Some of the core developers behind beloved 2019 indie RPG Disco Elysium, including the author of the novel it’s based on, are no longer working at the studio that created it. The news was revealed in a blog post written by an editor on the game, Martin Luiga, who claims studio leadership at ZA/UM forced out the lead designers at the end of 2021 and has kept it secret ever since. According to two sources familiar with the situation, the studio hasn’t been transparent about what exactly happened with staff either.
ZA/UM started out as a collective of artists in Estonia before later turning into a studio of the same name to develop one of its members’ books into a Dungeons & Dragons-inspired examination of political economy and self loathing. ZA/UM the studio is based out of the UK, and in 2019 released Disco Elysium, which became a critical and financial success, racking up multiple game of the year awards.
“I, Martin Luiga, a founding member and Secretary of the ZA/UM cultural association, as well as the assembler of most of the core team, am hereby dissolving the ZA/UM cultural association (not to be confused with the ZA/UM company, on which subject I would note that neither Kurvitz, Hindpere nor Rostov are working there since the end of last year and their leaving the company was involuntary,” the former ZA/UM developer wrote in an October 1 Medium post. “Which would seem like bad news for the loving fans that are waiting for the Disco sequel.”
Robert Kurvitz was the lead designer on whose novel the game was based. Aleksander Rostov was the lead artist whose impressionistic oil paintings defined the aesthetic of the game. And Helen Hindpere was one of the main writers on the game’s exceptional script, who accepted the prize for best new indie game of the year from presenter Reggie Fils-Aime at the 2019 Game Awards. Rostov confirmed the departures in a tweet attributed to all three members.
According to two sources familiar with the situation, the studio’s internal announcement of Kurvitz’s departure late last year also contained a threat of possible legal action against him. Any split would have been made messier by Kurvitz and Rostov being shareholders in the studio, the sources said. It’s also clear ZA/UM has gone out of its way to try and keep the situation quiet. Kotaku reached out for an interview with Kurvitz in February. The studio declined on his behalf, but provided no indication the developer had already left the company.
While it’s not clear exactly why Kurvitz, Rostov, and Hindpere are no longer working at ZA/UM, Luiga’s post and subsequent comments and tweets insinuate that the core team was pushed out by the business side of the studio. “The money people come from a background which says you gotta grab when you can even when it in fact does not make much economic sense,” he tweeted.
The people of this archipelago tried to build something new, something *different*. The rest of the world didn’t like it, so they came and ended it.
— disco elysium quotes (@discoelysiumbot) October 2, 2022
In response to one commenter claiming “the suits have killed disco,” Luiga posted a picture of the game’s executive producers, Tõnis Haavel and Kaur Kender. Haavel was previously convicted of investment fraud in Estonia, while Kender was the one who initially persuaded Kurvitz to write the book that would later inspire Disco Elysium. “Once we got Kaur on board, everything really started flowing because Kaur has this superpower that’s very important in capitalism,” Kurvitz told Gamesradar in 2020. “He understands money.” Earlier this year, Amazon inked a deal with DJ2 Entertainment, the production company currently planning film adaptations of Disco Elysium and a bunch of other games.
While ZA/UM hasn’t officially announced a sequel to Disco Elysium, Kurvitz had previously spoken about wanting to do what Baldur’s Gate 2 did for Baldur’s Gate 1, heavily implying that one was in the works. Job listings spotted earlier this year included one for an environmental artist that mentioned expanded worlds and “sci-fi,” as well as one for a sales monitizations specialist.
The studio hasn’t yet commented directly on the latest allegations either. “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,” a spokesperson for ZA/UM told Kotaku in a statement. “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.”
Luiga, Kurvitz, Rostov, and Hindpere did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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