Interested in learning what's next for the gaming industry? Join gaming executives to discuss emerging parts of the industry this October at GamesBeat Summit Next. Register today.


Gaming fans know Moon Studios for its amazing Ori games with beautiful art and emotional stories. But a number of current and former employees consider the Ori studio an oppressive place to work. That is according to GamesBeat‘s interviews with Moon developers. 

Ori and the Blind Forest debuted in 2015 under publisher Microsoft. It was profitable after a few weeks while earning an 88% rating on the review-aggregation platform Metacritic. Multiple publications also nominated it for various awards and accolades. Moon then went on to release the sequel, Ori and the Will of the Wisps, in 2020 to even greater acclaim – including GamesBeat’s 2020 game of the year award. We love the Ori games.

But the studio’s behind-the-scenes atmosphere does not match the tranquility of its games. Based on interviews with current and former employees, many employees had problems with founders Thomas Mahler and Gennadiy Korol.

It is illuminating to see these allegations arose at a small company with all-remote practices — a private company that treasures its independence and its “anti-corporate” culture. Still, the casual racism, sexism, and bullying amounted to what one developer said was “death by a thousand cuts.”

Event

GamesBeat Summit Next 2022

Join gaming leaders live this October 25-26 in San Francisco to examine the next big opportunities within the gaming industry.

Register Here

The developers took pride in their work, and they loved watching the fan reactions when the games shipped. But many found themselves wondering if the results were worth it.

“We really created something special, and I know the only way I was able to reconcile it was I was able to watch people on Twitch and watch other people get moved by it, and that was actually part of my healing process,” said one developer. “Because maybe my suffering was worth it because other people felt something. In the end, I mean, so many of us were burned out.”

Summary of allegations

A sample of chat among the Moon Studios founders.

Moon developers told GamesBeat that they found the studio’s culture oppressive. They alleged that the leaders used calls for an open and honest workplace as a pretense for abuse. The founders criticized the work of employees in public chats and were stingy with praise. So far no one is suing or claiming unlawful behavior, but many workers are fed up with what they see as inappropriate behavior by the founders.

As an example, Mahler and Korol regularly made unprofessional and offensive comments.
“Tyler is the only person who is aware of my devious plans to kill the Jews by making them work to death through game development,” Mahler “joked” in a text chat that was available for anyone in the company to read.

The context of the conversation suggested that Mahler was truly making a joke, but it’s alarming to think he felt it was safe and appropriate to say such a thing in a company chat. One developer said the chat was “rough” because the founders felt free to make jokes about their penis sizes.

We saw plenty of evidence of harsh language in chat sessions that we reviewed. While the founders constantly pushed for quality, they also gave conflicting or unclear directions when it came to feedback. They veered off plan and pushed for changes that threw devs off schedule — and that contributed to crunch. They built a remote team in many different countries, but this blurred the work time zones. They were kinder in person, but the pandemic meant they couldn’t get together for retreats. And so the harsh online culture prevailed over a more benign in-person one. Praise was rare.

Turnover was high, but the founders recruited new employees on promises of large bonuses. The tech tools that helped the team communicate could also be used to monitor behavior. In one case, Mahler wanted a character in an upcoming game to be raped. It took about a month to convince him this was a bad idea for a plot in a video game, where the object was to provide the character with a motivation for revenge.

While Moon’s games have won praise, those who left the company say they were scarred with mental health problems.

The founders respond to allegations

Moon Studios was founded in 2010 by Gennadiy Korol and Thomas Mahler.

We gave Moon Studios’ leaders a chance to respond to our reporting, and Mahler and Korol sent GamesBeat this response.

“We don’t believe the experiences suggested by your questions are representative of the more than 80 Moon Studios team members who are thriving and doing great work every day — nor do we believe they are representative of the experiences of former members of our team. In fact, we are very proud of our history of making people happy, advancing their careers, and contributing to their financial success.

We built Moon Studios with a simple premise. First, we wanted to create a distributed studio that is not limited by geographic boundaries enabling us to draw the top talent from around the world. Second, we wanted to foster a vibrant culture where our team thrives and delivers the very best work in our industry. And finally, from day one we set out to share the profits and rewards of our efforts with the full team. We believe we have succeeded.

What makes our team so powerful is our global and cultural diversity — we have team members working from more than 40 different countries across four continents — and a flat studio structure that allows everyone to speak honestly and directly and to challenge and push each other to do our very best work. We purposely set out to create a different kind of studio — one that encourages creativity, open communication, collaboration, and performance.

The result has been two award-winning games — with more on the horizon — and a team of professionals who enjoy working together, are excelling and breaking new ground in our industry, while also sharing in the financial success of Moon Studios. If at times we are brutally direct in our critiques and challenges, we are also genuine and vocal in our praise. We are incredibly proud of everything we have built and achieved together.

Finally, we appreciate the irony that we — an Austrian and an Israeli Jew — started this multicultural enterprise. We view each other as brothers. And, like brothers, we sometimes argue and frequently tease each other. We have made jokes at our own expense about the differences in our backgrounds — and there may have been times that our teasing of each other has come off as insensitive and may have made others feel uncomfortable.

Moon Studios has prospered for 12 years. We have grown and learned so much over all of these years. We have been privileged to work with many, many great, and extremely talented people. We are truly grateful and proud of our team — those who are here today as well as those who spent time at Moon and have since moved to other ventures – and we are happy to have made a positive difference in their lives. We are not perfect but we deeply care about our talent and are constantly working hard to improve. If we have ever made anyone feel uncomfortable or let anyone down — we regret that and we will always strive to do better.”

— Thomas Mahler and Gennadiy Korol

Our portrait of Moon Studios

Every part of this game is gorgeous.
Every part of Ori and the Will of the Wisps is gorgeous.

In addition to the above public statement, GamesBeat has also learned that the founders had a private meeting with current developers about our inquiries. In that 30-minute internal meeting with the team, Korol and Mahler addressed some of the questions we raised in an open forum and offered an anonymous feedback system for devs. We have also included some of those comments throughout this story.

The founders have their view, but we talked to a variety of people who had roles across the company who said the place was toxic.

“It’s an oppressive workplace, for sure. 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,” said one game developer. “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.”

This story is a portrait of the workplace at Moon Studios, as related by its game developers. The developers who spoke with GamesBeat had a common interest. They wanted other developers to know what it was like to work at Moon Studios before they considered joining the company.

Those I interviewed came from multiple parts of the company and different levels of experience. I spoke with them on camera, which is something that was unusual for them given that Moon’s practice was to communicate over text or audio, without video cameras. The developers chose to speak out in part because of the conditions described at workplaces in other parts of the game industry, such as at Activision Blizzard, Riot Games, and Ubisoft in recent times and at Electronic Arts, which had problems with crunch, or unpaid overtime, more than a decade ago.

“When I first saw Ori, and I hit all the reviews, it was a touching story in the cutesy, friendly way. And then I talked to the heads of the studio,” said one developer. “And it’s like, that’s not who these guys are. They are not these cutesy people. They’re very harsh.”

