The video game industry is littered with canceled projects and bad games, so it’s amazing when something manages to 1.) get released and 2.) be really, really good. Season: A Letter To The Future checked both boxes, arriving on PlayStation 5 and PC earlier this year to some rave reviews that praised the open-world narrative game for its beautiful art and piercing meditation on the past and how we process it. But that didn’t stop the studio behind it from recently laying off over half of its developers.
On June 20, Scavengers Studio CEO Amélie Lamarche sent an email to staff she’d never planned on writing when she co-founded it nearly eight years ago. It revealed that Season, a game about a woman documenting the world from her bike before a cataclysmic event, had only managed to sell 60,000 copies in its first five months, apparently leaving the small, Montreal-based operation out of options.
“Given the current global economic context and Season’s financial results, we have been left with no choice but to make the difficult decision of downsizing the studio to a smaller, sustainable group of game developers,” she wrote in an email the studio shared with Kotaku. “Unfortunately, this means parting ways with all but approximately sixteen members of the Scavengers Studio team.”
The remaining employees will begin work on a new “gameplay-driven” project while the studio claims it will provide financial and psychological support, as well as extended health coverage benefits, to those laid off. “It’s not a decision I took lightly,” Lamarche told Kotaku over the phone. “it’s been several months and efforts of just fucking trying to see what we could do, who we could talk to, how can we leverage more funds.”
Established in 2015, Scavengers announced the goofy, post-apocalyptic free-to-play battle royale game The Darwin Project at Microsoft’s 2017 Xbox Showcase. It launched in early access a year later, with the indie studio pivoting to its next project a couple of years later. That game, Season, made a big splash with its dazzling trailer when it was revealed at the 2020 Game Awards.
Months later, however, an expose by Gamesindustry.biz alleged a toxic work environment at the studio, driven by creative director Simon Darveau and enabled by Lamarche. She temporarily stepped down but was later reinstated after an outside investigation by Solertia Consulting Group reportedly found no “systemic sexual or psychological harassment” at the studio. Darveau was moved to a non-managerial role, and according to his LinkedIn page left Scavengers earlier this year to become creative director at a new, currently unannounced studio.
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“If half of what [I know of Season] is true then the game is going to be great, and I do not want to remove that from all my friends who are working on it,” one former Scavengers developer told Gamesindustry.biz at the time. “But I also do not feel comfortable with Scavengers being praised as a fun, cool, indie, inclusive place.”
Two years later, Season finally did arrive to tons of critical acclaim. Waypoint called it “a masterful meditation on history and memory.” Polygon wrote, “Season is about every little thing we can value in a life as fleeting as the seasons, and it’s one of my favorite games in years.” And Edge magazine gave the game a 9, lauding the game’s incisive writing and impactful dialogue choices.
But despite arriving early in 2023, earning some glowing reviews and having a timed console exclusivity deal with PlayStation, the game sold poorly. Lamarche wouldn’t reveal its budget or sales goals, but said that a few content updates and discounts in the months following launch failed to significantly move the needle. Rising interest rates and an uncertain economy didn’t make the math any easier.
Could a Game Pass deal or a spot on Sony’s rival PlayStation Plus subscription service have made up the difference? Lamarche declined to go into any detail about those discussions either. And Xbox and Switch ports for the potential Game of the Year contender now seem to be on hold with the remaining employees pivoting to the studio’s next project.
“The concept of having to make this decision is to be able to keep the survival of the studio so I wouldn’t make this kind of decision if it was not to continue to do games,” Lamarche said. In her email to staff, she hinted that Scavengers’ next game will be more in the mold of The Darwin Project, potentially signaling a return to something with more of a live-service multiplayer bent.
One thing she wanted to make clear was that the studio’s current struggles aren’t a reflection of its talent. “Everyone that has been involved either on Darwin or Season, we picked those people and they have been through so many ups and downs with me for the last [several] years,” she said. “They are golden, so it’s not a reflection of their individual performance, what’s going on.”