Over the weekend of Aug. 21, 2020, several prominent staffers from game studio Lab Zero publicly departed over Twitter. Many posted statements explaining why they were leaving. Some of these notes referenced a pattern of bad faith behavior from company owner, Mike “Mike Z” Zaimont, but there were very few specifics, likely out of a desire to avoid legal retaliation.
In order to uncover just what unraveled at the Skullgirls and Indivisibile developer over the past couple of months, I reached out to the employees, contractors, and fans of the company who had interactions with Zaimont over the course of several years. They paint a picture of a company held hostage by a single individual — now quite literally — who controls everything directly and indirectly, but who does not accept the responsibility of leading and adapting, and whose actions came off as self-serving and deeply manipulative.
One of the Lab Zero staffers (who asked to remain anonymous, so we’ll call them X) kept a personal work log of their time at Lab Zero. X shared the text they wrote down on July 2, 2020: the day they realized Zaimont needed to leave the company.
We found out Mike basically said gross shit to EVERY female coworker, explicitly [about] his dick and other weird sex stuff. So he’s gone. When we were asking Mike about it on Wed, he immediately became super defensive and made himself the victim, pretty much the same situation as when he said ‘I can’t breathe’ on a stream as a joke. We all just wanted to see him not defend himself, and seeing how he’ll change or that he wants to change.
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“I can’t breathe” is likely in reference to Eric Garner, a 44-year-old father and grandfather, who was murdered by New York City police in 2014. His dying words have since become a slogan in the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Recognizing that this was a sign of Mike’s overall behavior only came out after BunnyAyu went public with her conversation…” X explained. “That’s when we did our internal investigation and it all came out.”
“Mike’s method is to slide in with gross jokes and inappropriate comments, and if he sees that you don’t immediately tell him off, then he slides into grosser things. This will never change, even if he’s in a relationship or married.”
Another employee, O, recalls how the incidents made them reexamine their interactions with Zaimont.
“Hearing other people’s experiences, we… realized a lot of the behavior we tolerated for years should never have been acceptable…” they said. “But I always wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt and help him be better. We’ve had conversations about behavior over the years — we talked with him for a while after both the racist joke and inappropriate DMs, but also a dozen other times too.”
Members of the Skullgirls community also had unpleasant interactions with Mike, several of which came out after these incidents.
A player who goes by the moniker Shodan admits they dropped off of Skullgirls “after constantly being hounded by” Zaimont. They referenced derogatory nicknames and insults, often deployed in front of other players, which made Shodan feel unwelcome at local gatherings.
Another anonymous community member describes Zaimont’s language as “outright abrasive and abusive…”
The player began an online tournament for the Skullgirls community in Southern California during COVID-19 quarantine. They began the event in their “free time with no extra resources granted outside of access to the Twitch channel for Lab Zero.” Yet they say Zaimont sent angry Slack messages, claiming the player was ruining “his” tournament, and not doing things the way he would have.
Another player recalls an uncomfortable interaction when they ended a sentence with the word “boob.” At which point they say Zaimont simply stared at them before he eventually added “I was going to grab you, as a joke to that, but then I didn’t.”
”I was so awkward, I didn’t know what to say or do,” they said.
One final anonymous player, who is non-binary, detailed a very disrespectful interaction regarding their gender. Zaimont asked a question about being non-binary — which they were happy to try and answer.
“He looked me up and down and responded with ‘You don’t look like you try very hard,’” they said. “I replied back with ‘And that’s something I’ve had to fight with internally and come to terms with over the last months and years of my life,’ and left the arcade. I went for drinks and food with some of the Salty fam and, on the way back, told them what happened. They were all understanding, but everyone had a similar refrain of ‘Yeah, that’s Mike.’”
One constant throughout these stories is how the people around Zaimont felt they needed to brush off his behavior as “just being Mike.” Another individual I spoke to, a contractor we’ll call C, worked with Lab Zero in a remote capacity. However, even with this distance in place, they still felt Zaimont was a negative force on the team.