Ori and the Blind Forest is a gorgeous 2D adventure platformer.

While the culture was allegedly oppressive, it hasn’t yet resulted in lawsuits or criminal probes that we know about. Rather, the result is visible in the constant churn of developers, who come on for one project or part of a project and then leave for better working environments. 

“Were the founders both belligerent? Yes. In my opinion. Was it limited to those two? Yes. Unprofessional on an hourly basis? Yes. Harassing? Yes,” said one game developer. 

Moon Studios has prospered and replenished the people it has left by recruiting top developers drawn to the games that it has made. But some developers say that it has recruited those developers without telling them what the company’s culture is really like. The developers felt it was their duty to say something about their work experiences.

“If people accept that as a condition of going to work, then more power to them. Good luck and I hope they manage,” said one developer. “But if a lot of good, well-meaning, and talented people decide they don’t want to step foot into a place like that, then I’m happy. I hope that this helps in that respect. That’s kind of why I felt the need to speak even though I am nervous.”

The developers we spoke with said that other developers who take jobs at Moon should go into it with open eyes.

“My aim is for people to know about Moon, and so that no one else gets hurt,” said one developer. “I want to prevent other people from basically falling into that trap.”

An open workplace – with abusive language

Ori and the Blind Forest is the first of two Ori games.

At Moon, video and in-person meetings were rare. The founders said they ran an open workplace where people could speak their minds freely. They could say anything and not have to worry about getting fired. It was a “no bullshit” studio. But that left the door open for the founders to insult each other — and anyone else they felt like demeaning in public or private, according to almost all of the developers we interviewed. 

“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,” said one developer. “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.”

While many didn’t like that, they stayed silent out of a fear that the insults would fly their way.

One worker said, “The no-bullshit policy is for the two of them to be able to say whatever they want. And under the guise of like, ‘we’re just all being honest, human beings, we’re transparent.’ And if you can’t handle it, maybe this isn’t the place for you. You’re too sensitive.”

Another developer felt like the open environment was aimed at solidifying the studio’s “anti-woke” stance.

“They were scared that the company would change. It was like they made a point to enforce the anti-woke culture by regularly making inappropriate jokes,” said one developer. “It was deliberate. They had this fear of the company being constrained or shackled by these woke people who would censor us. It was like they were fighting against some invisible censorship.”

A high bar for quality, a low bar for communication

Dotted planet earth and network communications with technology circle element.
Global communication

The founders had a high bar for quality, but that also left the door open for mercurial behavior.

Mahler in particular would sometimes reject the work of developers by saying it was “shit” without explaining why. 

“Thomas [Mahler] is terrible at giving feedback. He just doesn’t know how to do it,” said one developer. “His feedback is just, ‘This is shit.’ He is self-taught and does not have the vocabulary to do it.”

Workers who were told their output was subpar were often praised by their fellow developers.

“Thomas was not able to educate someone on what to do better,” one worker said. “He was putting them in an impossible situation.”

Other developers concurred. But some of them also said that failing to provide specific feedback for criticism is a common problem in the industry, since games come from so many different disciplines like sound, music, art, gameplay, level design, and more. But that negative feedback would prompt a developer to try again and perhaps improve on the work.

“Was the feedback given in constructive ways? No. Was the feedback ultimately constructive? Yes,” said one developer, who felt the behavior of the leaders was atrocious but felt mixed in his opinion of the founders because they got results.

Caroline Stokes, a human resources specialist, said she has heard about creative directors who communicate poorly. She is CEO of Forward executive search and coaching, and she doesn’t work for Moon Studios. But she has heard about the conditions at Moon and is familiar with the kind of problem that the developers described with the founders. 

“In their heads, [these creative directors] have constructed these phenomenal worlds. And when they brief someone, they don’t realize that the people around them haven’t quite got it and they’re too scared to say they don’t get it,” said Stokes. “So when you’ve got that little dance happening, the person is going away and they will be agonizing over what they’re supposed to do. They will feel like they will get their heads shot off if they ask the question. So what do you mean by that? These creative [leaders] have not learned the art of being able to sit down and communicate in an effective way.”

Moon isn’t alone in this respect.

“This is an endemic issue with game studios with creative cultures,” Stokes said. “I’ve seen it. I’ve coached lots of different people. And the work needs to be done. They’re so involved in their creative world. Asking them to think in a different way, to communicate effectively, is a really tough task. But if you don’t do it, you’re going to damage people. So people need to be more responsible. It seems to me it’s an industry-wide thing that needs to be rectified.”

This didn’t justify the behavior to many developers. Often, the founders didn’t know what they wanted. The leaders asked them to do work over and over and often didn’t say how to fix problems. And they could have been better at giving praise.

“Those guys are perfectionists, and they try to do the best whenever they can,” said one developer who wasn’t as critical as others were but verified Mahler’s crude putdowns of developer work. “They are always more focused on what can be improved rather than what is good already. They are also, in my opinion, missing out on celebrating. They’re missing out on praising good things. The core of the approach is correct in what they’re doing, but maybe a bit more praise from time to time could be good, a bit more celebration could be good.”

One developer objected to the idea that the founders always acted in the name of quality, particularly when they gave conflicting directions or changed their minds and forced developers to go in circles.

“These things that they say ring false,” said one developer. “It’s a lie based on the way they act. It’s very insidious behavior. The quality thing is a myth. This kind of behavior doesn’t lead to quality. It is creating suffering and unnecessary cost that the developers have to pay. If quality results, it’s not because of their ineptitude. They’re not good as leaders, and the quality happens in spite of them, not because of them. ”

Chat logs and man children

Ori and the Blind Forest was made by Moon Studios.

I have seen chat logs that were preserved in a kind of amber as a monument to some of the troubling dialogue the developers witnessed. The workers felt the text chat emboldened bad behavior and shielded those who flung insults.

“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,” said one game developer. “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.”

Mahler and Korol spoke about managing the company in a podcast in 2021 with the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences. Mahler and Korol said they realized they had to hire a lot of people. But they didn’t believe in hierarchy or status. And they wanted a lot of rockstars. Mahler brought aboard seasoned game developers. But when they got in the door, the developers were surprised.

Mahler sometimes argued with the veterans that he brought in, and he changed his mind about the decisions they made and would overrule them. Mahler would also forget about agreements and then argue for the opposite to happen, and that impacted the work of multiple people, multiple developers said.

“He crapped on the game I worked on and he is hiring me because of that game,” said one worker. “In hindsight, I should have seen the signs that this was a weird place.”

At the end of listening to the first group audio call, one new contractor said, “I thought, ‘oh my god, what have I done?’ Is this company going to go under like a week after I joined because the cofounders were so at each other’s throats the entire time and saying ‘fuck your mother’ and all these nasty comments? The big issue with it is the fact that they do it in the public chats.”

That worker came to think of them as “man children.” 

Most of the developers interviewed granted that Mahler and Korol are good at their craft and they understand games. The developers said the founders will delay a project multiple times until it’s something they are proud of. Other studios can’t afford to do that. But did Moon have a good process?

