3 years after he faced sexual harassment allegations, new fighting game Diesel Legacy is giving disgraced Skullgirls developer Mike Zaimont a chance to prove he's now 'fundamentally different'

Diesel Legacy fighting game
(Image credit: Modus Games)

In June 2020, less than two weeks after the murder of George Floyd, the lead designer of indie fighting game Skullgirls made an "I can't breathe" joke while commentating an official tournament. Mike Zaimont's words hung in the air for an uncomfortable 13 seconds of silence from the other two commentators before he spoke again. Zaimont apologized on Twitter later the same day, but that joke ignited a chain reaction that would, within three months, lead to the collapse of the studio just as it was starting a new multi-year project.

He hurt everybody at Lab Zero, and there was no reason for it. Things could've been a lot better if he'd just tried to be a good person

Former Lab Zero coworker

On June 29, as employees at Lab Zero were still grappling with how to publicly and privately deal with the stream incident, two fighting game community cosplayers accused Zaimont of making uncomfortable sexual comments. By late August, several of Lab Zero's developers had quit the company, citing years of similarly inappropriate behavior internally.

"Almost every employee had a story where Mike abused his position of power," wrote senior animator Jonathan Kim in a tweet on August 24. Kim accused Zaimont of "frequently mentioning his genitals, forcing unwanted physical contact, making sexual comments about himself or about employee's bodies, insulting coworkers privately or openly in front of other coworkers, or using very personal details to threaten or demean coworkers when they didn't go along with what he wanted." By the end of the month, after more high profile departures, Zaimont—who had previously acquired sole ownership of the company after buying out the former CEO's shares—laid off all of Lab Zero's remaining staff.

Since then Zaimont has had little public presence online, but he hasn't left game development. For approximately the last two years, Zaimont has been a programmer on Diesel Legacy: The Brazen Age, a new 2v2 indie fighter from publisher Modus Games announced on Sunday. It's an exciting project: indie fighting games are rare, and rarer still are ones that try to do something notably different in the genre. In addition to its striking hand-drawn art, Diesel Legacy is marrying classic Street Fighter-style combos with a bit of the chaos of Super Smash Bros, with three 2D "lanes" for four players to fight in simultaneously.

I played an in-development build of Diesel Legacy, and even unfinished it ran impressively smoothly online—borderline miraculous when you consider that many 1v1 fighting games from bigger developers are only now adopting rollback netcode, the ideal networking style for low latency combat. Diesel Legacy seems to gracefully handle the addition of two more characters with its own rollback implementation, and I had fun immediately picking up some basic combos with the kinds of command inputs I'm familiar with from Street Fighter. I found it a bit awkward knowing which direction to be facing at a given time when pinched between two enemies, but the three "lanes" open up options for sidestepping and deeper movement options than 2D fighters typically have. Zaimont's expertise on Skullgirls, and in particular his experience with rollback netcode, led to his role on Diesel Legacy.

You have to have a path for people to learn and improve. You have to create a way for them to show the world that they've changed and decided to do better

Christina Seelye, Modus CEO

Before debuting Diesel Legacy, CEO of Modus (and also its parent company Maximum Entertainment) Christina Seelye spoke with me about hiring Zaimont to work on the game, despite the accusations of inappropriate behavior against him. "I am one of the few women that are CEOs and making games in this entire industry. In the couple years since I made that decision [to hire Mike], I'm one of two women CEOs that are running publicly listed companies in the whole industry, in the world. I did not take this decision lightly," Seelye said.

"That said, when I was talking to Mike and went through the process of figuring out where he was at—if you want to have an inclusive environment in the world, and you want to have diverse viewpoints, all of the things we want for DEI, you have to have a path for people to learn and improve. You have to create a way for them to show the world that they've changed and decided to do better. And I really got that from Mike. I got that he was committed to it and that he didn't want everything that went down to be the end of his story. He wanted the opportunity to have the redemptive arc that's in so many stories that we all love."

Multiple former Lab Zero developers I spoke with, however, expressed skepticism that Zaimont has changed—and also expressed frustration that he had been unwilling to do so in 2020.

"We did everything we could to help him come through this cleanly and improve himself as a person, and he refused every single thing we did to try to improve the situation," said one former coworker. "He refused it all, and only hardened and only became worse to everyone involved who was trying to help him. He hurt everybody at Lab Zero, and there was no reason for it. Things could've been a lot better if he'd just tried to be a good person.

