Skullgirls Developer MikeZ Under Fire For Abuse Of Power & Toxic Work Culture

If you told me a year ago that Lab Zero Games would be collapsing in real-time, I would have scoffed. Yet, here we are today. Mike Zaimont is a certified villain, the staff are resigning left and right, and their partners are leaving them behind. It’s honestly astonishing to see how Lab Zero has gone from an indie darling studio to another blight on gaming because of one man. But as 2020 continues to show us, nothing is outside the realm of possibility.

For the unaware, Mike Zaimont (or MikeZ) was the lead design director and a programmer at Lab Zero. Mike oversaw the creation of Skullgirls, a game that hardly needs any introduction. He also worked on Indivisible, a game I’ll discuss a little later. He was the face of Lab Zero and the most general point of contact when it came to community matters. Over time, MikeZ’s name was synonymous with Skullgilrls and he was a hero among the people.

Which is what makes his fall all the more surprising. It all began with a racist joke during a stream where he made an “I can’t breathe” joke. Weird interactions before this were brushed off as mere awkwardness, but this was the first time his image was damaged. However, it wouldn’t stick too much. While there were plenty of people criticizing him, there were those ready to defend him. The incident was brushed off as him being socially inept, especially by respected figureheads in the community. Dominique “Sonicfox” McLean and Sheila “Sharpie” Moore went to bat for MikeZ, noting that they talked to Mike and he understood his mistake. This was a particularly bold move since they were black. Despite the backlash of their defense, the event passed over, and very little in the way of consequences happened.

Not long after that, he was in another controversy. This time, it involved sexual comments to a popular streamer, Bunny, in her DMs. Now, reading the DMs does show that she made the first move, but Mike obviously took it too far. This incident would prove to be even more divisive than the last. A good amount of the public blamed Bunny for approaching him and initiating. Still, Mike was held accountable, earning him bans from EVO and from Skullgirls community events. It also sparked the conversation once again about the “I can’t breathe” joke, but only briefly. However, these two situations would be proven to simply part of who MikeZ was.

In a sudden move, the senior animator at Lab Zero Jonathan Kim made a twitter post noting his resignation. But more damning was the account of MikeZ and his behavior at the studio. In the post, Jonathan discusses how Mike “abused his position of power to put his coworkers in uncomfortable and stressful situations for years.” Those situations included frequent talk about his genitals, insulting coworkers, and threatening those who didn’t fall in line with his expectations. It was a damning account, and it wouldn’t be the last.

Art producer Brian Jun would be next to announce his resignation. His statement sheds more light on the business side of things, citing that Mike had become the sole owner of Lab Zero. Given the prior incidents, he was simply asked to step down and leave Lab Zero. Unfortunately, Mike is the sole owner and used that position to make demands that were “unrealistically high and potentially illegal.” He left it at reminding people to support Skullgirls since Lab Zero doesn’t own the IP since that was their passion project.

Mariel Cartwright, an artist and animator, would be next to resign but her account was probably the hardest to read. She gave a very direct account of what happened at Lab Zero, revealing that she endured years of abuse. From sexual comments about her clothes to inappropriate jokes, and abusing his power to force her to endure it all. I urge you to give her post a read, but it was infuriating to see that this man who so many trusted and thought was a great guy was such a scumbag.

Finally, the Skullgirls IP owner and publisher Autumn Games along with the Skullgirls mobile developer Hidden Valley had to make a statement on the issue. They’ve cut ties with Lab Zero and have offered to take in those who have been hurt by the Lab Zero situation. SonicFox has also gone public, offering help to anyone affected by this situation while condemning MikeZ. Even one of the most vocal supporters of Skullgirls, DaPurpleSharpie, has moved away from Skullgirls to Them’s Fighting Herds. As expected, they’ve faced backlash after being seen as “two-faced” but that’s the shortsighted nature of Twitter at work. I’m personally happy to see that they’ve made the turnarounds they’ve made.

What this whole situation teaches us is that when there’s smoke, there’s fire. I won’t say this could have been avoided after that racist joke, but I will say that he got off too easy. Still, what’s done is done and I hope the good people at Lab Zero find better places to pursue their passion. While Skullgirls isn’t my favorite game, it’s a game I’ve enjoyed and I can see the love and passion put into this game. I’ve played it since the initial release date and have been a casual supporter since. It sucks to know that game was made under such horrid conditions, but I hope it gets better from here for them.

Autumn Games recently announced a brand new character Annie, who will be added to Skullgirls Mobile and later Skullgirls 2nd Encore in 2021.

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