On March 14, Eurogamer (opens in new tab) and GamesIndustry.biz (opens in new tab) reported on a press release from ZA/UM that declared the resolution of its legal dispute with Disco Elysium founding member and producer Kaur Kender, while also indicating that the wrongful termination process for Disco Elysium project leader, Robert Kurvitz, and lead artist Aleksander Rostov, was shelved for lack of evidence. Kurvitz and “Sander Taal” (GamesIndustry.biz indicates this is a pseudonym used by Rostov) have since responded, stating that they will pursue legal action. Meanwhile, ZA/UM has released the first Disco Elysium content update since the December 2021 “Jamais Vu” patch.
The ZA/UM saga in brief
- 2000’s: ZA/UM initially merged 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: Disco Elysium’s first public reveal as “No Truce With the Furies” (archived on Reddit) due for release at EOY 2016. Producer Kaur Kender appears to have been involved from the 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 is released to critical acclaim.
- March 2021: Disco Elysium: The Final Cut, a definitive edition of the game’s releases.
- End of the year 2021: Project lead Kurvitz, lead artist Aleksander Rostov, and Final Cut lead writer/writer Helen Hindpere “involuntarily” leave the company.
- October 2022: Disco Elysium editor and former ZA/UM member Martin Luiga reveals the trio’s departure, later confirmed by ZA/UM and a letter from Rostov co-signed by the other two.
- Trio alleges wrongful eviction as well as misappropriation of €4.8 million from ZA/UM to buy a majority stake in the company by CEO/investor Kompus and fellow investor Haavel with the backing of Disco Elysium investor/producer Kaur Kender.
- Kompus, via ZA/UM, alleges toxic management style, belittlement of female employees and other abuses by Kurvitz and Rostov. No specific incident or elaborate details, but GamesIndustry.biz (opens in new tab) cites an unknown number of anonymous sources to at least partially corroborate the narrative.
- Kender sues Kompus and ZA/UM for embezzlement of €4.8 million, Kurvitz and Rostov file their own separate lawsuit against the company.
- December 2022: Kender drops the lawsuit against ZA/UM, claiming the return of funds by Kompus, without explaining why he had the €4.8m in the first place.
This is the first public development in history since ZA/UM CEO Ilmar Kompus paid €4.8 million back to the company and Disco Elysium producer Kaur Kender dropped his own lawsuit against the developer. (opens in new tab). In ZA/UM’s initial press release this week, it claimed that Kender paid Kompus for its legal fees, and GamesIndustry.biz shared a seemingly contrite message from the writer and entrepreneur:
“I am grateful for the years of trust and cooperation with the team that have made Disco Elysium a successful project,” Kender told GamesIndustry.biz. “After leaving my full-time role, I filed a lawsuit that I realized, after looking at the facts, was misguided.”
ZA/UM further stated that Kurvitz and Rostov’s “wrongful dismissal” claim against the company was withdrawn due to “lack of evidence”, but this appears to be only part of the full case against it, as the company still faces what he characterizes as a “series of baseless allegations by former employees” that “will crumble 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 many respects and seeks to unfairly portray us – Robert Kurvitz and Sander Taal, the remaining minority shareholders of ZA/UM – as mere disgruntled employees,” the statement begins.
Kurvitz and Rostov further deny that their labor claims against ZA/UM were withdrawn due to lack of evidence. “They weren’t. We view our firing 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 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 this misuse, arguing only that the money was ‘returned to ZA/UM’. majority that Kompus and Haavel obtained illegally in ZA/UM.”
“Kompus and Haavel have silenced Kender on this matter, but they won’t silence us,” concludes the pair. “Unlike Kender, we don’t participate in ZA/UM’s looting, and Kompus and Haavel have no power over us.”
The full stop paints Kender as an adversary to Kurvitz, Rostov and Hindpere (the latter of whom is not a party to the lawsuit but has indicated support from his fellow developers). In a Medium post from Rostov co-signed by the other two last year, the artist claims that the eviction and embezzlement of €4.8 million was “perpetrated by Ilmar Kompus and Tõnis Haavel with the support of Kaur Kender, another shareholder minority”.
I tried the new mode! Ahaha this is so fun, I’m glad they are so in touch with us fans! by r/DiscoElysium
Two days after ZA/UM’s initial press release, the company launched a “collage mode” (opens in new tab) for the game, a combination of photo mode, model viewer and Garry’s Mod-style sandbox. While innocuous enough on its own, its timing with new developments in the legal battle over ZA/UM provoked heated reactions from Disco Elysium fans.
One of the highest rated posts (opens in new tab) in recent days Disco Elysium subreddit uses the new mode to showcase a corporate character from the game advertising its new feature, while others are encouraging fans to pirate the game. Looking at answers (opens in new tab) to the collage mode announcement on Twitter, many criticize it as a tonal clash with the game, or even accuse it of being a distraction from the ongoing legal dispute over ownership of Disco Elysium. One to respond it was just a screenshot of the Joyce Messier character reflecting on how criticisms of capitalism only end up reinforcing capitalism, drawing a parallel with the politics of the game and the current state.
For now, as before, the future of one of our all-time favorite games remains uncertain. ZA/UM is hiring, but it’s unclear how much leeway the studio has with Kurvitz and Rostov still seeking legal action, while the artists’ own path to any sort of IP win or recovery is murky and arguably costly.