© Screenshot: Focus Entertainment A fighter picks up an enemy and holds it overhead while standing on a bridge in Aeon Must Die.
Today, the beat-’em-up Aeon Must Die comes out for PC, Switch, Xbox, and PlayStation. A day ahead of its release, some of the game’s original developers—now at a different, newly formed studio—have published a statement requesting that the game’s publisher and developer “complete their legal responsibilities.” That means, among other things, proving unequivocally that Focus did not commit any theft of intellectual property, as the original developers allege.
Let’s back up a minute. Focus Entertainment, the mid-sized French publisher behind games like A Plague Tale: Innocence and Aliens: Fireteam Elite, first revealed Aeon Must Die at a Sony State of Play event last year. Fans immediately took stock of its lavish sci-fi art and crunchy-looking combat. But that same day, as reported by Kotaku, former developers who’d worked on the game accused the studio, Limestone Games, of abuse, manipulation, overwork, and other issues that indicate a culture of harassment. What’s more, they accused Limestone Games of intellectual property (IP) theft for assets used in Aeon Must Die.
At the time, eight developers, including studio co-founder and chief creative officer Aleksei Nehoroshkin, left the studio in response to the issues they’d experienced there. Here’s where it gets weird.
A third-party upload of the trailer (presumably by Nehoroshkin and his colleagues) alleged that it was produced by unpaid work, much of it outside work hours, and that the game was currently tied up in an IP dispute. That trailer links to a Dropbox cache containing a trove of documents supporting the claims. In the wake of the collective staff departure, Nehoroshkin and his colleagues claimed that Limestone Games held onto the IP for Aeon Must Die and its visual assets through what sure seems like a case of fuckery. According to the statement published today, which admits that Focus and Limestone hold some rights to the game, Nehoroshkin never signed any contract relinquishing full rights of creative work that he says he created on his own dime and time.
“Focus Home Interactive was informed of serious allegations raised by some of the developers at Limestone who have worked on the creation of the video game Aeon Must Die,” Focus Entertainment, then known as Focus Home Interactive, said in a statement. “As the publisher of this video game, Focus is carefully looking into these allegations and will draw the necessary conclusions if they are proved to be well-founded, and then take all appropriate measures.”
For a while, that was the last word. In the interim, the former developers founded Mishura Games. They’re currently working on a lavishly stylised roguelike beat-’em-up, called Immortal: And The Death That Follows, that one could say bears some resemblance to the creators’ previous work. (Immortal “is not a continuation, expansion or in any way connected to Aeon Must Die,” Mishura said in today’s statement, while noting that every bit of the game was created from the ground up.)
Then, earlier this summer, Aeon Must Die popped up again. In August, Focus Entertainment republished the trailer to its YouTube channel. Mishura responded with surprise, saying that the “IP issue” remains unsolved and claiming that most of the animation work on the trailer remains unpaid. As reported by Eurogamer, Arsen Shakhbabyan, an animator who worked on the game, filed a copyright claim, taking the trailer down. But the trailer’s back up. According to yesterday’s statement, YouTube reinstated the listing in the absence of any court proceedings. (Mishura Games, which has allegedly spent nearly 60,000 euros on this whole mess, says it’s not quite flush enough at the moment to pursue legal action via the courts.)
“Focus is deliberately ignoring the issue of Arsen Shakhbabyan here, we have proven to both Focus and Youtube at this point that he never had a contract and did creative work that was then exploited,” Nehoroshkin told Kotaku.
Earlier this week, Focus Entertainment published a statement on Twitter saying that it brought on two independent law firms to audit the matter. That same statement, organized as a FAQ, is currently pinned as the top comment on the YouTube trailer for Aeon Must Die.
“No results [of the investigations] were given to either us privately or publicized,” Nehoroshkin told Kotaku.
That brings us to where we are today. You can read Mishura’s full statement here, but the broad-stroke requests are threefold:
For Limestone Games to publicize any contract Nehoroshkin may have signed relinquishing IP rights;For Limestone Games and Focus Entertainment to prove that Shakhbabyan was paid for his work;For Focus Entertainment to publish the results from the independent legal investigations it conducted into the matter.
When reached for comment, Focus Entertainment and Limestone Games provided this statement, pasted below in full, to Kotaku:
Focus Home Interactive and Limestone Game are the only intellectual property rights holders of Aeon Must Die. All employees who worked for Limestone Games signed an employment contract providing a formal assignment of intellectual property rights for their work on the project. Aleksei Nehoroshkin is no exception. He was hired as creative director of Limestone Games under an employment contract duly signed, including a formal assignment of intellectual property rights. Focus has no intention to release publicly to the mass audience any extract of this agreement (or any other agreement) since such contracts are confidential information and we are respectful to our contractual undertakings. Also, we draw your attention to the fact that Aleksei Nehoroshkin was a shareholder and an executive of the company at the time of the alleged wrongdoing he is so vocal about and therefore accountable as such. Moreover he still is a shareholder of Limestone Games up to this very day. We are nothing but sorry for those former employees who seem convinced about their accusations. However all claims remain unsubstantiated despite investigations led by two law firms and one Estonian authority - and Focus has no role in a dispute between ex-employees and their former employer.
Nehoroshkin told Kotaku that, yes, he’s a shareholder, but noted that he’s never tried to deny that fact—and that he proposed to sell those shares, but was offered “around [10 percent]” of a fair price. He also pointed out that, as a co-founder of Limestone, he was never “hired,” saying that Oleg Tsurikov, the chief technology officer, was the first to join. (According to LinkedIn, Tsurikov joined the company in May 2017.) In Mishura’s public legal statement, Nehoroshkin maintains that he did not sign a contract giving up IP rights. Further, he told Kotaku that Focus has yet to share with them the results of the investigations.
“Claims of investigations being held are unsubstantiated,” Nehoroshkin said. “At the very least, the one-sided nature of those, and complete exclusion of the former employees from the proceedings, is questionable.”
Correction, 10:35 a.m. ET: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Mishura Games demanded payment. Kotaku regrets the error. We’ve also updated the piece to include a statement from Focus Entertainment and comments from Alexsei Nehoroshkin, and changed the headline to better reflect the contents of the story.