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Image via Za/Um

The ‘Disco Elysium’ ZA/UM controversy, explained

The studio behind “Disco Elysium” hasn’t caught a break since 2022.

ZA/UM and Disco Elysium have made headlines for both praise and controversy in recent years. Disco Elysium, the isometric role-playing hit developed by ZA/UM in 2019, was inspired by classic RPGs from the ’90s and early 2000s.

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It stands out for its innovative gameplay that emphasizes the protagonist’s internal psyche over traditional combat, all delivered with some truly incisive political commentary. However, despite Disco Elysium‘s critical acclaim ZA/UM soon became embroiled in multiple controversies. Once heralded for its creative brilliance, the studio has faced significant internal strife, leading to public disputes and legal battles that have shaken the gaming community. Here’s a breakdown of all the controversies involving ZA/UM.

The firing of a founding member 

Image via Za/Um

Three years after Disco Elysium was launched, ZA/UM’s first controversy surfaced. In October 2022, Martin Luiga, a founding member of ZA/UM, announced that he and other key figures in ZA/UM were no longer with the company. Luiga claimed this was due to a shift from the studio’s original cultural vision and values. In a post on his Medium blog, he explained the reasons for the departure

I, Martin Luiga, a founding member and Secretary of the ZA/UM cultural association, as well as the assembler of most of the core team, am hereby dissolving the ZA/UM cultural association…The reason for dissolving the cultural organization is that it no longer represents the ethos it was founded on.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.”

Fraud allegations 

About a month later, former employees Robert Kurvitz and Aleksander Rostov accused the new holding company Tütreke OÜ of fraud in a blog post. They alleged that the company’s executives had used the studio’s funds for personal enrichment, leading to their wrongful dismissal.

“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.”

The post was followed by Kurvitz filing a lawsuit against Tütreke OÜ, alleging they had stolen four pieces of concept art related to a potential sequel for Disco Elysium. However, the studio CEO Ilmar Kompus came out with a response denying the claim. 

“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 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 behavior.”

The legal issues escalated in December 2022 when Disco Elysium producer Kaur Kender sued Kompus, claiming he was owed €1 million. However, Kender later withdrew the lawsuit. Current ZA/UM developers accused Robert Kurvitz of fostering a toxic work environment, reporting that they experiencing harassment from Disco Elysium fans following Kurvitz’s allegations. In March 2023, ZA/UM issued a statement assuring fans that all legal disputes had been resolved.

Laying off Disco Elysium’s staff 

In February 2024, the Disco Elysium team faced scrutiny after laying off roughly a quarter of its staff, about 24 employees, as reported by Eurogamer. This followed the cancellation of a standalone expansion for their 2019 RPG hit. In a statement, ZA/UM explained why the cuts were needed and wished 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 canceled. It is always hard to lose talented colleagues, and we thank those leaving for their many contributions to ZA/UM.

The layoffs occurred shortly after hiring new employees in January, prompting backlash and calls for the return of ZA/UM’s founders. Many questioned the timing and rationale behind the redundancies, given the recent recruitment efforts.

As things stand a true sequel to Disco Elysium seems very unlikely and the only project in active development is some kind of mobile spinoff. This is probably the last thing fans of the game wanted and given the massive layoffs we wouldn’t be surprised if ZA/UM shuttered soon. To paraphrase the game: this is a developer with a lot of past, but little present. And almost no future.

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Demi Phillips
When he’s not out exploring the underground music scene, Demilade Phillips covers entertainment news and other exciting topics for We Got This Covered. He scored his Bachelor’s in International Relations and has been writing for almost a decade on the things he’s most passionate about: music, black excellence, anime, and pop culture.