The saga continues surrounding the departure of several key members from ZA/UM, the developer behind Disco Elysium. In a GamesIndustry.biz article ZA/UM CEO Ilmar Kompus accused the game’s creative lead Robert Kurvitz and art director Aleksander Rostov of creating a “toxic environment,” which alongside their “intention to steal IP,” lead to them being fired from the company. In a blog post, Rostov and Kurvitz accused Kompus and businessman Tõnis Haavel of committing fraud with company funds, and said their dismissal came after they asked for documents and financial data.
The studio also alleged that the fired 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.” Anonymous sources from within the company, as well as Kompus, accused Kurvitz and Rostov of “belittling women and co-workers.” Kompus alleges he talked to them multiple times, but their behavior did not change, resulting in their dismissal.
One source said the situation was “not black and white” and that employees were reluctant to speak out against Kurvitz out of respect for his artistic vision. Internal sources also detailed clashes between Kompus’ business unit and Kurvitz’s creative team, and one described the state of the studio as “CEO corporate scheming on one side, a toxic auteur on the other.” In an interview with Ekspress, Martin Luiga, an editor on the game and previous co-founder of the dissolved ZA/UM cultural association, said, “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.”
In Rostov and Kurvitz’s blog post they describe how they had minority shareholdings in the company Zaum Studio OÜ which owns everything associated with Disco Elysium. They detail how while investor Margus Linnamäe initially held the company’s majority shares, Linnamäe was eventually bought out by Tütreke OÜ, which is owned by Ilmar Kompus and Tõnis Haavel. Rostov and Kurvitz wrote, “As soon as they 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. Our firing came weeks after we started asking for documents and financial data, which is still being kept from us.”
They further alleged that Tütreke OÜ had taken over ZA/UM through fraud and the money used to buy the majority stake “was taken illegally from Zaum Studio OÜ itself, money that belonged to the studio and all shareholders but was used for the benefit of one. Money that should have gone towards making the sequel. We believe that these actions — which in our view, and the view of our lawyers, amount to criminal wrongdoing punishable by up to three years imprisonment — were perpetrated by Ilmar Kompus and Tõnis Haavel with support from Kaur Kender, another minority shareholder. This is hardly surprising given that Tõnis Haavel, who we believe to be the ringleader, has been convicted for defrauding investors on a different matter in 2007.“
They explained they are currently reviewing legal options, such as civil claims in Estonia, where they are from, as well as the United Kingdom, where Disco Elysium was primarily developed. “Needless to say, it has been a very difficult time for us. After five years of gruelling work we released Disco Elysium, a game beloved by millions. As our reward, we were summarily fired and cut off from our life’s work — the world of Elysium. The company we built has been looted, while our own earnings are insufficient even to cover legal fees,” Kurvitz and Rostov wrote. “We also believe in what Harrier du Bois calls ‘the law’. It’s not perfect, but it’s there to protect those who create from those who take. And so it will.” The full statement sent to GamesIndustry.biz by ZA/UM is at the bottom of the article here, and Kurvitz and Rostov’s allegations can be found here.