"I know that sounds insane, but if he'd just tried to work with us and improve, we were all there for it."

Ground zero

In recent weeks I've spoken with four former Lab Zero developers, who all asked to be quoted anonymously when speaking about Zaimont. They independently corroborated the major events that led up to their departure from the studio, including:  

  • Employees discussing Zaimont's behavior and realizing that he had a history of making sexual, cruel, or otherwise inappropriate comments in their private interactions
  • More than one conversation with Zaimont after the George Floyd joke where he was given the chance to commit to addressing behavioral issues, which he did not do, before he was asked to leave the company
  • Zaimont failing to follow through on a plan to turn Lab Zero into an employee-owned company with all employees receiving equity, which he had "held over [them] like a carrot"

Lab Zero's implosion still looms over two people in particular: former creative director Mariel Cartwright and former CEO Francesca Esquenazi, both of whom were also on Lab Zero's board of directors. In April 2021, the pair sued the company—now solely owned by Zaimont—over wrongful termination and retaliation. Zaimont then counter-sued, claiming a lengthy list of infractions including "breach of implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing," "misappropriation of trade secrets" and "intentional interference with contractual relations." Both suits remain unresolved.

Three of the people I spoke with had strong words about the contents of Mike's cross-complaint: "deranged" and "full of ad hominem attacks" said one. Another characterized it as full of "super off-the-rails stuff and philosophical screeds."

Where two of the former coworkers I interviewed described team conversations with Zaimont where they offered to help him change his behavior after the George Floyd joke, Zaimont's lawsuit characterizes those conversations very differently. "During the second meeting that included me, Mariel and Francesca encouraged all employees to bash me in front of each other and thereby fostered hatred and negativity toward me. Mariel and Francesca repeatedly admonished me to be quiet and yelled at me. I started to cry during the meeting and was forced to explain my Autism Spectrum Disorder to the entire company," Zaimont states in the suit.

Skullgirls Encore

Skullgirls Encore circa 2014. Many former Lab Zero employees left to form Future Club, a cooperatively owned game studio that continues to develop the game as Skullgirls Second Encore (Image credit: Autumn Games)

Two of the former employees were particularly bothered by the way Mike invoked Autism Spectrum Disorder in his lawsuit. 

"He uses his autism as a defense of his behavior, which I think is particularly insidious—I personally know plenty of people on the spectrum who don't behave like creeps, and it's insulting that he would throw an entire community under the bus to make himself look helpless and unaware of his actions," one told me.

Both lawsuits paint a picture of a messy dissolution and hurt feelings for all parties, but many of the conversations Zaimont cites seem to be attempts to justify his behavior as appropriate rather than deny it.

Cartwright and Esquenazi allege in the lawsuit that "Zaimont engaged in a pervasive campaign of sexual harassment through generalized sexual and harassing comments" including "frequent unwanted touching" and "unprompted, unwelcome, and inappropriate comments about Ms. Cartwright and Ms. Esquenazi’s bodies, dress, and sexuality."


Lab Zero's Indivisible had a troubled development, and the team was still working on DLC when the company fell apart. (Image credit: 505)

In his cross-complaint, Zaimont claims that Cartwright "routinely facilitated written and oral conversations with me relating to sex, sexual orientation, urination, menstruation, porn, plastic surgery, body image, etc… Based on these conversations, Mariel gave me the impression that no topic was off limits, but rather that these topics were welcomed and ordinary in the course of our friendship."

In the first example he cites of one such sexual conversation, Cartwright is complaining over Slack about her past experiences being "hit on, leered at, touched and grabbed."

"If ANY of that kinda shit happens when I'm around you tell me," Zaimont responded.

"He has never stopped pursuing Mariel and Francesca in court. This basically makes it clear he has never repented for anything he's ever done," one former employee said. "I think I, and most of the team, would be willing and understanding that people are allowed second chances and allowed to move forward with their lives, but only when they understand what's happened and are willing to put in the work. He has in fact worked in the opposite direction this whole time." 

Diesel Legacy

Diesel Legacy has familiar fighting game moves, but in a unique 2v2 format (Image credit: Modus Games)

If he treats the other team members better than how he treated us, good on him, good on them

Former Lab Zero developer

Outside the complaints of harassment, the former Lab Zero developers characterized Zaimont as difficult to work with—unwilling to compromise on design, bad at managing his time, and prone to retaliate against coworkers who made decisions he disagreed with, though he was obviously a skilled programmer. A couple of Zaimont's former coworkers invoked the "genius" stereotype of a skilled developer whose problems with teamwork end up making things worse for everyone else around them.

