No industry is immune to the twisting, grinding fallibility of the people who make up its structure. Humans are known as imperfect, and their conniving musings often bring about the vicissitudes of circumstances beyond the perception of their fellow beings. However, when the conspiratorial practices of a once-hailed conglomerate are exposed, what was once the unintentional ignorance of that group’s patrons morphs into intentional enmity. The scandal with the developer of Rune II is no exception.
The recent dissolution of Human Head Studios—and subsequent acquisition of its employees by Bethesda—is one of the most prominent revelations of shady business praxes within the video game industry that has fans of the long-awaited Rune II both irate and confused. These emotions are natural, for those who purchased the game that took almost two decades to manifest were laboring under the illusion that Human Head Studios would provide ongoing support—which turned out to be a fallacy that fooled not only Rune II fans, but also the title’s publisher (Ragnarok Game, LLC).
For those unfamiliar with the situation, the basic rundown is that Human Head Studios developed Rune II—a live service sequel to 2000’s Rune—and left fans and Ragnarok Game, LLC believing the company would continue providing support for the game, delivering frequent patches and maintenance for at least five years (according to Ragnarok Game, LLC) after the title’s release. However, upon Rune II’s publication, Human Head Studios announced that they were closing their doors and that the employees would now be working for Bethesda (in a new subsidiary called Roundhouse Studios), all of which occurred without the knowledge of Ragnarok Game, LLC and fans. As a result, Ragnarok Game, LLC submitted legal documents and is now suing the developer for Breach of Contract and other alleged wrongdoings.
The result(s) of that lawsuit have yet to be determined, however, it’s worth considering the ethical ramifications of such underhanded business practices that Human Head Studios (and by extension Bethesda) allegedly conducted.
The most basic—and important—place to begin is the profound sense of distrust instilled in gamers when a developer abuses their loyalty. Preying upon the excitement players generate when looking forward to a game is the quickest way to eviscerate their confidence in not only the given developer in question, but every company in the industry. All developers and publishers must suffer the wrath of an enraged and disillusioned fanbase when one of the companies’ ilk betrays their constituents.
The entire gaming industry’s landscape becomes plagued by paranoia. Before long, anger seeps into everything—forums become an acrid No Man’s Land, where the cruelty of the most aggravated, formerly-enheartened “antifan” takes their frustration out on the community. Eventually, morale suffers, the ripples felt across the other side of the lake, where the financial stability of developers and publishers quakes due to a reduction in sales resulting from stark overreactions by players—who no longer wish to shell out their hard-earned money to purchase their games or subscriptions.
That distrust becomes a wildfire, burning everything in its path—from earth to the other companies (such as Ragnarok Game, LLC) who were as much a victim of their colleagues’ folly as the consumers who must pull the knife from their backs alone. A wildfire that, if uncontained, burns the industry to the ground one company at a time. One less developer to put the games together, one less publisher to distribute it to fans, until eventually there’s no one left to sweep away the ashes and resurrect a once-thriving industry.
Equally as appalling to the purported subversive dealings of companies like Human Head Studios is the enabling of such practices by other enterprises like Bethesda. Even if one gives Bethesda the benefit of the doubt, and assumes the company didn’t know about Human Head’s lack of disclosure regarding their intent to leave Rune II floundering in the realm of online technical deficiency, there’s still a level of decorum and professionalism that should be expected from all employees.
If Bethesda was unaware of Human Head’s tight-lipped deception, when the truth came to light, the company should have thought long and hard about their agreement with the former studio’s staff. Bethesda’s faith in their new employees should now be a dubious overture at best, for there’s not much stopping them from pulling the wool over Bethesda’s eyes in similar fashion as they did Ragnarok Game, LLC.
However, if Bethesda did know about Human Head’s handling of their shuttering, then the company has a lot of questions of its own to answer. The formation of a new studio (Roundhouse Studios) under Bethesda’s umbrella and consisting of Human Head’s former staff suggests the company was aware of Human Head’s closure before it happened. However, it does not necessarily mean Bethesda knew of Ragnarok Game, LLC’s lack of knowledge regarding that termination, though, that level of disregard is improbable.
Bethesda has yet to provide a statement regarding the situation, which in and of itself is a foreboding and questionable inaction.
Regardless of Bethesda’s deliberations, enabling Human Head’s former staff to shirk their responsibility to Ragnarok Game, LLC and Rune II fans (intentional or accidental) is, at a minimum, a practice of gross negligence. At a maximum, it’s a catastrophic implementation of malicious backchanneling that implies a severe lack of morality and ethical understanding, despite the popularity of the company’s The Elder Scrolls and Fallout franchises.
Granted, it’s unknown how big of a hand Bethesda played in this situation; for all one knows, they could have been as shocked about Human Head’s actions in terms of the studio’s covert behavior as Ragnarok Game, LLC and fans. Until Bethesda releases a statement (if the team does provide a statement), the level of their involvement will remain a mystery.
“It’s not personal, it’s business.” Everyone has heard this trite cliché spouted time and time again by people in all professional endeavors. While the statement does have a certain validity, it doesn’t make up for the immorality of certain actions (or inactions) in business environments.
Even when ignoring the plight of companies like Ragnarok Game, LLC (who claims to want to continue providing ongoing support for Rune II in lieu of Human Head’s existence), there’s one moral conundrum lingering: The quandary of fans and consumers. A multitude of gamers pre-ordered Rune II before its launch.
Some players pre-ordered the most advanced version with the highest price while others were satisfied with the base game. Regardless of where one fell on that spectrum, Human Head essentially took that money and ran, implying the team didn’t mind being greedy before putting Rune II out to pasture before driving a stake through its young heart, spattering customers with its blood without giving them a second thought.
Despite the seemingly impersonal nature of such an action, Human Head essentially slapped all those fans in the face and left them with a product that is unfinished, buggy, and deteriorating without ongoing support. As stated before, Ragnarok Game, LLC wishes to provide that ongoing support, but it will be difficult for them to do so when the employees of newly formed Roundhouse Studios will not turn over the source code and other assets for Rune II.
The legality of Human Head’s actions and Bethesda’s involvement is better left to minds more versed in such matters. However, regardless of the legal aspects, the ethical nature of the situation is concerning. Fans are left in the dark, forced to either abandon a game for which they paid less than a month after its release (thus wasting their money), or continue playing with that disgruntled bit of annoyance flicking the back of their mind like an incessant gnat that refuses to abate when knowing the bugs they’re encountering won’t be squashed anytime soon.
Ragnarok Game, LLC will be left to clean up the havoc wreaked by understandably irritated gamers who take their frustration out on Rune II’s publisher, despite that Ragnarok Game being on the same receiving end of treachery as the players. It’s unclear what Rune II’s fate will be, but what is clear is that the ripples of Human Head’s unethical behavior will stretch to the other side of the lake, where they will fester and give rise to future unrest among gamers and the industry as a whole.