Diktor Geenius Interview

This in an interview done on the 14th of August 2020 by the Diktor Geenius. This is a translation of the original article by permission of Diktor Geenius

BIG INTERVIEW: The scandalous Estonian game developers are responding to harsh accusations

Limestone Games employees. From left: Suhaib Rehman Khan, Jaroslav Lysenko, Mihkel Haav, Oleg Tsurikov, Sergei Kirillov.

The biggest scandal in the history of the Estonian gaming industry has erupted around the local gaming studio Limestone Games. Company founder Alexei Nehoroshkin and a handful of colleagues resigned on June 22, accusing Limestone’s management and especially CEO Jaroslav Lysenko of creating a toxic work environment, corruption, illegal takeovers, unpaid overtime and many other sins

In an exclusive interview with Geenius Diktor Limestone Games employees talk straight and pass on their version of the events that ended up with the quarrel. In addition to Limestone CEO Jaroslav Lõssenko, other interviewees are the studio’s co-founder and partner Oleg Tsurikov, project manager and designer Mihkel Haav, 3D artist and modeler Sergei Kirillov and programmer Igor Puskar.

On August 6th, millions of pairs of eyes saw Limestone’s long-in-the-works game “Aeon Must Die!” latest trailer for Sony’s hugely popular State of Play event. At the same time, the developers who left the studio uploaded a Dropbox folder to the Internet, which contained highly detailed descriptions of several violations by Limestone’s management. Some of these violations were unethical and immoral, others directly criminal.

We are famous!

If you found out that sensitive Dropbox documents had been made public, what was your reaction?

The room laughs out loud at the question. The accusations of Nehoroshkin and his associates at Limestone Games are not seen as a threat.

Sergei: It’s just funny.

Igor: That’s right, that was the reaction.

However, the content of the documents is very serious

Sergei: There is nothing serious here.

Igor: If you know what the situation has been like in the studio for the last three years, and then at some point you see such documents, then yes, it seems really funny.

Jaroslav: I came to the office that morning (the day after the publication of the Dropbox documents, ed.) And I couldn’t guess what emotions people had here. Sony had just selected our game and showed it at such a big event.

This is a huge achievement. A small Estonian indie game made by poor guys based on pure passion reaching a big Sony event. So when I came to the office after the leak, I couldn’t think of what was going on here.

But when I arrived, everyone was in a good mood. Throw a high five, we’re famous! everyone is talking about us.

I definitely want to emphasize that the work on “Aeon Must Die!” continues. The studio currently employs 12 people and the core of the team is still there. 

However, the documents mention that the game is currently in a very poor state and there are few developers left in Limestone.

Jaroslav: That is a very strange statement. They (the departed employees, ed.) Also worked on this game and even if it were in a bad condition, it would mean that they did a bad job and owe the company something for it. I don’t know, I need to talk to my lawyers about this.

Oleg: The deadlines have been met and we are moving forward.

You have mentioned that you refute the charges against you. If this is all a big fiction, why are Aleksei and the other departed employees accusing you in so many different things in great detail?

Jaroslav: It seems to me that the other side is trying to bomb us with a lot of accusations to see if anything is going to stick. Maybe they were offered money for it?

Jaroslav refuses to explain this comment further. Sergei points out that Nehoroshkin has already set up a new company with employees who have left Limestone. The company was founded on June 29, and all its employees, together with Nehoroshkin, are members of the board.

Jaroslav: There are facts in Dropbox documents, like our Discord conversations. If you look at it from one side, you think that Yaroslav is horrible, he is forcing people to work. If you look at things from the board, you will see that, yes, some people need to be reminded of deadlines. I’m just telling people that they should get their things ready.

It should not be forgotten that Aleksei is still the owner of Limestone. Therefore, the success of this company is especially important for him. If he works insanely overtime himself, he invests in the company and I think he understands that very well. He says that he is being bullied, but in the end he is the one who sees the profit from the dividends. 

