At The Game Awards 2020, Darwin Project developer Scavengers Studio revealed a beautiful, compelling, and very different new title: Season. A young woman leaves her secluded community to explore the world for the first time, documenting her experiences on a cross-country bike ride, and slowly uncovering the mystery of a recurring cataclysm that has halted the world's ability to progress.
Following the announcement, Season was lauded on social media following for its beauty, its premise, and its promise of a diverse and interesting cast of characters. But according to a number of current and former employees of Scavengers Studio, the game's cozy pitch is dramatically at odds with the work environment of the studio behind it.
GamesIndustry.biz has spoken to nine current and former employees of the Montreal-based Scavengers Studio who worked with the company at some point over the past four years, all of whom spoke with us under the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. They described a company largely composed of talented people working on projects they deeply cared about across both Darwin Project and Season. However, they also said that the excitement and creativity surrounding both games was tainted by a toxic work environment fostered by the studio's co-founders: creative director Simon Darveau (formerly founder of Spearhead Games and a designer at Ubisoft) and his romantic partner at the time of the studio's founding, CEO Amélie Lamarche.
"Full Predator Mode"
Almost every source we spoke to described Scavengers as an environment hostile to women -- a "boys' club" culture that was largely permitted by its co-owners or, in Darveau's case, actively led by. Several said women were frequently degraded by male employees including Darveau, or infantilized and treated as if they did not know what they were talking about even when speaking from a position of expertise about their own work. This was said to have happened in casual conversations, public team meetings, and on the studio's work Slack.
Several also said that beyond being degraded, many women at the studio were victims of sexist remarks and behaviors, both from Darveau and from a handful of other male employees. Multiple women described having numerous inappropriate comments made about their appearance and outfits, with one saying a male employee repeatedly made remarks asking if she was attracted to him or if she would marry him.
One former employee described an incident that occurred during a team meeting on Season, where one group was presenting its idea to have the main character, Abby, be able to play the guitar. Someone remarked in front of the group that this feature "wasn't realistic" because the guitar was too complicated for a woman, and that she should play a ukulele instead. This remark went unchallenged.
Those we spoke to agreed that this environment was allowed to fester in large part due to the fact that much of the sexist conduct was either instigated by Darveau or a handful of employees he favored. And for those on the receiving end, HR was not an option.
Someone remarked in front of the group that the main character of Season playing the guitar "wasn't realistic" because it was too complicated for a woman
As Scavengers was a smaller studio -- around 30 to 40 people over the last couple of years -- there was no dedicated HR. This meant that Lamarche was the go-to person for conflict resolution, even if (as it was in many cases) that conflict was with Darveau, with whom all our sources said she was in a romantic relationship up until the last few years. All those we spoke to also pointed out that they felt this at minimum impacted her ability to be impartial when issues arose, and several said it dissuaded them from reporting problems.
One major incident that many we spoke to were aware of occurred in mid-2018, and involved an employee who one day simply stopped showing up to work. Sometime later, an office meeting was called in which it was announced that she wouldn't be returning. Employees who spoke to Lamarche later told the story around the office: Darveau allegedly had an affair with the employee, and Lamarche had found out. No one was able to confirm whether or not the employee had left of her own volition following this incident.
One source said that Darveau later explained his behavior to others by comparing himself to a dog in heat -- unable to control himself.
The studio's problems with treatment of women came to a head during a company party in January of 2019. Up to that point, sources said, Scavengers parties typically included alcohol, and Darveau especially would often become drunk and loud. At this one, he was especially drunk, and multiple sources claim they saw him inappropriately touch and grab multiple female employees. One employee who was there described Darveau as "in full predator mode."
One of the women Darveau is said to have harassed quit the following Monday; at least one other left the studio not long after.
This incident was enough that studio leadership did take action. An external investigator was brought in, but those who were there at the time said that the results of the investigation were never fully made clear to employees. There was one new policy: Scavengers would be greatly cutting back on alcohol available at work events, and Darveau would not be drinking at work functions at all. One employee recalls the incident very much being pinned on the role of alcohol, with Darveau excusing his behavior on his drunkenness.
"They said, 'You can talk to us,' but in the end everybody knows you can't really say anything against the founders, otherwise you're fucked"
"It felt very frustrating to put that on the back of people being drunk, because Darveau was still pretty shitty before he drank," said one employee who was at the meeting. "It felt like an excuse."
That same employee said an eventual meeting held to discuss harassment policies was mostly "just Lamarche reading government bullet points." We were told by others that the meeting didn't directly address what Darveau had done at the party. They said there was an attempt to clarify the harassment policy and to put in a reporting process for incidents that didn't involve either co-founder, but no specifics of why this was happening were mentioned. They recall many employees upset about the new alcohol policy because they weren't fully clear on why it was being implemented in the first place.
