The Ori games might feature some of the most serene and tranquil environments ever seen in the platforming genre, but a new report suggests that developer Moon Studios is anything but. Current and former employees of Moon Studios spoke with VentureBeat and described the place as an ‘oppressive’ one where casual sexism and racism prevailed.
Based in Vienna, Austria, Moon Studios was founded in 2010 by Thomas Mahler and Gennadiy Korol, a pair of specialists in computer graphics and animation from different sectors. In 2015, the studio released Ori and the Blind Forest, which received critical acclaim for its gorgeous visuals and tight platforming design. It was followed by 2020’s Ori and the Will of the Wisps. Both games were published by Xbox.
Despite the fact that Moon Studios worked primarily via a remote setup that pulled its 80+ employees from across the world, Korol and Mahler still managed to create an environment that was filled with derogatory language peppered with sexism and racism. Such language appears to be the outcome of leadership that claimed to be one where people could speak freely.
“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.”
One dev described their experience at the studio as “death by a thousand cuts,” describing how the positive reception and fan reactions towards their games gave them pride in their work for the studio, and found themselves asking whether the suffering they experienced was worth the results.
In effect, the open and honest workplace served as an environment that allowed for problematic behavior such as language too racist for me to want to quote here and coarse jokes about sexual anatomy. The founders would also criticize the work of employees in public chat and were stingy with praise.
According to VentureBeat, which reviewed evidence of this behavior, there was “plenty of evidence of harsh language in chat sessions that we reviewed.” Their report goes on to say that although quality work was valued, the founders “gave conflicting or unclear directions when it came to feedback” and “pushed for changes that threw devs off schedule and contributed to crunch.”
The remote set up that allowed Moon Studios to have a global reach in its work force also ended up blurring time zones. The founders were said to be “kinder in person,” but because the global pandemic made getting together for retreats difficult, the harsh online culture came to prevail over the more benign in-person one.
There is currently no claim of unlawful action nor are lawsuits being filed, but experiences at Moon Studios have definitely shaken many who worked or currently work there. Some who left say they were left scarred with mental health problems, while others say that they felt it was their duty to describe their experiences, so that others who apply for the studio or receive offers are better informed.
“If people accept [the culture] as a condition of going to work, then more power to them. Good luck and I hope they manage,” said one developer. “But if a lot of good, well-meaning, and talented people decide they don’t want to step foot into a place like that, then I’m happy. I hope that this helps in that respect.” Another said, “My aim is for people to know about Moon, and so that no one else gets hurt. I want to prevent other people from basically falling into that trap.”
“The people who were involved in the process of making the story and the art [of Moon Studios’ games], we care a lot about what we do and what we did,” said one game developer. “And it was genuine. We were not tricking you into crying. We really wanted to make something emotional. It is very strange to see the contrast of what we were making and the conditions under which we were working.”
And while there as a suggestion from one developer that Moon Studios should hire human resources leaders to make the company more professional, another said they believed that as perfectionists, Mahler and Korol would never change. If you want to you can read the full report at VentureBeat, and if you do, strap yourself in for a heart-breaking 25,000 word read.