Patents are equally useless for protecting against copying the look and feel of a game.
Design patents aside, of course.
You can only patent specific concepts or technologies, say, the way Zynga tried to patent the the use of in-game virtual currency. You're telling me you think the proper way for these indie devs to handle this is to go out, patent their own code and algorithms, and then fight it out in court with Zynga? Insanity.
You're saying a better way to handle it is to get no legal protection and just hope that Zynga never decides to copy them? Worse insanity, particularly because we've seen it fail, over and over.
The AAA game industry isn't "ignoring" the patent issue. They're simply declining to participate in the patent war madness that everyone else seems to be currently engaged in. Companies like Zynga are the exception to the general trend, and may end up forcing everyone else to do the same goddamned thing. Do you know who'll be left behind here? Yeah, the indie devs, because they can't afford patent lawyers and ridiculous lawsuits.
Patent litigation is frequently done on contingency. That's like saying "I can't afford to have you place a bet for me, because if it wins, I have to give you a share of the huge pile of free money I get."
Read the massive list of Zynga patents. It makes me weep as a game developer.
Why should it? After all, I believe a wise man once said, "The only way to beat a company that steals your best ideas is to keep coming up with better ones." Similarly, the only way to beat a company that comes up with the best ideas and patents them is to come up with better ones, right? Or pay a reasonable license fee if you can't come up with a better idea.
The USPTO seems to be rubberstamping whatever the hell Zynga sends their way, so long as it's couched in enough confusing terminology and legalese (oh, and "online" is mentioned anywhere).
[Citation needed]. The USPTO currently rejects around 95% of patent applications in this industry, so if they've got a rubberstamp, it says "DENIED".
If you actually read the patents in detail, they're essentially the sort of thing any competent developer would think.
If you read anything in detail, then ask yourself immediately afterwards if you could think of what you just read, you'd say yes. It's called hindsight. The question is whether any competent developer would have thought of it before reading the patent. And that takes evidence to prove, not a gut feeling based solely on "I understand what I just read, so therefore it must be obvious."