The most exciting trailer in Sony's hour-long PlayStation livestream on Thursday was for Aeon Must Die, a wildly over-the-top sci-fi brawler being made by an indie studio in Estonia and published by Focus Home Interactive. On June 22, a month and a half before that trailer debuted, those developers sent an email to the heads of Focus Home Interactive with a clear, desperate message: Help.
"For the last three years we've put all our strength and heart into the creation of this game. [Aeon Must Die] was and still is our collective passion and dream that we want to bring into this world with the care and love it deserves," begins the email. "But due to an unbearable workplace environment created and nurtured by the management of the company we are forced to end our relations with Limestone Games."
The team behind Aeon Must Die alleged that they had endured months of crunch, unpaid overtime, burnout, and a "toxic atmosphere" created by "psychological abuse and dehumanization of various team members by the company." After emailing Focus, eight devs resigned from Limestone Games and formed a new company, hoping to save Aeon Must Die with the publisher's backing. So far, that backing hasn't materialized.
The team was still in limbo when their trailer debuted during State of Play on August 6th. The logo for Limestone Games, the company they once worked at, was right there, even though the development team—including creative director Aleksei Nehoroshkin, who founded Limestone Games—had left 45 days before. Moments after the trailer ran, someone shared a different cut of the trailer with "Truth in description" added to the title and a Dropbox folder full of documents, including the letter to Focus Home Entertainment and detailed testimonials related to the working conditions at Limestone Games. A tweet linking to the Dropbox went viral, spreading the story.
On Friday, Focus posted a statement saying that it 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," and that "these grievances are directed at Limestone, their direct employer." But that's not exactly true anymore, as Nehoroshkin and the rest of his team have been desperately trying to communicate with the publisher for more than a month.
"We're completely our own thing, and there's these fucking tentacles of Limestone Games still all around us," Nehoroshkin told me in a Discord call today. Aeon Must Die was his dream game. He founded the studio to make it and hired the CEO, the eventual source of many of the team's complaints, to be his "sword and shield" and handle the finances. "If there was some legal question I'd just come to him. It's gullible, but I knew him as a kid. As kids we were LARPing together and shit. I have pictures of that. It's so sad looking at them now," he said.
Nehoroshkin recounted questionable or missing contracts for developers who contributed to Aeon Must Die, missing overtime pay, and complete burnout among the team, who were allegedly pushed to near-constant crunch to meet unrealistic deadlines under threat of losing the intellectual property. That was one of the earliest red flags that something was deeply wrong at the studio, he said, because as the founder, he'd never signed a contract that gave up his claim to the IP. "I didn't know it was even signed," he said. "I thought if I didn't sign it, it wasn't signed yet. I was always told that we just had a letter of intent."
Earlier this year, the Aeon Must Die team tried to convince Limestone's investor to replace the CEO, but their proposal was rejected. That was when they decided to reach out to their publisher as a last-ditch solution. (Focus Home Interactive and the CEO of Limestone Games did not respond to requests for comment for this article.)
"It was one year of psycho terror," Nehoroshkin said. "I was so done. Everyone was so done. It was out of control. I almost killed myself—not literally, but just, complete burnout."
When Nehoroshkin finally got his hands on the CEO's contract with Focus Home Entertainment, he and the Aeon Must Die team devised a plan. In their view, Limestone Games' management had already broken the terms of the contract with abusive workplace conditions and corrupt finances. In the event of such a breach, he said, Focus had two options: It was able to sell its stake in the IP back to the developer in exchange for a full return of its invested money up to that point, or it could "just take the whole IP and say fuck off."
The team pinned its hopes on Focus doing the latter, severing ties with Limestone Games and letting the newly independent developers finish Aeon Must Die. "We were willing for them to have 100 percent of the IP, and we'd offer ourselves to them to finish the game," Nehoroshkin said. The team is still holding out hope for that to happen. Their resignation left them in financially shaky positions, especially Nehoroshkin. He put up his apartment for collateral for the company, where he no longer works, to secure investment in 2016.
Nehoroshkin says that many of the problems that festered at Limestone came about because the developers were so invested in Aeon Must Die—their passion was taken advantage of as they crunched and for months on end, short-staffed and underpaid. Despite all that's happened, though, they still feel the same way today.
"All we want is for [Limestone's management] to like, go into some separate reality, legally, where we don't exist to each other, and just forget about it," he said. "We don't want any of them to be harmed, get any threats. We just want them to not exist in our world. Let my grandma live in my fucking flat, leave that shit be ... This game was everything for me. It was a super gamble for me, and I'm glad that at least something's happening. I couldn't let it go. No one could let it go, on the team. That's why we're still all together, and survived through this."
For now, the former developers have been speaking to the Estonian chapter of the IGDA for support. They have a lawyer who's dealing with the legal fallout of leaving Limestone Games, who I've reached out to for more details. Focus Home Interactive's statement says that it 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." The hanging question is whether those measures will give the creators of Aeon Must Die a chance to finish their game.