As he faced accusations of sexual harassment and abusive behavior, Lab Zero owner Mike "MikeZ" Zaimont tried to use a Guilty Gear GGPO project as a blunt tool to leverage his continued employment in the game industry.
That's according to sources close to Gamasutra who have been informing us of the inner workings of the collapse of Skullgirls developer Lab Zero, which led to the unemployment of numerous talented game developers.
In October, Gamasutra reported that Guilty Gear developer Arc System Works had suspended Zaimont from work on the community-led GGPO rollback netcode update for Guilty Gear XX Accent Core Plus R. His suspension from the project is just part of a story about the demise of a studio.
Zaimont's suspension did not come until after Gamasutra asked Arc System Works about his involvement with the Guilty Gear project. Takeshi Yamanaka with Arc System Works eventually admitted to Gamasutra that the company "overlooked aspects of its harassment policy" when it made the deliberate decision to hire Zaimont.
We learned that Arc System Works was aware of the allegations of abusive behavior and chose to work with him anyway. We've also learned that in the aftermath of these allegations, Zaimont worked to ensure one of two outcomes: either he would force Lab Zero Games to let him keep working on the project, or he would take down the whole company in the process.
Connecting fans and developers
In March, Zaimont approached Arc System Works with a unique offer: he'd been in contact with a group of fans who wanted to implement rollback networking in Guilty Gear XX Accent Core Plus R. These fans were part of a global community of Guilty Gear players who organized around this particular entry, and hoped that rollback netcode code would make for more reliable online play.
Shortly afterward, the COVID-19 pandemic would accelerate across the globe. Reliable online play would be one of the ways this community could help stick together in tough times.
Zaimont's pitch to Arc System Works was a dream deal for community developers: Lab Zero would act as an official intermediary between Arc System Works and Team French CaliBurst, the community of developers that were working on the GGPO update for Guilty Gear XX Accent Core Plus R.
Arc System Works would essentially contract out GGPO implementation to Lab Zero Games, and Lab Zero Games would pay Team French CaliBurst to do the actual work. Zaimont himself would be something of an intermediary for the project, and according to sources, Lab Zero employees would provide administrative support for the partnership.
This pitch was great for Team French CaliBurst, and was supported by some Lab Zero employees according to our sources. Community-driven fighting games are in the studio's DNA thanks to its premiere title Skullgirls. Being able to support the Guilty Gear community in this way felt like a good cause.
The deal's structure wasn't perfect, however. Multiple sources told Gamasutra that Zaimont had an attitude that unless you were working on "code or art" it wasn't "real development work." This meant that any employees handling administrative work on the project on Lab Zero's side wouldn't be directly compensated as part of the deal.
Different sources gave different accounts of how that attitude impacted Lab Zero's developers. Some felt directly insulted by Zaimont's attitude, others said the company only had to do some light administrative overhead that wasn't time-consuming.
The lack of additional revenue did stress employees out in another way: they had just returned from being furloughed. Lab Zero Games needed a financial boost, and though work on the Guilty Gear update wouldn't directly interfere with other projects, it wasn't a strong source of income.
Sources told Gamasutra that Zaimont's behavior was erratic in this time period, leading to delays for updates on the studio's action RPG platformer Indivisible and the contract work that the rest of the studio's developers were working on.
In June, Kotaku released its report on Zaimont's behavior, and both the community and Lab Zero's employees spoke out: Zaimont had to go.
Much of what followed has been reported on by Gamasutra, Fanbyte, and other outlets. The back-and-forth between Lab Zero employees and Zaimont included disagreements over the terms of his exit. One relevant term not previously discussed related to work on this Guilty Gear project.
Work had begun on the GGPO patch under a handshake agreement between Lab Zero and Arc System Works. As Zaimont began negotiating his promised exit however, he demanded both its continued progress, and that Lab Zero Games would appeal to Arc System Works to allow him to work on it.
Lab Zero would also have been required to allow Zaimont to work on the project if Arc or Team French Caliburst asked him to.
Sources told Gamasutra that their understanding of the terms was that Lab Zero would be required to argue on Zaimont's behalf even while they were going public about his alleged abusive behavior.
There's a particularly unsettling element of Zaimont's demands: while arguments about ownership, payment, etc. are standard for exits like this, Zaimont was attempting to leverage his exit on the grounds that his frustrated employees continue to vouch for him and act like his involvement was essential to developing a GGPO patch.
But Zaimont didn't invent GGPO, that was Tony Cannon. It's middleware that any developer can access. His involvement is not essential for any game to receive GGPO implementation, he just happens to be pretty experienced with it.
Sources who've spoken with Gamasutra expressed anger and remorse about this series of events. Lab Zero's employees didn't reject all of Zaimont's terms outright. They hoped to reach a compromise that would allow Mike's departure, keep him paid and with health insurance for two months, and allow him to retain partial ownership over specific projects he was responsible for.
This never happened. After this back-and-forth, Zaimont refused to depart, and employees began leaving Lab Zero Games. On August 24th, Zaimont laid off the rest, citing "payroll issues."
Sexual harassment and general abuse in the workplace leave a mark on survivors. It psychologically impacts how they will perform at their next job and may make them wonder if they should seek work in other industries.
In 2020, the game industry has finally faced some kind of reckoning for a handful of its abusers. But legal threats, non-disclosure agreements, and the threat of retaliation have helped others remain in the shadows, as they did for years before.
Zaimont's behavior in the case of this Guilty Gear update reads like an ill omen of what comes after a developer faces allegations of abuse. Some might be willing to accept the consequences for their actions. Others will continue to inflict harm on those around them while building a back door for their way back into the industry.
Gamasutra has reached out to Zaimont and Team French CaliBurst to ask for their input. We will update this story if they respond.
Correction: An earlier version of this story listed the date that Zaimont laid off Lab Zero's last employees as September 3rd. The layoffs took place on August 24th. The date has been updated.