In Ori and the Blind Forest and Ori and the Will of the Wisps, developer Moon Studios made two excellent Metroidvania platformers. With critical and commercial success for both games, the developer has become one of the most highly regarded indie teams in the industry- though a report recently published by VentureBeat describes an oppressive, toxic atmosphere at the studio behind-the-scenes.
The report, based on interviews with several current and former developers who worked at Moon Studios, describes the inappropriate conduct that the team’s co-founders Thomas Mahler and Gennadiy Korol routinely exhibit, including inappropriate jokes and languages, inability to give feedback, bullying, casual racism, sexism, and generally inappropriate behaviour.
As per these accounts, this has led to many who came into Moon Studios expecting an entirely different environment to have left with varying degrees of effects, with several stating that their time at the studio left them with burnout, and physical and mental health issues.
“It’s an oppressive workplace, for sure,” one developer said. “But it’s hard to pinpoint one thing because, in isolation, all of these incidents, if they happen once, you would think they are small things. When you’re dealing with that for [multiple] years, you’re going to see the decline of people’s mental health. I can say that for myself, personally, I was properly messed up after we finished. I’ve never been depressed until that moment. I lost my passion for my job because they drummed it out of me.”
Moon Studios has been an all-remote studio since even before the pandemic hit, but former developers have talked about how the aforementioned studios heads, Mahler and Korol, frequently use explicit, aggressive, and even hateful language in group chats, meetings, and servers, with each other and other employees.
“It’s not helpful. It can create animosity in the workplace and a bit of a power dynamic where you have somebody calling your stuff shit in a group chat of 50 people,” one dev said. “If you have a problem with the work, praise in public and admonish in private. That kind of philosophy didn’t really fly at Moon.”
In his criticisms, Mahler would often allegedly call employees “failed aborptions”, and told one developer that their work “made him want to vomit”- and these criticisms and messages would be shared in chats and servers with the entire Moon Studios team.
“In Skype chats, they would say ‘you ***ing idiot’ and things like that on an hourly basis,” one developer said. “This is the flow for how they communicated. It is far worse at Moon than any other project I’ve been on.”
Praise, meanwhile, is very rarely given out, while criticism comes in the form of harsh, sexist, or racist language. “The founders take a hard line on dishing out praise,” one developer said. “They are very stingy with it. They use a lot of language that gets interpreted as sexist, racist, anti-semitic, and whatever there is.”
“The casual racism is pretty bad,” said another. “There’s a whole bank of material that can be construed as comedic, but none of it’s appropriate in a workplace environment.”
“The result of that over a long period of time is you see how aggressive the founders are and you’re worried about speaking out because you’re worried you might get shouted at,” another dev said. “When they asked if anyone wanted to mention something at the end of a meeting, it would often be dead silence.”
Some former devs have stated that upon being hired by Moon Studios, games that they had previously worked on would be criticized in front of them.
“He crapped on the game I worked on and he is hiring me because of that game,” one developer said. “In hindsight, I should have seen the signs that this was a weird place.”
“You leave them on an insecure footing from the start,” says another. “Those moments chip away at people.”
“I think one of the worst things about the studio is that it was very toxic. Never mind how they treat each other. It’s how they treat other members of the studio,” says one developer. “They argue with each other, using incredibly aggressive, vile, toxic language in the whole company group chat. It’s like you have a big office and like having a massive shouting match with the head of the company.”
According to many, having a strictly flat and anti-corporate structure is one of Moon Studios’ core values, but the studio’s two heads have allegedly used the being able to communicate freely and without censorship as a guise for being aggressive, explicit, and volatile, with remarks that are often demeaning, racist, and sexist.
“They have a mentality where they think they’re not politically correct, they don’t want to be censored, they don’t want to be corporate,” one former dev said. “They don’t want to be like these other studios. But it’s just a justification to behave in any way they want to. Other studios attempt to make a comfortable work environment for everyone involved.”
Something else that the studio’s leadership has been criticized for is an inability to give feedback to employees. “Thomas [Mahler] is terrible at giving feedback. He just doesn’t know how to do it,” one developer said. “His feedback is just, ‘This is shit.’ He is self-taught and does not have the vocabulary to do it.” This has also been partially responsible for severe crunch, with significant chunks of development having to be redone or getting scrapped, with allegedly no overtime pay.
“I wasn’t happy at the studio, I was really bad mentally, physically,” one developer said. “I was working like seven days a week for months.”
“When you are asking to deliver X, that is impossible in eight hours,” another said. “It’s one of the biggest fallacies really. There was pressure for doing all this crunch, but it was not easy to escape it.”
Meanwhile, many problems have also seemingly arisen with the next game Moon Studios is working on, an action RPG that is meant to be much more violent, dark, and brooding in tone than the Ori games. The tonal whiplash has also led to many who had previously worked on Ori to depart the studio, not believing the next project is something they have to work on.
Several developers also reveal that Mahler wanted a rape scene in the game, which would see the protagonist getting raped, in turn fueling her primary motivation for revenge in the story. The development team protested against the idea and pushed back against having it in the game, and though Mahler ultimately backed down, it only happened after weeks of arguments.
“We were saying this is a terrible idea,” one developer said. “Thomas [Mahler] said he wanted something edgy.”
Shortly after VentureBeat’s report went live, Franciska Csongrady – who was a narrative designer at Moon Studios for two years before leaving in September 2021 – took to Twitter to corroborate the report. She wrote: “I worked at Moon Studios for two years. I was the only woman on the story team. I struggle to find the words to express what a soul-destroying experience it was to work with the heads of the studio, Thomas and Gennadiy. The whole studio is built on the lie that quality justifies everything. Verbal abuse. Crunch. Public humiliation. But it just wears you down, and burns you out. Burnt out people do not produce quality.”
It was confirmed in July 2020 that Moon Studios’ next game will be published by Private Division.