Disco Elysium game director Robert Kurvitz and art director Aleksander Rostov have published an explosive open letter to fans detailing their ousting from ZA/UM, the game’s development studio.
Most eye-opening is the claim ZA/UM’s new majority shareholder, an Estonian firm named Tütreke OÜ, allegedly obtained control of the company through fraud. Tütreke OÜ is a “vehicle” for two Estonian businessmen, the pair wrote, namely Ilmar Kompus (now ZA/UM’s CEO) and Tõnis Haavel (who was previously “convicted for defrauding investors on a different matter in 2007”).
At the same time, ZA/UM CEO Kompus has published, via Estonian newspaper Ekspress, allegations of mismanagement by Kurvitz and a previous minority shareholder of the company, Saandar Taal. The pair are accused of “belittling women and co-workers” and creating a “toxic environment”. Kompus also states the pair had been “intending to steal IP” – namely, Disco Elysium – with an eye to departing the studio and working elsewhere.
A source speaking to GamesIndustry.biz framed the conflict as that of “CEO corporate scheming on one side, a toxic auteur on the other”.
In their open letter, Kurvitz and Rostov claim the money used by Estonian firm named Tütreke OÜ to buy ZA/UM had been fraudulently taken from the studio, and that they had been fired when they started to ask questions.
“We believe the money used by Tütreke OÜ to buy the majority stake was taken illegally from Zaum Studio OÜ [ZA/UM] itself, money that belonged to the studio and all shareholders but was used for the benefit of one,” Kurvitz and Rostov wrote. “Money that should have gone towards making the sequel.”
The pair state they were “summarily fired and cut off from our life’s work” after they began asking for financial records from ZA/UM’s new owners.
“The company we built has been looted, while our own earnings are insufficient even to cover legal fees,” the pair wrote. “We believe that these actions… in our view, and the view of our lawyers, amount to criminal wrongdoing punishable by up to three years imprisonment.”
Kurvitz and Rostov conclude their post by stating that they are reviewing their legal options, including the possibility of both civil claims and criminal charges in Estonia and the UK. There’s no mention in their post of ZA/UM’s mismanagement claims.
A lengthy statement from ZA/UM given to GamesIndustry.biz makes vague reference to “active litigation” and specifically “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,” ZA/UM’s statement reads.
There’s no detail given in ZA/UM’s statement or its CEO’s comments today which specifically detail why other members of Disco Elysium’s development team were fired.
It’s been a month since the departures of Kurvitz, Rostov and writer Helen Hindpere became public knowledge.
The news broke via a succinct yet puzzling statement from ZA/UM founder Martin Luiga, who noted that the three had not worked at the studio “since the end of last year” and that “their leaving the company was involuntary”.
Rostov confirmed the news the same day in a post on Twitter.
ZA/UM then issued its own official statement, which stated that “like any video game, the development of Disco Elysium was and still is a collective effort, with every team member’s contribution essential and valued as part of a greater whole”.
“At this time, we have no further comment to make other than the ZA/UM creative team’s focus remains on the development of our next project, and we are excited to share more news on this with you all soon.”
Eurogamer has contacted both ZA/UM and Kurvitz for further comment.