We are watching a legal case that might have deeper ramifications than anyone had thought possible. With the birth of the digital environment of games media, commentators have broken many of the bonds that use to keep them from getting ink onto paper. Independent journalist can upload their commentary and critiques without any oversight. Now, anyone with a blog and a thought can upload their views to the world. It’s a magnificent time, but one that also has the aura of lawlessness.
Let me start out first by saying that I’m no lawyer, and these are my opinions. When writing articles that I assume are going to be read by the public, I hold a moral and legal obligation to try and get all of my facts straight before presenting them to you. The right to free speech should be afforded to everyone, regardless of their misguided or broken logic. We should not be given the right however to yell fire in a crowded building because words can be damaging. In this article, I will be looking at the lead up to this monumental case that for some sounds like the attempted censoring of an independent journalist, and for others the bullying of an equally independent developer.
On March 16, Digital Homicide filed a lawsuitagainst Jim Sterling (whose real name is James Nicholas Stanton), claiming that he “falsely accused” and “caused damages” to their company’s image and, in turn, their profits. In the complaint, consisting of 18 pieces of evidence, they cite a multitude of claims ranging from accusations of impersonating another company, allegations of theft, and inciting users to attack their products on Steam until they were removed. The plaintiff is seeking over ten million dollars in damages and relief.
In count four through seven, they bring up the fact that Sterling reported that they were attempting to deceive the market into believing they were Polish developer ECC Games, an abbreviation of their company name ‘Eccentricity.’ According to the complaint, Sterling accused them despite any wrongdoing. Eccentricity (also known as ECC Games) “has no legal right to that name in the United States,” and they did not attempt to imitate the Polish company’s branding or catalogue. They assert that Sterling did not reach out for clarification before going to press with his accusations. Counts eight through fifteen paint an image that Sterling not only stirred the pot by calling them thieves and misquoting their names but all for his personal benefit. In count 11, they quote the enjoyment Sterling is having with all of this in a tweet talking about Eccentricity pursuing legal actions that end with Sterling quipping, “not enough popcorn on Earth.”
They also reveal in the court record that they attempted to settle, with an offer being made on February 16th, where James Romine requested $2,636,000 from Sterling. It would appear an agreement was not reached, and this case will have its day in court.
Jim Sterling’s Coverage Of Digital Homicide
Digital Homicide Studios is a small independent game developer based out of Arizona. The studio worked on many games on Itch.io, a storefront for indie games, where they released at least 14 games. They have gone on to release nine games on the Steam platform since October 31st of 2014 with one of their first major Steam releases being ‘The Slaughtering Grounds.’ Jim Sterling, Review Editor and host of ‘The Escapist’s Jimquistion,’ a weekly opinion show about the gaming industry, published a video the next day on his personal YouTube page entitled “SLAUGHTERING GROUNDS – New ‘Worst Game Of 2014’ Contender.”
On November 10th, Jim Sterling posted an episode of The Jimquisition entitled “The Slaughtering Grounds: A Steam Meltdown Story,” in which he laid out all of his criticisms of the game. In the video, Sterling highlights the game’s “unaltered objects, enemies and architecture” which was purchased from development storefronts. He would go on to suggest the developer couldn’t code “different ammo types,” “exits” or correctly “map a level.” In the video, Sterling states amusement that the developers would find “pride in a game they cobbled together from assets that other developers made.” He discusses the previously mentioned exchange, and then goes on to discuss “appropriated art assets.” These include the game’s blood spatters one can find through Google image search and a desktop wallpaper found on several wallpaper websites. Romine would later confirm that these items weren’t his to use, and removed these elements. Jim also accused the developer of starting a contest with the intention of banning people who wished to voice criticism of the game; a claim Romine would regularly call into question.
On November 15, five days after posting this video, The Escapist published an article wishing a fond “Farewell” to Jim Sterling. Written by Greg Tito, then Editor-In-Chief at the site said: “it is with heavy heart, then, that I announce Jim Sterling’s departure from The Escapist.” He said that Movie Defense Force and Uncivil War would “no longer be published,” and that there would “no longer be any game reviews” by Sterling. He did encourage people to support the writer and ‘The Jimquisition’ through his Patreon page. When I asked Tito for comment about this lawsuit, he said “I don’t really have anything to add about what’s happening. I’m pretty far removed at this point.” When I reached out for clarification on if Sterling’s departure had anything to do with The Slaughtering Grounds debacle, I received none.
