From Doom to The Elder Scrolls, from Fallout to Dishonored, Bethesda Softworks is known for publishing great games with big, dramatic arcs. In recent years, it’s also gained a reputation for high-drama legal entanglements, taking on all comers from the might of Facebook to a humble fan site.
Down the years, the company has faced off against a host of game industry titans, including Trip Hawkins, John Carmack and Markus “Notch” Persson.
This week, Bethesda muscled its way back into legal news, with a lawsuit filed against Warner Bros. Its suit claims that the recently released mobile game based on HBO’s TV series Westworld is a “blatant rip-off” of — and borrows computer code from — the company’s hit title Fallout Shelter. Both games were developed by Behaviour Interactive, which is also named in the suit.
Bethesda said in its suit that Behaviour uses “the same copyrighted computer code created for Fallout Shelter in Westworld,” alleging that a bug evident in an early version of Fallout Shelter (which was later fixed) also appears in Westworld. Bethesda alleges the companies “copied Fallout Shelter’s features and then made cosmetic modifications for Westworld’s ‘western’ theme.” Warner Bros. issued a statement calling the suit’s allegations “surprising” and “unsubstantiated.”
Let’s use this latest kerfuffle as an opportunity to take a quick look at Bethesda’s colorful history of legal shenanigans, stretching back 30 years.
Electronic Arts — 1988
Most of Bethesda’s litigious adventuring has taken place in the last few years. But back in the day, the company earned its wings by taking on the biggest outfit in gaming.
Bethesda’s first ever game was a football simulation for the Amiga and Atari ST, called Gridiron!. It was a simple top-down game with some neat physics. Electronic Arts wanted in on the whole genre, and signed Bethesda to work on its own game, based on its freshly minted John Madden license.
But Bethesda’s game was shelved, while EA went ahead with developing its own football game. Bethesda sued, claiming EA had cooked up the deal just to get its mitts on Gridiron!’s code. The case was resolved privately, out of court.
Christopher Weaver — 2003
Bethesda was founded on the back of Gridiron!, by its creator Christopher Weaver, who grew the company through the 1990s. In 1999 he founded a parent company Zenimax Media, along with Robert A. Altman, who remains chairman and CEO of the company.
Weaver was forced out in 2002, and responded with a lawsuit alleging that the company owed him severance. Zenimax responded with a counter-claim, that Weaver had improperly accessed employee emails. The case was settled out of court. Weaver is still a major shareholder, but has no plans to get back into game publishing. In an interview last year, he compared it to a prison sentence.
Interplay — 2009
In 2007, Bethesda bought full rights to all Fallout related copyrights, from Interplay, which by then was little more than a license holder, instead of the powerful development force it had been in the 1990s. Still, the deal included an agreement that Interplay could create a Fallout MMO, if the project met with certain fundraising criteria.
When the MMO was announced and apparently in production, Bethesda filed a lawsuit, claiming that Interplay had failed to reach the agreed criteria. The company clearly did not want to see some underfunded MMO fouling up the market for its glitzy role-playing game, Fallout 3. In September, 2009, it filed suit.
It took three years for the case to be sorted out. In the end, Bethesda threw $2 million at Interplay to make sure the MMO went away. The company’s newest game in the series, Fallout 76, is essentially a massively multiplayer online game.
Mojang — 2011
Next, Bethesda took on the makers of the most popular game in the world, at the time.
Riding high on its mega-hit Minecraft, Swedish company Mojang decided to launch a digital card game, which it called Scrolls. Bethesda objected, claiming this perfectly ordinary word was a breach of its copyright of The Elder Scrolls.
Mojang chief Markus “Notch” Persson offered to settle the issue via a Quake 3 challenge. But the spoilsports at Bethesda preferred to thrash it out via negotiations. In the end, the matter was settled, with Mojang keeping the name, but only under a nominal license. We don’t know if there was a time limit on the deal, but Scrolls is now free-to-play and has a new name, Caller’s Bane.
Norwegian Fallout Fan — 2012
Companies like Bethesda regularly warn off individuals and companies that it sees as infringing on its rights. Usually, these thundering legal letters rarely come to light. When Bethesda took on one of its biggest fans, a Norwegian artist, the company received a response it likely did not expect.
Erling Andersen loved Fallout, and is a bit of an art whizz. So he created some really cool Fallout-inspired posters to decorate his apartment. He then posted digital versions online, and gave them away.
Bethesda sent Andersen a legal letter demanding he cease immediately. Andersen complied, but not before sending the company a detailed take-down of its dodgy legal position. (He was a student of law.) He mocked Bethesda’s heavy-handed tactics, saying he’d have been happy to comply to a friendly email.
Oculus / Facebook — 2014
Bethesda’s parent company was the named plaintiff in one of the biggest tech-legal battles in years. The company sued Oculus, alleging that the VR startup misappropriated trade secrets in the development of the Oculus Rift headset. The lawsuit came just a few weeks after Facebook paid $2 billion to acquire Oculus.
ZeniMax publicly accused John Carmack of providing technology to Oculus. Carmack, best known as the co-creator of Doom, had been contracted to Bethesda during some of Oculus’ development period, as well as a major Oculus backer. He went on to become chief technology officer at Oculus.
In 2017, a Dallas, Texas jury awarded half a billion dollars to ZeniMax after finding that Oculus co-founder Palmer Luckey, and by extension Oculus, failed to comply with a non-disclosure agreement he signed. The jury also said that Oculus did not misappropriate trade secrets.
Carmack sued ZeniMax soon after, claiming that the company had failed to pay him money owed from the purchase of his development house, id Software.
CaptainSparklez — 2015
When YouTube gaming personality CaptainSparklez announced a mobile game, he asked his fans to come up with a name. They decided that the 2D strategy game should be called “Fortress Fallout.” Bethesda’s legal department disagreed.
Almost as soon as CaptainSparklez (real name: Jordan Maron) announced the name, Bethesda sent him a cease-and-desist letter. Maron agreed to the demand, eventually changing the game’s name to Fortress Fury.
”Our lawyers said that Bethesda is a notoriously litigious company,” said Maron. “Obviously they have lots of money and resources at their disposal which we don’t really have at the moment. So essentially we are being strong-armed into having to change our name.”
No Matter Studios — 2017
Developer No Matter Studios changed its game’s name, which is commonly compared to Shadow of the Colossus, to Praey for the Gods. Its three-person development team issued a statement, arguing that fighting a legal case while developing a game was too much effort. Bethesda argued it was merely protecting its copyrights.
Dion DiMucci — 2017
Rounding out our walk down Bethesda’s history of legal fights, is a rare one aimed at the company itself.
DiMucci argued that he had right of refusal on the commercials, giving him the authority to bar Bethesda from using the song, if he didn’t approve of their content. In legal filings, he said the commercial’s use of violent imagery was “repugnant and morally indefensible.”
We’ve fired an email over to Bethesda to try to find out the current status of this, and other outstanding cased. And, of course, we’ll bring you news of any forthcoming Bethesda-related legal fights.