Disco Elysium studio ZA/UM set for major legal battle as accusations mount

Studio ZA/UM has been accused of fraud, as management claims former employees created a toxic work environment.
Disco Elysium studio za/um conflict

Disco Elysium studio ZA/UM is currently in the midst of a major conflict, with management and former employees trading serious accusations around the workplace environment, fraud, and how ZA/UM business is being conducted.

The furore kicked off with management at ZA/UM alleging that former employees were contributing factors to a toxic workplace environment, where staff were frequently subject to aggressive behaviours, harassment, and gender discrimination.

While ZA/UM did not specifically mention which former employees were involved in this alleged behaviour, the news follows the recent high profile exits of developers including designer Robert Kurvitz, writer Helen Hindpere, and art director Aleksander Rostov.

According to ZA/UM, which provided a statement to GamesIndustry.biz, the alleged behaviours of ‘dismissed employees’ included creating a toxic work environment, ‘limited to no engagement in their responsibilities and work’, verbal abuse of other employees, gender discrimination, and illegally attempting to sell ZA/UM intellectual property.

The studio also confirmed recent reports that Robert Kurvitz, credited with the creation of the original Disco Elysium work, has initiated legal proceedings against the company – although details of this case are still unclear.

In an Estonian newspaper, Estonian Ekspress, ZA/UM CEO Ilmar Kompus has further accused Kurvitz and shareholder Saandar Taal of ‘humiliating colleagues and intending to steal IP’ as well as ‘belittling women and co-workers’.

‘They treated their co-workers very badly,’ Kompus reportedly told the Estonian Ekspress, via Google Translate. ‘Despite talking to them repeatedly, things did not improve. Therefore, the company was forced to fire them. Robert [Kurvitz] is said to have been known for belittling 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.’

disco elysium studio zaum
Image: ZA/UM

Sources speaking to GamesIndustry.biz have alleged the situation is ‘not black and white’ and that there is far more to the story than first appears.

Seemingly in response to this report, Robert Kurvitz and Aleksander Rostov have counter-accused ZA/UM of running fraudulently. In a statement released on Medium, the pair alleged that ZA/UM ousted them unlawfully after an Estonian company, Tütreke OÜ, acquired a majority shareholding in ZA/UM.

‘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,’ Kurvitz and Rostov claim. ‘Our firing came weeks after we started asking for documents and financial data, which is still being kept from us.’

‘We have now learned that Tütreke OÜ must have obtained control over Zaum Studio OÜ by fraud. 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.’

In a statement to GamesIndustry.biz, Studio ZA/UM vehemently denied any claims of fraud.

‘The rumour 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. It was a decision that had to be taken for the wellbeing of the collective,’ the studio said.

‘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.’

As the situation evolves, more details are likely to emerge – however, it appears the allegations are now a matter for the courts. With former employees now beginning legal action against ZA/UM, we can expect to hear more in the coming months.

Leah J. Williams is a gaming and entertainment journalist who's spent years writing about the games industry, her love for The Sims 2 on Nintendo DS and every piece of weird history she knows. You can find her tweeting @legenette most days.