“The more you work on it, the more you see that it’s through the blood, sweat, and tears of the team, putting up with all this crap, and then trying to push through to make a great game,” said one developer. “You basically burn the team. And then they leave.”

The severity of the bullying was harsh, most of the developers interviewed said.

“He said my ideas made him want to vomit in front of the whole team,” said one worker talking about Mahler.

It wasn’t easy to find anyone who could say something positive about working with the founders. Perhaps the most complimentary words came from one developer who felt like he wasn’t targeted for criticism because of his high level of experience.

“They are very honest on what they want to improve. Sometimes they can be harshly honest. I do believe that most of the time they don’t mean it in bad ways,” said the developer. “But when you’re very skewed to one side, sometimes you cross the line a little bit.”

That developer confirmed that Mahler would say someone’s work looked like shit. And sometimes the insults were much worse, like calling the developers “failed abortions.”

“His feedback was very lacking sometimes,” said the developer.

Moon Studios origins

Thomas Mahler (left) and Gennadiy Korol.

Moon Studios started in 2010 with Thomas Mahler, an Austrian-born artist who previously worked at Blizzard Entertainment, and technologist Gennadiy Korol of Tel Aviv. Mahler was CEO and he did creative work, like level design.

They were dedicated gamers. Mahler said on the podcast that he started playing games at age four when his family got a Commodore 64. He started writing programs and making art. He grew up in Austria, in a place without a gaming industry. He thought he would love to work in games, but it was not a realistic goal. When the internet came along, he was able to learn from afar. He got into art, studied sculpture, and he posted his portfolio online. Then he found work in the industry and wound up at Blizzard Entertainment.

Korol was a fan of 3D Studio Max and learned 3D graphics. He wanted to make either feature films — the original Shrek was inspirational to him — or games. He grew up with PC classics like Blizzard’s Diablo and StarCraft. Korol went into feature films, and he met Mahler over the internet on computer graphics talk forums. While still at Blizzard, Mahler tried to get Korol hired. They were interested, but Korol didn’t want to relocate from Israel to California.

They knew each other for a decade before Mahler “dropped out of Blizzard” and suggested that they work together on their own game. But rather than work in the same office, Mahler would work in Vienna and Korol would work in Israel.

“I supply the creative design vision, and Gennadiy is the tech wizard,” Mahler said in the podcast.

With just five people in the studio, they began work on a shooter that they pitched to Microsoft, but the project stalled while they awaited a ruling on their pitch. In the meantime, they figured out that they should tackle something smaller, and worked on a platformer inspired by the success of Super Meat Boy. 

So they turned to a different “Metroidvania” game. They started working on Ori and the Blind Forest with the goal of bringing a new level of polish and quality to that genre of side-scrolling platformers.

They managed to create something fun in the prototype. Mahler was able to get the funding thanks to his salesmanship.

Microsoft greenlit the title. It gave money and Moon Studios hired a sizable team. Because the founders were in different places from the start, they didn’t mind that they had no common physical office or headquarters. They worked over the internet, using chat programs like Skype. More recently, the team moved to Discord. With people working across time zones, they settled on typed chat as an asynchronous way to communicate, and they recorded a lot of audio calls for people to listen to as they could, Korol said in the podcast.

They built a platform dubbed Apollo where individuals could check out assets and modify and update them. The updates showed up immediately. Moon Studios had to create that tool itself. Mahler said on the podcast he always felt clocking in at places like Blizzard was ridiculous.

“We don’t count your hours. You don’t clock in,” he said on the podcast. “As long as your output is good, I don’t care.”

Some developers we spoke with disagreed, saying that the founders did care about how much time developers were putting in.

They did a meeting once a week across the company where “everyone is trying to impress one another,” Mahler said on the podcast. They had meetings within departments all the time.

If someone posted an update on the workplace, it showed they were active. If you reported or fixed bugs, it was tracked, said one developer.

The first Ori

Ori and the Blind Forest won many awards.

Moon made the first Ori with a relatively small team, with maybe 15 people working on it and no more than 22 altogether, Mahler said in the internal staff call. But others noted it was more developers than that who cycled through the project. About 49 people are listed on the credits for the game, not counting the publishing team at Microsoft.

As the publisher, Microsoft never asked Moon Studios to document the hours that its developers worked, Mahler said in the podcast. Moon delayed the first game three times before it shipped. And hiring people fast had its stresses.

“With Blind Forest, it was a young and hungry and enthusiastic studio,” said one game developer in an interview. “Thomas and Gennadiy both left corporate jobs. And I think I only really started to notice the aggression and toxicity towards the end of shipping Blind Forest.”

Multiple people observed that Mahler would hire talented people to work at Moon Studio. When he introduced them, however, he revealed his own insecurities. He felt a need to trash the games that they worked on and point out why they were “shit games,” regardless of the stature or size of the studio that the workers came from. 

Mahler criticized award-winning titles in front of those who worked on them. The message was that those developers had to recalibrate what they understood to be the highest quality. But the message came with a kind of passive-aggressive burn that hurt feelings.

“You leave them on an insecure footing from the start,” said one worker. “Those moments chip away at people.”

Mahler didn’t make these pronouncements in person. He did them in a remote setting. 

“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,” said one game 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.”

In the internal meeting with staffers, Mahler reiterated Moon’s founding philosophy.

“Moon has been founded with this whole idea of, hey, we are not going to be another corporate environment we have seen before,” he said. “We would like this open and honest environment in every department, and more of a family atmosphere, where people don’t constantly stress that if I say something inappropriate I might get fired immediately. We don’t think that results in a good culture. Let’s have an open culture where people can shoot the shit, have heated arguments — all of that is good. We are proud of that culture that we created where people can work autonomously and do their thing.”

He added, “I do think that hurt us recently, that we couldn’t do our team retreats because of COVID. We are trying to pull them in now. We always thought Moon should be the best place for people out there, for creatives and so on, to create their best work ever. We have seen that in the games that we made. I never met anybody who worked with us on this who wasn’t super proud of the work that we created. And of the outcome.”

Then he added, “But the idea should also be, on the company side, we should create a super cool environment. Where we are striving to do better and better?”

Both Mahler and Korol confirmed in the internal call with the team that, in recent weeks, they’ve been “cleaning up” the text chat.

Cycling through people

Ori and the Will of the Wisps start screen.

Invariably, the staff workers were contractors and they all worked remotely. As Mahler and Korol worked in different countries from the start, the company itself tolerated the notion that people couldn’t be in the same location together. This enabled Moon Studios to grow to dozens of personnel and keep its costs low, even as it worked on a very ambitious title. And to date, the company has employed developers in more than 40 countries. This structure made Moon as ready for the pandemic conditions as any company in gaming.

Mahler was particularly skillful at charming developers into working for Moon. He would tell them that they would be working on a great project with a strong team without the pressure of someone else constantly rushing their work. But it wasn’t uncommon for developers to arrive at the company, witness the work environment, and quit in a matter of weeks. 

“A lot of people left because they just couldn’t take it anymore,” the developer said.

Some developers said they stayed on board because it was hard to get other jobs in the industry, especially ones where they could work from home.

