Sony applies to patent dynamic difficulty settings that respond to your performance, one year after EA did the same thing with controller settings

Sony has applied to patent systems that automatically fiddle with “parameters that change the difficulty of the game” based on your performance, a patent on the World Intellectual Property Organization‘s website reveals. (Actually, the patent reads “difficultly” at the time of writing, so Sony may in fact be referring to the implementation of dynamic cults. But probably not.)

As spotted by Eurogamer, Sony’s proposed system would allow a game to adjust its difficulty settings—”movement speed, delay or hesitation, character strengths, numbers of competitors” and so on—based on “an expected level of performance.”

The idea isn’t new, though the implementation may well be. We’re all familiar with Left 4 Dead’s AI director, which sends swarms of enemies at you based on your performance (along with some RNG), a feature adopted by other games including Alien Swarm and The Anacrusis. Outriders’ world tier system also works in a similar way, though it functions more like an XP bar where you lose points if you die.

It’s also not as novel as one might assume. Last year, EA gained a patent for controller settings based on similar player inputs, which were “intended to improve performance of the user in relation to the software”. Granted, EA’s version specifically targets controller input whereas Sony’s patent appears more broad, which brings up the question of potential overlap.

For example, if the “delay or hesitation settings” mentioned in Sony’s patent were to impact your aiming sensitivity on a controller, you could possibly make the argument that those settings are nudging into EA’s patented turf. Whether either company would bother with such a granular legal tangle is another question entirely—and it’s all hypothetical right now, anyway.

Still, the system itself is an interesting pitch—which is exactly why it’s frustrating to see it (potentially) patented. I actually really liked Outrider’s World Tier system because it always kept me on the cusp of a difficulty that was just almost too much, turning its gauntlets into surprisingly compelling life-or-death brawls. It’s just a shame about all the inventory wipe issues.

Tweaking stuff in a more understated way—shuffling around damage values in the background, for instance—could actually be really cool. Games already sort of do this, just not dynamically. For instance, 2016’s Doom reboot lies about the amount of health you have left to make you feel like you stole victory from the jaws of defeat.

If Sony does patent and put this into play, it’ll instead join things like the Nemesis system patent in the graveyard of ‘cool mechanics that may not be worth the legal trouble to use’. That being said, having a patent and actually using it in a legal sense are two very different things.

As our weekend editor Jody Macgregor pointed out when Warner Bros. filed that Nemesis system patent, “Microsoft have had a patent on games awarding bonus points ‘if the player performs feats of style that are not necessary tasks of the game’ for 19 years, as far as I know they’ve never enforced it on the many games with style points”. Even so, the looming threat of legal action from a studio like Sony may make your average developer think twice, and that’s a genuine shame.

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