Monday, April 09, 2007

Patent Fun

I've noticed on Yehuda's blog, a patent that my name is attached to finally showed up. Here's a little lesson in patents, along with a little backstory. Pretty much all of this is kind of stale, musty history at this point, and all of the sordid details of the "smoke and mirrors" of how slot machines operate is pretty much out in the public if you go looking for it, so I don't think I'm revealing any corporate secrets (but you never know).

Back in a previous lifetime, I worked at WMS in their upstart gaming department designing slot machine games. After a relatively hard fought bidding war between WMS and IGT (the 800-pound gorilla in slot machines). And I was assigned to design one of the original 4 Monopoly-licensed slot machines. There were to be two mechanical reel spinners, and two video 5 reelers, all four of them sharing the same basic top box shape, with independant bonus games. This is probably some time around 1996 or so. Fuzzy memories.

It should be noted here that while I am typically saying "I designed," it really was a co-design process with Bill Grupp (another name you'll see on various early gaming patents with my name). So if I type things like "my design" or "I designed", it's more for efficiency sake of typing than anything else as it really was a co-design. Additionally, there are many others who actually work on a product to get it finished and provide substantial input, people like Greg Dunlap, sound guys, mechanical engineering people, OS programming people, QA testers, etc.

And so, the game that we wound up designing was the version known as "Advance to Boardwalk." While I can't find any good images of the real casino game floating around on the internet, I did find the handheld version of the game that Mattel produced, so that's the picture I'll show off to the side here instead. Actually, at the top of this post, you can see the lawyerly drawing of the game from the patent itself. As usual, clicking on the images will give you a much larger view of the picture.

The other mechanical reel spinning game was called "Roll and Win;" the two video spinners were named "Once Around" and "Reel Estate."

At the time, all four games were wrapped up into one giant patent. It appears that at some point they've broken them up or something. I haven't been following this too closely, so I'm not quite sure. Anyway, you might wonder why a game invented back in 1996 or so is getting awarded patents 10 YEARS LATER. Well, here's how the system works.

In general, even though the name of the patent is "Gaming Machines With Board Game Theme," that really isn't what is trying to get protected. Well, maybe it is, sort of.

The important parts of a patent is your CLAIMS. The claims are things that you are trying to protect as your "new and unique" inventions. (of course, "new and unique" being questionable in many cases, but that's another discussion for another day). And in your first pass at these claims, you usually try and cast as wide as a net as possible . Only through back and forth haggling between your patent lawyers, and the patent lawyers at the patent office, do things get essentially boiled down to a description of what everyone feels is truly "new and unique" about your invention. So, while initially, you could be very broadly TRYING to get a patent on any and all gaming machines with board game themes, what you actually wind up getting is protection specifically geared towards your own implementation of your board game-like gaming machine.

Side Note: Getting a patent on a board game in a slot machine would be VERY hard at the point in time when this was originally being filed, as British "fruit machines," or AWP (Amusement with Prize) machines have been combining basic slot machine play with board game elements for years prior to this.

How specific your claims are really determines the value of your patent. If your patent only covers a particular game VERY specifically, it doesn't take much to work around that patent andin this case develop another board game variation. Loose claims cover broader areas, and grant you more protection, but are harder to "sneak by" the patent lawyers, and quite possibly, could be open to interpretation with "prior art" (something that was invented before your invention) that could make your claims invalid.

Anyway, as you can probably guess, all of this starts to take up a lot of time, and a lot more money. And it's why you don't frequently see board game patents. It's not worth it.

If you notice on the given patent, under the heading of Parent Case Text, there's a whole large line describing continuations under REFERENCES TO RELATED APPPLICATIONS. This is sort of history of "how we got to this patent" from an original patent. Once a patent is issued, you cannot change the patent. However, a contunation will let you make additional claims based on your original patent descritions, with the advantage of this being that it makes these newly claimed protection backended to when the original patent was published. Ultimately, you do this because A) it makes it easier to get the additional patent protection, B) you've realized you missed something in the original patent, C) you have developed an additional invention based off the original design, or D) you see that someone else has developed a workaround your original patent, that is already described in your original patent, so you are going to now claim it.

