Disco Elysium Studio ZA/UM's Controversy & Allegations Explained (2024)

The studio behind Disco Elysium has been caught in plenty of controversy over the years.

Developed by studio ZA/UM, Disco Elysium (which is available now on PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X, and PC) is a 2019 role-playing game inspired by classics of the genre from the '90s and early 2000s.

The game (still the studio's only released project) received critical acclaim from launch, earning a stellar 91 on Metacritic for its unique RPG systems that focus on the inner workings of one's psyche rather than combat.

Controversy at the Disco Elysium Studio

Disco Elysium Studio ZA/UM's Controversy & Allegations Explained (1)

Despite releasing one of the most beloved RPGs of the last decade, Disco Elysium studio ZA/UM has not been without its fair share of controversy.

This all dates back to October 2022 (roughly three years after the launch of the game) when founding member of the studio Martin Luiga as well as several other key staff were involuntarily removed from the company.

Luiga took to his personal Medium blog, breaking down his departure, revealing that he "no longer represents the ethos [the studio] was founded on," but would not go into specifics beyond that:

"The reason for dissolving the cultural organization is that it no longer represents the ethos it was founded on. People and ideas are meant to be eternal; organizations may well be temporary. I find that the organization was successful overall and most of the mistakes that were made were contingent, determined by the sociocultural conditions we were thrown into. I still encourage people to organize, and I would say that one of the qualities that the ZA/UM cultural organization sorely lacked was pretty much any formal structure."

This was followed up roughly a month later in November 2022, as fellow former ZA/UM employee and Disco Elysium game director Robert Kurvitz wrote in a similar blog post alleging fraud.

Kurvitz claimed that the studio's holding company Tütreke OÜ used the studio's own funds to forward their purchase of the team:

"We are Robert Kurvitz and Aleksander Rostov — the game director and art director of 'Disco Elysium.' Our stake in the game exists in the form of minority shareholdings in an Estonian company called Zaum Studio OÜ, which owns everything related to the game. The majority of this company’s shares were initially held by Margus Linnamäe, an Estonian businessman and investor who provided the initial capital. In 2021, Linnamäe was bought out by another minority shareholder, an Estonian company Tütreke OÜ. Tütreke OÜ is a vehicle for two Estonian businessmen — Ilmar Kompus and Tõnis Haavel."

This caused Kurvtiz to launch a suit against the studio's new holding company for allegedly stealing four pieces of concept art from the former dev relating to a potential Disco Elysium sequel.

ZA/UM would respond to these claims. Speaking to the Estonian newspaper Estonian Ekspress (via GamesIndustry.biz) studio CEO Ilmar Kompus accused Kurvitz and several other ousted employees of harboring a "toxic environment" and "humiliating colleagues [as well as] intending to steal IP."

He said, "They treated their co-workers very badly" and "a growing international company [would not] tolerate such behaviour:"

"They treated their co-workers very badly. 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."

One source close to the subject told GamesIndustry.biz that the situation was "not black and white," and that many feared to speak out about Kutvitz's behavior during his time at the company.

The legal troubles would go one step further in December 2022, as Disco Elysium producer Kaur Kender filed a lawsuit over the matter alleging Kompus owed him €1 million; however, he later dropped the suit (per GamesIndustry.biz).

ZA/UM would issue a statement a few months later, telling fans in March 2022 that all legal matters had been resolved (via Eurogamer).

More ZA/UM Drama in 2024

After more than a year since ZA/UM's legal troubles were seemingly resolved, the company found itself back in the headlines in early 2024.

The Disco Elysium team came under scrutiny in February of this year after a series of public layoffs.

According to reporting from Eurogamer, the cuts affected roughly a quarter of the studio's staff (roughly 24 employees).

This came with news the team had recently canceled a standalone expansion to its 2019 RPG hit, writing in a statement from the studio to VG247 that, "we adapt the size of our team to the work underway," and wishing those affected well:

"As with all studios, we adapt the size of our team to the work underway, growing when we start a new project and shrinking if one is cancelled. It is always hard to lose talented colleagues, and we thank those leaving for their many contributions to ZA/UM."

While cuts across the gaming industry have become the tragic norm as of late, what rustled some feathers in ZA/UM's case was how recently it was hiring before the layoffs ultimately were made public.

In a post from January 2024, the studio advertised it was hiring for a new project.

This, of course, drew the ire of some, as many called for ZA/UM's founders to be brought back while being questionable to others given how closely the hiring process was happening to the studio's eventual redundancies.

Disco Elysium is now available on PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X/S Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC.

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Disco Elysium Studio ZA/UM's Controversy & Allegations Explained (2024)
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