Two of the employees who were there at the time said they recall Darveau cracking jokes through the entire meeting. They described him as "being like a teenager in the audience" and "laughing and riffing on whatever the sexual harassment policies were."
Some of those we spoke to drew a direct connection between this incident and Lamarche's appointment as CEO of Scavengers later that year, taking on the role previously held by Darveau and occupying more of a front-facing position for the studio. However, if this was a direct consequence of his behavior at the party, it was never made clear to the employees, and Darveau still remained in a position of power as creative director and co-owner.
"They said, 'You can talk to us,' but in the end everybody knows you can't really say anything against the founders, otherwise you're fucked," said one person who was at the meeting.
Following this event, those who were at the studio then said that some of the sexism they had been dealing with up to that point did improve for a time. Darveau, they said, seemed to be at least somewhat ashamed of what happened. However, it didn't fully quell the "boys' club" culture that multiple sources described -- sexist remarks and dismissal of the studio's women still continued and went unchallenged.
And for several of those who were at Scavengers at the time, the consequences leadership had doled out for the creative director's alleged groping of multiple employees weren't nearly enough.
"What still frustrates me to this day -- because I know these people are still there -- the more time passes and the more there is an employee rotation, the more it fizzles out," said one source. "And to me it is a deeply unjust thing to have that kind of thing be swept under the rug."
"Disposables" and "Commandos"
Beyond the issues directed at Scavengers' women employees, many of those we spoke to said they felt Darveau saw most employees as "disposable."
Several said that he would frequently degrade the work of others, telling them they didn't know anything about games or their respective expertise, and would make comments in front of others about how specific employees' work was terrible and that he would need to fire them.
This attitude, they said, seemed to bear out in how work was rewarded at Scavengers. Many said that promotions or raises were often dangled in front of employees as a carrot to get them to work harder, but without regular performance reviews, there wasn't a set deadline for when these would be delivered upon. If employees approached leadership about receiving what had been promised, they would be told their work wasn't good enough, or that they would need to meet previously unmentioned standards to receive what they were asking for.
Darveau's degrading behavior was directed at a number of employees at the studio, but one group specifically was seemingly immune: the "commandos," as Darveau called them. This small group of employees, mostly programmers, were Darveau's favorites and the only people he didn't seem to view as disposable. Most had been at Scavengers for a long time, and seemingly could do no wrong, with one source describing them as toxic people who are "always enabled and protected by Simon." Another said they were frequently rude or disparaging, especially picking on members of QA or community management. Still another source said one of the group was the source of many sexist comments around the studio.
"Most of those we spoke to said they had witnessed Darveau yell, scream at, and degrade employees who disagreed with him"
Several of those we spoke with had initially been drawn to the studio by both the compelling nature of both Darwin Project and Season, but also by Darveau himself, who they described as "charismatic," "energetic," and excellent at delivering a compelling pitch. While that energy may have served Darveau well in selling his games, within Scavengers, it often took on a different light. Most of those we spoke to said they had witnessed Darveau yell, scream at, and degrade employees who disagreed with him -- though two mentioned that his outbursts had become fewer and less extreme over the years.
Many sources cited a specific incident in 2018 where he pulled an employee into a meeting room with himself and Lamarche and yelled such that employees outside the room could hear something going on, until he finally left the room and slammed the door. The employee being yelled at quit immediately following this incident, but four sources said that Darveau had pulled other employees into meeting rooms to scream at them similarly on multiple other occasions.
Multiple employees also remember Darveau yelling at an Xbox representative over the phone when told Scavengers wouldn't be able to fit a full 10-player set-up of The Darwin Project at an event because there wasn't enough booth space for that many PCs.
Yelling and degrading the work of others was not limited to Darveau, with some more recent sources saying the amount of yelling in work meetings was amplified by the COVID-19 work-from-home situation.
"The calls were chaotic and stressful, they just allowed people yelling at each other and insulting each other"
"Screaming matches are common," said one person. "They occur in meetings, and yelling at people to the point you can hear it from outside the meeting room pre-COVID. Post-COVID is even more terrible because everyone is on the call, so now it's exposed to not just people who walk by the meeting room, it's everyone who's connected. And they [Darveau] are sometimes the ones interrupting or cutting people off to say whatever he wanted to say or dismiss someone's idea. Watching co-workers yelling at each other instead of stopping it is unacceptable. The calls were chaotic and stressful, they just allowed people yelling at each other and insulting each other."
Aside from anger issues, multiple employees described Darveau's behavior as "erratic" or "childish." In one oft-cited example, sources said he would hold grudges against those who disagreed with him and would even refuse to speak to people he felt had wronged him for days or weeks, communicating necessary information through others instead. Several suggested he seemed to live at the office, often sleeping there and leaving messes -- including dirty laundry, food, trash, and other personal items -- around public areas.
