Workers Leave Skullgirls Developer Over Studio Head’s Behavior

Illustration for article titled Workers Leave iSkullgirls/i Developer Over Studio Head’s Behavior
Image: Lab Zero Games

Back in June, two people came forward to share their experiences with Mike “Mike Z” Zaimont, longtime fighting game player and lead developer behind indie darling Skullgirls, saying that he made inappropriate sexual comments to them on multiple occasions. Lab Zero Games, the studio behind Skullgirls, has yet to address the allegations, prompting employees to take matters into their own hands.

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“After weeks of trying to make things work out with Mike Z, I have decided to quit my job at Lab Zero Games,” art producer Brian “EU03” Jun wrote on Twitter yesterday afternoon. “I was shocked to read others’ company chat records of Mike Z putting others in extremely uncomfortable situations as well as exerting his position of power to demean and control employees. This was a clear pattern of systemic abuse and lack of empathy while himself refusing to accept feedback and not showing a willingness to change.”

The statement continues with an account of how Lab Zero Games’ dynamics played out behind the scenes after recent allegations against Zaimont. According to Jun, the board of Lab Zero partnered with the rest of the employees in asking Zaimont to step away from his position as sole owner of the studio. Zaimont entered negotiations with the company, but after having his “unrealistically high and potentially illegal” demands rejected, disbanded the board and assumed complete control of Lab Zero.

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“While Mike Z thinks he may be acting what is best for the company, he is clearly in direct opposition to the health of the employees,” Jun continued. “He clearly no longer wishes to negotiate with any sensibility. To do what is best for my friends and colleagues, I’m removing myself from Lab Zero Games.”

Necrosoft Games director Brandon Sheffield, who wrote on Lab Zero Games’ most recent release Indivisible, came forward shortly after Jun to share his own experiences working with Zaimont, which paints the developer as a wildly difficult boss. Zaimont, Sheffield explained, was someone “you had to tiptoe around” due to his poor attitude. Features were “held hostage” depending on whether or not Zaimont felt like working on them.

“It would only get done if you convinced, argued, or pleaded with him for enough days in a row for him to begrudgingly, sadly, do the work while complaining in your DMs,” Sheffield added. He eventually left the company around the same time the prior allegations began to go public.

Since these folks have come forward, several Lab Zero employees have also apparently left the company. Senior artist Jessica Allen announced her own resignation in response to Jun’s statement without naming Zaimont directly, and creative director Mariel Cartwright has removed her affiliation with Lab Zero from her Twitter bio.

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Lab Zero Games was once a promising studio full of incredible artists and designers. While Zaimont may have been the public, driving force behind Skullgirls and Indivisible, even he can’t build games on his own. The future of the studio and its games is currently up in the air—Skullgirls was supposed to receive a long-awaited character next year before this latest round of controversy—but whatever comes next, it will be without the assistance of workers who can no longer deal with one dude’s shit.

Zaimont did not respond to Kotaku’s request for comment.

Update (08/24/20, 4:19 p.m. ET): Cartwright and fellow veteran artist Jonathan Kim have confirmed their departures from Lab Zero Games with separate statements.

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“I tolerated years of sexual comments about my body and clothes, uncomfortable jokes, unwanted hugs,” Cartwright wrote. “He once suggested that I masturbate when I told him I couldn’t sleep, and on another occasion suggested I ‘help’ him with his unfulfilled sexual needs. I did try to talk to him about how I was uncomfortable in 2017, and in return he called me a hypocrite and blamed me for how I dressed. He said he didn’t want sexual harassment training. If I wanted to keep my job, I felt like I had to just deal with it.”

According to several employees, there were plans to convert Lab Zero a worker-owned company with equity before Zaimont assumed 100% ownership.

Staff Writer, Kotaku

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DISCUSSION

People are saying the board is stealing the company from him? No.

When you have a board they can oust you if you fuck up the image of the company or violate company policy. Just because you’re the founder doesn’t mean you own a large share of the company or have voting rights. So it’s not stealing when the board recognizes a threat to the company’s best interest and that interest is selling games and making money. And civil discourse only goes so far when the other party is a whole fuck boi.