Recently, there was a bundle sale on Steam called the “Digital Homicide Bundle”, selling five games for a dollar. It seems like a good deal at first, but all of these games have abysmal user ratings, some dipping below 30% approval. One would assume that 30% of people approving the game means that it still has some value, and that’s true, but not in the way that one would assume. A cursory glance of the player reviews reveals that people are giving a thumbs up not because the games are quality, but because these games give Steam Trading Cards which can be sold on the marketplace for credit towards other games. This means that, if bought in the bundle, they technically get a return on investment even if it’s only a couple of cents, if you don’t count the electricity cost of running the computer. There are a few common problems with each game: The gameplay is rudimentary, there is no artistic unity, and even the menus are uniquely painful to use. Assets are recycled ad nauseam, including: a cyclops, a rat, a bare-chested harpy, an actual bear, sundry zombies, skeletons, and numerous others. The enemy AI is also basic.
In none of these games do they perform any other action than run directly at the player in an attempt to fuse their model with the target. Any semblance of balance in these games is also absent, meaning they are almost universally easy, even when some gameplay elements are breaking. At first it’s easy to think that the name of the pack, “Digital Homicide”, is a catchy way to bundle multiple games together, but it actually refers to the single developer of all of these games, Digital Homicide Studios. In fact, the number of games produced by the studio is far greater than five. According to the official Digital Homicide group page on Steam, there are 18 associated games. Their website, tastefully given the URL “digitalhomicide.ninja”, offers literally dozens more games under the tab Greenlight Games, referring to Steam Greenlight which allows users to vote on games they wish to see on Steam’s storefront. Their website is a strange amalgamation of generic assets, including a deformed looking fuzzy creature and, oddly enough, a female model in a footballer’s outfit holding a football over her groin. The blog seems mostly abandoned with only six posts, all within the month of February of 2016. The first three are game development advice for aspiring indie developers, while the last three are advertisements for games being released under the Digital Homicide brand. Not long ago, the website looked different, with an advertisement for their game AzzHoles across the front of the page upon entering, and the words, “Games Made With Love”, just to the left. Digital Homicide has a strange relationship with Steam Greenlight. When one of their games inevitably fails, they simply put it back onto Greenlight, hoping to garner enough votes the second or third or seventh time around, sometimes using dummy publishers to get around quality control. So who is Digital Homicide? The company is comprised of two people, a pair of brothers named James and Robert Romine. Very little is known about them, and only the latter has divulged any information about himself. This raises many questions, but there’s one that stands out. How are two brothers managing to create dozens of games in the span of only a few years? To understand this, one must be familiar with the concept of ‘asset flipping’. All Digital Homicide games are created on the same engine, Unity. There are plenty of good, and even great games made on the Unity Engine, such as Kerbal Space Program, Ori and the Blind Forest, Superhot, and Hearthstone. However, it is notoriously easy to create rudimentary games with it. Many burgeoning game designers have begun using Unity to try their hand at game development, while others use it to create strange and absurdist experiences and release them for free. [ Vinny (Vinesauce) ]: “I hear story of friend this friend is Shamrock he reverses ground magnets with touch” [ sheep bleating ] Just as often however, it’s abused by independent developers to quickly make a terrible game, slap a price tag on it, and push it out the door to turn a profit. To increase the odds of someone buying the game at face value, these developers often will rely on buying pre-made game assets for cheap, something expedited by the prolificacy of assets made specifically for Unity. This practice has grounds in legitimate game development, where indie developers purchase assets such as 3D models to save both time and money, so that other aspects of the game can receive attention. The intention is to build upon these assets and use them as a framework, but sometimes a lazy or cheap developer will buy a myriad of assets, and plunk those on to basic coding then call it complete, a process known as asset flipping. Buying game assets works similarly to buying a font. Rather than purchasing a physical object, the buyer gains unlimited rights to utilize that particular asset, meaning that this process is 100% legal, however shady it may be. By asset flipping, Digital Homicide Studios can churn out games at an unprecedented rate; games that may seem competent on the surface, but prove to be vapid and hollow. Despite how egregious this practice is, James and Robert Romine would have remained an obscure element of Steam’s underbelly, were it not for a few bewildering and vitriolic actions against one of the internet’s more controversial figures, Jim Sterling, the online persona of a game critic named James Stanton. There’s a significant subset of content creators on YouTube who enjoy making videos about terrible games, and Jim Sterling is one of them. Among the many topics he covers in gaming, he has a series called “Squirty Plays”, a gag based on the popular Let’s Play videos. In these, he chooses games that, to him, seem obviously “squirted” on to Steam to make some quick cash on gamers who don’t know any better, and plays them without researching them beforehand as a first impression. On November 1st of 2014, Sterling chose to feature The Slaughtering Grounds, which Digital Homicide had released onto Steam the night prior under the guise of another studio, Imminent Uprising.
