Disco Elysium & ZA/UM Controversy Explained (2024)

Studio behind Disco Elysium has been embroiled in many controversies over the years.

Developed by Studio ZA/UM, Disco Elysium (now available on PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X, and PC) is a 2019 RPG inspired by genre classics from the 90s and early 2000s.

The game (still the studio’s only published project) received critical acclaim upon release, earning a stellar 91 on Metacritic for its unique RPG systems that focus on the inner workings of the psyche rather than combat.

Controversy at Disco Elysium Studio

Despite being one of the most beloved RPGs of the last decade, Disco Elysium studio ZA/UM has not been without quite a bit of controversy.

This all goes back to October 2022 (about three years after the game’s release), when the studio’s founding member, Martin Luiga, along with several other key people were involuntarily removed from the company.

Luiga took to his personal Medium blog to break his departure, revealing that he “no longer represents the ethos on which (the studio) was founded” but wouldn’t go into details beyond that:

“The reason for dismantling a cultural organization is that it no longer represents the ethos for which it was founded. People and ideas are meant to be eternal; organizations may well be temporary. I think the organization was successful as a whole and most of the mistakes were accidental and determined by their socio-cultural circ*mstances , that we got into, I encourage people to organize, and I would say that one feature that the ZA/UM cultural organization lacked was almost any formal structure.

This was followed about a month later in November 2022, when a former employee of ZA/UM and Disco Elysium game director Robert Kurvitz wrote about the fraud in a similar blog post.

Kurvitz claimed that the studio’s holding company, Tütreke OÜ, used the studio’s own funds to broker the purchase of the team:

“We are Robert Kurvitz and Aleksander Rostov – the game director and art director of Disco Elysium. Our ownership of the game is in the form of a minority stake in the Estonian Zaum Studio OÜ, which owns everything related to the game. Most of the shares of this company were originally the initial capital of the Estonian businessman and investor Margus Linnamäki In 2021 Linnamäki was bought by another minority shareholder, the Estonian Tütreke OÜ, which is owned by two Estonian businessmen — Ilmar Kompus and Tõnis Haavel.

This prompted Kurvtiz to file a lawsuit against the studio’s new holding company for allegedly stealing four pieces of concept art from the former developer regarding a possible Disco Elysium sequel.

ZA/UM would respond to these claims. Speaking to Estonian newspaper Estonian Ekspress (via GamesIndustry.biz ), studio CEO Ilmar Kompus blamed Kurvitz and several other ousted employees “toxic environment” and “humiliating colleagues (as well as) intending to steal the IP address.”

He said, “They treated their colleagues very badly” and “A growing international company (doesn’t) tolerate such behavior:”

“They treated their co-workers very poorly. Despite talking to them repeatedly, things did not improve. Therefore, the company had to fire them. Robert (Kurvitz) is said to have been known for belittling women and co-workers. In the past, but this was unknown to the company. It would be very short-sighted of a growing international company to tolerate such behavior.

One source close to the matter told GamesIndustry.biz that was the case “not black and white” and that many were afraid to talk about Kutvitz’s behavior while he was at the company.

Legal problems will go one step further in December 2022, as Disco Elysium producer Kaur Kender took the case to court, claiming that Kompus owed her a million euros; however, he later dropped the suit (GamesIndustry.biz).

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

More ZA/UM drama in 2024

More than a year after ZA/UM’s legal troubles were apparently resolved, the company found itself back in the headlines in early 2024.

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

According to a Eurogamer report, the cuts affected about a quarter of the studio’s staff (around 24 employees).

This comes as news that the team had recently canceled a standalone expansion for the 2019 RPG hit, writing in a statement from the studio to VG247 that “We adapt the size of our team to the work in progress” and best wishes to those concerned:

“Like all studios, we adapt the size of our team to the work in progress, growing when we start a new project and shrinking if something is canceled. It’s always hard to lose talented colleagues, and we thank those who leave for their many contributions. To ZA/UM.”

While layoffs in the gaming industry have become the tragic norm of late, the rustle in ZA/UM’s case was how recently it hired before the layoffs were finally announced.

In a message published in January 2024, the studio announced that it was hiring for a new project.

This, of course, drew the ire of some, with many calling for the reinstatement of the ZA/UM founders, while others were dubious given how closely the hiring process coincided with potential layoffs at the studio.

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

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Disco Elysium & ZA/UM Controversy Explained (2024)
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