Aeon Must Die, a beat-em-up by Limestone Games, is coming to PC and consoles tomorrow, October 14. Since the game’s reveal last year during a PlayStation State of Play presentation, it’s also been the subject of a public controversy between the studio and several ex-employees who left the company last year as they claimed poor working conditions. This included “endless crunch, harassment, abuse, corruption, and manipulation.” On top of this, ex-developers claim Limestone doesn’t own all of the Aeon Must Die IP, saying that much of the animation work seen in the game and its trailer hasn’t been compensated, or was never signed over as an asset for use. The entire situation was outlined by a compilation of documents collected and published by a third party, which also painted Aeon Must Die publisher Focus Entertainment (then Focus Home Interactive) as complicit in the poor working conditions. The company said it would be undergoing an investigation regarding the matter, then went silent for a year until Aeon Must Die resurfaced through a trailer on the company’s YouTube channel.
Following the trailer’s publication, Focus Entertainment claimed it had taken part in several investigations that said the allegations were unfounded, while the ex-developers, now at Mishura Games, say they weren’t part of any such investigations. Now, with the game a day away from launch, both parties have released public statements about the situation once again to really layout where they stand.
It began yesterday, with the official Aeon Must Die Twitter posting a graphic responding to some of the ex-developers’ claims, specifically regarding IP ownership and whether or not Focus pushed the team to crunch to meet deadlines.
— Aeon Must Die! (@Aeon_Must_Die) October 12, 2021
First up, the IP ownership, Limestone and Focus’ statement says the Aeon Must Die IP is owned by the developer and publisher, saying this includes “every [asset] created for the game.”
Limestone and Focus, two separate entities, co-own the IP, ever since the signing of the partnership in early 2019. No party, legal or natural person could appropriate, steal or exploit the IP by its own will. In addition all Limestone employees, Focus employees, as well as their service providers, have duly transferred all necessary rights such as every assets created for the game belong to the owners of the IP – a very common case in the industry.
In its own statement on its website, Mishura Games says that some of the labor on Aeon Must Die was never properly compensated and contracted by Limestone and Focus, thus there was no IP transference. Two examples given were 3D animation work by Aleksei Nehorohskin, who only had a contract with Limestone for his role as creative director and CEO, which didn’t outline animation work. As such, Mishura claims the animation work he did for Aeon Must Die is still technically his. Also cited was work by Arsen Shakhbabyan, who Mishura says was never given a contract or any monetary compensation for his work on Aeon Must Die. This dispute is what led to Aeon Must Die’s trailer being removed from Focus’ YouTube channel (it has since been restored).
Mishura also wrote about Limestone and Focus’ attempts to quiet the controversy, which included long negotiations and money offers for the ex-employees to publicly withdraw their statements and fully transfer IP rights to Aeon Must Die, which the companies claim publicly they own in full. However, the ex-devs say that, within these offers, Limestone refused to pay for the overtime and unpaid labor. The offer would have required those who left Limestone to release a statement claiming their previous statements were false, and would not be allowed to publicly discuss Limestone, Focus, or Aeon Must Die again without legal ramifications.
We consider this ethically and morally impossible, and not just because of personal reasons. It is imperative for the ecosystem of the game industry to move forward from the dark ages it is clearly stuck in. The industry already suffers way too much from unfair treatment of artists and developers and true creators of the games. Crunches, toxic atmosphere, unpaid hours, abuse and so on, are unfortunately all over the place. We call out to all who have suffered from similar situations to not keep quiet. Together we can change this situation for the better.
Mishura’s statement goes on to discuss the investigations Focus said took place under Estonia’s IGDA branch, noting that the team’s lawyers weren’t included and no one at the team was ever questioned as part of any such investigation. The team concluded the section by encouraging Focus Entertainment to release the results of the investigations, as the team questions their legitimacy. The final point Mishura addresses in its statement is why it hasn’t sued Focus and Limestone, and the long and short of it is that this entire process has been financially draining, and that, as private citizens, they don’t have the money for such a legal undertaking.
We have reached out to Focus Entertainment to ask for further comment.
In the midst of all this, Mishura is working on its own game called Immortal: And the Death That Follows.
Update: Both Focus Entertainment and Mishura Games have released new statements responding to each other’s new statements. The first was Focus, which once again claimed both it and Limestone are the sole IP owners of Aeon Must Die. The statement specifically claims Nehoroshkin’s contract includes intellectual property rights, while also pointing he is still a shareholder at the company.
Focus Home Interactive and Limestone Game are the only intellectual property rights holders of Aeon Must Die. All employees who worked for Limestone Games signed an employment contract providing a formal assignment of intellectual property rights for their work on the project.