Oleg: Since we don’t have any communication with the departed employees, we don’t know what they want. They have not demanded anything from us. We have tried to engage in dialogue many times, but nothing has happened. 

Jaroslav: I have told my lawyers to try to find a middle road and find out what the other side wants. At first, they only communicated through Focus Home Interactive (“Aeon Must Die”! Distributor in France, ed.), But it seems to me that they will soon be ready to talk to us through their lawyer.

There has been no conflict

Fabrication or not, the conflict that has arisen is completely real. How do you explain what is happening to you? 

Mihkel: In my opinion, it has happened that personal problems have been brought to the professional sphere. Some people had a conflict, mainly Aleksei and Yaroslavl. It does not get an immediate solution and boils finally over until one party decides to make absolutely all the problems personal. All kinds of worries and conflicts came to light at the company level. 

Jaroslav: I completely disagree with Mihkel. We did not have any personal conflict with Aleksei.

Yes, we had problems like ordinary people. We argue, we get back together and we discuss things and move on. These are just different everyday things. If you have a sister or brother, you love them, but there are times when things don’t work out.

So I have no idea what happened. For me, it all happened in one day. I only started to receive information about this situation after I received the resignations on 22th of June, after I received information from various people that action had been taken behind my back. I was ignorant and absolutely could not understand what had happened.

If the problem really started between Yaroslav and Aleksei, how are the people who left together with Aleksei  involved?

Oleg: Most of the people who left worked for us for a very short time. Some for one month, others two. A few were also longer-term employees.

There was no big scandal here. There was nothing. One of the people who left even came to me and said thank you, Oleg, for your support and help. At the time, I didn’t know about the resignation that had landed on Yaroslav’s desk a few moments ago, and I was like,  wait, did he leave?

Jaroslav: I had noticed a small change in one employee. We usually talked because we have similar hobbies. And I noticed that he was kind of in a bad mood. I asked him about it and he replied that he did not want to talk to me. I said okay, I’m not putting pressure on you. Everyone here can say that I am a very bad boss because I never impose myself, but always ask as a favour.

But it was also the only gentle prophecy that something could be wrong. I have no idea why the others left with Aleksei. At the moment, none of them want to talk to us. Maybe I’ve insulted them somehow, but I sincerely don’t know how. But were they also offended by Sergei or Mihkel or Igor? Any other people sitting in this office too? And they don’t sit here for the first or second day, but for at least a year.

Complete shock and surprise

Yaroslav, on June 22, six Limestone employees filed for you with a number of charges against you. How did you react to this document?

Jaroslav: I can swear by the constitution, by the Bible, or by my mother’s grave, that none of the issues raised in the resignation have been discussed with me or Oleg before.

In addition, the departed employees sent a letter describing their problems to Focus, which according to the leaked files was confidential. How and why did it reach your desk?

Jaroslav: This document was not anonymous. It was signed by 13, one of them in disguise. Nowhere in the text of the document was it mentioned that it was a confidential letter. And in addition, it is illegal to pass on the inside information of one company to another company. The fact that they wrote to Focus at all means that they are violating Estonian law.

They can’t write to the distributor? Why not? After all, they did not pass on Limestone’s inside information to Focus. Or did they?

Jaroslav: Maybe they did. I don’t know, this is a good question for lawyers to discuss.

After all, employees still have the right to contact Focus. Why shouldn’t they have that right?

Oleg: Yes, but they can do it through official channels, not by sending threats to the people we work with, I think.

Jaroslav: I am forced by law to say that I cannot comment on this further.

Dropbox documents also mentioned that when six people applied to leave, you refused to accept it. 

Jaroslav: Yes, because it was mentioned at the beginning of that document that they did not want to work, but at the end it was written that they still wanted to continue working. Which do you want then? It could have been the other way around, but in any case, the document was contradictory.

It also came as a complete shock. If you talk to any company manager, you will be told that if you are pressured to sign something, don’t do it. It’s the safest, and that’s what I did. I didn’t have time to read it a second time. I must always protect the interests of the company and the employees and shareholders.