The treatment wasn’t always equal. 

“It was also not unusual for those with more experience in the industry and respect to get less public criticism. And it was also likely that Thomas and Gennadiy would go after each other’s departmental workers,” said the developer. 

Moon was also able to grow by hiring developers in countries where the pay was typically lower, like in Poland, and so it could replace those who departed without a lot of difficulties. But some developers in those countries couldn’t get by without having employee status and access to healthcare. Many companies today are taking advantage of these practices during the pandemic on a far larger scale.

The team at Moon Studios grew to a few dozen people during the five-year development of the first Ori game. During that time, the arguments were constant. The management was aggressive, and the grind and crunch were difficult for the developers.

“I wasn’t happy at the studio, I was really bad mentally, physically,” said one developer. “I was working like seven days a week for months.”

Another developer explained it more extensively. The developer said that if you don’t mind working the long hours and enduring the hostile environment, then you can work at a place like Moon which has produced good games.

“If you are in another moment of your life where you want to finish your work and go take care of your children, go meet your friends, do something else, then it’s not a regular job. It is demanding from you at all times,” the developer said.

The developer added, “‘We don’t care about hours, right?’ I mean, sure. You may not care about hours. But you know, when you are asking to deliver X, that is impossible in eight hours. It’s one of the biggest fallacies really. There was pressure for doing all this crunch, but it was not easy to escape it.”

Another developer said, “Blind Forest was not too bad. Like, there is always crunch at the end of games. But I don’t remember feeling deathly at the end. I think that was a case of this truly is an indie studio. And we’re all in it. Because we were desperate for this to succeed. You’re willing to put up with a lot of garbage.”

The detachment that is possible in online conversations and audio chats over Skype enabled the founders to act more critical and abusive, developers alleged. It’s akin to how people behave on Twitter, where they feel more empowered to speak their minds and cut down others with short criticisms, multiple workers noted.

In the podcast, Korol also made an admission. He said it was about “perfectionism.” He added in the podcast, “I think we maybe criticize things a little bit too much at Moon. We lean on the side of negative feedback a lot of time. That’s how it is. Maybe it goes too far overboard and we need to balance it out with positive feedback. But it sets the tone for what can we do better.”

Tools that failed to build a good culture

Ori and the Will of the Wisps won great reviews.

Mahler said the company’s design tools were simplistic. He explained that the studio started the level design process in the “simplest way possible, by first starting with a strong concept on paper.” The team moved on to crude polygon animations, and then there was a lot of playtesting and tweaking.

“Once all that’s done, you need to present your level to other designers to get harsh and honest feedback,” Mahler said. “Repeat that process a few times until everyone loves the level and then it eventually gets the ‘design approved’ stamp, which means that the level is ready to move on to our artists who then start the process of set dressing, which in itself is quite an involved process.”

Since Moon discouraged video conversations, much of the communication would happen over text chat.

“In Skype chats, they would say ‘you fucking 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.”

The arguments droned on and on.

“They both had to have the last word in a conversation, and it keeps on going and going,” said one developer. “You would wake up in the morning and have a conversation with [hundreds of] messages in the chat. You just keep scrolling through looking for something important that you need to know.”

Skype proved to be a difficult tool with so many threads. Those threads were updated and so workers had to actually follow those threads.

“One tiny change can result in like a massive pool of text. Now in and of itself, that’s not a problem. I mention this because it got to the point where I would dread waking up in the morning,” one developer said. “Or I would just dread looking at Skype at any time, whether it’s morning, day, or night. I would dread opening up Skype because I didn’t want to see anything from Gennadiy or Thomas. I just knew it was going to be bad.”

And the inappropriate comments were plentiful.

“They would talk about the appearances of women,” said one developer. “They are the most unfunny people. Like a 12-year-old would make jokes about your mom.”

Oppressive culture

Bosses are a highlight.
Bosses are a highlight in Wisps.

Moon Studios held itself together on the cadence of weekly audio calls, which the whole company could attend. But it was rare to hear effusive praise for anyone’s work. 

“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.”

It was common to hear anti-semitic banter among the founders, leaving developers to decide among themselves if this was just childish behavior, self-deprecating humor, sarcasm, or true anti-semitism. Mahler would call Gennadiy a “Jew” and bring up stereotypes. Rather than interpret this as racism, a number of developers interpreted it as a terrible sense of humor.

“I wouldn’t say that they are anti-semitic, as [some] of them are from Israel,” said one developer. “It’s a lot of immature banter. Regardless, I don’t think it has any place in group chat.”

The company had a rule to stay away from politics and religious discussions, but when it came to jokes, the founders violated those rules.

“We’d be hearing about penis size and you know, Hitler jokes,” said one game developer. “The jokes were jokes. But it was really more unbridled aggression. It set the tone.”

“Thomas and Gennadiy could have shut down the toxic culture much sooner if they wanted to,” said one worker. “They have fostered an environment where there are certain people on the team who are willing to also make jokes of the same variety. They created the environment. The team culture comes from the top.”

Another said, “The casual racism is pretty bad. There’s a whole bank of material that can be construed as comedic, but none of it’s appropriate in a workplace environment.”

Developers said it was hard to describe what it’s like to work for a long time in a place with an oppressive culture. It weighed on them.

One developer said, “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. When they asked if anyone wanted to mention something at the end of a meeting, it would often be dead silence.”

Mahler didn’t view himself as anything but a straight shooter. But he moved too fast to be kind, others said.

“He can’t use the fact that he’s from Vienna as an excuse. He’s really on another level,” said one developer. “He’s just extraordinarily nasty. He is that brand of asshole who genuinely doesn’t care.”

Mahler drew a giant penis over the top of Korol’s face as he was starting a meeting.

“The insults would be hot and heavy and profanity-laced. They were homophobic. Anything you can think of,” said one game developer.

Ori takes flight.

The founders would often scream at each other for an hour during an audio meeting, wasting the time of dozens of people. The harshest toxicity happened during those voice call meetings, developers said.

“We wasted hours hearing Gennadiy and Thomas screaming like teens,” said one developer. 

One developer concurred, “I remember there’s one meeting where they argued for a full hour. It was a particular call to get to the bottom of some problems. The whole team was there, just listening. And then eventually, everyone was like, we’re tired and you’re wasting our time. We are leaving. Nothing got accomplished. It affected everybody’s morale.”

Another developer said, “They had this need to win every argument.”

Mahler had no problem berating people in front of others.

“Of course, people come and go, but there is the fact that a large number of people did not stick around. I think just a lot of people just don’t want to put up with the toxicity, the casual racism, and more. There are way too many casual Jewish jokes,” said one game developer. “If you go to a late-night Las Vegas comedy show, you should go in and be prepared to hear that. We’re talking about a company general chat, and these same kinds of jokes are going down. It’s not acceptable.” 

Another developer said that the impolite culture at the top flowed downhill.

“The only way to get a word in edgewise is to cut somebody off. And it selects for that kind of person,” said one developer. “I don’t know if it’s like Stockholm Syndrome, or what. You get to this place where you’re like, ‘Am I wrong? Has everything I’ve known been somehow invalid?’”