Aleksei Nehoroshkin is no exception. He was hired as creative director of Limestone Games under an employment contract duly signed, including a formal assignment of intellectual property rights. Focus has no intention to release publicly to the mass audience any extract of this agreement (or any other agreement) since such contracts are confidential information and we are respectful to our contractual undertakings.
Also, we draw your attention to the fact that Aleksei Nehoroshkin was a shareholder and an executive of the company at the time of the alleged wrongdoing he is so vocal about and therefore accountable as such. Moreover he still is a shareholder of Limestone Games up to this very day.
We are nothing but sorry for those former employees who seem convinced about their accusations. However all claims remain unsubstantiated despite investigations led by two law firms and one Estonian authority – and Focus has no role in a dispute between ex-employees and their former employer.
In a response given to Fanbyte, Nehoroshkin said he never hid his shareholder status, and says that his voting rights were revoked when current Limestone CEO Yaroslav Lyssenko took over three years ago. He also says he attempted to sell his shares, but was only offered approximately 10 percent of their value.
“Currently, I’m also barred by their attorneys from even accessing information or financial reports of the company even though technically I’m still a shareholder,” Nehoroshkin says. “I also offered to sell my shares for a fair price but was offered around 1/10th of what I was due, so currently I’m still holding that percentage to my own dismay.”
Regarding his employment, Nehoroshkin says that as the founder of Limestone, he was never technically “hired,” as Focus’ statement claims.
“I was never hired by anyone but myself. Any hiring process in the company started with me when founding the company, the CTO, Oleg Tsurikov being the first one to join.”
Nehoroshkin also went on to draw attention to how Focus’ statement specifically glosses over uncompensated work by Shakhbabyan, which has been central to the ex-developers getting the original trailer briefly removed from YouTube. Fanbyte was given the following statement from the group’s attorney:
“Arsen did not have a contract and did not receive any pay for his work. Although it was expected that he`d be an integral part of the AMD development community, LSG just took his work and never rewarded him with anything. Now Focus and LSG with joint interests to benefit financially are running amok over Arsen and everybody else who contributed.”
Regarding the investigations, while Focus says it has no intention of publicly releasing findings from the investigations conducted by Estonia’s IGDA branch, Nehoroshkin says the fact that the ex-devs weren’t included as part of the investigation raises questions of their credibility.
“Nothing was submitted or no results were given to either us privately or publicized,” Nehoroshkin says. “Claims of investigations being held are unsubstantiated, and at the very least the one-sided nature of those, and complete exclusion of the former employees from the proceedings is questionable.”
Update #2: In a statement issued to Gamesindustry.biz, IGDA Executive Director Renee Gittins says the Estonia branch’s investigation was canceled after the broader IGDA advised it to instead focus on helping developers affected, as it deemed other entities “better suited” for the investigation.
“While the IGDA promotes ethics within our industry, we do not conduct investigations into legal disputes among companies and/or developers, as there are professional and government entities better suited for such tasks,” Gittins told GI.biz.
“While we always admire how our local chapters and SIGs go above and beyond for their constituents, we advised IGDA Estonia to focus their support on the developers affected instead of acting as an investigative party. IGDA Estonia thus stopped asking for evidence and turned to assisting the local developers by providing knowledge, career resources, community, and advocacy efforts.”
Update #3: After IGDA’s statement above, we reached out to IGDA regarding Focus’ citation of its investigation as conclusive and “[calling] into question” the accusations against Limestone management. In a statement issued to Fanbyte, Gittins denounced Focus’ use of its investigation as a conclusive source on what happened between Limestone Games and its past employees.
“The IGDA Estonia investigation was halted and a conclusion was never reached,” Gittins said. “The IGDA does not endorse any such claims of a conclusion.”
We’ve reached out to Focus Entertainment for further comment.
As for IGDA’s assisting affected developers, Gittins said it offered “advice and support” to local developers, including ex-Limestone Games employees.
“The IGDA and its Chapters and SIGs do all they can to support their communities, both in their career success and wellbeing. Though IGDA Estonia’s operations have been limited by the COVID-19 pandemic, they offered to provide advice and support to all developers within their community, including those no longer with Limestone Games.”
Regarding any such assistance, Nehoroshkin told Fanbyte the only interactions the ex-employees had with IGDA were in the form of a private meeting with an organization representative. Following this, the ex-developers asked that all correspondence regarding the canceled investigation go through their legal representatives, which was eventually met with no response. [Update: This paragraph originally omitted mention of the private meeting in error, and has been updated to reflect the timeline of events]
“They have done nothing as far as we know,” Nehoroshkin says. “Other than make a few statements a year ago that we thought were damaging to our cause and served nothing but to escalate the conflict and break more trust and make a huge divide in the community we are still trying to fix today.”