair amount to organizations like the EFF that sometimes go after overzealous patent trolls. But nothing has fundamentally changed despite a lot of donating and a lot of letters-to-my-congressperson. I feel completely helpless against this.
These SOE patents are horrible. Now I can no longer use the simple techniques I’ve known for a decade? Even though I was the first to formally describe it, publicly, well before SOE used the technique in a game or submitted a patent? This is terrible. Humiliating. Depressing.
Apparently Robert McEntee (who is listed on the patent) talked about this idea at GDC this year, calling it “his idea” and claiming to have invented it. I don’t even care about that. He can be the official owner forever for all I care. I just want to be able to use my technique.
I mean yeah, maybe the fact that it’s covered by my prior art means SOE couldn’t win a lawsuit against my use of the idea. But it would take a lawsuit to find out, which of course I can’t afford. And even if SOE wouldn’t bother to sue me, given that I have no money, it’s still a huge chilling effect. Now I can’t use this technique when I take contract gigs to set up localization for other people. What would I tell them? “Yeah, SOE patented this last year, but don’t worry, if they sue the bejeezus out of you, just point to this prior art.” No… those contract gigs are gone now. Oh, and the lengthy chapter I authored in the 2006 book Perspectives on Localization, which expanded on the ideas of the GamaSutra article? Yeah, don’t use that either, it was patented retroactively. I was quite proud of that article.
Worst of all? I was informed about this by a translation company who was distraught by the news. Variations of this technique are in common usage all over the world, and SOE now owns the rights to it in the US, somehow. Where does that put everyone else? Nobody knows; everybody’s worried.
I just wish there was a way to fix patents. I wish I could do something useful besides call SOE names and rant on a blog like a petulant child. But I can’t.