Former staff and contractors for Spanish indie publisher Sindiecate are reportedly owed more than €30,000 in unpaid wages and services, having heard nothing from management in five months.
The publisher, pegged to be the "Devolver Digital of Spain", went dark in December last year, and hasn't responded to any queries from staff since.
Around 20 people worked either directly for the publisher or developer Brainwash Gang, which was receiving funding for a second game from Sindiecate and worked from the same office.
After suddenly being given a month's holiday over Christmas, staff showed up to work to find the office closed, and an email inviting them to sign their resignations.
Founded in 2016 by Fernando Ortega and Claudia Ancajima, Sindiecate's latest partner was Brainwash Gang, headed up by their personal friend Edu Verz.
Previously Ortrega founded MadeInSpain Games, a community designed to bring together Spanish developers and provide support. He was joined then by Ancajima, who served as CMO and social media manager.
In 2017, the Brainwash Games released "nihilistic action platformer" Nongünz on Steam and prepared for a console port which Sindiecate outsourced. However, the planned PlayStation 4 and Switch release never happened, and the relationship between developer and publisher began to deteriorate.
"The moment I closed the door to go home everyday, I was like, 'Wow, that was intense.'"Juan de la Torre, former Sindiecate PR manager
GamesIndustry.biz has seen a briefing put together for Game Workers Unite (GWU) by former Sindiecate and Brainwash Gang staff which chronicles the publisher's collapse.
According to the document, after the console release of Nongünz failed to materialise, Verz agreed with Sindiecate management that he would receive €60,000 in financial compensation.
However, much like the game's console launch, the money never appeared and Verz threatened to take his next game, Damnview: Built from Nothing, elsewhere. Although Sindiecate had helped fund the game, nothing had been signed.
It was around this time that tensions began to flare throughout the company. Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz, former Sindiecate PR and business development manager Juan de la Torre said alarm bells began ringing around Gamescom 2018, and the entire outfit soon ground to a halt.
"[Ortega] turned off his brain long ago," said de la Torre. "He was just sitting as the CEO, doing nothing. We put on standby loads of conversations with interesting games because he didn't even read the emails.
"We were doing memos to have weekly meetings, they didn't even read them, or show up to the meetings. He just turned his mind off and the company was just in the hands of [Ancajima], who didn't even like video games. She didn't play or try to understand the industry, to get to know it. She was always talking about going to the Bahamas. It was like, 'What the fuck? If you don't care, let us care.'"
Despite the unpaid wages and services, de la Torre says he was unaware of any financial problems with the company, and that Ancajima had the next year planned out. By all accounts, the inherent problems were around a toxic work environment and culture of fear fostered by Ancajima -- and enabled by Ortega -- ultimately leading to a complete breakdown in communication as the founders retreated from the business.
"[Ancajima and Ortega] would disappear for days," he said. "We were talking with developers to fund games, do marketing, go to events -- we even had a booth at PAX South paid for before everything exploded. I don't know if it was a money issue, but I think it wasn't."
There are multiple accounts from staff at both Sindiecate and Brainwash Gang around the behaviour of Ancajima and Ortega. The GWU briefing -- which has been signed off and agreed upon as a true account of events by the aggrieved staff -- details numerous instances of toxic behaviour from Ancajima, such as spreading of lies, verbal abuse, and manipulation. Meanwhile, Ortega is referenced as having done very little to step in as CEO to protect his staff or control the situation.
"It's really sad that this situation keeps happening in the video games and animation industry in Spain. Unfortunately it's not the first." María Buitrago, Sunshine Animations co-director
"I think it was a situation that [snowballed]," said de la Torre. "They didn't know how to manage 12 or 15 people saying, 'We cannot work any more with anxiety, not sleeping, being afraid to share our own opinions.'
"The moment I closed the door to go home everyday, I was like, 'Wow, that was intense.' The projects and our colleagues are what kept us working together, but everything was a struggle."
It eventually transpired that numerous people within the company were without a contract, were on the payroll but not registered with social security, or were technically self-employed.
During the collapse, a handful of employees resigned, while the rest were offered settlements. However, very few staff accepted as the amounts were incorrect and didn't reflect money owed for wages, expenses, or severance.
Madrid-based Sunshine Animation is also owed money by Sindiecate for work it completed last year. The animation studio had worked with Sindiecate before, having produced trailers for both Nongünz and Damnview. Sindiecate paid part in advance for a second Damnview trailer, which was delivered in December. However, the remaining payment was never received.
Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz, Sunshine Animations co-director María Buitrago said she dealt with both Ancajima and Verz, both of whom were "professional and easy to work with."
"We had no idea they were having trouble with their company," she said, adding that Sindiecate hasn't answered any emails or phone calls.
"It's really sad that this situation keeps happening in the video games and animation industry in Spain," said Buitrago. "Unfortunately it's not the first time we've gone through something like this.
"Much like the people to whom Sindiecate owes money, our queries have been left unanswered"
"We are a small company trying to make a living of what we love and this is just discouraging, but we are lucky to have several projects at the same time... Now we can only start a legal process against them and keep working hard."
According to the document, Sindiecate also owes €1164.64 to Dock Bilbao, a bar owned by developer and vice president of the Spanish Association of Video Games, Arturo Monedero.
The Sindiecate and Brainwash Gang staff have filed a complaint to the police over misappropriation of personal belongings worth over €2,000, left in the now inaccessible office.
Ancajima and Ortega's lawyer told Spanish tech publication Teknautas that the pair are currently in Peru.
GamesIndustry.biz reached out for comment, and received a response from Ancajima on Monday evening promising an "official statement" within 24 to 48 hours.
Yesterday she promised to send comments "in several minutes" but, much like the people to whom Sindiecate owes money, our queries have been left unanswered.
For the record: This article previously stated that Brainwash Gang was Sindiecate's first partner. However, GamesIndustry.biz has been made aware of least three other studios and several individuals reporting trouble with the publisher prior to Brainwash Gang.