Activision’s new patent is an example of a seriously predatory system


Image: Jae C. Hong/AP/REX/Shutterstock

“This was an exploratory patent filed in 2015 by an R&D team working independently from our game studios. It has not been implemented in-game.”

That’s all Activision has to say for itself after word surfaced of a patent for a system designed to push players toward buying things like loot boxes when they play online games. It’s not a great response for a number of reasons, but let’s look at the patent first.

Early Tuesday, Glixel reported on a patent application that Activision first filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in 2015 and was granted on Oct. 17. Its title: “System and method for driving microtransactions in multiplayer video games.”

The patent’s brief description offers an object example of how such a system might work: 

For instance, the system may match a more expert/marquee player with a junior player to encourage the junior player to make game-related purchases of items possessed/used by the marquee player. A junior player may wish to emulate the marquee player by obtaining weapons or other items used by the marquee player. 

In other words, the system is built to prioritize matchmaking in such a way that someone who’s gotten cool in-game baubles is more likely to match up with someone who hasn’t. The rationale being: if you don’t have cool items but you see someone who does, you’re encouraged to spend money in the hopes of getting those cool items.

That’s the heart of the invention here: it looks at your player profile — a behind-the-scenes measure of not just your performance, but your preferences, style of play, and so on — and seeks out similar profiles belonging to players that have more stuff than you, so it can group you together.

That’s only part of it, however. Once you have an item, the newly patented system is built to make you feel good about your purchase — with the aim of encouraging future purchases.

As the patent application notes in one example:

[I]f the player purchased a particular weapon, the microtransaction engine may match the player in a gameplay session in which the particular weapon is highly effective, giving the player an impression that the particular weapon was a good purchase. This may encourage the player to make future purchases to achieve similar gameplay results. 

So if you get a cool gun that’s especially effective for, say, close-quarters engagements, matchmaking might — and to be clear, I’m filling in some blanks here — prioritize putting you into a match against lesser players, or on a smaller, more confined map, in order to make you feel good about your new toy.

This runs completely against the spirit of how matchmaking traditionally works in online games. Every game interprets it differently, but fundamentally, the priority is on fair match-ups above all.

It’s a betrayal of the player’s trust in a system that is ostensibly built to treat everyone fairly and equally.

A system like this tips the scales in a way that prioritizes the business-side financial interests over positive player experiences. 

If a game is dropping you into a match to make you feel better about money you spent, it’s simultaneously tilting the odds — and the fun, by association — against your opponents.

Or more simply, it’s a betrayal of the player’s trust in a system that is ostensibly built to treat everyone fairly and equally.

That’s the patent, summed up. And now we’re back to Activision’s statement. Here it is again:

This was an exploratory patent filed in 2015 by an R&D team working independently from our game studios. It has not been implemented in-game.

The language that this patent is “exploratory” distances Activision from the ickiness of an exploitative system. The fact that it hasn’t been added to any current games is besides the point — the patent was still submitted, the invention is still owned.

The bigger problem is Activision’s decision to respond to this discovery with a statement that is centered only in the here and now, with no added context or explanation. No sense of the “why” of it all. We know it won’t be part of the matchmaking in Call of Duty: WWII at launch, thanks to a tweet from Sledgehammer Games co-founder Michael Condrey, but that’s it.

In my request for comment, I very specifically asked to know if there are plans to implement this system now that the patent has been granted. 

Unfortunately, the two sentences above were all our Activision spokesperson could share at this point. The explanation applies to all games under the Activision Blizzard umbrella, including Destiny — which is technically the product of a publishing agreement with the independently owned Bungie.

That statement isn’t enough. This newly patented matchmaking system looks exceedingly shady on the surface of things. It seems to betray the spirit of the experience that player-versus-player games are meant to offer. 

Out there in the wider world, fans deserve an explanation. And please, don’t stop asking until you get one.

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