(If you don't know who Mojang and Bethesda are and don't know about the lawsuit, skip to the bottom to read a quick background on this.)
I write today to praise the noble Markus "Notch" Persson. Notch was already a hero and inspiration to me and to thousands of indie developers for making Minecraft, but he has elevated himself infinitely further in my eyes by making what could be a costly but ethical stand against Bethesda for levying a wrongful lawsuit against his company.
Ethics are rarely used as the guiding moral compass people use to make big decisions. They get cited all the time when it's debatable one way or the other which path is more profitable, but rarely does someone make a big decision where the ethical path puts him in the charging headlights of an oncoming legal department from a corporate giant, and that is what Notch has done.
He has responded to Bethesda's demands that he change the name of his game Scrolls with a simple refusal, and on threat of lawsuit, he has counter-suggested that they have a game of Quake 3 deathmatch to decide whether he can use the name. This was met with a lawsuit instead of a laugh, as well as the requisite headaches, costs, and time lost that this will mean for poor Notch and his company Mojang as they try to fight off this behemoth.
Notch has just published the scary legal documents he's received from Bethesda, and I can only praise him further for forcing that transparency. It should be seen exactly how Bethesda is bullying this heroic indie developer, and it is an even bolder act of courage. It's a move that's liable to make the petty egos that approved of this course and that drafted those docs feel cornered and all the more motivated to crush him. And it's those wrong-doers that I want to put the spotlight on, because it's not as cut and dry as saying "lawyers are evil."
Most people love the development side of Bethesda, the part that makes their games, and they feel this is a fight between their much less beloved legal department and Notch, but I disagree.
The development side of Bethesda is the money making machine that funds the legal department. They have the leverage, and they aren't using it. While I'm sure they've pointed out it's in poor taste, they haven't done anything beyond that. They could privately insist to management that they drop this wrongful lawsuit, but they haven't. If they did insist and management didn't listen, they could probably end it quickly by publicly protesting that management drop it, but they haven't. If that failed, they could delay the release of Skyrim from 11/11/11, their widely advertised release date, even a week or two, which would cost Bethesda far more money than the lawsuit, nevermind the imaginary cost of Mojang's Scrolls to their brand equity in Skyrim and its assured 20 sequels, but they haven't done that either.
Like every corporation does, the employees have been instructed not to discuss the case with anyone. So they're staying in line. They're cooperating. They're continuing along with Skyrim development, so that it can be released this November on schedule to keep the machine fed with ever-increasing revenues on their path to IPO.
The developers at Bethesda have ethics, too, but they have the kind most of us have, the weak-willed sort that melts at the first suggestion that stopping wrongdoing might cost them something, might upset someone, might reduce the inertia of a machine that is perceived to be unstoppable.
And that's fine. I'm sure many of them are concerned for their jobs and careers, their families, the usual concerns, and fear is a powerful motivator. But it doesn't absolve them. I hold them individually and directly responsible, particularly the leads and particularly Todd Howard, the producer. Together, they are funding this. Together, they can stop this. Together, they have decided not to. Instead, they're going to let the machine they're funding run over a hero and a fellow developer.
I stand behind Notch on this, and I'd like to propose a toast to his courage and offer a prayer that he wins the day in court.
Background: Bethesda, makers of the games Oblivion, Fallout 3, and the upcoming Skyrim is suing Mojang, makers of Minecraft and the upcoming Scrolls for using the name "Scrolls." They claim it violates their trademark Edler Scrolls, which is what they've named their RPG series of games, that most gamers know as Morrowind, Oblivion, and Skyrim, as this is how they focus their marketing, when in fact, the full names are actually Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, and Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. The unreleased Mojang game, by contrast, is simply called Scrolls.
Bethesda is a very large developer based in Bethesda, Maryland and owned by ZeniMax, which owns several developers now, including id Software (Doom, Quake, Rage), Machine Games, Arkane, and Tango Gameworks. Bethesda's Elder Scrolls games pioneered the migration from overhead-view RPG games to first-person view RPG games. They are immense worlds you can roam freely, and they're much beloved by tens of millions of players. Their new title Skyrim is the latest in this series and a hotly anticipated visual feast. They are now one of the game industry behemoths, and each game release grosses many hundreds of millions of dollars for the company.
Mojang is much younger company than Bethesda and independent. It has only the success of Minecraft, a game written largely by a single developer, Markus "Notch" Persson. It is a little like Legos brought to life in a computer. It's a triumph of savvy design and technology over gee-whiz graphics, and it is one of the games you keep on a short list of counter-examples if someone should try to suggest to you that games are no longer innovative or that they've become uncreative or treadmill exercises. It also has millions of fans but news of Minecraft spread mainly by word of mouth and the press as they began to realize it was turning into a phenomenon.