One incident that several said Darveau had told them about directly occurred early in Scavengers' history, when the studio was working out of a coworking facility in Montreal called GamePlay Space. According to Darveau's anecdote, he was expelled from the space after he stole alcohol from a number of other studios using the space, with accounts varying from Darveau taking sips out of bottles on or in other people's desks, or stealing entire bottles of champagne from another studio's fridge. Multiple sources noted that Darveau seemed to tell this story with delight, "like he was a teenager being mischievous" as one put it.
When reached for comment, GamePlay Space leadership confirmed that Scavengers was a member of the space in its early days, and that there was an incident with Scavengers that required disciplinary action per the code of conduct and membership rules of the space. The group declined to comment further.
Update: Following the publication of this piece, a source familiar with the matter reached out to confirm the incident at GamePlay Space did occur, and add that Darveau was not expelled from the space at the time and instead had his access limited to certain hours.
Many of the worst complaints about Darveau stem from his time as creative director on Darwin Project, which Scavengers launched in 1.0 at the beginning of 2020 and announced it was shutting down just four months later. Officially, its servers were meant to be shut down at the end of 2020, though at the time of this piece's publication some servers remain online, with the studio saying it will no longer fix bugs, monitor voice chat or the official Discord, issue bans, or otherwise support the game. Sources told us that a small number of layoffs occurred following the wind-down of Darwin Project, though the specific number impacted was unclear.
With Darwin Project in the rearview in 2020, the studio's focus began to turn fully to its next project, Season. Officially, Season's development is being headed up by creative director Kevin Sullivan, with the initial intention being for Darveau to begin work on a third, unannounced project within the studio following Darwin.
Multiple employees said that during this transition period, there was a stressful environment at the studio from a number of leads concerned that Darveau would start working on Season -- a concern that even those outside of the Season team became aware of. Some were simply worried about the difference in philosophies: Darveau liked "more gameplay-oriented, fast-paced things" while Season was a narrative-driven title, and they didn't feel he would be a good fit. Others were concerned he would take over key aspects of the project and hand them off to his favorites, or override decisions that had already been settled on with his own ideas. Still others said that working with him on Darwin Project had been a stressful experience, and they didn't want to repeat it.
"Every game it's the same pattern. He builds a vision, sells it...to publishers, but there's no concrete plan, and there's never really a game in the end"
Despite these complaints, Darveau ended up working on Season anyway -- a decision two sources said was made by Lamarche. Those we spoke to who are still at the studio said they remain unclear what his exact role on the project is, as Sullivan is still serving as creative director. One suggested Darveau seemed to only come to work on Season when he was bored or frustrated with other tasks.
The same sources also suggest that the concerns about Darveau's influence appear to have been validated. Darveau, they say, is a disorganized leader who often refuses to listen to others, frequently ignoring advice of the domain experts he employs. Two said that his inability to follow through on ideas was directly related to the Darwin Project's lack of success, and they see the same trend emerging on Season.
"Every game it's the same pattern," one said. "He builds a vision of a game, sells it to the team so the team is excited, then he sells it to publishers, but there's no design, there's no concrete plan, and there's never really a game in the end. People working on the game are trying to do their best, but the whole company is built around -- we build prototypes, we get money from publishers, and repeat. There's not a real goal of releasing a quality game, there's no process to do so."
With Darveau on board, Season has undergone a considerable shift in focus and scope. Several current employees mentioned that Darveau had used the partnership with Sony to force his own ideas onto the game, saying he had promised a number of features to seal the deal -- such as a larger world, quests, and objective markers -- that either weren't planned or had already been scrapped by the team. Now, they said, the studio is on the hook for them.
"I don't even know what's been announced because it's so different from what we had planned. I don't even recognize the game"
"Now I don't even know what's been announced because it's so different from what we had planned," one person said. "I don't even recognize the game."
Others who were less familiar with the game's current direction said that while they were happy to see the project announced and proud of their friends at the studio for their good work, they felt that Season's pitch was dissonant with their own experiences at the studio.
"I don't want the extremely beautiful and great work the team is doing on Season to whitewash the problematic individual," said one person. "While it brought me extreme joy to see the work of my friends, it did sting a little bit to see a bunch of people praising the studio, saying how calming and chill and progressive everything looked. It might well be true for the Season project, but it has not been my experience with management."
Another said, "A lot of times you can see the quality of a product reflects the chemistry behind the team. [Darwin Project] was a good concept but the execution didn't follow. It's a pity...I saw that they pitched Season and got lots of positive feedback from people in the industry, players, and I agree! It's good, it's a feel-good type of game. But it's so ironic, it didn't feel that good to work there."
