Kena: Bridge of Spirits dev Ember Lab is in hot water at the moment. A former lead designer claims that the company forced him out of the position they promised.
Brandon Popovich, a programmer and designer, claims that he created “95%” of the code for Kena: Bridge of Spirits. In an interview, he details how he has unpaid work and received a malicious offer from Ember Lab.
The offer, he notes, was far from what the rookie dev studio promised him during his work. Popovich also notes that he developed most of the mechanics of the game himself.
Popovich claims he “created the initial prototype”
In an extensive interview with VGC, Popovich alleges that at least some of his work went unpaid. He notes that much of the code for Kena came from him, as it’s the first game for Ember Lab.
He showed a ton of email exchanges between him and the company to back up the allegations. In the same story, another former contractor for the dev studio said the same.
Kena received its announcement for the PS5 in July, with Ember Lab making the game.
Ember Lab is famous on the internet for their high-quality shorts for Dust and Majora’s Mask. Their next-gen Pixar grade graphics are unbelievable, especially for a rookie dev team.
Popovich noted that his initial work with the company was to transition the earlier Unity prototype. The job was to migrate it to the Unreal Engine, but he claims it went to a full rebuild.
“I worked with Ember Lab for a number of months,” Popovich said. “During the time there I created the initial Prototype, taught the animators what they needed to know to animate games and more. We were able to work really well together with no real friction.
“Most of what was there before was only conceptualized at that point. But I wanted to make this game amazing. I wanted this game to be impactful and incredible. I was given full rein to discuss and implement ideas with the animators.”
Kena migration needed extensive rebuilding
The trailer for Kena: Bridge of Spirits is wonderful. From what they showed, it’s going to be a fantastic new IP. Even then, Popovich alleges that his influence on the game is well-beyond implementation.
The disgruntled programmer details that he created most of the mechanics of the game. He notes how he worked with Mike Grier, one of the founders, and how they discussed the game extensively.
“By January 2017 I had created the majority of the code for the Kena prototype,” He claimed. “At this time, I was working for them with a pay cut when I could, doing side work whenever possible so I could still support myself and family. Some weeks I was working 40 hours for one studio and on my free time with Ember. Other times I was working 60-hour weeks for Ember. It was pretty erratic.”
According to Popovich, he received a call one day from Mike Grier. He was offered a lead design position with none of the perks they promised. No signing bonus, no company shares, and US$50,000 less than what he expected.
“The call ended in total befuddlement,” he says. “I didn’t know what was going on. They had offered me almost half what they had promised, knowing full well that it was less than I could survive on and support my family. They also removed all share options and basically said, ‘take it or leave it.’”
Ember Lab denies allegations
Ember Lab is categorically denying many of Popovich’s claims. They note how the “hurtful” accusations are saddening. They also say that much of the game, its code, and mechanics were there before Brandon came.
“Brandon’s statement includes a number of false accusations that diminish the efforts of those who worked on the original Unity prototype and our talented team members who have worked so hard over the past 5 years,” said the statement.
“A Game Design Document, character concepts, and a fully functioning Unity prototype, including the game’s core mechanics, were developed prior to Brandon joining the project.
“Brandon was fully compensated for all of his work which focused on migrating the features of the Unity prototype to an Unreal prototype using UE4 Blueprints. None of the work developed for the Unreal prototype is currently being utilized in production. When it came time to build a team for full development, we offered Brandon a position which he declined.”
Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a Playstation-exclusive title for the console market. The game will also come out on PC, with a release date slated for March 2021.
Images courtesy of Ember Lab/Youtube Screenshot