Some of the subordinates joined into the arguments, feeling empowered by the founders. The conversations strayed from game development and often displayed casual racism or sexism. One worker talked in the chat about how the company didn’t hire people from certain countries.

It’s almost like you’re being gaslit into believing that you deserve this kind of feedback, the developer said.

“You end up having to defend your job to people that don’t understand that at all,” they said. “They hired you because they didn’t understand it. And it was extremely frustrating that anybody on the team who had a big enough ego, and low enough emotional intelligence, could just jump on anybody else’s work. A lot of people were publicly shamed. A lot of people left because of that.”

Sometimes it seemed more about administering sick burns to people rather than providing valuable feedback, the developer said.

One of the problems was that Mahler and Korol were always at each other’s throats to the point where they went after each other’s work. Mahler was in charge of the game design and creative work like art and animation, while Korol was in charge of programming and technology. The programming team was often critical for producing foundational work, and they didn’t receive as much criticism. But Korol would often criticize art and work directly with the developers in Mahler’s domain. When the founders didn’t agree, the developers were caught in the middle.

“I made it a policy not to talk to them unless it was directly related to what I was doing,” said one developer. “There were instances where people stood up for other people or said that was enough.”

Remote crunch and micromanagement

Ori and the Blind Forest can look like an animated film.

Workers referred to the founders’ micro-management as “pixel fucking.” That was when a leader would obsess over details that ultimately didn’t matter, like arguing over every pixel. No one used this term in front of the founders. 

Artists took the brunt of this criticism. Korol said in the podcast that he does not value written documents as much as playable prototypes. A game build or art build should speak for itself, Korol said.

The lead developers tried to interpret what Mahler or Korol meant with some of their critiques. When work had to be restarted, it would mean some developers had wasted a lot of time. 

“They were micro-managers, ranging from tiny details to larger things,” one developer said.

In their internal call with staffers that GamesBeat learned about, the founders had a different take. Mahler claimed that Moon hires smart people, puts them in departments, and lets them do their magic.

Korol had pet peeves and wanted to make everything perfect. And he admitted in the podcast that, in his resolutions for 2021, he should trust people more, delegate more, and intentionally disengage from work when he can.

“Gennadiy and I were always workaholics,” Mahler said in the podcast.

Mahler said on the podcast that he worked hard at Blizzard and went home and worked until 4 a.m. on his own prototypes for games at night. He acknowledged that this doesn’t make sense for everyone, and they have to make sure people don’t work too much. He said it suits him and Gennadiy, but you can’t expect that from the team.

“Crunch fucking sucks,” Mahler said in the podcast. “How do we not crunch? How did you fuck up that we have to crunch? You have to step in. You have to be the parent figure. You are doing amazing work. But you have to take a break.”

Yet developers talked about how they crunched a lot and without discouragement. The different time zones meant that work happened on bizarre schedules. Mahler would plan some calls for 10 p.m. at night Central European time, one game developer said.

Korol said on the podcast the problem with remote work is you don’t know when people are working. Mahler said they don’t spy on staff to find out when they are doing. But he said people overdo it, particularly young people.

“If they ever say that [they had to crunch], we fucked up,” Mahler said on the podcast.

Why crunch happened

Ori and the Will of the Wisps needed a lot of bug fixing.

Based on interviews with current and former employees, the company had consistent problems scoping its work.

“The problems were really stemming from poor management,” said one developer. “It was just impossible to scope a game that was ever growing. It feels like they are not learning. The pattern is repeating.”

Developers observed that the founders, especially early on, might get five hours of downtime a day. That set the tone for expectations of work from others. And while they said they wanted to change the crunch, they didn’t drive that kind of change at the studio. Developers alleged the founders encouraged crunch, saying they had deadlines to meet.

“Ultimately, all they care about is the quality of the product, which means that it’s probably the company I’ve seen that cares the least about its employees,” said one worker. “In general, everything is in service of the betterment of the product. So if they’re being very harsh to you, and not mincing words, and not being receptive, not being respectful in the conversation, shitting on your words, and shitting on you, and you need to do better, it’s all in service of the greater good, which is making the game better.”

The crunch and the bugs could have been stamped out with better planning, one developer said.

Many workers tried to get the founders to clean up their act, and Mahler and Korol realized that their culture had to mature. They promised changes and talked about crunch and how it was not sustainable. They occasionally apologized. But then they would revert to their usual behavior, developers said. When the work grew and deadlines approached, the aggressive management continued.

Mahler would check to see if people logged in over the weekend and asked why someone didn’t continue working on Saturday and Sunday. He left messages at all times of the day, and since people were spread out across Europe and the U.S., the messages often arrived during off-hours. He would check to see what work people were checking out and checking in on, using automated software that helped monitor the activity of developers, said one worker. Another confirmed that Mahler monitored the team’s activity.

After games shipped, developers said they sometimes didn’t get full credit for their efforts, even though they did work that spanned multiple departments. But despite the delays, crunch, and talent, the second game had a lot of bugs. And while the studio nominally had a commitment to quality, the bad planning was very bad for quality.

“Moon basically used up the goodwill bucket because Ori has generated a lot of goodwill over the years,” said one game developer. “There was a knock-on effect for production every time a last-minute change was made. It’s an indictment of their terrible planning. That’s ludicrous.”

The second Ori, under lockdown

The world is filled with character and characters.
The Wisps world is filled with character and characters.

The team saw a lot of turnover after the first Ori shipped in March 2015. That turnover often happens when a game ships, but it was surprising after the success of Blind Forest. Those who showed up fresh wondered why there weren’t more veterans on the team from the first Ori.

“When I started, I thought that I would be working with more people from the first game, but it turned out that almost nobody from the first game was still there,” said one game developer.

Developers knew the second Ori would be a challenge because Moon scoped it to be 30% to 40% bigger than the first game.

On Glassdoor, the company has just a few reviews. None recommend it as a place to work, and it has just one star out of five. That’s not much information, but clearly, no one feels like celebrating Moon studios as a workplace. But thanks to the success of Ori, recruiting was easier and Moon built up to scores of people.

“Why did the art team leave? That was an alarm bell to me. The sound team didn’t come back. It was personality clashes,” the developer said. “I think Thomas and Gennadiy believe everyone is replaceable, which is not a great feeling when you go to work. And I think the only reason people stuck around is that they cared about everyone and because they legitimately made great games. We know the fans will love the game. They love the story and the world.”

Mahler noted in the podcast that he became a parent for the first time in the middle of Will of the Wisps. And he said that as a parent, you have to be the one that tells people when they need perspective about things like working too hard.

But the developers interviewed for this story said the second Ori was also difficult to work on. Once in a while, Mahler’s personality showed up in public. Mahler criticized CD Projekt Red on Twitter for its shoddy work on Cyberpunk 2077. He eventually withdrew the aggressive tweets. He also criticized Sean Murray of Hello Games for over-promising on No Man’s Sky. One worker thought, “Why are you dumping on other developers?”