With the show’s independence, Jim Sterling first tackled problems with Ubisoft’s embargo policies, followed by an article about Sonic Boom. On December 1st, Jim Sterling did return to the topic, expanding on his already published article, calling it “The Slaughtering Grounds: A Steam Meltdown Saga.” In this video, he discusses the developer’s attempts at censoring him, and citing a blog post that “revealed just how little it understood of copyright law.” In Digital Homicide’s post, which has now been taken down, they claim that while criticism is protected, “one must be fair and reasonable” in what one criticizes, stating that Sterling’s use of the words “absolute failure” as “entirely unfair and unreasonable use of our copyright material.” Sterling would go on to make fun of their understanding of the law, and subsequent dismissal of their copyright claim, comparing their continued grandstanding as them “limping away” from a fight saying “I let you win.”
Sterling would make Digital Homicide a bit of a punchline in subsequent Jimquisition episodes. In the episode “The Asset Flip,” released on May 25th, Jim uses the company as one of the pillars for his argument against developers who sell pre-made development kits, calling the act “exploitive.” In his video on “Steam Refunds,” Sterling calls Digital Homicide’s Temper Tantrum a “cobbled together unity asset ripoff,” suggesting they ridicule their customers while showing a request that they change “the way the character is controlled.”
Jim Sterling would go on to play Digital Homicide’s games throughout 2015; including Temper Tantrum on May 23rd, Deadly Profits on May 30th, Medieval Mercs on July 2nd, Devil’s Share on August 2nd. He also covered most of their promos in his ‘Best of Steam Greenlight Trailers” series, including his September 25th Primate coverage, where he accuses the company of posing as Polish Developer ECC Games, calling them a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
On October 12th, Sterling released another Jimquisition Entitled “Homicide,” where Sterling asked Digital Homicide to “please stop,” saying that if they did they would have his “permission to cry- and then just fuck off.” He then goes on to acknowledge those who feel that his continued coverage has “gone on a bit too much,” but justified it by saying it’s a “gift” for their nearly one year anniversary of mudslinging. He starts the video by pointing out that ‘Devil’s Share’ and ‘Galactic Hitman,’ two games developed by studio ‘ECC Games’ or ‘Every Click Counts’ (‘ECC’ being the name of another mobile game developer), was actually from the team behind Digital Homicide. According to Sterling, he had no idea that these games, both of which he bashed in short gameplay footage, were part of their catalog. He then goes on to show how the company had many different company names, and how eventually the studio changed all of them back to their Digital Homicide name once people complained to Steam.
“Everything bad about Steam, Digital Homicide embodies- proudly,” he says in the video. “Seemingly without shame, and yet strikingly defensive, sensitive to criticism in spite of having absolutely zero artistic integrity.”
In that same video, Jim Sterling admits that in his article “Digital Homicide And The Case Of The Sockpuppet Developers,” he suggests that Digital Homicide once again stole artwork from a Deviantart user for their game ‘Galactic Hitman.’ This claim turned out to be incorrect, as the creator also sells their work on Shutterstock for royalty-free use. Sterling says that he attempted to apologize, but was informed that Arizona law states that Libel is litigious even if a retraction is made, and was informed that they would be proceeding with the case.
I reached out to Jim Sterling and members of his network for comment. Sterling responded to an email quickly by saying “It would be unwise to discuss anything at this time.” He went on to maintain that he’s “confident,” and that he’s “grateful for the overwhelming support I’ve received.” Laura Kate Dale, Co-Host of Jim Sterling’s podcast and the UK editor at Destructoid, said in a tweet “I’m not going to say anything beyond what has been said publically [SIC] by Jim.”
We reached out to Digital Homicide Games, LLC for comment, but we received no response.
(Opinion) Does Digital Homicide Have Standing?
I like Jim Sterling. I think he has a lot of great points about the industry, game design and the art of humor. I’ll even dip my head a little and admit I got a bit of a jovial high anytime he kicked the dirt into the eyes of Digital Homicide. They kind of had it coming- not for making a bad game- but for refusing to take criticism when it was due. As a producer, I know that sometimes you make something, and it doesn’t work out. I know the pain of making something you’re proud of and having everyone hate it. Anyone who gives a crap about their craft knows that pain, and can relate to it. It’s why when they took it so poorly, so personally- I must admit my sense of schadenfreude kicked in.