However, the audio file of this meeting added by Dropbox gives the clear impression that these employees no longer wanted to continue working in Limestone and wanted to leave. 

Jaroslav: Yes, and they left. I told them I was not going to sign the document and they left. We tried to ask if they wanted to discuss it, but we were laughed at. 

Oleg: Before June 22, there was no dialogue on this topic.

Yaroslav: And on June 22, there was also no dialogue. Nobody tried to talk about anything.

However, the documents mention that the departed employees tried to talk to you about these problems several times before 22 June.

Yaroslav: Yes, and we talked about different topics.

Oleg: No-no, things were talked about, but not the issues that were raised in the accusations. No one has talked to me and Yaroslav about these issues. 

Jaroslav: I wanted to say that we had talked about for example that, hey, my spouse can’t get out of work and my daughter is sick, can I take a day off? Yes of course! Is this a problem? Yes. Did we solve it? We did.

Was Aleksei’s company and “Aeon Must Die!” taken over with a con?

Aleksei claims to have signed a document based on false information from Yaroslav, in which he unknowingly and reluctantly resigned from his position on the board of Limestone and “Aeon Must Die!” intellectual property and that only you, Yaroslav, made future decisions. Why does he claim that? 

Oleg: When we founded the studio in 2016, we did with thee of us (Oleg, Aleksei and Jaroslav, ed.), But there were two people working in the company at the time: me as a board member and Aleksei as a board member and founder. 

Jaroslav: The company was registered very quickly because it was needed for an event, probably Prototron. Friends got together and Aleksei told me: “You’re smart and we want you on our team. I know you’re working elsewhere right now and can’t come to us right away.” My employment contract at the time dictated that I could not be the owner or board member of another company.

Oleg: At the beginning, I and Aleksei were on the board, Jaroslav joined us as soon as his previous contract expired. He came to the position of CEO, and dealt with all contracts – employment contracts, tax matters. However, all decisions still required the signature of either me or Aleksei.

Since Alexei was the founder of the company, his contacts were visible to everyone everywhere. And then he was called constantly by officials and lawyers on economic issues, and his answer was always that I do not know, talk to our CEO. 

Oleg: When we found two investors, we went to a notary and decided that 50% of the company would go to investors and the remaining 50% would be divided between Aleksei, me and Yaroslav. And since 50 does not divide by three, we even rounded up in favour of Aleksei.

So why is Aleksei no longer a member of the board of Limestone?

Jaroslav: After visiting the notary, it was established that hiring new employees, all financial decisions and other important matters require the consent of me, Oleg and Aleksei as members of the board.

However, signing the documents caused Aleksei stress and he was constantly called by the tax authorities, security companies, banks, the statistical office, the commercial register and our landlord. He wanted it to end and said himself that he was not interested in the company, but only in the game, and had no idea what all those people wanted from him. In addition, Aleksei is also a late riser, which is why the morning calls made him angry.

Aleksei is a very creative and talented artist, but he has no knowledge of programming and business. So let’s leave Aleksei out of these topics and let him focus on art. Oleg is a very talented programmer, so let Oleg focus on programming.

So we initially divided three different areas. I look outside – I communicate with the distributor and partners, for example. I have always said that I have the least power here because I have to think about the team, but the team directly influences my decisions. And at the same time, my activities are influenced from the outside by the distributor, the law and the shareholders.

We discussed by the three of us changes in the governance structure in the summer of 2017. And we all agreed that we would implement these changes after finding the first major shareholder. On October 18th of 2017, we all went to the notary together. On December 28, Oleg and Aleksei resigned as members of the Management Board.

Oleg: At the same time, I removed myself from the board because we had (in the form of Yaroslav, ed.) a person who  was dealing with taxes and finances. Then let him be on the board. This position comes with different responsibilities, because let’s not forget that a member of the board is the only employee who is responsible for the company with his own capital, not just the company’s money.

Is it true that “Aeon Must Die!” intellectual property has been taken from Aleksei against his will? 