For the most part, Mahler only occasionally spoke publicly, and the podcast he and Korol did with the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences was relatively rare for its focus on the internal workings at Moon.

“The podcast is all about respect and open culture and all that cool stuff,” said one developer. “But if you listen to the podcast, especially toward the end of it, you really hear the kind of true nature coming out and just the aggression that’s inherent in everything. It’s an extremely exhausting place to work.”

One developer ticked off the problems and said, “Extremely toxic. Turnover is extremely high. Remote work enabled people to be more toxic.”

After the second Ori game shipped in March 2020, much of the team quit and forced Moon Studios to recruit a lot of people once again. And they found fresh people to do the work.

“If they retained the talent they had, everyone would think they’re an amazing studio,” said one developer.

The elusive bonus

The beautiful landscape of Ori and the Blind Forest.

The pay itself wasn’t top-notch, but it wasn’t rock bottom either. Developers were lured by the chance to work with impressive peers and the promise that they would get bonuses if they made a successful game. 

It was common for the founders to say that someone would get a bonus at the end of the project on top of the monthly contractor payment. No one really got overtime, as that doesn’t apply to contractors. 

“They were just dangling that carrot whenever there was the next push, on top of the already crazy crunch. They wanted people to crunch even more,” he said.

They do a good job of selling the bonuses, developers said. “There was no overtime pay and the worst crunch I’ve ever experienced in my career. For those who were left, it was a question of whether it was worth putting up with this bullshit.”

The founders said that they share the profits of Moon Studios with their developers. And that sounded correct according to those GamesBeat talked to. But it wasn’t necessarily life-changing, given what developers had to endure.

These bonuses — based on when Moon itself got paid — came long after the games shipped, as it took time for the royalty payments to arrive. And they were contingent on the worker staying on with the team.

But some of those who departed said they gave up their bonuses because they couldn’t take the abusive culture anymore. And the bonuses others were getting weren’t as big as expected, these people said.

Another developer said that Mahler was stingy with credits, even when someone had already done the work that showed up in a game. (The founders denied this in their internal call with the staff).

But even with the bad culture, some developers would stick around.

“By the time I really noticed what kind of studio this was, who these people were, I was so deep into it. And I don’t like to leave projects unfinished,” said one developer. “When I hear these things, the same kind of disgusting humor and shit like that, I just ignore them. It makes me embarrassed.”

How the work got done

The prologue of Ori and the Blind Forest.

Whatever its problems, Moon had talented people.

“You hire enough senior people and they just fix messes behind the scenes and with back channels,” said one developer.

And those talented people gave the game their best work.

“They were able to hire incredibly passionate people who were incredibly skilled. And eventually, I think it got to the point where we just all just started talking with each other and not really going through Thomas and Gennadiy,” said one developer. “They still provided direction. Obviously, we still did what they said.”

Another developer said, “I do believe that Moon was a place full of wonderful people. It was just led by two monsters. As long as things were being done behind their backs, it was all actually enjoyable in the end because you were working with people who treated each other with respect. I believe that this is one of the biggest issues. Those guys don’t respect each other. And they don’t respect anyone.”

Talented developers often bypassed the leaders and got things done, producing outstanding work often in spite of interference from the founders. But publicly, the founders were the ones who got the credit.

Stokes, the HR specialist, has heard about this kind of bonding together to get work done in other companies.

“I’ve heard many interesting stories over the decades of those environments where people have to make the magic happen in a way that gets the job done,” said Stokes. “Otherwise, if you seek approval, if you look for information where you want to collaborate, the leadership team will just push back on you. You have to do whatever you can to get the job done.”

The mental health toll

Ori and the Blind Forest was the best-looking game of 2015, per Mike Minotti.

Working at Moon took its toll. Workers who left would say they were leaving for mental health reasons or because their spouses or families had had enough.

“I was so stressed,” said one developer. “I got severely burned out. I considered a different career path.”

Another worker said, “I feel like I’ve become a meaner, worse person, having been in this environment.”

Still another developer likened the experience to post-traumatic stress disorder. They acknowledged the lasting damage from working at Moon.

“I’ve been at multiple studios now, and Moon is the only one that gave me PTSD about the games industry,” said one developer. “I think they are especially toxic. I definitely got burned out severely to the point where I think I would consider a different career path because it was so awful.”

A different developer said he came to dread meetings with Mahler because he never knew if he would like the work the developer did or would cut the developer off and scream. That made the developer gunshy when it came to showing off creative work.

Another developer talked about being so happy after leaving Moon Studios.

“I finally said, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’,” said one game developer. “And for what it’s worth, it’s the best decision I’ve made in a long time.”

People were burned out, with physical and mental issues and problems sleeping, said another developer.

“I did get it all done, but at a great personal expense. And this game made me think about leaving the industry forever,” said a different game developer. “We were making changes to the story four months before ship, which is crazy. And that has so many knock-on effects. When we got to the end of Wisps, it was a complete contrast point for us. We were all tired and overworked but there was euphoria on Ori.”

The developer added, “We knew the game was good, but there was no euphoria. I was just relieved it was over.”

Stokes, the human resources expert, said the fallout is familiar.

“The mental health toll here looks considerable for all the people who left or who felt this changed their whole perspective on the game industry and how they wanted to get out of it,” said Stokes. “This isn’t a one-off. This is common in large organizations, in game studios. There are levels of toxicity that people aren’t able to speak of, but they are so normal. We have a long way to go [in the game industry].”

How in-person is less harsh

The watermill in Ori and the Will of the Wisps

In person, Mahler could be charming and often seemed like a different person. That was the case when the founders took everyone to Florence, Italy on a retreat. People met each other in person for the first time and they got along with each other. 

Developers considered the trip to Florence a generous gesture. Moon Studios also took the team to Barcelona.

“What’s really important is the team bonds,” Mahler said in the podcast. “Let’s be really open. What are we doing wrong in the studio? Where do we fuck up? Are you guys happy? I think that is really important to keep people in the studio happy and make things work. It’s people bonding over a shared interest. That is really really powerful. It is a powerful, human, emotional thing.”

Pressed in the podcast for details, Mahler said he was not saying everything in the studio was “peachy.” 

“The team retreats were incredible. Being flown out to countries, eating out in a nice place, spending a lot of quality time with these people that I’ve been working in the trenches with voice chat,” said one developer. “It’s sort of this rejuvenating process.”

In a call with staffers that GamesBeat has learned about, the founders said they plan to encourage more retreats in the future. Mahler acknowledged that the absence of the team retreats “hurt us.”

In the meeting, Mahler also said that the time will come soon to do retreats again.

“It is time to do team bonding,” he said. “Team retreats are not a thing we canceled. Because of the COVID situation. We like it. We love if people can come together. We even want to increase to two a year.”

“Thomas is a charming person in person,” said one game developer. “And he doesn’t say the same things in person as he does when he is free to say anything on chat, or on audio calls.”

But just because a person is kind in real life doesn’t mean they can’t be a jerk when communicating online, developers said.

