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Disco Elysium studio ZA/UM has confirmed an Estonian press report about mismanagement and misconduct among former senior employees of 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 fired from the company last year.
In an exclusive statement, ZA/UM outlined some of the reasons behind the recent layoffs, but did not name specific individuals.
The studio said the dismissed employees had been restricted from engaging in their responsibilities and work, created a toxic work environment, displayed misconduct toward 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 disclose further. Last month, Kurvitz filed a lawsuit against ZA/UM through his company Telomer, to “obtain and review documents,” although no further details were provided.
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 minority shareholder Saandar Taal of “humiliating colleagues and intend to steal IP”. .”
Taal is a former director of ZA/UM UK LTD. He resigned in March 2021.
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, says Kompus to Ekspressen. “Despite talking to them repeatedly, it didn’t get better. Therefore, the company was forced to fire them. Robert [Kurvitz] is said to have been known to belittle 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.”
A source who spoke to GamesIndustry.biz, who asked to remain anonymous, described the situation as “not black and white” and said longtime staffers were reluctant to speak out about Kurvitz’s behavior because they respected him and felt they owed him their positions. Our source claimed that staff hired later 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 “madness”.
“They went to sell themselves secretly and in violation of existing contracts to other well-known big game industry companies, but nobody was interested,” Kompus said. “It might have pissed them off.”
– They treated their co-workers very badly, says Kompus to Ekspress. “Despite talking to them repeatedly, it didn’t get any better.”
Kompus added that their termination was called for and carried out by Kaur Kender, executive producer at Disco Elysium and their direct manager at the time.
Kender was placed on medical leave at the end of August according to Kompus, which was verified by our own sources.
Sources who spoke to Ekspress described a clash of two visions between the business team at ZA/UM led by Kompus and the creative team previously led by Robert Kurvitz, who considered profit to be “secondary”.
This was confirmed by our sources, one of whom described the situation as “the CEO’s corporate art on one side, a toxic auteur on the other.”
ZA/UM said in its statement to GamesIndustry.biz that “The rumor that our decision to terminate the contracts of these individuals was taken for financial gain is completely unfounded and does not in any way reflect the facts.”
Martin Luiga, one of the founders of the recently disbanded cultural association ZA/UM and editor of the Disco Elysium novel, said he was “driven to drink by the unnatural working arrangement” in the studio, speaking to Ekspress.
“The work was organized in such a way that the goal did not seem to be to make games, but rather to make people argue with each other,” Luiga told the outlet.
Lead shuffles are still ongoing. GamesIndustry.biz learned that Private Division co-founder Ed Tomaszewski was named ZA/UM’s new president this week, although the studio did not confirm this appointment in its statement.
The full statement provided to GamesIndustry.biz can be read below:
“ZA/UM Studio today released a statement to address recent team layoffs 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 believe that ZA/UM will prevail in court when all the facts have been heard, we believe it is necessary to address the baseless claims and falsehoods, if only to rightfully defend ZA/UM and protect our employees.
“While active litigation limits what we can share publicly, we believe that additional information will provide a more accurate picture given that our former employees have neglected to mention key facts to reporters, on blogs and in other public platforms. In the interests of clarity and accuracy for the sake of sharing the reasons for the justified dismissals of some former ZA/UM Studio team members:
● Limited to no involvement 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.
● Create a toxic work environment that is antithetical to the ZA/UM culture and team productivity.
● Improper interaction with other colleagues that includes verbal abuse and gender discrimination.
● Attempt to illegally sell to other gaming companies ZA/UM’s intellectual property rights in order to undermine the rest of the team.
“ZA/UM cannot and will not tolerate gross misconduct, even from individuals who, along with the wider team, have contributed to a game we are exceptionally proud of and which continues to capture imaginations worldwide. In addition to creativity and innovation ZA /UM also stands for professionalism, kindness, decency and fairness, which we expect from all our employees.Accepting anything less would be short-sighted, as we need team players for the highly collaborative process that creates games.
“The rumor that our decision to terminate the contracts of these individuals was made for financial gain is completely unfounded and does not in any way reflect the facts. It was a decision that had to be made for the well-being of the collective. Furthermore, ZA /UM denies any allegations of financial abuse or fraud held against us The vast majority of profits from Disco Elysium have been invested back into the studio 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 studio’s important work. 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 amazing talent who continue to combine storytelling, art and technology in our efforts to elevate video games and redefine genres. We are excited to continue doing this with all the love and brilliance in our hearts and minds. We have so much more to show you.”
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