Oleg: If you create something by working for the company, then that work belongs to the company. I was a board member before, but that doesn’t mean “Aeon Must Die!” would be mine or Yaroslav’s.

Sergei: Alexei continues to be a shareholder and founder of Limestone Games. How can something be stolen if it’s still yours? That is absurd. He is still the owner of the company. 

Jaroslav: And what is especially interesting is that the board member is on the salary of the company’s shareholders. This means that I am currently still working under Aleksei.

Illegal Russian workers

One of the harshest allegations in Dropbox’s materials is that, due to a constant shortage of labour, Limestone brought workers with tourist visas from Russia to complete the game that was behind schedule. Is that true? 

Jaroslav: My version of the story: Aleksei tells me about a guy living in Russia who really wants to learn and develop. He doesn’t have the skills we need, but he is said to have a huge passion. And he wants Aleksei to teach him.

I said, okay, we’ll sign a confidentiality agreement with him. If you have time to deal with him and if he is useful to you, go ahead. You always mention that you are in a hurry, but then I guess you have time to teach him something.

Next I hear that this guy is already in Estonia. He has just come with Aleksei as a friend with a tourist visa and I am asked if he can come to the office. We didn’t invite him here and the company didn’t hire him. It was all very surprising to me. If he can help us in any way, then okay, but in that case we will do things through official channels.

Did you keep in touch with him when he went back to Russia?

Jaroslav: Finally he went back to Russia. Now Aleksei says that he is useful and can help us with the calibration of the game, but for that he must be in Estonia. But why? This can also be done remotely.

But okay, if he’s good for Aleksei, I’ll send him money for a visa. Depending on how the visa goes, we can talk about accommodation and tickets. Then we can sign a contract with him, because without it we will not be able to defend our work properly.

Then Aleksei tells me that it all takes too long, there are too many documents, don’t be boring and we all have to work as a team. I already gave him access to the game so he could start working.

Oleg can confirm that I was not very happy about this, because you are handing over our whole project to someone who is supposed to be your friend. Are you sure you’re willing to risk it? At least a confidentiality agreement had been signed.

A little later, the COVID came on and we agreed to negotiate a contract later, as he will probably not be able to travel soon. The money sent to cover the visa remained with him as salary. In June, we started talking to him about the contract again, and at first he communicated with us, but then he stopped abruptly. He still has access to our game.

Intolerable work environment

Why is it repeatedly mentioned in the Dropbox materials that Limestone’s work culture became toxic and harassing due to management actions?

Oleg: I think this topic may be related to milestones (development goals with specific time constraints, ed.). Our first major milestone was last summer and we had problems with it. We all sat down together, including Aleksei, and put together a new plan and moved forward without major conflicts.

The next milestone was already more difficult for us to set up with our partners. These talks were very complicated, and it was here that Aleksis disagreed. He did not think that the new plans would be doable.

We explained to Alex that the game must be completed and there is no other choice. It was not directly a conflict, but Aleksei thought that more time would definitely be needed for development. We discussed that maybe we could cut something out or make a smaller game, but Aleksei didn’t like the idea.

So accusations of a toxic work environment lead to only one case involving milestones?

Igor: Aleksei usually starts work between two and four in the afternoon and works to four or five in the morning. Usually he always came to the office with brand new ideas. We then discussed whether to add them to the game or not.

After that, my work day is over and I’m going home. Aleksei will now call me and tell us that we have this and that problem. It happened so often that even my wife started asking what was going on.

Jaroslav: Igor’s wife also called me and asked if I could let Alex know that she wants him to  to spend time with his wife.

Igor: And then I have to start working on the new ideas that he brings from his night shift. Most of his thoughts were rejected because we did not have time for them or because they were completely new ideas that we had not talked about before.

Oleg: Or the inclusion of some of his thoughts would completely break the game and we would have to rebuild half the project.

Igor: And that upset Aleksei. He was angry with me, Oleg and Yaroslav, in the end still mainly with Yaroslav. Oleg and Yaroslav have always clearly told me to go home, be with family and rest. But I take every code error in the game very personally and I want to fix it quickly, so I dealt with it at home.