“Thomas is a huge freaking keyboard warrior, saying the harshest stuff, like in text and everything else,” said one developer. “When the camera is on, he is a little different. You meet him in person, and he’s all smiles. I think it really is the keyboard warrior’s syndrome where there is this degree of separation. He has this protection, in this faraway country, and you’re on the other end of the world.”

“In their hearts, they care so fucking much about the work they’re doing,” said one game developer. “And these retreats were definitely very bonding. And wonderful. The retreats themselves were good, and it came from a good place. They spent money. But in terms of creating a professional work environment, they fail over and over again.”

Another developer said the retreats did not excuse the behavior from the rest of the year.

“It’s for people who don’t know him to understand just how fucked up it is that he’s saying these things, given the way [Thomas] actually acts,” the developer said.

What did Microsoft know?

The ice forest in Ori and the Will of the Wisps

Microsoft worked with Moon Studios for about 10 years. But it isn’t easy to figure out how much the publisher knew about working conditions at the developer. 

While Microsoft had a difficult relationship with Moon Studios over the years, it was often over funding amounts and delays, as the project scopes kept changing and Moon missed deadlines. 

Microsoft held the purse strings for the company, and it could help figure out how much money the developer needed to get its games done under a reasonable schedule. But Moon’s practices put quality above any timetable demands, and its games went off the rails on schedule. 

This kind of delay strains the relationship with any publisher. Usually, it triggers conversations that get to the bottom of what is happening.

“[At Microsoft], they knew what was going on. And to the degree that we need to clean up the industry. I want to see the industry get better,” said one game developer. 

But with a remote studio, there wasn’t an easy way for Microsoft to discover what was happening. It didn’t have contact with developers other than the leaders. It couldn’t go and inspect the workplace in a physical location, since Moon was all remote. And Mahler was secretive when it came to letting developers talk to Microsoft. 

One developer said, “Thomas was always the one communicating with the publisher.”

“There was always this fear that if Microsoft woke up, maybe they would cancel the game,” said one worker. “But then there was always this confidence on the part of Thomas that they would never do it because Ori is the best game that they had shipped in a decade. They felt untouchable because they made quality games.”

The new game

Moon Studios is working on a new game after Ori and the Will of the Wisps (pictured here).

Moon Studios is working on a new game code-named Forsaken. It’s a different type of title than Ori, and Take-Two Interactive’s Private Division is the publisher. The title has a darker narrative. (A spokesperson for Take-Two declined to comment for this story, citing a policy of not commenting on the internal matters of partners).

Some developers stayed on board because they received bonuses or were still expecting them from Ori and the Will of the Wisps. Others gave them up. But Moon managed to staff up to about 80 people, according to an internal meeting where Mahler mentioned it. (More than 100 names are listed on the game’s critics, not counting numerous external devs and the staff at Microsoft).

Microsoft and Moon evidently chose not to work with each other again. Microsoft has not yet responded to a request for comment to GamesBeat about our story.

“As far as I know, it was a mutually agreed-upon separation between the two studios,” said one game developer. “The relationship with Microsoft and Moon was never silky smooth. On the Moon side, there was plenty of hate toward Microsoft. They also were very private about what they wanted Microsoft to know.”

Mahler had one particular run-in with some team members of the new project where he wanted a scene where the main character of the story suffered rape. This rape scene would supposedly create the motivation for the sweet, small-town character to do the “badass” things they do in the rest of the game. But the idea was immediately controversial within the ranks. Developers pushed back and said that they couldn’t put such a scene in a video game for a variety of reasons.

“What the fuck,” one worker said. “We were saying this is a terrible idea. Thomas said he wanted something edgy.”

Ultimately, Mahler gave in and decided not to include the rape scene. That was the right creative decision, but the developers felt like it was an unnecessary and shocking exercise that involved weeks of arguments.

“If Thomas said he wanted something, it would take like half the team to band together and persuade him to not do it,” said one game developer. “The casual racism and sexism are bad. The rape scene is bad, but there’s no real incident that just jumps out as being truly terrible. It’s just like this kind of stuff happening on a daily basis. I would say it’s death by 1,000 cuts, rather than an execution with an ax, which, frankly, would have been preferable.”

It was exhausting and disturbing, but Mahler came around to the notion that it didn’t achieve what he wanted. One worker said it was maddening because Mahler often told other developers that they should let go of their ideas if they didn’t work out as expected.

Recently, after GamesBeat asked about the rape scene in questions sent to the founders, Korol discussed the scene in a meeting with the staff. 

“Obviously this is not where you can explain the nuances of a creative process, of trying to deal with a very delicate subject like this in terms of writing character development, and the process we go through. Whether or not that was a good idea, well that is beside the point,” Korol told the staff. “But obviously trying to paint the narrative that there is a deeper bad thing going on. It’s a bit of an unfair thing, to be frank. The way this article will characterize things might be unfair. That doesn’t mean we are perfect. It doesn’t mean we cannot improve or should not improve.”

The women developers that we spoke with weren’t surprised that the rape scene was so hard to get excised. They said the sexism was common, with Mahler saying in a chat after a long meeting that “I need a woman now.” They noted it was common for others to speak over them. They would have to endure a lot of sexist jokes, and it wasn’t surprising to see the women leave after short stints. And it was noteworthy that most of the developers were men. Mahler reportedly said one of the women was “clutching her pearls” in arguing against something she perceived as sexist in a game.

There are some risks with the third game with its violent and dark themes. 

“The audience may very well be asking who are these people behind this dark game?” said one game developer. “That [rape] scene was very alarming. I was asking why are we as a studio moving from making Ori to this ultra-violent game. It doesn’t seem like a logical progression for the studio.”

The developer added, “Now they have every right to go in a completely new direction. But this new game is so far from Moon’s identity. I think it’s another reason why people have left.”

The darkness of the game made a difference to some developers.

“The main reason I stuck around is I knew Ori would be good for my career. And that’s been proven correct,” said one game developer. “The reason I’m not sticking around is that I don’t think the next game would be good for my career.”

Will the founders rein in their abusive chat? In a staff call with the team, Korol said, “If certain things were posted in chats recently, we have been deleting stuff that we don’t feel is appropriate. It is what it is. We will have to sit through this and see how it plays out.”

Mahler added, “We have tried to clean up things in the chat. You might have seen that. We are now a fairly big team. We do not ever want to become a corporate environment. We think there is a huge gap between how Moon behaves and a typical games factory. But with size, we have to make sure we conduct ourselves properly.”

And Korol added, “I don’t want us to start walking on eggshells. I don’t want us to feel like we’re under surveillance and being watched. I don’t think it is a healthy way to live your life. It’s not a healthy working environment.”

One developer said that to be eligible for a bonus, developers would have to stay through the end of the Forsaken project. That could be a long time to stick around a place like Moon, the developer said.

Getting out

The merchant in Ori and the Will of the Wisps

Developers said they were conflicted about staying or leaving. 

“I resigned the project for exactly the kind of things you’re talking about,” said another game developer. “There’s definitely some really hard feelings that I’m kind of still dealing with. And to give you a little bit of a scope into that, I very much enjoyed the team. I feel deeply personally connected to the game. Ori holds a very special place in my heart. And at the same time, it was the single worst work environment I ever let myself be a part of.” 

