If history is any indication, controversial lawsuits are as common in gaming as joysticks and pixels. When big money is at stake, even innocent subject matter like table tennis, can elicit major controversy, like when Magnavox successfully sued Atari for their 1972 hit "Pong" (via ThinkSet).
Perhaps the main difference between then and now is this: when Universal and Nintendo fought over "Donkey Kong" in 1982, players didn't have a front-row seat to the courtroom drama. The internet has made it possible for fans to spectate - and comment on - all the gory details behind video game's messiest lawsuits, both from the past and the present.
It's no surprise that legal action has more or less become a rite of passage for game developers. The release of a video game constitutes a massive traffic jam of money, laws, and legal contracts that involve consumers, corporations, game developers, stakeholders, and even national and international governments. Looking at it all from a bird's eye view, it's a wonder that video games even get made in the first place.
Lawsuits may not be fun for the parties involved. But everyone else should grab a bag of popcorn and enjoy the show as we dig into the most controversial lawsuits in gaming history.
Fallout 4's Season Pass and Creation Club
Words are powerful, especially if you're a multi-billion dollar company like Bethesda. This particular lawsuit will surely have the company's copywriters thinking twice about the promotional materials for DLC going forward.
The legal drama that complicated Bethesda's merger with Xbox centers on Bethesda's "Fallout 4" Season Pass, which promises players access to all of the game's current and future DLC for $49.99. The trouble started in 2017 when Bethesda released " Creation Club," a mod marketplace of sorts where players can purchase new weapons, armor, abilities, and gameplay modes for "Fallout 4."
"Creation Club" didn't sit well with the plaintiff, Jacob Devine. The Season Pass holder felt duped by the new content, considering Bethesda's assurance that all bonus content would be included in the pass. This led Devine to hit Bethesda and its parent company, ZeniMax Media, with a class-action lawsuit, accusing the game company of "deceptive business practice." According to VentureBeat, ZeniMax Media is claiming that "Creation Club" content is not considered DLC, though if this goes to trial, that will be up for the court to decide.
Many speculated that the lawsuit could complicate Microsoft's acquisition of ZeniMax Media, but the deal prevailed. In a purchase that turned gaming on its head, Microsoft acquired the company (and Bethesda) for $7.5 billion in March.
Wastelanders eager for a verdict will have to be patient since the case is still in discovery. If it goes to court, ZeniMax Media's lawyers may want to max out their Charisma perks to win over the judge.
EA's Dynamic Difficulty lawsuit
Pretty much everyone has wanted to smash a controller when a game gets too difficult. But suing a video game company for the same reason? Now that takes commitment.
Electronic Arts (EA) was sued over its franchises "FIFA," "NHL," and "Madden NFL." The claim? That EA used dynamic difficulty adjustment (DDA) to make the game too hard to play without spending money on microtransactions. DDA allows a game's AI to adapt to the performance of a human player. That is, the better you play, the tougher the AI opponents would get.
The lawsuit placed the games' popular card-based Ultimate Team mode, which allows players to build a team to play against other gamers or NPCs online in the hot seat. In "FIFA," for example, new gamers start with a free team, but can unlock better players with FIFA Ultimate Team Packs. These can be bought with FUT coins, which are earned through playing, or you can buy FIFA points with real money to speed up the process.
While Ultimate Team is certainly harder without rare cards, it's not illegally difficult, say the courts. According to a press release from Electronic Arts, the plaintiffs dropped the case after EA proved that the company did not use DDA in "FIFA," "Madden NFL," or "NHL."
But EA is not out of the woods yet. The company's loot box system continues to face scrutiny. In Belgium, criticism from the government has caused the company to quit selling FIFA points entirely, according to Eurogamer.
The Slaughtering Grounds criticism
Imagine a dystopian world where video game critics could only say nice things about the games they played. Or, if you're not feeling imaginative today, just read up on the litigation woes of Jim Sterling, a gaming critic placed in the legal crosshairs of Digital Homicide Studios.
Here's what happened, as reported by Polygon: In 2014, the critic published a scathing review of Digital Homicide's first-person shooter, "The Slaughtering Grounds." The review's title, " New 'Worst Game Of 2014' Contender," should give you an idea of what he thought of the game. Also, it seems that many have agreed with Sterling's assessment, since the game's user score on Metacritic is 1.1 out of 10.
In response, Digital Homicide published a video titled "Reviewing the Reviewer." Though the video has since been archived, Kotaku noted that the video called Sterling "a f***ing idiot," among other insults. Eventually, Digital Homicide Studios co-founder James Romine filed a $10 million lawsuit against Sterling for defamation. The case was dismissed in 2017.