Endless unpaid overtime

Working outside working hours seems to be normal in Limestone. Aleksei mentions that the studio employees were pressured to work enormously overtime, for which they were not paid.

Jaroslav: I assure you that we do not use overtime. We do not demand overtime from anyone.

Igor: I haven’t been paid for the extra work because I’ve never asked for it. No one has forced me to work in the evenings, I have done it voluntarily in my spare time. If we are asked to do extra work, it is always paid to the last cent. 

Sergei: A couple of times Oleg literally just turned off the server so that no one could work anymore. How can you stop me if I want to work from home? That is my decision. These are not overtime. 

Mihkel: Additional work has always been agreed in advance and everyone has agreed that on these dates we will work longer than planned. It has not been mandatory and everyone has been able to opt out.

Jaroslav: While working on milestone last summer, Aleksei mentioned that we need more time and the game can’t be sent to Focus because it’s just bad. What do I do with this feedback? I need factual information to move forward.

We met the three of us (Jaroslav, Alexei, Oleg, ed.) And set up a plan. Then we explained to the team what was needed and suggested that we could work on the weekend.

And the developers were paid for that extra day?

Jaroslav: Mihkel compiled a list of tasks to be done on Saturday and coordinated it with everyone. So it is not overtime, but an extra workday. If you want, come, if not, no problem. We understand that people have spouses and families. But people were paid for that extra work. One person also did this work from home and was paid.

After the extra day, people had to notify Mihkel or me of their extra hours. Based on this information, we paid people a premium. Of those who left the company only one person reported his working hours and was paid for it. To my knowledge one or two people who did the extra work have not notified us of it, so I do not have a document proving that I can pay them for the extra work.

Was the use of an extra working day justified? Do you plan to use such techniques again in the future.

Jaroslav: On Monday we had a game that was absolutely no better than what we had on Friday. Obviously, people were just tired. I gave Tuesday and Wednesday off to everyone who worked on the weekend. Oleg reviewed all the work that was done during this intense period.

Aleksei had suggested that since we had all enjoyed attending Game Jams, the intense Game Jam over the weekend would be good for the team. But Oleg calculated out how many mistakes were made, how much code had to be rewritten. It turned out that this couple-day marathon cost us 50,000 euros in the form of additional time spent on correcting errors. In addition, we had to move the next milestone because people needed to recover.

After that, the three of us sat down and I said I would never want to see anything like that again because it would kill our productivity. We don’t want people to burn out. Our motto is that you come to work with a smile and leave with an even bigger smile because you did something especially cool.

What about the holidays? The charges against you mention that the statutory holidays were not observed and that everyone was constantly forced to work.

Jaroslav: I can show you an overview of the staff attendance. It can be seen that everyone has always received the 28 days of rest prescribed by law.

Jaroslav shows me an Excel document with information about the presence and holidays of all employees. Among others, the name of Aleksei Nehoroshkin is in the table. It seems that Limestone is really attentive to how much and when someone works.

Sergei: If I asked Oleg and Yaroslav if I could get a day off tomorrow, I would get it with a 99% probability.

Igor: In my experience, no one has had a problem getting days off from Aleksei, Oleg or Yaroslav. Authorization was usually granted immediately. 

Jaroslav: We have only one rule about holidays: once a year, everyone goes on collective leave for a period of two weeks. This makes it easier to schedule different tasks. It is important in our work that people are in the office together most of the time. Everyone has free choice over the rest of the holidays.

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It is therefore clear that the board and staff of Limestone Games do not recognize themselves in the allegations made by Alexei Nehoroshkin and his associates.

Jaroslav confirms that the departed employees will not be forgotten. “Aeon Must Die!” and all the developers who left Limestone with Alex will be mentioned in the game’s captions.

“What is happening now is by no means nice,” says Lysenko. “People have been working on this project for years. We have seen the birth of the children of our colleagues here. And the people you work so closely with and see more than your wife and children will become your other family. ”