A quick rundown of interesting things I see in this suit...
- The assertion is not that Carmack's entire ability and experience belong to ZeniMax, or even that his game-related work all belongs to ZeniMax; the assertion is that ZeniMax is a VR hardware company.
"4. For many years, ZeniMax invested tens of millions of dollars in research and development, including research into virtual reality and immersive technologies. In 2011 and 2012, John Carmack, a singularly experienced and highly proficient ZeniMax programmer who was at that time Technical Director for ZeniMax’s Texas-based subsidiary, id Software, conducted research to address technological issues associated with virtual reality."
- They specifically cite Carmack's work on latency as a key area of interest and innovation:
"30. Carmack made breakthrough modifications to the Rift prototype based upon years of prior research at ZeniMax. Among other improvements, Carmack identified, applied, and developed proprietary solutions to address field of view, center of projection, and chromatic aberration issues; added specially-designed sensors and other hardware; and programmed software to reduce latency and to prevent distortions. Carmack noted some of that work in public remarks at the E3 Convention in 2012..."
- This work was explicitly included in a whitepaper Carmack later released. He thanks ZeniMax in the paper for allowing him to publish it openly--what are the terms attached to that "permission"?
- Carmack also notes in the E3 interviews that he incorporated elements of his Armadillo Aerospace motion-detection code in the VR testbed. He also points out how essential it was to have access to proprietary firmware from the manufacturers of the accelerometers he used (Hillcrest labs, also acknowledged in the latency Whitepaper mentioned above.)
- They assert ownership of every aspect of Carmack's work on the HMD testbed, including head-tracking technology:
"46. Around the same time, ZeniMax also sent cables and customized sensors to Luckey and disclosed – pursuant to the Non-Disclosure Agreement – additional hardware design improvements regarding optics calibration and sensor mounting..."
The mind-boggling part of the lawsuit is this: what interpretation of the NDA does ZeniMax intend? In what world do you disclose secret information to a competitor and then sue them later for implementing non-patentable ideas that can be deemed to fall under that NDA? Why would Palmer Luckey have signed the NDA if he had any idea ZeniMax was interested in developing their own commercial product?
Palmer Luckey didn't need Doom or RAGE source code to make the Rift work--the games are not his job, there are plenty of developers out there working on that. Yes, he benefited from John Carmack's assistance, but that's not something proprietary to ZeniMax. Palmer Luckey knew he was doing something novel, and that it was an idea with legs given the right kind of publicity. What the Rift needed was software to show it off, and what Doom3 needed was something to make it interesting again. It worked. That's why id showed it at E3 and Quakecon.
In a hypothetical alternate reality where ZeniMax agreed with John Carmack that VR headsets needed their support, everyone with a Rift DK would also have Doom 3: BFG Edition. This year, we'd likely have seen a new version of RAGE with HMD support. In 2015 we'd likely have seen a version of Doom 4 that (while still the victim of interminable feature creep and development hell) could have been a truly innovative example of HMD support, likely becoming the "killer app" for a newly-released commercial version of the Oculus Rift. Assuming Valve or some other closely-associated developer could follow Doom 4 with a competing release, id's potential sales could double or even triple (Valve isn't a competitor to id in the way that Sony is a competitor for Microsoft; HMDs are a platform and the more titles that work with the platform you're on, the better your chances at a sale.)
Instead, ZeniMax chose to start a war with Palmer Luckey because he wouldn't respond to their investment offers. ZeniMax chose to start a war with John Carmack because they wanted him to fix Doom 4 as a 2014 2d-only release instead of a 2015 HMD release. ZeniMax might still win this lawsuit, but it seems hard to believe id Software will survive the next few years.