“Everyone was at the whims of ‘Will Mike do the thing he said, somewhere close to the time frame he said he’d do it in?’… Every [incident] up until that point was brushed away as ‘That’s just how Mike is,’ which is an unfortunate pattern you see in loads of game studios. You get someone who’s talented but who you have to tiptoe around to work with. It’s just a matter of time before it’s revealed that this person has been treating everyone poorly, not just you.”
When Zaimont was confronted about his behavior, he did not take it well, according to his former coworkers. “He got incredibly angry with us for how we approached him about it — he said we just came down on him immediately without listening to his side of the story,” O added. “Then the DMs happened… we were hoping that he would tell everyone how he wanted to prevent this from happening, how he might want to improve himself… he doubled down and said he can’t change; he can’t prevent it from happening.”
“Like at that point, I think most of us would’ve been fine with Mike if he just apologized and said he would seek counseling or something, anything. But instead he doubled down on being the victim, stonewalling everyone, or throwing a tantrum,” recalled X. “He didn’t want to change, and he was insulted at anyone who suggested he even try to change.”
When it was proposed that he leave the company, Zaimont initially seemed to go along with the idea. “I don’t want to stay if people don’t want me to stay,” Zaimont wrote in a company memo shared with us. In a further message a few days later, he add that he was “not agitating to stay.”
“Initially, Mike acknowledged the hurt he caused, apologized, explained that he now understands the power dynamic, and committed to leaving amicably,” O recounted. “But over the course of negotiating his actual separation terms, it all fell apart.”
Mike then sent messages asking the Lab Zero team to decide if he should stay or leave, but insisted on one-on-one meetings. “He kept demanding that he wanted people to talk to him directly, even though [certain] people absolutely did not want to talk to him ever again and already agreed to use other employees as intermediaries.”
“From the beginning, [the majority] wanted him out. It was very clear. At every point of his own self narrative, he made it sound like someone wanted him to stay… Mike twisted that to mean ‘Oh, they support me 100 percent.’”
One month later, Zaimont sent a memo to Lab Zero announcing his intent to stay.
“Your inability to make any reasonable choice is why my only option now is to stay,” Zaimont wrote after multiple paragraphs using a bizarre GPU analogy in an attempt to explain why he planned to stick around.
“That whole letter is insane,” O said. “He says he’s going to make ‘Lab Zero a world leader in employee happiness and quality of life’ and then a couple pages later blames the employees. He makes NO commitment to how he’ll change as a person, because he still doesn’t think he did anything wrong.”
“He keeps rewriting history to make it seem like we’re punishing him for being awkward in response to us calling him out on years of horrible behavior — not the ‘years of horrible behavior’ part,” X noted. “So all his resolution methods are how to ‘fix being awkward’ or ‘communication’ rather than ‘Please remove yourself from our lives forever.’”
Is there any hope for Lab Zero now that so many folks have left?
“We only hung on because we thought Mike would do the right thing and leave,” X elaborated. “Lab Zero is done. Only those with financial burdens remain. [I’m] not sure when everyone else will leave.”
As referenced above, Zaimont answered that question himself by laying off those employees that stayed at Lab Zero. And unfortunately, it seems like stories of similar abuse at game developers large and small are distressingly common nowadays. C has some advice for those looking to avoid another Lab Zero situation.
“The big lesson I would take is if someone appears toxic within your team, if someone stops progress rather than facilitating it, or if progress can only happen if it goes through them, you don’t want them on your team,” they said. “It may be difficult to reconcile with friendships, feelings of loyalty, and whatnot, but the sooner you root out toxic elements from your team the better off you’ll be.”
“You may think people are irreplaceable,” C continued. “Talented people who hinder the group are absolutely replaceable though, there are talented people everywhere in the world. What’s irreplaceable is someone who helps the team work better together, who makes people feel welcomed, and who cares about the project more than they care about themselves. So no matter how indispensable someone is, if they’re indispensable at the expense of the rest of the team doing their job effectively, you don’t need them.”
Editor’s Note: In addition to keeping their sources anonymous, our author asked to use a pseudonym for this article.