MMOs and politics once again collide this week as last night CNN broke the news that Robert Mueller’s FBI team has zeroed in on Russian oligarch and Renova Group chairman Viktor Vekselberg as part of the Special Counsel investigation into Russian election interference, questioning Vekselberg about money Renova’s US “affiliate” transferred to US President Donald Trump attorney Michael Cohen. (Tangentially, those allegations were brought to light by Stormy Daniels attorney Michael Avenatti.)
And the name of that US affiliate under investigation? Yeah, it’s Columbus Nova, the firm that claimed it acquired MMORPG studio Daybreak back in 2015. Here we go again.
“FBI agents asked Vekselberg about payments his company’s American affiliate, Columbus Nova, made to Cohen, according to one source,” CNN reports. “The Russian was questioned as well about $300,000 in political donations by Andrew Intrater, Vekselberg’s American cousin who is the head of Columbus Nova, sources said.” Columbus Nova claimed to CNN that it is “owned and controlled by Americans”; it further denies any use of “Columbus Nova as a conduit for payments” to Cohen.
A little backstory: In April, we covered the US government’s impending sanctions and asset freeze of Renova Group, fearing that MMORPG company Daybreak’s overlords at Columbus Nova would be swept up in the chaos, which in retrospect is adorable, given how it’s since teleported to the front page of the New York Times. So we reached out to Daybreak seeking reassurance. Daybreak then did the bizarre: It effectively made Massively OP the beneficiary of the breaking news that Daybreak in fact claimed “no affiliation with Columbus Nova” and that former Columbus Nova rep Jason Epstein “is and has always been the primary owner and executive chairman of Daybreak Game Company.”
This came as a huge shock that rippled outward even to mainstream gaming sites, as Daybreak and Columbus Nova had been claiming in press releases, privacy policies, Reddit, interviews, and even Wikipedia that CN had acquired Daybreak since February of 2015 when SOE sold it. When pushed for clarification, Daybreak told us that its three years of statements amounted to a “miscommunication,” that the “distinction was never corrected in the past, so [it was] correcting that now.” Oh, and by “correcting,” it apparently meant outright deleting hosted documents and Wikipedia entries to the contrary (which the MMO community dutifully anticipated and recorded).
That stunner was followed up by the sudden departure of Daybreak’s Chief Publishing Officer and former Senior Vice President, Laura Naviaux. And then the day after that, Daybreak laid off at least 70 people; according to our sources, it was an unrelated downsizing due to the poor performance of H1Z1, but its catastrophic timing added fuel to the fire and ignited new rumors, such as the rumor that Daybreak was in the middle of acquisition talks and that it in fact owned Standing Stone Games outright rather than merely published LOTRO and DDO.
After the layoffs, Daybreak then made a new claim to Ars Technica – and this should bring us full circle – that not only did Columbus Nova never own Daybreak, but Renova didn’t own Columbus Nova, and so therefore Daybreak would clearly prefer we conclude that Daybreak is in no danger whatsoever, in spite of the fact that “ownership” is not really the only thing that matters to the investigation or the sanctions (hence why the papers keep using the term “affiliate”). In any case, these claims are seemingly contradicted by the public record as well as Renova’s own website as of February of this year, and it remains unclear whether law enforcement will be persuaded by corporate semantics.
Get caught up on the whole Daybreak/Columbus Nova fiasco:
I can answer this question since I wrote that sentence. Here are some domains purchased by Columbus Nova:
alt-right (dot) co
alternate-rt (dot) com
alt-rite (dot) com
(7 other variations on that theme)
1-800getalife (dot) com
carlcuck (dot) com
cnnjournal (dot) com https://t.co/LGQsTRBzuh
— Ben Collins (@oneunderscore__) May 9, 2018
“They were purchased in Columbus Nova’s name by Frederick Intrater—the company’s design manager, brother of CEO Andrew Intrater and cousin of Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg, who owns parent company Renova—using Columbus Nova’s NYC address,” the NBC journalist (and article co-author) continued on Twitter. “It doesn’t appear any of these sites actually hosted any content, but the alt-right domains were purchased in 2016 and 2017.” So yep. With thanks to Dan.
@MSandersonD, who’s been digging up a lot of dirt on Daybreak and CN on Twitter, noted a GIbiz piece that reports game studio Harmonix – which was also purchased by Columbus Nova – is denying that the purchase ever happened. Bizarrely, Harmonix also claims it has “corrected [it] multiple times over the last 7+ years,” though the Harmonix rep making the claim could not provide those corrections. GIbiz says it couldn’t find any record of those corrections in its research either. Somehow, we suspect they don’t exist.
Finally, a Daybreak community manager told H1Z1 players on Reddit that the game’s weekly stream had been effectively canceled because of a “company-wide meeting today that starts before and ends after our usual stream times.” It’s not clear what that meeting is about, though there’s plenty of speculation right now about the bleak future of Just Survive, given that Daybreak hasn’t piped up about the future of the game since the layoffs back in April. (Thanks, Kinya!)