Jim Sterling did nothing wrong. He stated his opinion, and he doesn’t owe Digital Homicide any explanation for why their work of art rubbed him wrong. People like and dislike things, and there’s no requirement or need to explain it. As a reviewer who wants to be taken seriously, I try my damnedest to be a fair and open-minded person when I put someone’s passion project into my crosshairs. If Jim Sterling is okay with playing a game for ten minutes and deciding it’s shit- that’s his prerogative to do so.
What Jim Sterling doesn’t have the right to do is to wear a journalist’s cap, but not put in the work. You can’t rely on message board chatter or the first link you stumble across; journalism requires objectivism. When something isn’t fully clear, it’s not your place to fill in the blanks. In this day and age of less and less oversight, it’s up to the writers to ensure the accuracy of the information we’re delivering to our audience is without flaws.
You can’t accuse game developers of theft unless you’re sure a crime has been committed. To accuse someone of imitating another developer is speculative at best. To relish in a company’s downfall is neither becoming nor ethical of someone who looks to deliver unbiased news. Now, some might say that Sterling is only a commentator, and that is true- he has a right to state an opinion. But free speech doesn’t entitle those who possess it to scream fire in a crowded building. Gameplay videos are fine, but words hold more power than anything else in this world. Words can topple governments, destroy lifelong friendships and in this case, possibly harm the future of a growing business.
I think for Sterling, this became a joke- an indefensible example of developers trying to screw gamers out of their money. I know his desire; I fight for the users also. But when is enough enough? Why didn’t he just ignore Digital Homicide’s clearly irrational response? Was it necessary to continue holding them up as a punchline after they made the mistake of overpricing a piecemeal game? Why does he care what they name themselves, or feel he has to defend some mobile developer? Why is he writing expose articles about the developer’s horrendous crime of online image piracy? I’m sorry, Jim- but you became the bully in this situation, and you were the one who had a lot of opportunities to take the higher road.
And I think it might cost you. To prove defamation, Digital Homicide will have to show you publically stated false accusations, that injured their company’s image and impacted their sales, and you had knowledge of what that could do. It doesn’t help that you admitted several times that you enjoyed the show. It also doesn’t help that in Arizona, retracting false statements doesn’t protect you against libel. To the fans of a free press and Sterling’s form of ‘garme junalizm,’ this may be a case that makes your jaws drop with a surprise conclusion.
I doubt they’re going to get anywhere close to the ridiculous sum of ten million. That’s pure lunacy. I would imagine Sterling makes more than just his Patreon account, but not to that tune. I won’t be surprised however if a settlement isn’t reached in the five, maybe six digits- one that in the end we’ll as outside observers never get to be privy to.
Now, if you’re mad at me my dear readers because I’m calling out Sterling’s questionable actions- good. I’m not here to make you happy. I’ve been sitting here for the past 7 hours writing an article for you- not to entertain but to inform. No story is as simple as one man with 130,000 followers will ever lead you to believe- there’s a lot of moving parts here. I’m also not going to point out how Digital Homicide laughingly mentioned ‘The Sticky Bandits’ in their official court papers, or make light of their claims. I’m not here for the cheap chuckles and to act like a journalist. I can see when someone’s been bullied, and I too can see how in Jim Sterling’s mind he’s still the advocate fighting for your loyalty. Sadly, I think Sterling may have inadvertently become the villain while fighting a perceived injustice. I just hope he realizes and works something out with the developers, and maybe apologizes for misfiring on a growing and vulnerable developer.
Now to jump back onto everyone else’s side; seriously Digital Homicide, I don’t need to play your games to see that you need to slow down and take a moment. Nine games in the span of a year? Scott Freakin’ Cawthon would tell you to take a chill pill. For a future business model, instead of releasing 10 loathed games for one dollar each, maybe you could release one decent game for ten dollars? Then you wouldn’t have so many people making fun of your lackluster and glitchy excuse for games. If a game like ‘Slaughtering Grounds’ crosses my desk for a full review, you better believe my words wouldn’t “fairly” balance the negative with the positive; I would’ve treated your game with the same delicacy that Sterling did. If you don’t want to be seen as a shovelware company, then put some pride into what you make, and stop opening yourself up to ridicule. I honestly can’t believe I’m defending your case when you put out games like ‘Temper Tantrum.’ Step your game up.