Yesterday, a court dismissed game developer Digital Homicide's $US10 million ($13 million) case against YouTube critic Jim Sterling. Fortunately for those of us who write about video games, Sterling's scathing critique of Digital Homicide's game Slaughtering Grounds won't create precedent for developers slamming critics with million-dollar lawsuits.
"I'd say this should at least serve as a warning to developers that such extreme measures might sound good as threats, but are generally just a bad idea," Sterling said in an email. "Critics, too, should take note -- yes this case was frivolous, but it still had to be taken seriously once it was served."
Years ago, Sterling published a YouTube video describing Digital Homicide's Slaughtering Grounds as a "New 'Worst Game Of 2014' Contender". Sterling, who regularly plays games he considers hilariously bad, skewered Slaughtering Grounds, deeming it an "absolute failure". His critique implied Digital Homicide was selling an original game composed of unoriginal materials, or "asset flipping". In response, Digital Homicide accused Sterling of playing the game incorrectly, perhaps to entertain or attract viewers. They soon filed a DMCA takedown to wipe Sterling's video from YouTube.
"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," they wrote. YouTube briefly removed the video, but reinstated it after Sterling petitioned.
It could have ended there, but last March, the miffed developer filed a lawsuit accusing Sterling of "assault, libel, and slander" in Arizona District Court. On top of the $US10 million ($13 million) sum, Digital Homicide asked for "apologies in place of every offending article and video for a period of no less than 5 years".
Now, this was a startling sight for games critics. If taken seriously, Digital Homicide's lawsuit could constitute a threat against critics who publish negative reviews on large platforms. A little desperate, Digital Homicide later sued 100 mostly-anonymous Steam users for $US18 million ($23 million) in the wake of negative Steam comments. Steam subsequently removed Digital Homicide's games from the platform, citing the company's hostility to Steam customers.
Thankfully, Digital Homicide's case didn't make it very far. Sterling told me it was exactly the result he'd hoped for, although, after a year of this, he's pretty tired.
What's particularly disturbing about lawsuits like this is that, even in cases where they are clearly frivolous, as this was, they can force critics to spend significant amounts of money on legal defences. Sterling had to hire a lawyer, Bradley Hartman, who helped convince the court to dismiss this case, which, in Sterling's words, involved "series of allegations that were difficult to comprehend even for the one accused of them".
"Not all threats from the internet are idle ones, and I wouldn't recommend anybody brush them off," Sterling concluded.