Based on legal documents posted on Google Docs recently by YouTuber SidAlpha, Digital Homicide developer James Romine is now suing 100 users of Valve's Steam digital distribution platform for $18 million for the heinous crime of leaving bad reviews of their games and saying bad things about the company. As part of the subpoena granted by Arizona judge Eileen Willett, Romine is allowed to demand the personal "identification and associated data" of the anonymous Steam users from Valve. We all know internet forums can be shitty places, but this sets a dangerous precedent for future legal action if successful.
By Friday evening twitter user "lashman" discovered Valve had removed all of Digital Homicide's games from Steam. Games like Wyatt Derp, Temper Tantrum, and The Slaughtering Grounds (the first game Sterling reviewed)—are all gone along with their community pages, reviews, and associated downloads as if they'd never been there. You needn't worry if you've already bought the games in the past. They're still there, accessible through your account's library. But if you have a pressing desire to play Wyatt Derp in the coming days, you'll have to look somewhere else besides Steam.
"Valve has stopped doing business with Digital Homicide for being hostile to Steam customers," Valve VP of marketing Doug Lombardi told Motherboard in a brief email. He didn't say how Valve plans to handle the subpoena or if "being hostile" even directly refers to the lawsuits.
"We all have the right to criticize the products you sell, and if you can't handle that then get out of the fucking sales world," a commenter named Captain Cthulhu said. "Calling your games shit isn't slander. A critic is not being a horrible person by calling your games shit and letting the public know, [they're] doing their god Damn Fucking job as a critic."
Other users were fully aware of the implications of their actions in context:
Digital Homicide's suit is but another chapter in a fight that's being waged against user reviews across the web. Just today, for instance, business review site Yelp is in the news for arguing that a lawsuit demanding that it remove some reviews with alleged "lies" about a law firm could mean the total elimination of negative reviews.
Now the company is asking the California Supreme Court to overturn previous rulings that upheld the takedown demand. As the Associated Press writes with eerie relevance, Yelp argues that upholding the ruling would mean that companies "could sue the person who posted the content and then get a court order demanding the Internet company remove it."
Dawn Hassell, the opposing lawyer, claims that upholding the ruling wouldn't be as drastic as all that. But the world of tech is on Yelp's side, and Valve likely would be as well if asked. In a letter to the California Supreme Court last month, reps from Facebook, Twitter, and Microsoft argued that supporting it "radically departs from a large, unanimous and settled body of federal and state court precedent" and could be used to "silence a vast quantity of protected and important speech."
Update: Since this article was written, Digital Homicide has updated its homepage with a lengthy response to Valve. We've written a followup story addressing this development.
Yesterday we wrote about the drama surrounding developer Digital Homicide, which is currently trying to sue 100 anonymous Steam users for $18 million for saying bad things about the company and its games. To that end, it was granted a subpoena to demand the users' personal information from Steam owner Valve. Valve yanked all of Digitial Homicide's games off Steam in response, and in a statement to Motherboard, Valve's marketing VP Doug Lombardi said it ceased to do business with Digital Homicide because it was "being hostile to Steam customers."
On Saturday night, Digital Homicide responded with a lengthy post on the studio's homepage, suggesting it targeted Steam reviewers who harassed them.
"The lawsuit recently filed is solely in regards to individuals where no resolution was able to be obtained from Steam to provide a safe environment for us to conduct business," Digital Homicide said. "We submitted numerous reports and sent multiple emails in regards to individuals making personal attacks, harassment, and more on not only us but on other Steam customers who were actually interested in our products."
The post then goes on to show screenshots of posts on the Steam community boards illustrating these personal attacks. Two of the biggest examples, in which one user says he wants "to murder every single person responsible for this [game]" and another that tells Digital Homicide chief James Romine he should "kill himself for making me waste 0.14 for your ****** game," don't appear in the leaked documents from a few days ago.
They don't even appear in the full court document. Those documented tend to focus on posts about Digital Homicide's business practices, while Digital Homicide's post today focuses on the claim that "by removing us for defending ourselves against harassment Steam is openly stating you cannot defend yourself from examples like these."
Sometimes the screenshots show users saying things like the devs are "scumbags" or "scam artists" or that Romine will "never not stop being the joke of [G]reenlight," but rarely is there anything so violent as what Romine posted today. Most posts focus on Digital Homicide's tendency to ban any criticism on its Steam boards (proving that Romine does have some control over what's said), or its frequent pitching of new games to Steam's Greenlight service. The worst I could find in the actual court doc was a post saying "this dev should go from digital homicide to physical suicide," a more literal take on a low-hanging wordplay I myself made yesterday.
Yet Romine does list harassment as his fourth cause of action against the users, along with conspiracy to commit violation of civil rights, disorderly conduct, stalking, criminal impersonation, tortious interference with contractual relations with the distributor, libel, unjust enrichment, restitution, negligence, damages, and representation fees.
The post closes with a fair point relating to the larger conversation about online harassment, and Valve's famously hands-off approach to managing Steam.
"When someone bothers you on say a platform like Facebook and you find the need to ban them, the Facebook response after you ban is 'Sorry you had this experience' and then that person is removed from being able to post on your page," the post reads. "By removing us they have taken the stance that users have the right to harass me, tell me I should kill myself, and insult my family . If I try to defend myself against said actions then I lose my family's income."
Digital Homicide closes its post with a plea for help with legislation. That, in fact, has been the biggest hurdle in getting its cases to go anywhere. An earlier, still-unsettled suit against game critic Jim Sterling for $10 million has stalled because the studio can't amass the funding for the associated legal fees. After six months, Romine's GoFundMe account still only has $425 of his $75,000 goal.
But even there Romine focuses on the personal attacks, which he claims originated from Sterling's hundreds of thousands of YouTube followers.
"We recently received a pile of feces in the mail and someone contacted the Jehovah's Witnesses website to have them pay us a visit," he said. In addition, others said things like "Your wife is a whore" and "I hope you die in a fiery car crash."
Should a developer be able to sue Steam users for leaving negative reviews on its games? Of course not. But the Digital Homicide debacle is highlighting an issue with Steam regardless of whether you like its games or not: If a group of Steam users turns nasty on a developer, there's not that much it can do about it. Valve is obviously aware of this. Just recently, it revamped its user review system, making it so that only users who've actually bought a game can review it, rather than someone who received it for "free" with a promotional code. According to Polygon, this is already having a major impact on scores.
We've reached out to Digital Homicide for comment and will update this story if we hear back.