If game critic and video-maker Jim Sterling has a nemesis, it's game developer Digital Homicide. That name might not sound familiar, as they're a small studio that has released a couple of games on Steam. But they may soon enter notoriety after this month's unprecedented actions. On March 16, Digital Homicide formally filed a lawsuit in Arizona District Court, accusing Sterling of "assault, libel, and slander" to the tune of US$10 million - that's $13 million in AUD. (The only reason "assault" is listed is because libel is, legally speaking, part of a broader category when filing a lawsuit. Ignore that.) The lawsuit was filed by Digital Homicide co-founder James Romine.
Digital Homicide claims Sterling, whose real name is James Stanton, has "falsely accused [Digital Homicide] and caused damage" to the company. According to court documents, the company is asking for US$2.26 million in direct product damage; US$4.3 million in emotional, reputational and financial distress; and $US5 million in punitive damage requests. That adds up to US$10.76 million, and it's nothing to scoff at.
Digital Homicide is representing themselves in the lawsuit, and do not have an attorney. They attempted to crowdfund support for additional help, saying all donations would be kept anonymous. However, Digital Homicide has since taken down its crowdfunding request "due to harassers donating amounts specifically to cause charges rather than donations and charge backs to cause financial fees...[W]e will be seeking another avenue for donations".
Co-founder Robert Romine told me the lawsuit has been in the works for roughly four months, and that Sterling crossed a line with "continued coverage and harassment of every single title we have ever posted". (Just yesterday, Sterling posted a six-minute video tearing apart their new games.) Romine also said he recently received a package full of faeces in the mail, despite "multiple requests private and public to the individual [Sterling] to inform his subscriber base to stop harassing me".
Romine also said he recently received a package full of faeces in the mail
Romine said he's been in discussions with "a premium online defamation law firm as they agree we have a case and are seeking funds to acquire their services." Thus, the (aborted) crowdfunding.
Besides a humorous tweet that may or may not reference the lawsuit, Sterling hasn't said much.
"It would be unwise to say much at this time," he told me. "All I can tell you is that I am dealing with this situation and that I am fully confident about it."
This isn't the first time I've written about Sterling butting heads with a developer, but it's the first time he's been hit with a lawsuit over it.
The tumultuous relationship between Sterling and Digital Homicide is not new. A number of Sterling's YouTube videos involve him playing through random games found on Steam, and many of them aren't very good. This is part of Sterling's bread-and-butter: making fun of bad games.
(It's is not all he does, obviously. Sterling's weekly Jimquisition video rants cover a number of other industry topics.)
The drama began when Sterling published a 10-minute video of Digital Homicide's first-person shooter Slaughtering Grounds in November 2014, dubbing it the "new 'worst game of 2014' contender" and a game where "the awfulness just doesn't stop". The game did not get much attention outside of Sterling's videos; in fact, one of Sterling's critical videos is the second Google result for Slaughtering Grounds and the first result when you do a search on YouTube.
In response to this criticism, Digital Homicide published two videos -- both removed, though archived on Sterling's channel -- where the developers call Sterling "a fucking idiot" and accuse him of not playing the game correctly.
In his video, Sterling had criticised the game for using generic art assets purchased online, which Digital Homicide defended as necessary from a production standpoint and part of the "cycle of cash flow that is the lifeblood of hardworking people in the indie community". The developers described Sterling as a "leech" who profits "from the hardwork [sic] of other people" and said his criticism "reduces sales which in turn reduces money that can be used to purchase more indie development assets". This impacts "the livelihood of many people with no risk or cost to yourself".
"The DMCA filed is not to censor review's [sic]" wrote the developers. "There are countless negative review videos posted (including multiple sterling videos) and only one in particular with a DMCA filed on it. The reason is we have a legitimate claim, we can prove a violation of our copyright (fair use is not blanket immunity) and damages."
"In the sole instance of Jim Sterling's 'Squirty Play' video," said the developer, "We find the usage of the terms 'WORST GAME OF 2014 CONTENDER!' and 'Absolute Failure' to describe the entirety of our product while not actually evaluating it in its entirety unfair and unreasonable use of our copyright material. While the reader may disagree with our claim, we believe the unbiased perspective of a court will agree there has been a violation of our copyright and for this reason we will be pursuing an attorney and proceeding with our complaint."
The DMCA claim worked for a while, but Sterling eventually won and the video came back online.
These videos, tweets and posts culminated in a July 2015 conversation on Skype between Digital Homicide developer Robert Romine and Sterling that's equal parts awkward and contentious.
Romine viewed Sterling's video as an attack, while Sterling viewed it as criticism. Neither ever saw eye-to-eye. At one point, Romine mused on the idea of someone eventually suing Sterling.
"One day," he said, "you're gonna have enough subscribers, you're gonna make enough money on your Patreon thing and somebody's gonna get tired of your shit and they're gonna sue you. I'm not saying we are, I'm saying somebody's gonna have the money to do it and they're going to win."
Turns out that "somebody" was Romine himself, eight months later.
The lawsuit claims nine counts of "libel per se".
Libel per se, according to Law.com, is "broadcast or written publication of a false statement about another which accuses him/her of a crime, immoral acts, inability to perform his/her profession, having a loathsome disease (like syphilis) or dishonesty in business". In other words, lies.
