Former and current employees of Disco Elysium developer ZA/UM have spoken up about working conditions at the studio over the last several years, in the wake of allegations that former leadership inspired a culture of toxicity and crunch.
Speaking to People Make Games, as part of a major documentary investigating the workplace culture and legal disputes surrounding ZA/UM, several employees discussed the difficulty of working with former lead writer and designer Robert Kurvitz, who has been at the centre of lawsuits filed against ZA/UM.
In late 2022, Kurvitz was accused by ZA/UM CEO Ilmar Kompus of intending to steal company IP, and belittling co-workers. Employees discussing workplace culture with People Make Games further alleged Kurvitz was difficult to work with, and that he overestimated his contribution to Disco Elysium. While Kurvitz claimed to have written around 50% of the text of the game, one employee – writer, Argo Tuulik – claimed this was false.
He denied these claims in the People Make Games documentary, calling Kurvitz’s claims around the game’s writing a ‘crooked estimation’ – but not the worst he’d heard. According to Tuulik, who worked closely with Kurvitz over a number of years, Kurvitz was ‘inconsiderate’ during their work together, and created a ‘demoralising’ atmosphere.
‘[Kurvitz] has this natural charisma,’ Tuulik explained. ‘It’s incredibly magnetic, personally. When he speaks, people listen. But it’s easy to confuse this with leadership skills. I don’t think Robert had a lot of leadership skills. I don’t think he understood that to lead is a burden, not a privilege.’
Tuulik claimed that during development, Kurvitz began crossing lines between company departments, with the belief that he could dabble in multiple disciplines. This allegedly led to ‘bad blood’ within the studio. These tensions were allegedly compounded by the entire Disco Elysium team going through nine months of crunch to finish the game.
According to Tuulik, the final development stretch for Disco Elysium was extremely testing, for everyone.
‘The last nine months of working on Disco was mega crunch,’ Tuulik said. ‘For nine months, I think there wasn’t a single week where I didn’t skip at least one night … After this, everyone was so broken and burned out.’
The experience changed Tuulik, and many others at the studio. He told People Make Games that his time working on Disco Elysium made him realise he ‘didn’t want to be a tool in someone’s arsenal’.
Fellow developers on Disco Elysium had similarly negative experiences working on the game, and with Kurvitz. According to writer and designer Justin Keenan, Kurvitz fostered an ‘inner circle’ within ZA/UM that excluded other developers, and contributed to a ‘dispiriting’ workplace.
People Make Games also interviewed Kurvitz himself to seek out a well-rounded view of life at ZA/UM, and while the developer disputed many of the allegations of his behaviour, he did acknowledge the difficulty of working at the studio, and the psychological impact of crunch.
‘I ask if I’m a good leader, or if I work well,’ Kurvitz said. ‘I’m very sorry that not all relationships between people have survived this ordeal. It’s been very painful, for a lot of people.’
Kurvitz further stated he had experienced much personal distress during his time at ZA/UM, as well as working 12-hour days for five years, and on weekends, during the development of Disco Elysium and its world. He felt he was ‘spent’ by the end of this period, and constantly worried about the game.
‘I know that a lot of people worked very hard on [the game] but we really do need a little bit of acknowledgement for what crunch and overtime meant for me and [art director, Alexander] Rostov. There should be laws against it, how hard we needed to work – and there probably are.’
What is most clear from the People Make Games investigation is that life at ZA/UM was incredibly complex – and that work on Disco Elysium had a far-reaching impact on every facet of the lives of its developers. You can view the documentary in its entirety on YouTube.