"I looked up to him as a game developer, and admired his dedication to his work, which I now look back on as a pretty toxic crunch mentality," one said of the fraught development of Lab Zero's last game, Indivisible. That aligned with another developer's description of Zaimont crunching overnight and then being upset with another employee for working the nine-to-five schedule they were paid for.

In speaking about Zaimont's work on Diesel Legacy, Christina Seelye said that in her opinion, Zaimont had learned that being in a leadership role where he had to design, make big decisions and guide a team "was not his skill set." He's focused on the online rollback netcode, and has no direct reports on the team. Seelye also used the word genius to describe his work on the netcode and called it an "amazing technical feat," but said that she'd been clear during the hiring process that she "was not willing to trade bad behavior for genius." 

"This is not a scenario where he's difficult to work with and making people on the team mad, and we're saying 'oh it's okay because he's so amazing at what he does.' No assholes. Just a straight, no assholes policy," she said. "So I don't believe, today, that I am trading genius for bad behavior. I think that what we're doing is, people have strengths and weaknesses, and they have the ability to do really good work and they have the ability to not do great work if they're in a bad situation."

Diesel Legacy art director Giancarlo Montalbano also praised Zaimont when I reached out to him privately. "We couldn’t have done what we've done on Diesel Legacy if there wasn’t a great working relationship, in my opinion," he said over email. "This team has been creatively firing on all cylinders from day one, and that has to do with conduct as much as it does proficiency. This kind of game is notoriously complex in its execution, requiring an almost perfect handshake between design and art/animation production. ANY poor relationships or conduct on the team would be detrimental to what we are trying to do here. Mike consistently outpaces almost everyone on the team in his general levity and attentiveness to people’s creative needs. The entire team has successfully created strong, productive, and professional working relationships, in my observance. I will tell you that, in my career, this is some of the best team synergy I've ever experienced."

One of the former Lab Zero developers I spoke with told me that they warned Modus Games that hiring Zaimont would be a red flag to other indie developers. Two others expressed that they hoped he had changed, and did think he had a right to make a living doing what he does best. "If he treats the other team members better than how he treated us, good on him, good on them," said one.

The fourth former coworker strongly disagreed.

"When I heard that Modus were going to work with him, I was like: that is disgusting. They are disgusting. It's disgusting they'd work with him because they clearly don't care about female game developers—the public record was there of his continued harassment of two ex-coworkers."

Seelye knew that in announcing Diesel Legacy, the studio would be under scrutiny for Zaimont's involvement, and went back and forth on how to address it. Ultimately, she said, they decided to "lead with the truth and hope that works."

Diesel Legacy fighting game

(Image credit: Modus Games)

"I'm not sure it's appropriate to say who has changed and who hasn't changed," said Seelye. "I can only talk about my experience with him, and the team's experience with him. There's a team of 30 people who have all been working together for the past couple years, and those guys have worked very effectively together. We have not seen any of the behavior that caused a lot of the problems that he had previously in his career. Has he changed? Has he not changed? I don't know. And I don't know if you can say that about somebody else.

"But what I can say is the behavior that everyone is experiencing with him is fundamentally different, phenomenally different, than what was happening. By his own admission—he would say he's completely changed how he deals with issues, how he deals with pressure, his team member interaction. By his own admission, and by me seeing it."

Zaimont has remained out of the public spotlight since 2020, and the lawsuit over the fate of Lab Zero continues to crawl through the legal system, with a hearing scheduled for August. The outcome may eventually provide some closure for the the three people directly involved, but it can't answer the question of how the games industry deals with preventing abuse, and reckoning with who gets forgiveness.

Wes Fenlon
Senior Editor

Wes has been covering games and hardware for more than 10 years, first at tech sites like The Wirecutter and Tested before joining the PC Gamer team in 2014. Wes plays a little bit of everything, but he'll always jump at the chance to cover emulation and Japanese games.

When he's not obsessively optimizing and re-optimizing a tangle of conveyor belts in Satisfactory (it's really becoming a problem), he's probably playing a 20-year-old Final Fantasy or some opaque ASCII roguelike. With a focus on writing and editing features, he seeks out personal stories and in-depth histories from the corners of PC gaming and its niche communities. 50% pizza by volume (deep dish, to be specific).