Disco Elysium maker Studio ZA/UM flooded by claims of fraud and workplace toxicity

Sam Desatoff, Thursday, November 10th, 2022 7:44 pm

Studio ZA/UM, developer of darling 2019 narrative RPG Disco Elysium, has alleged misconduct on the part of a handful of former employees. According to a statement made to GamesInsdustry, the studio dismissed multiple senior workers on the grounds of creating a toxic working environment, as well as engaging in verbal abuse and gender discrimination.

Although no names were given in the statement, the news follows the dismissal of three high-profile Studio ZA/UM individuals: designer Robert Kurvitz, writer Helen Hindpere, and art director Aleksander Rostov. 

It’s important to note that Studio ZA/UM was spun out of an informal art collective based in Estonia called ZA/UM. In October, Martin Luiga, one of the founding members of this collective, announced that it would be dissolving as a result of an unknown internal dispute. Luiga also alleged that Kurvitz, Hindpere, and Rostov were all ousted from Studio ZA/UM in an effort by leaders on the business side of things to retain control of the company and the Disco Elysium property.   

In the wake of October’s firings, Kurvitz launched a lawsuit based on similar allegations. This case is ongoing.

In its statement to GamesIndustry, Studio ZA/UM claims that any firing of former employees was based on their behavior and not on any business transactions. 

“The rumor 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,” the statement reads. “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.”     

Since this statement was issued, Kurvitz and Rostov have publicly made additional claims of fraud by ZA/UM shareholders, specifically two Estonian businessmen who run investment company Tütreke OÜ: Ilmar Kompus and Tõnis Haavel. According to Kurvitz and Rostov, Tütreke OÜ gained control over Zaum Studio OÜ–the company that controls the Disco Elysium IP–illegally.

“We have now learned that Tütreke OÜ must have obtained control over Zaum Studio OÜ by fraud,” Kurvitz and Rostov wrote. “We believe the money used by Tütreke OÜ 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.”

Overall, the saga of Studio ZA/UM has been full of twists, allegations, and wild legal implications. For now, none of the facts are clear and we’ll have to make due with the back-and-forth slinging of hearsay. There’s no clear-cut outcome in this story just yet, and there’s no way to know which party is being truthful. 

Of course, it’s entirely possible that all parties involved are telling the truth; in a statement to GamesIndustry, a source familiar with the matter claimed the situation as “CEO corporate scheming on one side, a toxic auteur on the other.”

If nothing else, the mess clouds the praise received by Disco Elysium since its 2019 release. In that year, the game won the “Fresh Indie Game Award” at the Game Awards. The award was accepted by Hendepere, who was responsible for much of the lauded writing in Disco Elysium.

Sam, the Editor-in-Chief of GameDaily.biz, is a former freelance game reporter. He's been seen at IGN, PCGamesN, PCGamer, Unwinnable, and many more. When not writing about games, he is most likely taking care of his two dogs or pretending to know a lot about artisan coffee. Get in touch with Sam by emailing him at sdesatoff@rektglobal.com or follow him on Twitter.

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