The publisher of Aeon Must Die, an anime-inspired beat-’em-up shown at the PlayStation State of Play event on Thursday, has responded to allegations that the developing studio, Limestone Games, overworked numerous developers and, in their words, stole the game that appeared in yesterday’s trailer.
“This trailer was created with abuse, manipulation, theft,” says the YouTube description of the same trailer, uploaded by a third-party account shortly after it was shown at State of Play.
“People who have worked on every shot of this are no longer with the company holding IP rights,” the description continues. “Some were not even paid for their work. This trailer has a pending conflict of IP. The real IP for the game was stolen from the creators via foul play.”
The statement links to a Dropbox folder with a cache of testimonials, allegations, and other documents made by eight workers who left Estonia-based Limestone Games in June. Chief among them is a statement from Aleksei Nehoroshkin, the former chief creative officer who helped found the studio in 2016.
Nehoroshkin alleges that chief executive Yaroslav Lyssenko oversaw operations that failed to pay artists or properly staff the Aeon Must Die project, leading to severe crunch-time development, among other abuses. As the creative team was dealing with this, Nehoroshkin says Lyssenko was scheming with another investor to take complete control of the studio and its intellectual property. Some documents have been redacted entirely from the cache, while photo evidence of their existence is provided instead.
The developers’ charges quickly spread on social media and gaming forums. The developers said they tried to involve publisher Focus Home Interactive in the crisis developing in their studio, but their warnings and pleas went either unheeded, got a delayed response, or were even transmitted back to Lyssenko by someone at Focus.
In a tweet on Friday, Focus Home Interactive (FHI) responded to the controversy:
“As the publisher of this video game, Focus is carefully looking into these allegations,” the statement says, “and will draw the necessary conclusions if they are proved to be well-founded, and then take all appropriate measures.”
Focus’ statement notably specifies that “these grievances are directed at Limestone, their direct employer,” and that while FHI “was informed of serious allegations raised by some of the developers,” it doesn’t acknowledge when it was told these things.
The trove of allegations and supporting evidence supplied by developers remains available via Dropbox. It comprehensively documents the studio’s founding, the work on Aeon Must Die, and the events and behavior that led to the employees quitting two months ago.
In those documents, Nehoroshkin says that, in an investment arrangement to continue development of Aeon Must Die, he had to put up an apartment he owned as collateral in order for the deal to proceed. Around this time, he says Lyssenko deceived him into signing away his rights, ownership, and representation on Limestone Games’ board of directors.
In the months that followed, Nehoroshkin said, Lyssenko reduced workers’ salaries, but paid them additional cash under the table to “evade taxes and to ensure a broader budget” for the game. Lyssenko, Nehoroshkin says, then negotiated unreasonable deadlines with Focus Home Interactive after the two parties came together at Gamescom. Nehoroshkin said he told Lyssenko that to hit the original second quarter 2019 deadline would require a brutally difficult crunch schedule.
“No one wants to work without weekends and on amphetamines,” Nehoroshkin told Lyssenko in an internal chat. After being blamed for a six-month delay in delivering the game, Nehoroshkin said he found himself working 12 to 16 hour days for more than a year, with only two days a month off. Lyssenko and Limestone’s chief technical officer continually peeled off developers on Aeon Must Die to work on other side projects, leaving him shorthanded and even more overworked, Nehoroshkin alleges.
Focus gave Aeon Must Die a 2021 launch window, for Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One.