This was one of the stranger stories to emerge over Christmas and the New Year: NCsoft, the Korea-based MMO publisher, is being sued for patent infringement by Worlds.com, a virtual world platform.
The patent in question, filed in 2000, is for a "system and method for enabling users to interact in a virtual space". It could apply to almost any 3D MMO or virtual world you can think of.
"In a preferred embodiment a plurality of users interact in the three-dimensional, computer-generated graphical space where each user executes a client process to view a virtual world from the perspective of that user," reads the abstract of the patent.
It goes on to describe the basics of a server system and user interface that will sound familiar to anyone who has played NCsoft's games - or, for that matter, Second Life or World of Warcraft. Or even EverQuest, which was released in 1999, before the patent was filed.
The suit, filed to NCsoft's Austin, Texas offices on Christmas Eve, names all of NCsoft's games, from old timer Lineage to newcomer Aion. All of these were released after Worlds.com's patent was filed - but that may not be the reason that the Korean company has been singled out.
Stephen Roth, the lead attorney from the law firm representing Worlds.com, alleged to Virtual Worlds News that the first filing of the patent dates back to 1995 - after the very first graphical RPGs, but before the release of the first major example, Ultima Online. "It is a very robust patent," he said.
NCsoft may have been selected because its position as a foreign company in Texas is a vulnerable one. Roth's colleague James Gatto told Virtual Worlds News that "being a foreign defendant in Texas is not a pleasant thing".
"The juries are, many would say, biased towards American plaintiffs and have a propensity to offer high damages. Some defendants might view them as an unfriendly jury and it might make the defendant more likely to settle," Gatto claimed.
Furthermore, in a perceptive analysis of the lawsuit, Massively points out that the troubled NCsoft might look like "the weakest member of the herd" to Worlds.com.
Gatto saiid that it was likely that this would be only the first of many suits filed against MMO developers and operators by Worlds.com - but the lawyer wouldn't say which.
"I'm not at liberty to disclose what other companies I believe come within the scope of the claims," he said. "I think it is a very broad and robust claim."
"We intend to defend ourselves vigorously," an NCsoft representative told Virtual Worlds News.
It sounds far-fetched on paper, but so did Immersion's patent on rumble in joypads - and that ultimately cost Microsoft and Sony millions of dollars. This could be the massively multiplayer equivalent, with important repercussions for the future of MMOs, and Blizzard's bottomless coffers its ultimate target. We'll be watching the case with interest.