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Disco Elysium studio ZA/UM has confirmed an Estonian press report of mismanagement and misconduct among former senior employees to GamesIndustry.biz.
The reports follow news that three key members of ZA/UM – Disco Elysium designer Robert Kurvitz, writer Helen Hindpere, and art director Aleksander Rostov – had been dismissed from the company last year.
In an exclusive statement, ZA/UM detailed some of the reasons behind recent dismissals, but did not name any specific individuals.
The studio said the dismissed employees had limited to no engagement in their responsibilities and work, created a toxic work environment, demonstrated misconduct towards other employees including verbal abuse and gender discrimination, and attempted to illegally sell ZA/UM's intellectual property. More details are specified by the studio in the full statement below.
ZA/UM also confirmed that legal filings related to the former team are pending, but did not divulge further. Last month, Kurvitz filed a suit against ZA/UM via his company Telomer, to "obtain and review documents," though no additional details were given.
Speaking to Estonian newspaper Estonian Ekspress (translated by Google), ZA/UM CEO Ilmar Kompus said the studio suffered from a "toxic environment," and accused Disco Elysium designer Robert Kurvitz and 'Saandar Taal' of "humiliating colleagues and intending to steal IP."
ZA/UM confirmed that Saandar Taal is an alias of Aleksander Rostov.
Kompus accused Kurvitz and Taal of "belittling women and co-workers," claims that echo those made by GamesIndustry.biz's own sources.
"They treated their co-workers very badly," Kompus told the Ekspress. "Despite talking to them repeatedly, things did not improve. Therefore, the company was forced to fire them. Robert [Kurvitz] is said to have been known for belittling women and co-workers in the past, but this was previously unknown to the company. It would be very short-sighted of a growing international company to tolerate such behaviour."
One source that spoke to GamesIndustry.biz, who asked to remain anonymous, described the situation as "not black and white," and said that long-term staff were reluctant to speak out about Kurvitz’ behaviour because they respected him, and felt like they owed him for their positions. Our source claimed staff hired later on did not have a clear picture of the situation and felt uncomfortable speaking out on behalf of others.
Kompus also claimed that Kurvitz and Taal had discussed wanting to take control of the company's intellectual property – including Disco Elysium – which he described as "delusions of grandeur."
"They went to sell themselves secretly and in violation of existing contracts to other well-known large game industry companies, but no one was interested," Kompus said. "That might have made them angry."
"They treated their co-workers very badly," Kompus told the Ekspress. "Despite talking to them repeatedly, things did not improve."
Kompus added that their dismissal was demanded and carried out by Kaur Kender, executive producer on Disco Elysium and their direct manager at the time.
Kender was placed on a leave of absence on medical grounds in late August according to Kompus, which was verified by our own sources.
Sources that spoke to the Ekspress described a clash of two visions between the business team of ZA/UM led by Kompus, and the creative team formerly headed by Robert Kurvitz, which considered profit "secondary."
This was corroborated by our sources, one of which described the situation as "CEO corporate scheming on one side, a toxic auteur on the other."
ZA/UM said in its statement to GamesIndustry.biz that "The rumour that our decision to terminate the contracts of these individuals was taken for financial gain is entirely unfounded and does not in any way reflect the facts."
Speaking to the Ekspress, Martin Luiga, co-founder of the recently dissolved ZA/UM cultural association and editor of the Disco Elysium novel, said he was "driven to drink by the unnatural work arrangement" at the studio.
"The work was organised in such a way that the goal did not seem to be to make games, but rather to make people quarrel with each other," Luiga told the outlet.
Management shuffles are still ongoing. GamesIndustry.biz learned that Private Division co-founder Ed Tomaszewski was appointed as ZA/UM's new president this week, though the studio did not confirm this appointment in its statement.
Update, Nov 9: As we were publishing this report, former employees Aleksander Rostov and Robert Kurvitz shared a post that claimed the majority stake in Zaum Studio OÜ, the entity that owns the Disco Elysium IP, was obtained fraudulently.
"As soon as they [Ilmar Kompus and Tõnis Haavel] became majority shareholders, we were quickly excluded from daily operations, our employment was terminated and our access to the company’s information was shut off," the post said. "Our firing came weeks after we started asking for documents and financial data, which is still being kept from us."
The full statement given to GamesIndustry.biz from ZA/UM can be read below:
"ZA/UM Studio today released a statement to address recent team dismissals that have sparked litigation and media coverage: Our recent dismissal of a few members of the ZA/UM Studio team has led to legal filings and inaccurate news coverage. While we are confident that ZA/UM will prevail in court once all the facts are heard, we believe it is necessary to address baseless claims and falsehoods, if only to rightly defend ZA/UM and protect our employees.
"While active litigation limits what we can share publicly, we believe additional information will provide a more accurate picture given our former employees have neglected to mention key facts to reporters, on blogs, and in other public platforms. For clarity and accuracy, we are sharing the reasons for the justified firings of some former ZA/UM Studio team members:
● Limited to no engagement in their responsibilities and work – including not working at all for almost two years while still being paid by the studio – and forcing colleagues to compensate for their lack of effort.
● Creating a toxic work environment that is antithetical to the ZA/UM culture and team productivity.
● Misconduct in interacting with other colleagues that includes verbal abuse and gender discrimination.
● Attempts to illegally sell to other gaming companies ZA/UM’s intellectual property with the aim of undermining the rest of the team.
"ZA/UM cannot and will not tolerate egregious misconduct, even from individuals who, along with the broader team, have contributed to a game that we are exceptionally proud of and that continues to capture imaginations across the globe. In addition to creativity and innovation, ZA/UM also stands for professionalism, kindness, decency, and fairness, which we expect from all our employees. It would be shortsighted to accept anything less, as we need team players for the highly collaborative process that is creating games.
"The rumour that our decision to terminate the contracts of these individuals was taken for financial gain is entirely unfounded and does not in any way reflect the facts. It was a decision that had to be taken for the wellbeing of the collective. Further, ZA/UM denies any claim of financial malfeasance or fraud that is being held against us. The vast majority of profits from Disco Elysium have been invested back into the studio in order to fund our next projects, which are currently in development.
"We will not let the actions and comments of a vocal few distract from the important work of the studio. ZA/UM has tripled in size from a year ago to nearly 100 employees while retaining the vast majority of the team that worked on Disco Elysium. We have built a passionate and creative team of staggering talent that continues to combine storytelling, art, and technology in our efforts to elevate video games and redefine genres. We are excited to forge on doing this with all the love and brilliance in our hearts and minds. We have so much more to show you."
For the record: This article previously referred to 'Saandar Taal' as a former shareholder and director of ZA/UM. We have since learned that the name is an alias of Aleksander Rostov, and have updated the copy accordingly.