The founders of Moon Studios, the indie game developer behind Ori and the Blind Forest, have denied allegations that they both required crunch from their employees and fostered an abusive work place.
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In a recent exposé by Venture Beat, numerous current and former employees alleged that, despite its small size and remote working, they had experienced racism, sexism, and bullying while working at Moon Studios.
Numerous people who had worked in different positions at Moon Studio claimed working there was toxic and oppressive. One developer alleged how individually the incidents were small, but was cumulative.
According to one developer, though the incidents were small, they were cumulative, and thus “When you’re dealing with that for [multiple] years, you’re going to see the decline of people’s mental health.”
“I can say that for myself, personally, I was properly messed up after we finished,” they added. “I’ve never been depressed until that moment. I lost my passion for my job because they drummed it out of me.”
Across the 12,000 word report, most of these complains were leveled against Moon Studio’s leadership – Specifically founders Thomas Mahler and Gennadiy Korol, whose alleged calls for an open and honest “no bullsh*t” workplace was said to be nothing more than a pretense to allow them to be abusive.
This supposedly included public criticism of employees’ work, sometimes with as little feedback as “this is sh*t” or “you f*****g idiot”, and a noted absence of positive recognition.
“He [Mahler] said my ideas made him want to vomit in front of the whole team,” said one developer, while yet another another claimed he saw Mahler call someone’s work “failed abortions.”
Others still asserted Mahler’s failure in feedback stemmed from him being “self-taught and does not have the vocabulary to do it.” When feedback was offered, it was allegedly focusing on minor issues that few would care about.
“Thomas was not able to educate someone on what to do better,” one employee told Venture Beat. “He was putting them in an impossible situation.”
One developer opined that they experienced so much harassment and bigotry that their time at the studio felt akin to suffering a tortuous punishment
“It’s just like this kind of stuff happening on a daily basis,” they said. “I would say it’s death by 1,000 cuts, rather than an execution with an ax, which, frankly, would have been preferable.”
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Another described how they had internalized this supposed feedback, recalling how the positive reactions from fans over Ori and the Blind Forest and Ori and the Will of the Wisps were at one point the only thing keeping them going.
They explained, “We really created something special, and I know the only way I was able to reconcile it was I was able to watch people on Twitch and watch other people get moved by it, and that was actually part of my healing process.”
“Because maybe my suffering was worth it because other people felt something,” the anonymous developer confessed. “In the end, I mean, so many of us were burned out.”
Further, though the two founders marred their demand for quality with conflicting and unclear feedback, regularly changing plans and causing developers to fall off schedule and resort to crunch to compensate. One developer claimed they were working seven days a week for “months.”
A public declaration by Mahler during a 2021 appearance on the The AIAS Game Maker’s Notebook podcast, in which he claimed, “We don’t count your hours. You don’t clock in. As long as your output is good, I don’t care,” was also nothing more than an alleged falsehood.
Turnover was said to be high, with Venture Beat receiving reports of some employees quitting after only a few weeks. In order to combat this, the founders attempted to entice new staff with large bonuses, contingent on whether they stayed on the development team after the game was finished.
“They were just dangling that carrot whenever there was the next push, on top of the already crazy crunch,” said one employee. “They wanted people to crunch even more.”
The founders were also said to have made offensive comments and jokes, such as Mahler allegedly stating, “Tyler is the only person who is aware of my devious plans to kill the Jews by making them work to death through game development.”
The pair would also allegedly joke about topics including the size of their penises, appearances of women, and Hitler.
Venture Beat described how in the alleged chat logs they obtained, the founders were supposedly read using plenty of ‘blue’ language.
In one provided example, a screenshot of internal messages shows Korol telling an assumed employee “nobody cares what you think really,” with Mahler quickly adding, “lol, you’re retarded.”
However, as only these two messages are shown, the exact context of this supposed conversation remains unknown.
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Even though Mahler and Korol were stated to be kinder when met face-to-face, due to COVID-19 lockdown orders, their reported online-based cruelty was given an avenue to thrive.