Predictably, the game was low-quality, but Sterling seemed more confused than disgusted during the 10 and a half minute long video, as he scrambled about through the pre-purchased assets in an attempt to find ammunition for his poorly stocked weapons. [ Jim Sterling ]: “Hello what’s this?” “Oh, we need a new gun.” [ gunfire ] [ Jim ]: “I got nothing.” Enraged by the negative reception, James and Robert Romine took to YouTube themselves in an attempt to strike back at this slight. They uploaded Jim Sterling’s video onto their own channel, as part of what they claimed was a new series entitled, “Reviewing the Reviewer”. This video had text overlaid on top of it criticizing Jim Sterling and the video. The first slide of text reads, and I quote, “Hello this is Jim Sterling and I am a fucking idiot. “Don’t believe me? Well just watch this piece of shit review i’ve made.” The text continues to lambast Jim Sterling throughout the rest of the video, liberally insulting his intelligence and the quality of his content, calling it “useless shit”, and other vulgar pejoratives. They also blame Sterling for not providing an adequate review. Jim Sterling, possibly recognizing an opportunity to draw in new viewers as well as to archive the video, re-uploaded the Romine brothers’ re-upload, but instead replaced the original audio with unscripted reactions to the text. Here, he retorts that the Squirty Plays series isn’t a review series, but rather about first impressions, though he dismisses most other points as the actions of a crazy developer. [ Jim Sterling ]: ” ‘I’m Jim Fucking Sterling and I deliver accurate reviews!’- (it’s) not a review!” ” ‘I told you I would tell you the buggered landmines work, you can depend on me providing you with more useless shit reviews in’- ” [ Jim laughing ] In a fit of recursion that would make Christopher Nolan blush, the Romine brothers uploaded a response to Sterling’s response,
though this time there was no video. Instead, they only used the audio from Sterling’s response and overlaid white text on a black background, again riddled with poor grammar. In this slideshow of text, they claim that, by purchasing pre-made assets, they are assisting with a production of further games and, thus, the cycle of game development. This misunderstanding of economics is forgivable, but their other claim is much bolder. In a strange confusion of fair use law, they ask; “How is it okay to commit 60 frames of copyright infringement a second for 40 minutes and then get paid for it?”,
referring to the use of game footage. They then accuse Jim Sterling of contributing to the practice of quote, “unfair reviews, and thus, affecting the livelihood of many people with no risk or cost to yourself.” This video was followed with something all YouTube content creators dread: A takedown notice on the original Squirty Plays video by the Romine brothers. Takedown requests on YouTube are almost unanimously respected by the administration, and anybody can issue a takedown request on any video for any reason. When a takedown goes into effect, the video is removed from viewing by the general audience for four weeks, with the onus on the requester to prove that some element of the video is, indeed, illegal. Often, certain companies with a vested
interest in keeping a certain video offline will issue a takedown request that they can’t follow up, to reduce viewership of it, and to punish the content creator, by cutting into their revenue. Digital Homicide, however, backed up its takedown request to the media, albeit with more poor grammar, stating that quote, “There are countless negative review videos posted, including multiple Sterling videos, and only one in particular with a DMCA filed on it. The reason is we have a legitimate claim. We can prove a violation of our copyright, (fair use is not blanket immunity), and damages.” They went on to say that, “We believe the unbiased perspective of a court will agree there has been a violation of our copyright, and for this reason we will be pursuing an attorney and proceeding with our complaint.” Despite these confident claims, it seems that
