Disco Elysium studio laying off nearly 25% of its staff⁠—including the final remaining writer from the original game’s credits

According to a pair of reports from GLHF, Disco Elysium developer ZA/UM has canceled a standalone expansion to Disco Elysium codenamed X7 and is laying off 24 workers, including Argo Tuulik, the last remaining employee at ZA/UM credited as a writer on the original Disco Elysium. ZA/UM subsequently confirmed the layoffs and project cancellation in a statement to PC Gamer.

While other members of the original team remain at the company, including Final Cut writer Justin Keenan, who was credited as an editor in the original release, it’s an alarming rupture in continuity for the studio, which already saw the contentious departure of three key developers in 2021 amid allegations of financial malfeasance on the part of studio executives.

Tuulik and ZA/UM principal writer Dora Klindžić went on the record with GLHF to confirm that the majority of the affected workers were part of X7’s development. According to an all-hands email from CEO Ilmar Kompus, this leaves a project codenamed P1 that is on “pause,” plus two projects codenamed C4 and M0 that remain in active development.

ZA/UM has at least one other game that was canceled in the years since Disco Elysium’s release as well, which to me speaks to an alarming lack of focus: two canceled and one “paused” game in five years, with the midsize studio seemingly spreading itself thin on simultaneous projects.

In the second GLHF report, Tuulik and Klindžić spoke disparagingly of the work environment at ZA/UM. Klindžić compared starting there in 2022 to “being born in Yugoslavia in the ’90s: you’ve just missed the party and now all you get is the bloodshed.” She also stated that “the last two months of X7 were rife with crunch, burnout, and conflict.”

Continuing the 20th century communism theme, Tuulik likened the atmosphere at the studio after People Make Games’ documentary as “transitioning from the Soviet Union to the fascist Russian Federation.” Tuulik further corroborated an anonymous source’s allegation that women were discriminated against at the company: “I know at least five women who’ve left or been made to leave the studio since Disco’s launch, naming Tõnis Haavel as a major factor. There are zero women in creative leadership and very few women in leadership positions in general.”

Tõnis Haavel is credited as a producer on Disco Elysium, and was convicted of investor fraud in Estonia over a bad land deal in Azerbaijan. Haavel, as well as CEO Kompus, are central figures in the legal dispute between ZA/UM and three key developers who were ousted from the company in 2021: writers Robert Kurvitz and Helen Hindpere and artist Aleksander Rostov. The three contend that the company and valuable Disco Elysium IP were wrested away from them, while Haavel and Kompus allege that the developers failed to perform their duties and fostered a toxic working environment.

ZA/UM Studio provided the following statement to PC Gamer:

“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 cancelled. It is always hard to lose talented colleagues, and we thank those leaving for their many contributions to ZA/UM.”

ZA/UM Timeline

  • Early 2000s: Disco Elysium lead writer Robert Kurvitz organizes first Elysium setting tabletop games with other anarchist punks in Tallinn, Estonia.
  • Late 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 is involved since earliest stages creatively and managerially, with further investment from Tõnis Haavel, eventual CEO Ilmar Kompus, and Estonian capitalist Margus Linnamäe. ZA/UM is initially headquartered out of a leaky basement
  • 2019: Disco Elysium launches to critical acclaim. Developer interviews in the PMG documentary suggest it was a grueling development with “nine months of crunch” preceding release.
  • March 2021: Disco Elysium: The Final Cut, a definitive edition of the game releases. Helen Hindpere is credited as lead writer, with Kurvitz and Rostov supposedly working on a sequel.
  • Fall 2021: Project lead Kurvitz, lead artist Aleksander Rostov, and writer/Final Cut lead writer Helen Hindpere “involuntarily” leave the company.
  • June 2022: Kurvitz and Rostov found a new development house, Red Info Ltd., with backing of Chinese publisher NetEase.
  • 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, attempted IP theft,  and other abuses by Kurvitz and Rostov. 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. Since this time, PMG reports that Kender sold his remaining stock in ZA/UM to Kompus.
  • May 2023: People Make Games documentary featuring interviews with both parties in the legal battle, as well as developers still at ZA/UM, releases.
  • February 15, 2024: ZA/UM cancels a project codenamed “X7,” allegedly a “standalone expansion” to Disco Elysium and lays off 24 employees, about a quarter of the company. The final remaining writer from the original game’s credits, Argo Tuulik, is one of those laid off workers.