Skullgirls Developer Lab Zero Games Faces Staff Exodus Over Mike Z Allegations
Lab Zero Games has long been a fighting game community darling due to their indie hit Skullgirls. This is thanks in large part to its superb net code, excellent music, and daring art-style. However, even all of these things are not making it immune to the ongoing struggles of game development and the fight to give staff a safe, inclusive, and abuse-free work environment. Mike Z, who recently came under fire for comments made surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement while commentating a stream, has again come under siege with new allegations of abuse that have surfaced from several employees.
This has led the board to attempt to oust Mike Z, who has been making things difficult and not taking the coup lying down. As a result, many staffers have made the difficult decision to leave the company because of Mike Z, leaving the fate of Skullgirls up in the air. This has also had the side effect of causing many members of the community (who have been among Skullgirls’ biggest supporters) to quit their support in protest of Mike Z’s treatment of his employees.
The Mass Exodus From Lab Zero Games Due to Sexual Misconduct
The exodus from Lab Zero Games was massive. At least 10 people came out on Twitter saying they were leaving the company.
“After weeks of trying to make things work out with Mike Z, I have decided to quit my job at Lab Zero Games,” said former LZG employee Clickagain on Twitter. “This is not a kneejerk reaction to recent incidents made public, but a whole retrospection and investigation among all employees at Lab Zero. I was shocked to read others’ company chat records of Mike Z putting others in extremely uncomfortable situations as well as exerting his position of power to demean and control employees. Mike Z had sometimes made me feel unsettled at times, but I never knew how broad his actions were. There is a clear pattern of systemic abuse and lack of empathy while himself refusing to accept feedback and not showing a willingness to change.”
Some of these interactions mentioned were brought up by artist Kumiko on Twitter, specifically. Especially some instances of sexual abuse that were not ever addressed publically.
“I tolerated years of sexual comments about my body and clothes, uncomfortable jokes, unwanted hugs,” Kinuko said on Twitter. “He once suggested that I masturbate when I told him I couldn’t sleep, and on another occasion suggested I “help” him with his unfulfilled sexual needs. I tried to talk to him directly in 2017, and he called me a hypocrite and blamed me for how I dressed. […] if it was just me, I probably would’ve kept dealing with it. But I’ve learned it’s not just me. He’s done this for years, to multiple people, and I can’t continue protecting him by staying quiet about it anymore.”
“Shortly after the public exposure of Mike Z’s interaction with a fan, the board and rest of the employees decided the best thing to make the workplace safe again was asking Mike Z to leave Lab Zero,” they continued. “However, Mike Z is the sole owner of Lab Zero Games, and separating owner from company is not a fast nor easy process.”
“The board entered negotiations with Mike Z for terms of separation while he was put on paid administrative leave. His terms were unrealistically high and even potentially illegal to force on the company and the employees. What he was asking for was absolutely unacceptable and undeserving for someone who had wrong so many people for so many years. The board and employees would not stand for someone being so handsomely rewarded with his ill behavior, and we rejected the majority of his terms.”
The last exchange led to Mike Z reversing his stance and standing his ground as not leaving the company. As the owner, this also gave him the ability to dismiss the board, which removed all the leverage that the employees had to oust him.
“We were all stunned at how the situation degraded so quickly,” he continued. “But we were only insulted when he immediately tried to re-engage negotiations with essentially the same terms only a few days later. While Mike Z thinks he may be acting what is best for the company, he is clearly in direct opposition to the health of the employees. He clearly no longer wishes to negotiate with any sensibility. To do what is best for my friends and colleagues, I’m removing myself from Lab Zero Games.”
It turns out that Mike Z was almost not the sole owner of Lab Zero, and that paperwork was apparently in the process to change this fact before this happened.
“It was never intended for Mike to own all of LZG,” they continued on Twitter. “it was transferred from the previous co-owner for legal safety while offering us equity sharing for all employees. The papers were drafted and almost executed, but then this happened.”
This was elaborated on in a post by Senior Animator Personasama on Twitter.
“After a rough 2019, the goal for Lab Zero was to become an employee owned company, where everyone would have equity and the workers would enjoy the benefits of their work. In March, Mike became 100% owner of Lab Zero, and the groundwork for giving all employees equity was in process, until June, when Mike became involved in several incidents,” they said. “After his second public incident the team began an internal investigation with all the employees, and soon realized that Mike’s behavior wasn’t just scattered incidents, but actually systemic signs of his overall behavior and attitude as a person.”
This was apparently covered up by Mike Z doing kind things, so people would stop questioning his bad actions and point to his good actions as a reason he should get a pass.
“We were fooled into thinking Mike was an awkward but well meaning friend, never realizing he was doing this exact thing to almost everyone. When we finally got our notes together, we realized as a studio that this couldn’t’ go on and we needed Mike out.”
Still Support Skullgirls?
While many have said that this will be the end of Skullgirls because of Mike Z, some clarification was offered by members of the team departing. The Mike Z allegations will affect future Lab Zero Games projects more so than Skullgirls, which has already been released. It does, however, mean that balance passes might end up being handled by another team eventually.
“Skullgirls was the effort of many people, not just Mike,” Clickagain said. “He or Lab Zero does not own the IP; Autumn Games does. The fantastic team at Hidden Variable keeps the constant updates to the mobile version. Please continue to support Skullgirls and Skullgirls Mobile as you always have.”
Despite this, many in the community refuse to support Skullgirls at all moving forward, including Sharpie, one of the most outspoken members of the community that helped organize events and was generally an evangelist for the game in the fighting game community.
“I’ve spent the last 7 years of my life supporting lab zero games and projects,” she said. “The statement confirmed that the company is no longer the same one i knew. its disappointing. After the events from June, I promised myself that if the company did not fix or address the problem that was occurring internally: I would stop supporting the company. Lab Zero had always been transparent and tried to be fair to all their workers prior: full-time, part-time, or contracted. This is part of what I meant when I said it is no longer the company that it used to be. Wishing all ex-L0 employees luck right now.”
Many in the community have concurred and vowed never to support LZG or their work ever again, at least until Mike Z is removed from the company (which looks unlikely at this stage).
Of course, Skullgirls is still a very good game. If you don’t want to stop playing it, you don’t have to. It is entirely possible to divorce the work from the author of a game. However, you have to be okay with the fact that in some capacity, continuing to play Skullgirls is in some indirect way benefitting Mike Z. If you don’t think about that and already own the game, you are likely not having any effect at all beyond providing an active player for the game and keeping the community itself alive.
That being said, there are many options with far less problematic creators out there in the fighting game community.