no further action was taken, and the video returned to Sterling’s channel four weeks later. This scenario may sound familiar to some gamers. This is because something extremely similar happened almost exactly a year ago to another content creator, who goes by TotalBiscuit, when he created a review for the now infamous indie game, Day One: Garry’s Incident. Jim Sterling, however, was in a slightly different position. Rather than receiving advertising revenue on any of his videos, he receives all of his money from a site named Patreon, where people may donate money to content creators on a monthly basis to support them. This means, beyond the need to continue supplying content to viewers, there is no direct financial need to keep his videos online and, in fact, it’s likely that the controversy was generating further income for him. So, rather than fighting the takedown of his video, he began making further videos not only on the general topic of media silencing from indie developers, but, about the specific business practices of the Romine brothers themselves, all while the original Squirty Plays video sat with a takedown message plastered on it. He quickly outed them as not Imminent Uprising, but instead the Digital Homicide Development Studio, accused them of asset flipping rather than true game development, then used that as a springboard to talk about the practice in general. In a surprising move, Robert Romine decided that the actions taken by Digital Homicide Studios was not enough, and he challenged Jim Sterling to what he called a “free-form debate, to set the record straight once and for all”. In early July of 2015, this meeting indeed did occur over Skype, and was recorded. The perplexing discussion lasted almost an hour and 40 minutes with no mediator. It was in this recording that the audience to this eight-month argument got to hear the voice of Robert Romine for the first time. Here, he claims to be a 35-year-old man with three children, and that Digital Homicide has proven to be a successful business venture. [ Jim Sterling ]: “I was expecting to not hear the voice of an adult, so this makes me feel a little bit better about things, uh, and-”
[ Robert Romine ]: “Oh yeah, I have, uh, I have three kids, I’m 35, I’m definitely an adult.” The discussion in its entirety is a surreal experience. It begins somewhat cordially, where both parties acknowledge that they are participating in a one-sided conversation, and are reluctantly thankful that they can now speak to one another. At about two and a half minutes however, things start to take a strange turn, and Robert Romine’s true intentions begin to manifest. He begins talking over Jim Sterling, disallowing him from responding to the accusations leveled at him. Romine’s voice also begins to crack in what sounds like restrained anger. [ Romine, interrupting Sterling ]: “Let’s talk, let’s talk, specifically, about your nonsense.” [ Romine ]: “Just go ahead and start all the way back at the beginning, and go ahead and ramble up all your, all your accusations and stuff.” He tells Sterling to point out problems with Digital Homicide, and Romine will pick them apart one by one, but continues to cut him off. Romine quickly turns the conversation in an attempt to attack Sterling’s professional credentials, and deflects Sterling’s arguments into further attacks throughout the conversation. [ Sterling ]: “..which is why, I then fired back”
[ Romine ]: “It’s your job-” [ Sterling ]: “and did the same, I responded in kind”
[ Romine ]: “It is your job!” [ Romine, alone ]: “You telling me that when you were playing that game, you couldn’t see the ammo counter two inches below the crosshair?” [ Sterling ]: “The broken ammo counter.”
