In December 2019, Rune 2 publisher Ragnarok Game filed a lawsuit against Human Head Studios, alleging that it actively attempted to sabotage the game by very publicly abandoning it on launch day. In October 2020, it amended the suit to include Bethesda Softworks and ZeniMax, which effectively acquired and rebranded Human Head as Roundhouse Studios on the very same day that it announced its closure. Ragnarok is seeking at least $100 million in compensatory damages.
It's a very strange case to say the least—you can get a more in-depth look at what's going on in our July interview with Rune 2 executive producer Matt Candler and Ragnarok general counsel Sam Goldberg—and it left us with a lot of questions, one of the most obvious being where Ragnarok came up with the $100 million figure. It seems like a lot of money over complications with the launch of a Viking brawler, but part of the foundation for that figure likely arises from comparisons between Rune 2 and Bethesda's storied, multi-million-selling RPG Skyrim.
With respect to everyone involved, it seems like a real stretch: Skyrim is part of The Elder Scrolls series, one of the biggest and most successful RPG game series of all time, and it's also now nine years old and well past the point where it needs to hustle for top spot. Still, it's a point that Ragnarok Game leaned into in its updated lawsuit, saying that after ZeniMax and Bethesda were able to play a pre-release build of Rune 2, they decided that it posed a "threat" to Skyrim, and The Elder Scrolls as a whole.
"One early review of Rune 2 described it as 'Skyrim on steroids'," the suit says. "The hit videogame Skyrim is part of Bethesda's Elder Scrolls franchise and was developed and published by Bethesda and its affiliates. This review signalled to Bethesda and ZeniMax that one of their biggest cash cows was under threat."
To get some context, we asked Voyer Law Corporation founder Kellen Voyer, who is not involved with the case, what he thought of Ragnarok's $100M ask.
"When the defendants have deep pockets, it makes complete sense to seek a large amount as damages," Voyer wrote in an email. "The fact that they are seeking damages of $100 million is just an ask—real payout depends on the jury finding in their favour and agreeing with the damage amount sought. Plus, any damage award that large would likely be challenged on appeal. Many cases ultimately don’t go to trial so seeking a large amount for damages provides a good starting point for a settlement, which would most likely be a smaller amount.
"The claim that Rune 2 was a 'threat to Skyrim franchise' adds to the claim's narrative by providing an underlying motive for all the other alleged conduct. Why go through the alleged plotting and planning, prior to release, and the very real risk of a lawsuit (as seen here) just to acquire a development team unless there’s a material benefit to Bethesda, beyond just the team? Most defunct studios are not of significant value to justify structuring the purchase in a way so as to risk an expensive lawsuit, regardless of the merits of that suit. Ultimately, it's this alleged motive that the claim uses to explain this conduct."
If the $100 million figure is strategic, Ragnarok isn't letting on. Candler told us that much of the "mountain of evidence" bolstering his claim remains confidential and can't be shared outside of the court, but added that ZeniMax and Bethesda have a "long track record" of underhanded behavior when it comes to dealing with competitors, and that he looks forward to "exposing the truth."
"In our situation, Bethesda took a sudden interest in Human Head only after playing an early version of the Rune II. And after apparently very little diligence, Bethesda and Zenimax acquired Human Head in such a way that it was impossible for Human Head to deliver the game it promised to us and to the fans," Candler said in an email. "There is no doubt that Human Head pitched a game concept and plan to us (Ragnarok Game LLC) that intended to peel market share away from Skyrim by offering a comparable experience but with coop functionality."
Candler said the behavior of both Human Head and ZeniMax before and after the launch of Rune 2, as alleged in the amended lawsuit, is evidence that there's more to the matter than simply acquiring a new studio: Human Head provided ZeniMax and Bethesda with unauthorized preview access to the game before it launched, the Human Head team became Bethesda employees more than a week before Rune 2 went live, and the dissolution of Human Head was kept secret from Ragnarok Game until the press announcement rolled out.
"Since filing this lawsuit, we have learned new details that have dramatically strengthened our case," Candler said. "On one hand, it is shocking and disappointing to realize the lengths they went to sabotage Rune 2. On the other hand, it has strengthened our resolve to give our fans a fun game that they can enjoy for years to come."
Bethesda Softworks has declined to comment on the matter.
While the lawsuit works its way through the courts, development of Rune 2 has continued with a new developer, Studio 369, which was formed after the game's launch in order to ensure its continued support. Rune 2's prospects immediately after launch didn't look great—Human Head not only went out of business on launch day, it also failed to hand over the game's source code—but after a year as an Epic Games Store exclusive, it went live earlier this month on Steam as the Rune 2 Decapitation Edition.
The updated edition features an array of additions and enhancements, which Candler credited in our July interview to both Epic's support and the team of "fucking Unreal wizards" who were hired to support the game, and eventually formed the nucleus of Studio 369. Highlights include the addition of a new story with 250-plus new quests, 50-plus new NPCs with voice acting, a new skill tree, six new dungeons (with more in development), and "significantly increased optimization and framerates."
Unfortunately, there have been some headaches related to that last point, as a studio rep said they've encountered "some unforeseen optimization issues" with the Steam release. That's reflected in the "mixed" user reviews, many of which complain about the game's technical state. Even positive reviews carry caveats: One of my favourites, from Steam user mantisenator, says, "I'll admit it's jank as heck, but it's also fun as heck so I give it a recommend."
Studio 369 has continued to work on it since, however, and the rep said the dev team "wants to assure the community [of] the continued support," and that it will not be abandoned.
A detailed breakdown of completed, in-development, and upcoming fixes and changes is available via the Rune 2 development roadmap. Ragnarok also recently announced new "wolf gear set" DLC that will be free for all players, as a token of thanks for the community's continued support.
You'll need to look the part to be the Wolf of Midgard. Claim the FREE wolf gear set, coming soon! pic.twitter.com/u5l2NcVBDLNovember 20, 2020