But if you thought that was bad, check this out: In 2016, Digital Homicide also filed a lawsuit against 100 Steam users who had left bad reviews. Many sided with the users, including Valve, which banned the company from Steam soon after "for being hostile to Steam customers," according to a statement given to Vice.
Digital Homicide claimed that the Steam ban was financially devastating, which led the company to file a request (via PC Gamer) for the case be dismissed.
NCSoft's Lineage II was too addictive
Usually, when a player says they are addicted to a game, it's a bit of a compliment to the developer. Not in this case.
In 2010, a man sued the South Korean game developer NCSoft, as well as their Texas-based subsidiary, NC Interactive, for $3 million. He claimed that NCSoft's MMORPG "Lineage II" was just too addictive.
From 2004 to 2009, plaintiff Craig Smallwood played "Lineage II" for a whopping 20,000 hours, which Engadget points out averages to "around 11 hours per day." In court records, Smallwood claimed that this addiction caused him "extreme and serious emotional distress and depression." Smallwood also said he struggled to even find time for simple tasks, like "getting dressed, bathing or communicating with family and friends."
Smallwood's lawsuit sought to prove that NCSoft was negligent for not warning him and other players of the game's addictive qualities. NCSoft argued that the user agreement for "Lineage 2" protected the company from the negligence claim, but the court disagreed (via The Register), allowing the lawsuit to proceed.
The lawsuit stands as a cautionary tale for video game companies for two reasons. First, it demonstrated that video game addiction has been considered to be a serious enough affliction that it could stand up in court. Perhaps most importantly, it showed that broadly worded user agreements aren't always enough to get game developers off the hook in legal disputes.
Jack Thompson vs. violent video games
The idea that violent video games can make players aggressive in real life has been around almost as long as video games themselves. As noted by Kotaku, if there was an award for being the first violent video game to cause major controversy, it would go to "Death Race," a 1976 arcade game that allowed players to run over pixelated humanoids in a car for points.
But a violent video game didn't end up in court until 1997, after a tragic high school shooting in West Paducah, Kentucky left three dead and five injured. Under the legal guidance of Jack Thompson, the parents of the three victims filed a $130 million lawsuit against - well, pretty much every popular video game company of the 90s, including Midway, Apogee, ID, and more, according to The New York Times.
If you don't know Jack Thompson from his tirades against violent video games, you may know him for his crusades against obscenity in '90s rap music, which The Washington Post notes included targeting the Miami rap group 2 Live Crew and rapper/actor Ice-T.
The plaintiffs argued that violent video games like "Doom," "Quake," and "Mortal Kombat" - as well as things like pornography and the movie "The Basketball Diaries" - drove the teenager to shoot his classmates.
The court ruled in favor of the defendants, granting their motions to dismiss. Thompson continued to wage war against violent video games in the future, including "Grand Theft Auto," "Mortal Kombat" and even "The Sims 2" for a supposed nudity hack that the developer argued wouldn't even work (via gamesindustry.biz).
Grand Theft Auto and "Hot Coffee"
Rockstar Games is no stranger to shady moments. But perhaps the developer's biggest public debacle involved " Hot Coffee," a steamy hidden minigame in "GTA: San Andreas" that allowed players to not only watch the game's anti-hero, Carl "CJ" Johnson, get frisky with his girlfriend - but to also control his, um, maneuvers. Before the tryst begins, Carl's girlfriend invites him inside for "hot coffee," which is where the minigame got its name.
As explained by Eurogamer, Rockstar scrapped "Hot Coffee" weeks before launch, concerned that it would jeopardize the game's "Mature" ESRB rating. To reduce the risk of breaking the game's code so close to launch, Rockstar simply disabled the minigame, but didn't delete its underlying code.
In 2005, some clever modders found the code and enabled the minigame - and all hell broke loose for Rockstar, triggering a class action lawsuit against the developer. As a result, the company had to pay out up to $35 to any player who filed a complaint regarding the mod. They also saw the game's ESRB "Mature" rating swapped out for "Adults Only."
To stem the bleeding, Rockstar released a patch that removed "Hot Coffee" from the game entirely, which eventually led to the "Adults Only" rating being repealed. But, as noted by Eurogamer, that didn't stop Capitol Hill from citing the game as the main source of inspiration behind the Family Entertainment Protection Act. Had the act been signed into law, it would have levied a $1,000 fine against retailers for selling a video game with an "Adult" or "Mature" ESRB rating to a minor.
