On March 14, Eurogamer and GamesIndustry.biz reported on a ZA/UM press release that declared the resolution of its legal dispute with founding member and Disco Elysium producer Kaur Kender, while also indicating that Disco Elysium project lead Robert Kurvitz and lead artist Aleksander Rostov’s wrongful termination suit was dismissed over lack of evidence. Since then, Kurvitz and “Sander Taal” (GamesIndustry.biz indicates that this is a pseudonym used by Rostov) have responded, stating that they will continue to pursue legal action. Meanwhile, ZA/UM released Disco Elysium’s first content update since December 2021’s “Jamais Vu” patch.
The ZA/UM saga, in brief
- 2000s: ZA/UM initially coalesces as an artist collective in Estonia.
- 2013: Robert Kurvitz publishes Sacred and Terrible Air, a novel and the first commercial work set in the Elysium setting.
- 2016: First public reveal of Disco Elysium as “No Truce With the Furies” (archived on Reddit) with predicted EOY 2016 release. Producer Kaur Kender seems to have been involved since earliest stages, with eventual investment from Tõnis Haavel and eventual CEO Ilmar Kompus. Around this time, ZA/UM becomes a formalized game developer.
- 2019: Disco Elysium launches to critical acclaim.
- March 2021: Disco Elysium: The Final Cut, a definitive edition of the game releases.
- End of year 2021: Project lead Kurvitz, lead artist Aleksander Rostov, and writer/Final Cut lead writer Helen Hindpere “involuntarily” leave the company.
- October 2022: Disco Elysium editor and former ZA/UM member Martin Luiga reveals the trio’s departure, subsequently confirmed by ZA/UM and a letter from Rostov co-signed by the other two.
- Trio alleges unfair ousting, as well as misappropriation of €4.8 million from ZA/UM to purchase majority share in company by CEO/investor Kompus and fellow investor Haavel with support from investor/Disco Elysium producer Kaur Kender.
- Kompus, via ZA/UM, alleges toxic management style, belittling of female employees, and other abuses by Kurvitz and Rostov. No specific incidents or details elaborated, but GamesIndustry.biz cites an unknown number of anonymous sources to at least partially corroborate the narrative.
- Kender sues Kompus and ZA/UM over misappropriation of €4.8 million, Kurvitz and Rostov file their own, separate suit against the company.
- December 2022: Kender withdraws suit against ZA/UM, citing return of funds by Kompus, with no elaboration as to why he had the €4.8 million in the first place.
This is the first public development in the story since ZA/UM CEO Ilmar Kompus paid €4.8 million back to the company and Disco Elysium producer Kaur Kender withdrew his own lawsuit against the developer. In ZA/UM’s initial press release this week, it claimed that Kender has since paid Kompus for his legal fees, and GamesIndustry.biz shared a seemingly contrite message from the writer and entrepreneur:
“I am thankful for the years of trust and cooperation with the team, which made Disco Elysium a successful project,” Kender told GamesIndustry.biz. “After leaving my full-time role, I filed a lawsuit which I realized, after seeing the facts, was misguided.”
ZA/UM further stated that Kurvitz and Rostov’s “unfair dismissal” claim against the company has been dropped due to “lack of evidence,” but this only seems to be part of the full case against it as the company still faces what it characterizes as a “series of baseless allegations from former employees” that will “fall apart under legal and factual scrutiny.”
A representative for Kurvitz and Rostov shared a four-part statement with PC Gamer in response to ZA/UM’s claims. “The press release is wrong and misleading in several respects and seeks to unfairly paint us–Robert Kurvitz and Sander Taal, the remaining minority shareholders in ZA/UM–as mere disgruntled employees,” the statement begins.
Kurvitz and Rostov further deny that their employment claims against ZA/UM were withdrawn due to lack of evidence. “They were not. We see our dismissal as part of a larger campaign against us and will pursue legal options accordingly.”
The pair also note the strange circumstances surrounding the €4.8 million withdrawn and much later returned to ZA/UM by CEO Kompus, the subject of Kaur Kender’s lawsuit. “Kender’s lawsuit was based on the misuse of ZA/UM’s funds (4.8 million euros) by the majority shareholders Kompus and Haavel to increase their own stake in the company.” Kurvitz and Rostov explain. “In the press release, Kompus and Haavel admit to this misuse, arguing only that the money has been ‘paid back to ZA/UM’. Paying back stolen money, however, does not undo the crime; here, it does not undo the majority that Kompus and Haavel have illegally gained in ZA/UM.”
“Kompus and Haavel silenced Kender on this matter, but they will not silence us,” The pair concludes. “Unlike Kender, we have not participated in the looting of ZA/UM, and Kompus and Haavel have no power over us.”
The final point paints Kender as an adversary of Kurvitz, Rostov, and Hindpere (the latter of whom is not a party to the lawsuit, but has indicated support of her fellow developers). In a Medium post from Rostov co-signed by the other two last year, the artist states that the ousting and misappropriation of €4.8 million was “perpetrated by Ilmar Kompus and Tõnis Haavel with support from Kaur Kender, another minority shareholder.”
Two days after the initial press release from ZA/UM, the company released a “collage mode” for the game, a combination photo mode, model viewer, and Garry’s Mod-style sandbox. While innocuous enough on its own, its timing with the new developments in the legal battle over ZA/UM has elicited heated reactions from fans of Disco Elysium.
One of the highest-rated posts on the Disco Elysium subreddit from the past few days uses the new mode to show a corporate stooge character from the game hawking its new feature, while others are encouraging fans to pirate the game. Looking at responses to the collage mode announcement on Twitter, many are criticizing it as a tonal clash with the game, or even accusing it of being a distraction from the ongoing legal dispute of Disco Elysium’s ownership. One reply was merely a screenshot of character Joyce Messier musing on how critiques of capitalism only end up reinforcing capitalism, drawing a parallel with the game’s politics and current state.
For now, as before, the future of one of our favorite games of all time remains uncertain. ZA/UM is hiring, but it’s unclear how much leeway the studio has with Kurvitz and Rostov still pursuing legal action, while the artists’ own path to any sort of victory or reclamation of the IP is murky and no doubt expensive.