Of course, Moon will succeed in hiring game developers, especially in a world where they’re idolized and many people would love to break into the business.

“The talent, the people that make the games need to make these choices for themselves,” said one developer. “I think unionizing is perhaps a way to help these situations, but I also think individual agency, and really having a personal bar under which they’re going to put up with or not.”

For the developers who have left Moon, there are mixed feelings and lingering scars.

“This is ridiculous like this, this needs to stop,” said one game developer.

At the same time, the developer missed the connection to the Ori Games.

“I love that intellectual property. I have it all hanging over my desk,” the developer said. “I love it. My relationship is completely severed with them now. The writing was on the wall. It was like a bad marriage. We had to rip the band-aid off.”

One developer said that the scope of Moon’s oppression was easier to understand after landing at a good company.

“It is not an easy story. It was not easy to understand it when I was in the thick of it, to deal with every day,” they said. “For all of its outrageousness, like any good gaslighting situation, when you’re deep in the weeds, it’s really hard to see things with perspective and it’s only been since joining someone else with a fantastically run company” that it becomes clear. 

Salvaging Moon’s culture

The wolf in Ori and the Will of the Wisps

The responsibility for fixing a company falls on the leaders, Stokes said. They need to curate the best culture the way they curate their games. Hiring an HR organization, internally or externally, is important. But how can the founders change? 

“You start off by doing a mea culpa, saying we’re really sorry,” Stokes said. “They have to work out what culture they really want to create. How can we do this together? That humble approach is really what’s required.”

The reality of working at Moon is deciding whether the good work and the actual end product justify the Darwinian means of putting it all together.

“Company culture is not a high priority. Thomas would say this is the place people come to do quality work,” said one developer. “We hire the best people in the community. What that meant was you have to come here and fight your way through. They’re selecting these hyper overconfident alphas, essentially, who can come and forge their own way and won’t take no for an answer. And they will make other people’s lives miserable as they climb away at the top.”

If there is something that Moon hopes to learn from this story, the founders said they want to improve the culture.

“What we need to have is a culture where we all know we are doing good things. We all mean well,” Korol said in the internal call with staff. “There is no actual bad intent coming from anybody, and then we can be in that culture and speak freely. We need to be professional, but we don’t always need to be looking over our shoulder. You want to talk to people. You want to be human. You want to sometimes have a goofy joke or humor. Who hasn’t made a goofy joke in their life let them throw the first rock. Of course, there’s a difference between goofy and inappropriate jokes, and those I think shouldn’t happen.”

As noted, Moon’s founders are worried about this story. In an internal meeting with staffers, Mahler said, “It sucks frankly. We won’t be happy to read bad things about Moon. Gennadiy and I are proud of what we are working on. I see a lot of things that are super positive. Yesterday I was on a long design call. At the end of the day, we will be OK if at the end of the day we conduct ourselves properly and we make stuff people love. That’s where I come from. I have this belief that let’s make people ridiculously happy with our products. And hopefully, the journey to that will also be incredible. We have learned a lot from how we did things in the past. Hopefully, things will get better. This will be a bit of a hit. Reading this stuff won’t be nice. We have to get through it.”

On the matter of quality, developers disputed that the founders were the ones who made it possible. Rather, the behavior of the founders could stand in the way of achieving quality. These developers say the narrative that the founders create about this argument being about quality over being nice is completely off base.

“In general, they were extremely unprofessional in almost any aspect of work. Whenever I wanted to introduce some pipeline or workflow, it was always a three to four hour debate with them and never reached any conclusion,” said one developer. “They were controlling and involved in the whole development, but at the same time they weren’t held accountable for their actions. There one great example. At some point Kwolok’s Hollow was almost ready to ship. It needed some polish and performance pass, but he decided that it was “shit” and decided to cut and rework a big part of it. Generally, it was not bad, but that was three months before [the] initial release and ~40% of the game was not ready at all. Imagine how much people had to work to fulfill that decision.”

Rather than try to change, it appears the founders are prepared to engage in self pity.

Korol also said to the staff, “We have been dragged into this public eye of Sauron if you will, and we will have to go through it.”

Mahler told staff not to engage with journalists directly, but both he and Korol agreed it would be OK for staffers to respond to negative allegations on social media and defend the company if they wished.

Korol added, “It is a bit interesting that some people decide to go to journalists and talk about it after the fact. What we will do is create an anonymous survey where you guys can talk to us. Anything we can do better. We need to be able to know that. We need to be able to hear it from you. That’s why this will be anonymous.”

Speaking out

Ori and the Will of Wisps
Ori and the Will of Wisps had an emotional story.

Some developers realized that speaking out about Moon could damage the studio’s reputation. Others felt a need to warn others about Moon, not only to get it to change but to help the whole industry move in the right direction.

“I also love this industry, and I want to see it improve,” said one game developer. “I don’t have any individual desire to sink anybody or vendettas to go after. I don’t have any desire to ruin anybody’s opportunities in life. I want to see this industry improve, I want to see it mature, I want everybody who works in the game industry, regardless of who you are, what you are, to feel comfortable.”

Said another developer, “Because Moon makes such wholesome and sweet games, people look at it and they think that it’s wholesome and sweet people behind the scenes. And unfortunately, at the top, there really isn’t.”

Still another developer noted the contrast between working at Moon and the emotional experience of playing the game.

“The people who were involved in the process of making the story and the art and everything else, we care a lot about what we do and what we did,” said one game developer. “And it was genuine. We were not tricking you into crying. We really wanted to make something emotional. It is very strange to see the contrast of what we were making and the conditions under which we were working.”

And another developer said, “Honestly I can go on and on about how shitty Moon was, but I consider this as really an ended part of my life and one of the biggest mistakes done in my life. Whenever someone from my friends reaches out about some insight before applying to Moon, I just tell them to avoid it.”

One developer had a kind of survivor’s guilt about working at Moon.

“I kind of regret being a part of it, but it’s the game I’m most proud of in my career because I put the most of myself into it,” said one game developer. “I regret that I helped embolden them.”

Another worker said, “And I will say that my only regret is that I didn’t call it out. It comes back to that oppressive environment that Thomas and Gennadiy created. Most of us were afraid to speak out against the leader because we just didn’t want to be yelled at. Or face a wall of text on the screen.”

Another developer said that the company should hire human resources leaders to make the company more professional. 

One worker said that Mahler and Korol were perfectionists and believed that they would never change.

Another developer said, “And even though they would say they would change, the atmosphere just remains very aggressive. And you’re right, they do chase quality — and it’s proven in what they’ve released — but at the expense of a lot of people’s mental health.”

GamesBeat's creed when covering the game industry is "where passion meets business." What does this mean? We want to tell you how the news matters to you -- not just as a decision-maker at a game studio, but also as a fan of games. Whether you read our articles, listen to our podcasts, or watch our videos, GamesBeat will help you learn about the industry and enjoy engaging with it. Discover our Briefings.