Moon Studios’ Ori games are some of the most excellent and beautiful platformers around. Some developers now claim that the same can’t be said for the founders of the studio that made them. According to a new report by VentureBeat, current and former developers say Moon could be an “oppressive” place to work where casual sexism and racism were tolerated.
Content warning: rape.
Headquartered in Vienna, Austria, Moon Studios was founded in 2010 by Thomas Mahler and Gennadiy Korol. It released Ori and the Blind Forest in 2015 to much acclaim, and a similarly praised sequel called Ori and the Will of the Wisps in 2020. Both were published by Microsoft. Despite having a predominantly remote workforce spread out across the world, however, developers told VentureBeat Mahler and Korol still managed to foster a toxic work atmosphere that included sexist jokes and derogatory remarks.
One screencap of a work chat shared in the report shows Korol writing, “nobody cares what you think really” followed by Mahler writing, “lol, you’re retarded,” though it’s not clear who the remarks are directed at. VentureBeat also reports that after one long meeting, Mahler concluded by typing, “I really need a woman.”
“The founders said they ran an open workplace where people could speak their minds freely,” writes VentureBeat. “They could say anything and not have to worry about getting fired. It was a ‘no bullshit’ studio. But that left the door open for the founders to insult each other — and anyone else they felt like demeaning in public or private, according to almost all of the developers we interviewed.”
“We don’t believe the experiences suggested by [VentureBeat’s] questions are representative of the more than 80 Moon Studios team members who are thriving and doing great work every day — nor do we believe they are representative of the experiences of former members of our team,” Mahler and Korol wrote in a statement to VentureBeat. “We are not perfect but we deeply care about our talent and are constantly working hard to improve. If we have ever made anyone feel uncomfortable or let anyone down — we regret that and we will always strive to do better.”
Moon Studios is currently working on its next game, code-named Forsaken. According to VentureBeat, it will be much darker compared to the Ori games, and at one point during the development process Mahler insisted on having the main character’s origin story revolve around rape.
“This rape scene would supposedly create the motivation for the sweet, small-town character to do the ‘badass’ things they do in the rest of the game,” VentureBeat writes. It was controversial among the other developers, and Mahler reportedly eventually backed down, but only after “weeks of arguments.”
Moon Studios did not immediately respond to a request for comment (Update: 3/18/22, 4:01 p.m.: The studio provided Kotaku with the same statement it gave VentureBeat but declined to comment further). Mahler and Korol did not directly address any of the above allegations in a statement to VentureBeat, but did reportedly discuss them in a meeting with staff before the story was published.
“Whether or not that was a good idea, well that is beside the point,” Korol told the staff, according to VentureBeat. “But obviously trying to paint the narrative that there is a deeper bad thing going on. It’s a bit of an unfair thing, to be frank. The way this article will characterize things might be unfair. That doesn’t mean we are perfect. It doesn’t mean we cannot improve or should not improve.”
Regarding disparaging remarks in work chats, Mahler reportedly said in the staff meeting that efforts had been made to”clean up things in the chat,” though Korol added that he didn’t want the studio to have to “start walking on eggshells.”
The allegations come as more and more game developers are speaking out, either publicly or through press reports, about how they are treated at the studios behind beloved games. As complaints about misconduct and crunch continue pouring out, companies both big and small across the games industry have been implicated.
Microsoft did not immediately respond to a request for comment about anything it knew about working conditions at Moon Studios while it was a publishing partner, or any systems it has in place to audit them. It is currently in the middle of closing a deal to buy Activision Blizzard, where lawsuits and media investigations beginning last summer alleged widespread sexual harassment and discrimination.
Here is the full statement Moon Studios provided to VentureBeat:
We don’t believe the experiences suggested by your questions are representative of the more than 80 Moon Studios team members who are thriving and doing great work every day — nor do we believe they are representative of the experiences of former members of our team. In fact, we are very proud of our history of making people happy, advancing their careers, and contributing to their financial success.
We built Moon Studios with a simple premise. First, we wanted to create a distributed studio that is not limited by geographic boundaries enabling us to draw the top talent from around the world. Second, we wanted to foster a vibrant culture where our team thrives and delivers the very best work in our industry. And finally, from day one we set out to share the profits and rewards of our efforts with the full team. We believe we have succeeded.
What makes our team so powerful is our global and cultural diversity — we have team members working from more than 40 different countries across four continents — and a flat studio structure that allows everyone to speak honestly and directly and to challenge and push each other to do our very best work. We purposely set out to create a different kind of studio — one that encourages creativity, open communication, collaboration, and performance.
The result has been two award-winning games — with more on the horizon — and a team of professionals who enjoy working together, are excelling and breaking new ground in our industry, while also sharing in the financial success of Moon Studios. If at times we are brutally direct in our critiques and challenges, we are also genuine and vocal in our praise. We are incredibly proud of everything we have built and achieved together.
Finally, we appreciate the irony that we — an Austrian and an Israeli Jew — started this multicultural enterprise. We view each other as brothers. And, like brothers, we sometimes argue and frequently tease each other. We have made jokes at our own expense about the differences in our backgrounds — and there may have been times that our teasing of each other has come off as insensitive and may have made others feel uncomfortable.
Moon Studios has prospered for 12 years. We have grown and learned so much over all of these years. We have been privileged to work with many, many great, and extremely talented people. We are truly grateful and proud of our team — those who are here today as well as those who spent time at Moon and have since moved to other ventures – and we are happy to have made a positive difference in their lives. We are not perfect but we deeply care about our talent and are constantly working hard to improve. If we have ever made anyone feel uncomfortable or let anyone down — we regret that and we will always strive to do better.