New Super Mario Bros on Wii was trouble for a game pirate
Don't let Nintendo's cuddly characters fool you. The company may have a cute exterior, but it'll still slap a ginormous lawsuit on those who illegally upload their games online. Just ask James Burt, an Australian gamer who witnessed the wrath of the Japanese video game company first hand.
As reported by Destructoid In 2009, the 24-year-old bought the Wii game "New Super Mario Bros" from a retailer, who mistakenly sold it to him days before the official release. Burt then illegally uploaded the game to the internet. However, his father told the Sydney Harold Times that his son's piracy wasn't motivated by money, but by a desire "to prove that he'd actually managed to purchase (the) game before its release date."
The game was downloaded "50,000 times over a five day period." Nintendo got wise to the piracy using tracking software, which led to Burt to find Burt being served with an AU$1.5 million lawsuit. The Australian Federal Court sided with Nintendo, ordering Burt to pay the fine, plus AU$100,000 for the company's legal fees.
In a bizarre twist years later, Burt announced on Reddit that he had received a mysterious gift from Nintendo: a limited-edition Ganon statue from the Wii HD edition of "The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker." They say to never look a gift horse in the mouth, but given what Burt's been through, it might be okay in this instance.
Resident Evil 4 sued by a photographer
If you thought stucco wasn't controversial, you haven't gone down the Juracek vs. Capcom rabbit hole. In June 2021, Judy A. Juracek, a scenic artist and photographer, filed a lawsuit against "Resident Evil" developer Capcom for allegedly using 80 or more of her photos without permission over 200 times in "Resident Evil 4" alone.
The photos in question are from Juracek's book "Surfaces," a visual resource that contains photographs of building textures, like glass and concrete, to provide inspiration for designers and architects. According to court documents, the photographs are copyrighted, meaning interested parties must request permission to repurpose them for commercial use.
The side-by-side comparisons of the works in the court records will certainly raise eyebrows, such as an almost identical match of a "Resident Evil 4" screenshot to a door frame that Juracek photographed. Even the broken glass pattern underneath the "Resident Evil 4" logo is eerily similar to a photograph in Juracek's book.
It gets worse. Those who bought "Surfaces" also received a CD-ROM of low-resolution images. When Capcom was hacked in 2020, the data dump showed that some of the images in "Resident Evil 4" share file names with the photographs on the CD-ROM accompanying Juracek's book.
Juracek is suing Capcom for over $12 million. After spending decades struggling to find a specific crank or a key card, "Resident Evil" fans may be curious to watch Capcom try to solve the puzzle of how to get out of the lawsuit.
CD Projekt Red's Cyberpunk 2077 woes
Thanks to Keanu Reeves's Johnny Silverhand and an almost decade-long marketing blitz, " Cyberpunk 2077" was one of the most anticipated games ever. Then, on December 10, 2020, it finally released in stores, commencing what the New York Times called "one of the most visible disasters in the history of video games."
Bug compilations on YouTube made the title look more like a glitchy indie beta than a AAA release. Sony yanked the game from the Playstation Store and offered refunds, despite the company's normal stingy refund policy. The only people who seemed satisfied were PC users, who gave the game a decent Metacritic score.
Next came the lawsuits against the game, which were compiled into one mega class action suit in May, according to a CD Projekt Red press release. Among the people suing CDPR were the company's investors. You can't really blame them, considering the botched launch caused the company's stock to shed over $1 billion in value in a single day.
The plaintiffs claim that they were misled by CD Projekt Red's rosy projections, while in reality, "Cyberpunk 2077," was "virtually unplayable on the current-generation Xbox or PlayStation systems," according to NME. Whether the game developer's actions were above board from a legal standpoint remains to be seen.
Apple vs. Epic Games
No one can resist a classic David and Goliath story, just like nobody will ever accuse Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney of being timid.
While most game companies willingly pay the App Store and Google Play's 30% processing fees, Epic opted for a more radical approach. In August 2020, the company offered "Fortnite's" IOS and Android users a 20% discount on the game's currency, "V Bucks," if they purchased them through Epic's new direct payment system. In other words, Epic threw Apple and Google's fees on the ground and did a "Fortnite" dance on top of them. It was a revolutionary act as far as mobile games go, and it did not go unnoticed.
"Fortnite" was swiftly removed from the App Store for violating its terms of service. Epic responded by filing an antitrust lawsuit against Apple and posting a cheeky protest video. The ensuing court battle between Epic and Apple was filled with eye-opening moments. While Apple's probably not stoked that the lawsuit is bringing sticky issues (like the fairness of anti-steering rules) to light, gamers have gotten to watch HBO-level drama play out on the internet as Epic does everything in its power to at least put on a show.