Of Nobody’s Heaven‘s highly anticipated release, just weeks away, a Dutch company is objecting to the game’s alleged use of a proprietary ‘super formula’ to generate landscapes and terrain.
The brewing conflict, first reported by the Dutch newspaper earlier this week Telegraph (Google translation), revolves around a geometric transformation formula developed by Professor Johan Gielis of the University of Antwerp in the early 2000s.
The formula’s penchant for creating naturalistic shapes with soft curves with just a few parameters led some to call it a “super formula.” Gielis was granted a patent on the superformula in the European Union in 2002 and a US patent was issued in 2009 (among several other related patents). He then founded Genicap to monetize the formula by “developing”.[ing] innovative technologies and products for the world of today and tomorrow,” according to the corporate web page.
Fast forward to 2015, Hello Games’ Sean Murray said in an extended New Yorker interview that Gielis’ super formula was the basis for much of the game’s procedurally generated universe. A relevant passage:
Murray, sitting in front of his monitor, typed the Superformula into the terrain of a test planet. He started simple, creating walnut-shaped shapes that hovered over a desert in an infinite grid. The image resembled an album cover from the 1980s, but it wasn’t about the big picture. Whenever he refreshed the view, the floating shapes changed. Many were asymmetrical, marred by depressions and streams. Game designers refer to lines of code that require a lot of processing time as “costly.” The super formula is cheap.
“One of the hardest things we can do is create coherent shapes,” he told me as he worked. To produce varied landscapes, a formula must be able to handle a wide range of arbitrary information without generating mathematical anomalies that cause glitches. “This sounds ridiculous, but it’s hard to find a formula you can rely on,” he said.
In a machine translation of the Telegraph article, business developer Jeroen Sparrow of Genicap says the company “definitely [does] don’t want to stop the launch [of No Man’s Sky]but if the formula is used, we will have to sit at the table at any time. Sparrow expanded on that thought in a statement to Eurogamer:
It would be great to exchange knowledge with Hello Games. We believe Nobody’s Heaven is the beginning of a new generation of games. What Hello Games did with the formula is very impressive. Johan Gielis, the founder of Genicap and the one who discovered the super formula, is very proud.
If Hello Games has used our technology, we will have to come to the table at some point. We have contacted them but we understand they are busy. We trust that we can discuss this in a normal way.
(In a statement to Eurogamer, Sony, which is publishing the PS4 version of Nobody’s Heaven, has forwarded questions about this issue to Hello Games. Hello Games representatives have yet to respond to a request for comment from Ars).
Despite the noise Genicap is making, there is some doubt as to whether the company’s patent actually applies Nobody’s Heaven. The European Patent Convention directly says that “discoveries, scientific theories and mathematical methods” are not directly patentable, and US patent law also excludes “disembodied mathematical algorithms and formulas” from patentability.
But that doesn’t mean Genicap’s patent is invalid. “Copyrighting a mathematical formula is actually a difficult feat,” Law of the Game blogger and attorney Mark Methenitis told Ars. “However, you can patent the practical application of a mathematical formula… So while you can’t claim the formula itself, you can using the formula to achieve specific outcomes ‘claims’ in the patent. Looking over the patent here, it seems so [what Genicap did].”
In other words, Hello Games can’t get into trouble simply using the basic super formula. But it could getting into legal trouble for using the formula in a specific way described in the patent. And while Genicap’s patent prohibits the formula’s potential use in “graphics programs (e.g., 2D, 3D, etc.); (procedurally generated or otherwise).
However, regardless of the state of the law, Genicap can still give Hello Games a headache simply by trying to take a case to court. The timing is certainly suspect; Murray spoke to the New Yorker about his use of the super formula over a year ago, yet stories about the patents only leak to the press now that the game Is finished and is just weeks away from its scheduled August 9 launch date. While Genicap isn’t publicly asking for the game to be pulled from release or demanding a share of the profits, the company should realize that it currently has a lot of power to even ask for discussions.
“The funny thing is, even if it’s a bad patent or claim, the cost of defending the potential lawsuit can be a deterrent to releasing the game,” warns Methenitis. Defense costs for the Markman hearing can still run up to a million dollars (but at least a few hundred thousand on average), and going through a full trial usually costs several million ($2-$5 million is a pretty typical range). not a small amount.”
Update, July 25: Respond via two public tweet over the weekend Sean Murray, founder of Hello Games, said so nobody’s sky”not actually using this “super formula” thing or infringing on any patent. This is a non-story… everyone chill… I wish Johan Gielis, the author, all the best in the future. We’re going to meet and talk math once the game is out.”
Murray’s statements seem to contradict that 2015 New Yorker article mentioned above, which contains a lengthy discussion and demonstration of the Gielis super formula used to populate the game’s planets. Even if it’s charitable, and assuming the formula no longer exists directly in the game as it currently exists, it seems relatively clear that the formula was heavily used at some point during the game’s creation. We’ll let you know if and when we hear more from Murray or Genicap on this matter.