The publisher of Aeon Must Die has addressed the game's return as its former developers insist their dispute remains unresolved.
Aeon Must Die hit the headlines last year after starring in a much-watched Sony PlayStation State of Play broadcast.
The trailer for the game shown during the August 2020 State of Play, below, depicts a visually arresting beat-'em-up that caught the attention of PlayStation fans.
But immediately following Aeon Must Die's high-profile video showcase airing, a version of the announcement trailer appeared on YouTube accompanied by a description alleging it had been created "with abuse, manipulation, theft" at Estonian studio Limestone Games.
"People who have worked on every shot of this are no longer with the company holding IP rights," the statement continued.
"Some were not even paid for their work. This trailer has a pending conflict of IP. The real IP for the game was stolen from the creators via foul play."
The uploader also provided a link to a Dropbox folder containing a considerable amount of documentation claiming to reveal "the truth about development of this game".
The provided documentation included letters, audio files and testimonies attributed to various members of Limestone Games staff. The group claimed it was ultimately forced to leave the studio as a result of "unbearable" working conditions - specifically "endless crunch, harassment, abuse, corruption, and manipulation" - experienced during development of Aeon Must Die.
It also claimed the company and "entire IP" was "covertly taken from" co-founder and former CCO Aleksei Nehoroshkin (one of eight employees to hand in their resignation as a result of working conditions), with many allegations focussing on current CEO, Yaroslav Lyssenko, who was accused of sending threatening letters to staff, of firing staff ahead of their resignation date, of ignoring their attorney, and more.
According to the group's open letter on Dropbox, it contacted publisher Focus Interactive to request cooperation to help "finish the game on humane terms and in the best possible quality".
Eventually, after limited correspondence, Focus was said to have requested proof of the group's allegations, although a later conversation with the publisher suggested it had processed little of this information and that the State of Play reveal would go ahead as planned. As such, the team said it felt it had "no more choice but to share this information with the public".
After the developers' complaint hit the headlines, Focus Home Interactive responded to what it called "serious allegations" relating to the alleged mistreatment of staff, and that "these grievances are directed at Limestone, their direct employer".
"As the publisher of the video game, Focus is carefully looking into these allegations," it continued, "and will draw the necessary conclusions if they are proved to be well-founded, and then take all appropriate measures." It noted it would make no further comment until it had "a clearer and complete view on this matter".
Fast forward a year to this week's re-emergence of Aeon Must Die - the game's trailer mysteriously popped up on Focus Home Interactive's YouTube page with no mention of last year's allegations, and no word on any conclusions drawn from its investigation.
The video, which has a number of negative comments pointing out last year's allegations, sparked a tweet from the former developers at Limestone Games, now working on a game called Immortal as part of a new studio called Mishura Games.
"We the former developers of Aeon Must Die! are confused and baffled by the announcement of Aeon Must Die!" the tweet read.
"No legal matters pertaining to the situation were solved and even more arose in the aftermath.
"The IP issues are not solved. The trademark for the product does not exist. No publisher investigation was conducted. Work for the trailer remains unpaid. Most of the animations in the game remain unpaid.
"Multiple legal attempts at REAL compromise have yielded nothing for the last year."
Now, Focus Home Interactive has issued a fresh statement, addressing some of the questions sparked by the re-emergence of Aeon Must Die.
Focus said it and Limestone "co-own" the Aeon Must Die IP, having signed a partnership in early 2019, and denied it had been stolen. "No party, legal or natural person could appropriate, steal or exploit the IP by its own will," Focus said.
Focus also denied it pushed for crunch on the project.
"The game was originally due for release early 2020," Focus said.
"Under no circumstances would Focus push for crunch. Limestone and Focus indeed decided to extend development time to give teams the time and means to release a quality game in good conditions for the employees. The release date is now scheduled for 2021. In addition, Focus has granted an additional budget to ensure the proper development of the project."
Focus added it drafted in the help of two law firms, one international and one Estonian (both independent), to carry out a social and legal audit "which did not confirm any of the accusations levelled against the management of Limestone".
It also said the Estonian branch of the International Association of Video Game Developers (IGDA) conducted an independent investigation, "which also did not confirm the charges against management of Limestone, and calls into question their basis."
Speaking to Eurogamer, Limestone co-founder and former CCO Aleksei Nehoroshkin addressed the re-emergence of Aeon Must Die, and Focus' statement.
Nehoroshkin says he still owns 17 percent of Limestone, and has endured an ongoing battle with the existing studio management over this ownership. He also claims not to have heard from Focus Home Interactive for nearly a year.
"The deadline at the time of our leaving was Q4 of 2020," Nehoroshkin added, addressing Focus' comments on the crunch allegations.
"Focus did not directly push to crunch of course, no one from Focus Interactive ever said 'crunch!'. But the deadlines decided upon by LSG management and Focus were not realistic as stated a year ago, and attempts to correct the course were refuted multiple times."
Nehoroshkin had some choice words for Focus' claim to have investigated the allegations, saying the former employees were not involved.
"We heard about those plans of course, like many others," he said. "We were informed which company would conduct the investigation on the Estonian side. Within this investigation we were told that every member of the team would be questioned individually. This never materialised.
"Our lawyers and their lawyers (including both Estonian and foreign companies) have had contact about it in July. But very soon afterwards, our lawyer received information that they are waiting for instructions from Focus and will contact afterwards. This dragged on until the 6th of August, when the Dropbox was leaked on State of Play.
"There were no replies or communication with the investigative team after that."
The upshot here is Focus is working with Limestone Games, which appears to have rebuilt itself following last year's events, to get Aeon Must Die out at some point this year.
Nehoroshkin says his new studio plans to officially announce Immortal soon. "The soul of AMD is still with us, it cannot be taken away," he said.
"Other than that it's up to the public and the powers that be."