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Designer accuses Ember Labs of underpayment, unfulfilled promises

Update: Ember Labs spokesperson says studio has paid all invoices, "never promised a certain salary"

Original story October 2, 2020: A former designer working on Kena: Bridge of Spirits has accused Ember Labs of not fully compensating him for his labor on the game, as well as failing to honor promises made to him while he was contracted to work on the game.

In a report by Video Games Chronicle, designer Brandon Popovich claims that in late 2016 and into 2017, he was contracted by Ember Labs initially to transfer some of the code from an early Unity prototype of Kena to Unreal, a process that involved him rebuilding some elements of the game from scratch.

Popovich says that while pay for his work was low and he was forced to take on work for other studios to make ends meet during this time, he stuck with Ember Labs due to promises of eventual bonuses, shares commitments, a lead designer credit, and an eventual full-time position working on the game.

During his time with Ember Labs, Popovich was not a full-time employee, and was doing work for other studios, including work in October of 2016 for Act 3 Games on a title called The Fidelio Incident, on which Ember Labs is credited for "animation support."

Ember Labs claims that its role on Fidelio Incident was a contribution made in exchange for unpaid overtime from Popovich on Kena, a claim which Popovich denies.

In 2017, Popovich says, Kena was pitched to a number of publishers at GDC to positive reception, but a publishing deal was not immediately signed. With money tight for both parties, Popovich says he continued to do extra work on Kena for free in hopes of getting a senior position once a publishing deal was signed and funding was available to hire him.

"And then [Ember CCO] Mike Grier called me to let me know that I would no longer be receiving a signing bonus, and instead I would receive a smaller bonus if I stayed for the entire project," he says. "I would also receive a salary which was $50,000 less than we had agreed previously, and I would not receive shares in the company."

Popovich says he declined the offer.

VGC reports that it has seen email exchanges supporting Popovich's claims of unpaid work and being promised a better-paying role than he was ultimately offered. A second, anonymous source has claimed a similar situation occurred where they worked unpaid overtime on Kena and received promises of a full-time position that were ultimately withdrawn.

Ember Labs issued a statement to VGC in response to the claims, saying that Popovich's claims included "a number of false accusations."

"Brandon was fully compensated for all of his work which focused on migrating the features of the Unity prototype to an Unreal prototype using UE4 Blueprints," it reads.

"None of the work developed for the Unreal prototype is currently being utilized in production. When it came time to build a team for full development, we offered Brandon a position which he declined."

Update October 5, 2020: A spokesperson for Ember Labs has reached out with a further response to the accusations against the studio, saying that Ember Labs has records of all invoices being paid and does not owe Popovich further payment for his work on the game, nor did it break any promises to him.

The spokesperson added that Ember Labs "never promised a certain salary" to Popovich and that the salary offered to him with the full-time position was "above market rate."

They also denied Ember Labs promised Popovich equity, noting that at the time Popovich was offered the full-time position at the studio, no one was receiving equity.

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Rebekah Valentine avatar
Rebekah Valentine: Rebekah arrived at GamesIndustry in 2018 after four years of freelance writing and editing across multiple gaming and tech sites. When she's not recreating video game foods in a real life kitchen, she's happily imagining herself as an Animal Crossing character.
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