In the lawsuit, Digital Homicide makes the following allegations:
In an article titled "Digital Homicide And The Case Of The Sockpuppet Developers," Sterling remarked that another Digital Homicide game, Galactic Hitman, had artwork taken from elsewhere. Specifically, it may have been lifted from an artist on DeviantArt. Sterling later edited the piece to say it "may" have been purchased from Shutterstock, an online repository of media.
In the lawsuit, Digital Homicide presented a July 2015 receipt for a Shutterstock subscription.
Somebody’s gonna get tired of your shit and they’re gonna sue you.
- As Sterling dug into other companies Digital Homicide was connected to, he discovered that the people behind the studio had also started a company called ECC Games, which seemed to take its name from a different game publisher in Poland. Digital Homicide points to a line in Sterling's article where he argued it could lead to "potential legal trouble for folks who rebranded and accidentally defamed a completely different studio". In the piece, Sterling spoke with the Polish publisher, who said it had "already taken legal actions".
- Digital Homicide then cites a line in which Sterling states that "apparently you don't need to prove your company's legitimacy or even existence, since it's all based on usernames". This references Digital Homicide publishing games under a different name, which Sterling perceived as disingenuous to players. Digital Homicide alleges that someone named Jim Stanton publishing videos under the name 'Jim Sterling' is no different. "[Sterling] makes the above statement in a negative way to make it seem to his audience that normal business practice is somehow being abused," they argue.
- When Sterling pointed out how the Polish ECC Games' Twitter feed hadn't referenced games published by the American ECC Games, Digital Homicide perceived this as "posted to purposely cause controversy, damage, and portray [Digital Homicide] as having done something illegal". (It seems more likely Sterling was trying to bolster his theory that ECC Games was hiding its identity.)
A screen shot from Galactic Hitman, one of the games Sterling has criticised.
- Digital Homicide again piggybacks on the previous libel claims connected to ECC Games, citing a line where Sterling says "chicanery may lead it into very real legal trouble". The developer says "this statement is false as there was no attempt to impersonate another company".
- The developer later takes issue with Sterling referring to Digital Homicide as "being as sly as the Wet Bandits", a reference to the bumbling thieves featured in the movie Home Alone. They took similar offence to Sterling calling them the "Romino brothers", alleging it was a criminal reference, attempting to link the developers -- brothers James and Robert Romine -- to a mafia family. (So far as I can tell, there's no prominent criminal group called the "Romino brothers".)
- They also reference a tweet where Sterling links to his article about the "Digital Homicide / ECC Games weirdness".
- Then, another mention of the ECC Games incident. When Sterling tweeted about the legal action apparently being taken by the Polish developer, he joked there was "not enough popcorn on Earth". Digital Homicide writes that this was another false statement about their intentions, and that Sterling bringing up these incidents was meant to court controversy to drive views. They also claim to have been unfairly targeted compared to "most of the triple A multi-million dollar game companies".
- Finally, the lawsuit discusses another tweet by Sterling, where he explains how the two ECC studios are not connected. Though it appears to be clarifying what's going on, Digital Homicide wrote that this was a disingenuous reaction made to "seem as if [Sterling] has discovered something - when in fact not enough research has been performed and no attempt to contact [Digital Homicide] has been made".
Digital Homicide says they view all of these incidents negatively, arguing "[Sterling will] post his material, the viewers see it and immediately form a riot/witch hunt where they go and attack the particular products page".
The confusing punctuation is straight from the court document, by the way. As the developer is representing themselves, it might explain some of the sloppiness and unclear statements. This haphazard approach characterises much of Digital Homicide's response since this drama began in 2014. Just last night, a reporter from another outlet contacted me about their own interaction with the studio. When that reporter asked Digital Homicide for comment about the lawsuit, the company forwarded them my email chain and told them to refer to that. In over 10 years of reporting, I've never seen that happen.
The developer also claims fallout with Valve over these repeated incidents with Sterling, reportedly prompting Valve to begin the process of removing all of Digital Homicide's games from Steam:
"The Plaintiff [Digital Homicide] begged The Distributor [Steam] not to delete the Plaintiff income and that the Plaintiff would give all of the Plaintiff's current future products on Greenlight up to avoid losing everything. The Plaintiff managed to convince The Steam Representative, Tom, that the Plaintiff had not done anything illegal and the Plaintiff was a victim of false statements. Tom Giardino accepted this sacrifice."
Digital Homicide currently has a number of games being sold on Steam, including the aforementioned Slaughtering Grounds and Galactic Hitman.
Besides $US10.76 million in damages, Digital Homicide also wants "apologies in place of every offending article and video for a period of no less than 5 years". They also want "an apology video in the primary youtube location on [Sterling's] channel front for a period of no less than 5 years".
Last year, Sterling was cited by YouTube as one of the creators it's looking to protect while overhauling its draconian copyright policies. It's unclear if that move will have any impact here, despite Digital Homicide resorting to DMCA takedowns. Digital Homicide's filing does not necessarily mean the lawsuit will move forward. Sterling tweeted yesterday that he's "in a very confident mood".