Punk developer and former industry underdog Studio ZA/UM continues to expand and hire new talent for a follow up to PC Gamer’s 2019 Game of the Year and winner of last year’s Top 100, Disco Elysium. The details in these job posts might just shed some light on the studio’s anticipated next project.
Several months ago, ZA/UM brought on new writing talent, and the latest job posts, spotted by user An_Italian_Meal on Reddit, are for an environment concept artist, lead environment artist, as well as a sales and monetization specialist.
Arguably the most eye-catching thing here is both artistic positions’ mention of “sci-fi,” and the environment concept artist post includes “new worlds,” “space,” and the arresting declaration that any new hire should “understand that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in philosophy.”
The knee-jerk conclusion might be that ZA/UM is going in an entirely different direction in its next game than the 20th century-inspired urban fantasy of Disco Elysium, but I don’t think it’s that clear cut. Creatively named Reddit user TheFrankofTurducken points out that ZA/UM is highly invested in the world of Elysium—the core team has been constructing it on and off for 20 years or so now.
What’s more, good Frank points out the figurative potential of the language: “The sci-fi, non-earth stuff seems to imply they want somebody who is imaginative/creative in environment creation—not necessarily that the game will be interstellar in nature.” They continue, “I take it more as a… design philosophy, if that makes sense?”
That’s a sentiment I can definitely get behind, and it also lines up with ZA/UM’s tantalizing public statements about its future endeavors. In a great 2020 GameSpot video focusing on Disco Elysium’s interface, lead writer Robert Kurvitz says one of the most exciting things I’ve ever heard about an unreleased game with regards to the studio’s future work: “I’d like to do what Baldur’s Gate 2 did for for Baldur’s Gate 1.” Kurvitz goes on to describe more intense, pitched scenarios that Disco Elysium’s tabletop-esque skill system could be used in, and had previously mentioned ways he wanted to expand the game’s Thought Cabinet.
Additionally, the fantastic coffee table book that came with Iam8bit’s limited edition physical release of Disco Elysium has some further teasing from Kurvitz about the studio’s next steps: “So far we’ve only managed to show you a tiny, insignificant corner of it [Elysium]: the district of Martinaise in Revachol West, on Insulinde. I cannot begin to tell you how introductory it is.”
He continues later: “Because of your interest in our idea, we get to see more of it. Jamrock, I hope. And then to other isolas.”
Taken together, I’m still inclined to believe that ZA/UM’s follow up remains a direct sequel (or something close to it) to Disco Elysium. The environment concept position further calls for a knowledge of “architecture or city planning,” and that certainly jibes with a game set in Jamrock, the larger urban district adjacent to Martinaise. I interpret that call for a “sci-fi” ethos as referring to the setting’s fantastical alternate technologies and dreamlike, otherworldly metaphysics.
A more concrete conclusion you can derive from these posts is that ZA/UM’s next game will use Unreal Engine 5, as opposed to the Unity engine used to create Disco Elysium. The environment lead post specifically mentions candidates with Unreal experience. This could potentially make for some interesting stylistic or mechanical changes in a Disco Elysium sequel. I can’t immediately think of any games that accomplish an Infinity Engine-style, fixed camera angle with pre-rendered backgrounds using the Unreal Engine, and though the middleware has proven itself to be amazingly flexible over the years, it’s always been defined by real-time, full 3D environments.
I’m wondering if ZA/UM will attempt to translate Disco Elysium’s unique art style to a full 3D isometric presentation like those of Divinity: Original Sin 2 or Owlcat’s Pathfinder games. The developer may even be considering a change in perspective that could be facilitated by full 3D environments—its CRPG forebears Troika and Obsidian had phenomenal results when they made the shift to first/third-person with Vampire: The Masquerade—Bloodlines and Fallout: New Vegas respectively.
One last detail worth mentioning is the sales position’s responsibility to “maximise and diversify revenue streams for full-game, add-on, and live services content.” That last one certainly triggers a fight-or-flight response in me, but I don’t think it means ZA/UM is working on its own Destiny or anything. The studio could very well have multiple projects in the hopper, or it could be looking for experience in live services to help facilitate expansion and DLC content for more traditional RPGs.
Whatever the case, the creators of Disco Elysium are working on something pretty big alongside their natty fashion line, and I can’t wait to see it.