Anyway, while my name is still a part of this patent (since you can't remove names from an invention once it's filed), this patent in particular really doesn't cover any claims based on my original Advance to Boardwalk design. Instead, it covers some additional patents that WMS feels they've missed from the original patents in regard to the other games. This patent seems to deal with exclusively a board game bonus that uses mechanical, rotating dice to mave around a board.

So what is patentable about Advance to Boardwalk? From me chasing down some of the older patents that this patent continues from, the two main things that WMS has managed to obtain patents for from AtB are as follows:

A) A bonus game in a gaming machine that includes a board game where, as you move around around the board, you get an ever-increasing award each time you pass a particular space. This is effectively the "Pass GO" rule (described later).

B) This next one is the patentable feature that I feel winds up making AtB special. It is claim number 6 in patent US 6,508,707 B2. Basically, what this states is that as a player moves around a board in the bonus game, the next space chosen is determined by a random, but weighted, movement table associated with the player's current space.

What does that mean? Well, here's how the AtB bonus game works. When a certain set of symbols land on the reels, the player moves up to the bonus game, which uses the Monopoly board on the top box. Each space of the Monopoly board is independently backlit. Below the Monopoly board is a dot matrix display, which provides for the "dice rolls" (to be discussed later) to move the player around the board, shows the credits that are awarded as the player moves around the board, plays little minigames for credits (Free Parking, Electric Company, Water Works), shows animations for Chance and Community Chest spaces which can award credits or move you around the board to other spaces, and other amusing animations.

Ultimately, once the game starts, the game pretty much runs on auto-pilot, moving the player around the board, collecting credits. The game ends when the player lands in Jail, or one of the Tax spaces. Additionally, every time the player passes Go, an incremental bonus is awarded (the "Pass Go!" patent concept discussed above). Looking closely at the diamond shaped Monopoly board graphic off to the side here, you can see the credit values shown for each space (even though in this graphic stolen from the patent, the values are wrong for Boardwalk and Park Place, they should be 500 and 250). The incremental Pass Go awards are shown, and backlit when collected, in the middle of the board below the Monopoly logo.

The patentable concept here is that, even though the dot matrix display picks a number between 2 and 12 to move the player, it is not your usual bell curve of probabilities that one would expect from throwing two dice. In fact, the odds of any given movement number changes based on what space you are currently at. In other words, each space has it's own odds table for movement numbers, which allows for the designer (me) to better control how the player moves around the board. And these weighted odds are very highly skewed.

If you are asking, "why would I want to do that," here's the reason. If you were really playing the game based on "true dice odds," the chances of landing on any particular space over the course of the game would be close to identical (with rare exceptions). This would mean that the payouts for landing on Boardwalk would have to be almost the same as landing on St. Charles. There would be no big numbers to root for. By changing the odds at any given space for movement, I can have the player "avoid" the larger payoff spaces, and "target" certain other spaces, like "Chance".

If all of this seems like cheating, I admit that it sort of is; however, the concept of weighted odds is pretty much the language of the slot machine. Typically, as long as you don't imply that you are giving our true, expected odds when in fact you are really using weighted odds, you are free to use weighted odds at your leisure.

So, when we are displaying the movement number on the display for how many spaces the player moves in AtB, we don't show Rich Uncle Pennybags throwing dice (as this would imply true dice odds). Instead, Rich Uncle Pennybags is sitting behind a weird little computer bank device (similar to the bank of switches that Homer Simpson sits behind at the power plant), and our good Uncle is feverishly throwing switches and levers, which then reveals a movement number on a monitor. Which implies that the number picked isn't even random, but pseudo-selected somehow by somebody or something.

And how does this story end? Ultimately, out of the four original Monopoly games, AtB is the only original Monopoly game that I've found still at a few casinos on the Las Vegas Strip. Which is quite amazing, considering that it is close to 8 years old. In a marketplace that routinely gives machines only 6 months to live before they are rotated out with something new, as has happened many times already with the video Monopoly machines (WMS usually cranks out two new video Monopoly games a year as "refreshers" to the existing machines on the casino floor), a game that has that kind of legs is pretty astounding.

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Blogger Greg Dunlap said...

You left someone out! (not that I had much to do with the design of this game.) I still play ATB whenever I see it in LV.

8:01 AM  

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