One month ago, the only concerns on the minds of the executives at Daybreak Games centered on their self-described “originator of stand alone battle royale” title, H1Z1. The game had been dealing with diminishing player counts as the battle royale market was usurped by PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and Fortnite, prompting the studio to transition the game to free-to-play model. Developers were also concurrently preparing the game for the launch of an open beta on PlayStation 4, which is still scheduled to launch this month. None of these are out of the ordinary for your standard developer, but Daybreak would soon become the originator of something far more peculiar.
On April 24, the same day Daybreak announced H1Z1 was coming to PlayStation 4, news broke of sanctions imposed by the U.S. Department of the Treasury on a number of Russian businesses and oligarchs, freezing their assets in response to what officials categorized as “destabilizing activities.” One of the affected oligarchs was Renova Group owner Viktor Vekselberg. Columbus Nova, a New York investment firm whose biggest client is Renova, reportedly purchased Daybreak in 2015 when it was known as Sony Online Entertainment. As both the developer’s employees and player base worried over the future of the studio, Daybreak dropped a bombshell.
The fallout from the news has grown to encompass the planned layoff of roughly 70 employees, the exit of Senior Vice President Laura Naviaux Sturr, Columbus Nova scrubbing connections to Renova Group from its website, and the discovery of payments totaling $500,000 made from Columbus Nova to Trump attorney and apparent slush fund manager Michael Cohen in exchange for access to the president. What began as a middle-school level attempt to spin some overwhelmingly bad press at the sake of the studio’s credibility has ballooned into a scandal that links the creators of Everquest to a scummy target of the Mueller investigation.
And this is where the story gets murky. Despite press releases and press reports stating otherwise at the time of sale, Columbus Nova now denies ever had ownership in the company.
“We want to confirm recent media reports that Columbus Nova has never had any ownership interest in Daybreak,” reads a statement from Columbus Nova sent to Paste. Our former partner Jason Epstein told us in 2015 that he was purchasing Daybreak as a personal investment and Columbus Nova declined to participate in that purchase. We are aware of previous errors stating that Columbus Nova at some point had an ownership interest in Daybreak and regret not asking to correct the record sooner. The reality is that until now no one cared or asked so we just didn’t think about it.”
Even if they knew about the connection between Columbus Nova and Viktor Vekselberg in 2015, they might not have been aware of the oligarch’s ties to parties that influenced American elections or Columbus Nova’s other interests, like web domains for white nationalist organizations registered in the company’s name. But if they simply landed in the lap of a single man within the company, they still duped an entire community in their words, their speech and their legal documentation on a level relatively unseen within the greater videogame industry. Why Daybreak ever claimed Columbus Nova was its parent company is a mystery.
It remains to be seen what percentage of the community will let such concerns fade away in lieu of business deals or players’ desires to limit their engagement with Daybreak solely to its games, but that cloud will always remain regardless of one’s choice to ratify it. No matter what highs or lows H1Z1 reaches, no matter what level of financial and critical success Daybreak’s planned H1Z1 pro league attains and, most importantly, no matter what updates, new products or business dealings they trot out in the future, Daybreak Games will always be defined by this one action. They will always be synonymous with one word: doubt.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect clarifications about Daybreak’s ownership structure.
Brian Bell is an intern at Paste.