“They have a mentality where they think they’re not politically correct,” a developer said. “They don’t want to be censored, they don’t want to be corporate. They don’t want to be like these other studios. But it’s just a justification to behave in any way they want to. Other studios attempt to make a comfortable work environment for everyone involved.”
““The no-bulls–t policy is for the two of them to be able to say whatever they want,” posited another employee. “And under the guise of like, ‘we’re just all being honest, human beings, we’re transparent.’ And if you can’t handle it, maybe this isn’t the place for you. You’re too sensitive.”
“They were scared that the company would change,” yet another employee claimed. “It was like they made a point to enforce the anti-woke culture by regularly making inappropriate jokes.”
“It was deliberate,” they proposed. “They had this fear of the company being constrained or shackled by these woke people who would censor us. It was like they were fighting against some invisible censorship.”
While the founders desired to bring aboard veterans, Mahler would allegedly argue with them, overrule their ideas, and even push for the opposite outcome on things he already agreed to.
Some developers were alleged introduced to the team by Mahler insulting their prior work.
“He crapped on the game I worked on and he is hiring me because of that game,” one individual recalled. “In hindsight, I should have seen the signs that this was a weird place.”
Those who couldn’t cope with their comments were allegedly told they were “too sensitive” and that Moon Studio wasn’t for them.
Mahler allegedly told one female developer she was “clutching her pearls” when she argued against something in a game she felt was sexist, and many allegedly kept quiet for fear of insults being hurled their way.
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“Were the founders both belligerent? Yes. In my opinion,” claimed one developer. “Was it limited to those two? Yes. Unprofessional on an hourly basis? Yes. Harassing? Yes.”
Similar comments were found across the handful of reviews for the company on Glassdoor.
Mahler and Korol’s desire to have the last word also stemmed to arguments with one another, with some arguments between them not only taking place during team meetings, but also allegedly lasting over an hour.
After one such exchange, a newly hired contractor remembered, “‘I thought, ‘oh my god, what have I done?’ Is this company going to go under like a week after I joined because the cofounders were so at each other’s throats the entire time and saying ‘fuck your mother’ and all these nasty comments? The big issue with it is the fact that they do it in the public chats.”
Some of the anonymous complainants also noted that they took issue with how Mahler allegedly proposed that a character in their upcoming game – code-named Forsaken and sporting a seemingly “darker narrative” than the studio’s prior Ori game – be raped in order to give them a motive for revenge.
“What the f–k,” said one employee. “We were saying this is a terrible idea. Thomas said he wanted something edgy.” Mahler allegedly relented on this idea after a month of push back from roughly half of the game’s dev team.
In response to Venture Beat’s inquiries about the scene during their writing of the exposé, Korol reportedly told Moon Studios staff, ““Obviously this is not where you can explain the nuances of a creative process, of trying to deal with a very delicate subject like this in terms of writing character development, and the process we go through.”
“Whether or not that was a good idea, well that is beside the point,”he continued “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.”
However, some of those who spoke with Venture Beat admitted they had mixed feelings regarding the founders’ behavior as it ultimately got results.
“Was the feedback given in constructive ways? No,” said one employee to the news outlet. “Was the feedback ultimately constructive? Yes.”
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“Those guys are perfectionists, and they try to do the best whenever they can,” added another. “They are always more focused on what can be improved rather than what is good already. They are also, in my opinion, missing out on celebrating. They’re missing out on praising good things. The core of the approach is correct in what they’re doing, but maybe a bit more praise from time to time could be good, a bit more celebration could be good.”
One developer admitted, “They are very honest on what they want to improve. Sometimes they can be harshly honest. I do believe that most of the time they don’t mean it in bad ways.”
“But when you’re very skewed to one side, sometimes you cross the line a little bit,” they continued, before reiterating the point that Mahler’s feedback “was very lacking sometimes.”
Mahler spoke to these criticisms of his and Korol’s management style during their appearance on the aforementioned AIAS Game Maker’s Notebook podcast, conceding,”I think we maybe criticize things a little bit too much at Moon. We lean on the side of negative feedback a lot of time. That’s how it is.”
“Maybe it goes too far overboard and we need to balance it out with positive feedback,” he considered. “But it sets the tone for what can we do better.”