[ Romine ]: “I mean, come on-” (stuttering) [ Romine, alone ]: “If you’re gonna- we’re going right back to what we were saying about you saying I’m an incompetent developer, as a- As a game reviewer, you should be a very quality game player.” Romine seems to become more emboldened and as the conversation continues, passively aggressively and sometimes ad hominem attacking Sterling more and more. [ Sterling ]: “..the sheer geographical chaos that was your menu screen-” [ Romine, interrupting ]: “That’s what just goes to show why you’re a bad person, man.” [ Sterling ]: “Bad person? I’m not a bad-”
[ Romine ]: “You- Yes, you’re terrible!
You are terrible!” What becomes abundantly clear midway through the conversation is Robert Romine’s stance on reviewers. He seems to believe that reviewers have a personal responsibility to the developers, and that negative issues should be taken to forums, rather than reviews. [ Romine ]: “You have no financial investment in what you do, yet you affect tons of developers’ lives, financially affect them. That is why one day you’re gonna have enough subscribers, you’re gonna make enough money on your Patreon thing, and somebody’s gonna get tired of your shit and they’re gonna sue. It’s- I’m not saying we are, I’m saying somebody’s gonna have the money to do it, and they’re gonna win.” [ Sterling scoffing, chuckling quietly ] [ Romine laughing mockingly ] [ Sterling ]: “Oh is that what we’ve devolved into, is it?” [ Romine ]: “Exactly-” This last point is a sore subject for many gamers around Jim Sterling’s age due to the game market crash of 1983. SIDENOTE: The game market crash of 1983 brought the industry from 3.2 billion dollars to only 100 million in two years, which is only 3.1% of where it once was. It is largely blamed on the over-saturation of the market with games, and a lack of reliable reviews for gamers to determine the quality of products. Only the market success of the Nintendo Entertainment System was able to bring the industry back. It’s also clear from the interview that Sterling’s coverage did not positively impact sales, and Romine makes a point to mention it. Throughout the video, Romine also claims that Sterling was leveling his community directly at Digital Homicide Studios as a harassment weapon. Jim Sterling maintained a composed attitude through the review, and even allowed himself a laugh at some of Romine’s statements. After this outburst Digital Homicide went silent, and for eight months they continued to release asset-flipped games on Steam Greenlight through dummy publishers, occasionally getting a spotlight on YouTube channels as examples of terrible games. As of today, Digital Homicide has claimed credit for each of them. But after these eight months, something happened that is difficult to believe, and has made the Romine brothers synonymous with delusion to odd onlookers. On March 16th, 2016, Digital Homicide Studios formally sued Jim Sterling through the Arizona District court for over ten million dollars, accusing him of assault, libel, and slander. Without a hint of irony, they claimed in a now-deleted post that, quote, “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.” Among the libel accusations, they defend their use of dummy publishers on Steam Greenlight by likening them to pseudonyms, referencing
Jim Sterling as a specific example. They also, oddly, cite Sterling’s usage of the phrase “the Romine brothers” as an attack. They make the bewildering claim that Sterling is attempting to liken them to mafiosos in an attempt to diminish their brand. On top of the 10 million dollars, they’re also demanding that apology segments be inserted into each of Jim’s videos, and on the front
of his YouTube page, for the next five years. Both sides began preparing for legal conflict. Sterling became much quieter about Digital Homicide Studios, while the Romine brothers attempted to drum up support for their cause by speaking with publications, a somewhat questionable legal tactic. Soon after, Sterling moved for the case to be dismissed, and the Court granted it. Though today, it seems that the Romine brothers have an opportunity to still take this case to court, it’s uncertain that they have the funds to do so. They’ve set up a GoFundMe page, a place where people can donate to a particular cause or person, but have only managed to raise $425 of what is (presumably) other people’s money for legal costs. As it stands, it seems that the dust is beginning to settle. As for the future of Digital Homicide Studios,
it’s difficult to say. Now that they have so many assets bought, it would be easy to continue churning out cheap games, but with their name tarnished by this out-of-control Streisand effect, it may not even be worth the effort. For now they seem to be in limbo, and there are many people who hope that, that is where they will stay.