Ultimately, the most heinous problems that sources described from their time at Scavengers are at least two years old. And when we asked the studio to comment on the allegations brought against them, Scavengers admitted that at least at one point, it had some clean-up to do.
"Scavengers Studio appreciates that there have been situations during its rapid growth and takes the position that any type of harassment is unwelcomed and unacceptable and takes any complaints in this respect very seriously," the company said in a statement. "You should note that Scavengers Studio has taken positive steps to look into its culture to see what aspects need to be adjusted.
"In early 2019, Simon Darveau was replaced as CEO by Lamarche who took full control of the company. As a new female CEO, Lamarche started to build a mid-management team composed of competent team members to continue to lead the company in its mission of creating new gaming experiences with very strong and innovative empathetic twists. The new management team has since then recreated a sense of calm and happiness in the workplace where talents are gathered around interesting and dynamic projects and where differences are embraced."
The company outlined a series of actions it said Lamarche had put in place to "prevent harassment situations and maintain a safe environment," many of which correspond to measures our sources told us has been put in place but had either been unclear or ineffective. The actions were described by the company as follows:
- Set up of the policy for prevention of harassment;
- Harassment prevention training and compliance training provided by a third-party HR Professionals;
- A process for handling complaints and reports with two designated trained employees;
- A director of operations has been hired to drive HR process management ensuring HR operational rigor and standardization;
- A third-party HR consultant that supports the studio and its employees through various training and our current initiatives;
- A Wellness Committee was put in place which goal is to reflect on various initiatives and ideas to maintain a safe and pleasant working environment;
- A yearly anonymous survey to probe the needs to keep a healthy and safe environment and also give an opportunity to raise issues that have not been raised through our normal channels in order for them to be addressed in a structured and rigorous way
Additionally in its response, Scavengers asserted that "Certain elements in your assessments are false, somewhat blown out of proportion or lacking important pieces." When GamesIndustry.biz followed up to ask for specificity as to which elements those were, Scavengers declined to comment further on the allegations "for privacy concerns."
GamesIndustry.biz has seen copies of the studio's anti-harassment policy, one from 2019 and one that was distributed to employees this past Friday evening. Both policies appear to be near-identical to a Quebec government provided model available for general use. The version distributed last week contained an update to the "two designated trained employees" who handle complaints and reports, with sources confirming that the two original designees from 2019 were no longer with the company. One had left in the summer of last year, the other was let go in November.
"There were a lot of circumstances at work where [Lamarche] should've done something, like when Simon would make inappropriate jokes or yell at people, but she didn't
No one that we spoke to who was at the company following the implementation of the policy changes in 2019 felt that the measures fully resolved the studio's issues. For one, the studio is still co-owned by Lamarche and Darveau. While they no longer appear to be in a relationship, even the more recent employees we spoke to were still aware they had been in one, and everyone we spoke to said they acknowledged this presented a conflict of interest.
This is especially true given that Lamarche has served in a de facto HR role for the studio since its inception. A few of those we spoke to said that there had been a few administrative HR hires over the years, and multiple confirmed that they had been directed to speak with the aforementioned two designated trained employees if they had issues. But our sources still did not feel this was sufficient, as these employees were only designated to process and follow-up on complaints, and make recommendations. Ultimately, any concrete action still went through Lamarche, they said, who consistently makes efforts to protect Darveau.
"Darveau...has lots of charisma and he gets away with a lot," one said. "But [Lamarche]...is actually worse. Because she covered a lot of what he did or what he does."
"If half of what [I know of Season] is true then the game is going to be great...but I do not feel comfortable with Scavengers being praised as a fun, cool, indie, inclusive place
Another person said they specifically felt Lamarche was part of the problem given her outspokenness about being a woman CEO and frequent voicing of desires to hire and empower more women.
"She gives this vibe of, 'I support women in games,' ...but it's really not the case," they said. "There were a lot of circumstances at work where she should've said something and should've done something, like when Simon would make inappropriate jokes or yell at people, but she didn't."
And while two of the people we spoke to weren't affected by the alleged toxic behavior, they were still aware of many of the incidents reported in this piece and saw the lack of an HR reporting process that didn't involve either of the two founders as a serious issue.
Almost everyone we spoke to emphasized that the problems at Scavengers were squarely on the shoulders of Darveau, Lamarche, and the handful of favorites they enabled. Many had praise for the teams they worked with, the friendships they made, and their collective accomplishments on both Darwin Project and Season.
But ultimately, they said, the alleged toxic work environment that leadership created made it challenging to create something successful. One former employee described it as their "worst experience ever in the gaming industry."
Another said, "If half of what [I know of Season] is true then the game is going to be great, and I do not want to remove that from all my friends who are working on it. But I also do not feel comfortable with Scavengers being praised as a fun, cool, indie, inclusive place."