Given a chance to respond to Venture Beat’s inquiries, Mahler and Korol responded in a join statement, “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,” Mahler and Korol defied. “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,” the pair asserted. “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,” they declared. “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.”
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They then claimed, “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,” the founders explained. “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.”
Turning to the accusations themselves, the two wrote, “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,” they continued. “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,” the two admitted, before further conceding, “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,” affirmed the two. “We have grown and learned so much over all of these years 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,” their statement concluded. “If we have ever made anyone feel uncomfortable or let anyone down — we regret that and we will always strive to do better.”
Yet, this apology was not the end of the situation.
Venture Beat report that after issuing their official statement, Mahler and Korol held a 30-minute private meeting with their current developers to discuss their questions and concerns.
According to details of the call obtained by the outlet, Mahler welcomed team members, “We would like this open and honest environment in every department, and more of a family atmosphere, where people don’t constantly stress that if I say something inappropriate I might get fired immediately. We don’t think that results in a good culture.”
“Let’s have an open culture where people can shoot the shit, have heated arguments — all of that is good,” he insisted. “We are proud of that culture that we created where people can work autonomously and do their thing.”
Nonetheless, Mahler admitted, “I do think that hurt us recently, that we couldn’t do our team retreats because of COVID. We are trying to pull them in now. We always thought Moon should be the best place for people out there, for creatives and so on, to create their best work ever. We have seen that in the games that we made.”
“I never met anybody who worked with us on this who wasn’t super proud of the work that we created. And of the outcome.” Mahler added. “But the idea should also be, on the company side, we should create a super cool environment. Where we are striving to do better and better?”
Mahler and Korol themselves supposedly stated in the meeting that they would be “cleaning up” the text chat.
“If certain things were posted in chats recently, we have been deleting stuff that we don’t feel is appropriate,” Korol informed attendees. “It is what it is. We will have to sit through this and see how it plays out.”
Mahler added, “We have tried to clean up things in the chat. You might have seen that. We are now a fairly big team. We do not ever want to become a corporate environment. We think there is a huge gap between how Moon behaves and a typical games factory. But with size, we have to make sure we conduct ourselves properly.”
“We are now a fairly big team. We do not ever want to become a corporate environment,” he clarified. “We think there is a huge gap between how Moon behaves and a typical games factory. But with size, we have to make sure we conduct ourselves properly.”
Korol then interjected, “I don’t want us to start walking on eggshells. I don’t want us to feel like we’re under surveillance and being watched. I don’t think it is a healthy way to live your life. It’s not a healthy working environment.”
“We need to be professional, but we don’t always need to be looking over our shoulder,” Korol explained, trying to strike a balance on the issue amongst his employees. “You want to talk to people. You want to be human. You want to sometimes have a goofy joke or humor.”
“Who hasn’t made a goofy joke in their life let them throw the first rock,” Korol rhetorically asked. “Of course, there’s a difference between goofy and inappropriate jokes, and those I think shouldn’t happen.”
Mahler further surmised that the time will soon come when the company will be able to once again take part in employee retreats.
“It is time to do team bonding,” he speculated. “Team retreats are not a thing we canceled. Because of the COVID situation. We like it. We love if people can come together. We even want to increase to two a year.”
As for the reaction to the report itself, Mahler opined, “It sucks frankly. We won’t be happy to read bad things about Moon. Gennadiy and I are proud of what we are working on. I see a lot of things that are super positive. Yesterday I was on a long design call. At the end of the day, we will be OK if at the end of the day we conduct ourselves properly and we make stuff people love. That’s where I come from.”
“We been dragged into this public eye of Sauron if you will, and we will have to go through it,” summarized Korol – a reaction which Venture Beat characterized as the founders engaging in self-pity rather than attempting to change.
Mahler allegedly requested Moon Studios staff not speak to journalists directly, but both the founders approved of them responding to negative allegations on social media and defending the company, if they wished to do so.
“It is a bit interesting that some people decide to go to journalists and talk about it after the fact,” Korol said during the call. “What we will do is create an anonymous survey where you guys can talk to us. Anything we can do better. We need to be able to know that. We need to be able to hear it from you. That’s why this will be anonymous.”
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