Garwulf’s Corner #35: Digital Suicide
Originally published December 7, 2016
Digital Homicide did not survive their dispute with Jim Sterling — in the end, Steam pulling the plug finished them off.
If you have any interest in the world of video games, you have probably encountered the ongoing saga of Digital Homicide, which underwent a bizarre business-destroying meltdown.
For those who have somehow missed it, Digital Homicide was a small independent game developer owned by James and Robert Romine, specializing in quickly made and released computer games that some would deem “shovelware.” This all began when Jim Sterling gave a bad video review to The Slaughtering Grounds, provoking Digital Homicide into releasing a rebuttal video attempting to discredit Sterling and the bad review. This bad blood continued to escalate until James Romine sued Sterling for $10 million (later increased to $15 million) on the grounds that his bad reviews had caused crippling amounts of damage to Digital Homicide’s business. As this played out in the courts, the situation continued to escalate, with Romine subpoenaing the identities of over a hundred Steam users so that he could sue them for a total of $18 million of damages as well.
This subpoena appears to have been the last straw for Valve, who cut ties with Digital Homicide in mid-September and removed all of their games — along with their developer page — from Steam. This is did not prove to be survivable for Digital Homicide, who announced at the beginning of October that they were withdrawing their court action against Steam users and shutting their doors.
But, what I want to talk about is the miscalculation at the heart of Digital Homicide’s meltdown, a mistake that all too many inexperienced indie game developers make: arguing with their reviewers.
As the owner of a (very) small publishing company, this is a cardinal rule. I will rarely, if ever, dispute a review. I have only ever made two exceptions, both on Amazon.com. The first was for a review of Diablo: Demonsbane where the reviewer spent the entire review writing a personal attack against me and never mentioned the contents of the book. The second was for The EverQuest Companion, where it was very clear that the reviewer had mistakenly attached the review to the wrong book — he was reviewing a fiction book and talking about character and plot development, while The EverQuest Companion was non-fiction and contained neither.
One of the most important things a book, game, or movie needs is exposure, and preferably exposure involving good things being said. The more people who know about the work, the greater the number of consumers who will take the plunge and buy it. In theory, a good review is sales multiplier, while a bad review will reduce sales. Reality, however, is considerably more complicated than that.
For example, prior to the release of An Odyssey into Video Games and Pop Culture, I sent out an email with a press release offering a pre-release review copy to a number of people and publications, including Jim Sterling. He never took me up on the offer, which is fine — reviewing books is somewhat out of his wheelhouse — but for the sake of argument, let’s say he did.
If he had given the book a good review, there would most certainly be a large sales spike — after all, Jim Sterling has a huge following, many of whom are willing to spend money based on his endorsement. However, if he hated the book and gave it a terrible review, there would probably still be a sales spike — after all, Jim Sterling is also a controversial figure, and there are many people who would take his hatred of the book to be an endorsement.
A lot of times, this is how reviews are taken. Readers not only consider the content of the review, but the reviewer as well. And bad reviews are not necessarily bad for business — a review expressing outrage can even boost sales at least as well as a good review, as it will generate curiosity about what the outrage was all about, and whether it was warranted. In fact, arguably the only time that a bad review can reduce the number of sales is if the book, game, or movie has such a high profile that everybody reading the review already knew about it — and this situation is very rare among indie game developers and small publishers.
But, all this said, arguing with one’s reviewers can be one of the most dangerous things a game developer, publisher, or author can do. The moment one argues with one’s reviewer, the work being reviewed ceases to be the topic of discussion, and all of the attention shifts to the people engaged in the argument. Or, put another way, it sidelines the book, game, or movie — and that does reduce potential sales. The moment James Romine started to argue with Jim Sterling about The Slaughtering Grounds, the game was reduced to a footnote, and everybody who might have actually cared about it was watching Digital Homicide spar with Jim Sterling instead.
And that’s why never arguing with one’s reviewers is a cardinal rule that should almost never be broken. It’s a no-win scenario that consigns your work to a side-note in comparison to the sideshow that now surrounds you. And on the internet, well, that’s just digital suicide.