An Open Letter to Paul Bettner

16 Mar
16 March 2010

Paul,

You and I worked together at Ensemble Studios for more than a decade.   I respect your right to your own opinion and your right to state it.  However,  I take issue with the manner you have decided to speak about your displeasure with “crunch culture” at the 2010 GDC. 

In several email exchanges, you seem to indicate that your comments are being taken out of context but you need only visit any of the summaries regarding your talk to see the message you have given people: 

Escapist – Ensemble Studio Member Blames Crunch For Failure

Eurogamer – Crunch Culture Killed Ensemble Studios

Edge – Crunch Brought Down Ensemble

Industry Gamers - Halo Wars Developer Talks About How ‘Crunch’ Destroyed Ensemble

Devlop Online – Crunch Culture Killed Ensemble

Joystiq - Recently laid-off devs rant about being recently laid off

You have given people the impression that Ensemble was inefficient and expensive.  

It is true that each of our games cost more to make than the last.  This was not unique to Ensemble and had nothing to do with a “crunch culture”.  Between Age of Empires in 1997 and Halo Wars in 2009, game development budgets, team sizes, and schedules increased across the board.  This was primarily fueled by the maturation of 3D and publishers adopting portfolio strategies focused on big-ticket “blockbuster” games.  

Ensemble danced to this tune and shipped five major titles (each of which gained membership into the million+ club) and four expansion packs (five if you count the one developed by Big Huge Games) during this period.  I invite you to compare that to our peers — take a look at the number of games put out by Valve or Blizzard or Epic during the same time and speak with the people we know at these studios about their budgets and teams.  The truth of the matter is, Ensemble Studios, while certainly fond of numerous inefficient development practices, was no costlier or less efficient than any other developer of our caliber during this period of operation.

You have given people the impression that Ensemble burned out our best people.

Your comments include statements regarding chasing people out of the industry, destroying “precious artists”, wrecking families, and causing people to “sacrifice their youth”.  

Ensemble enjoyed a reputation as a place you didn’t leave.  Our retention rates, including people who did not exit the company voluntarily, were in the vicinity of 90%.  You will find few developers who can claim this at all and you will find none amongst the ones who actually “wreck families” or ask people to “sacrifice their youth”.  

Of the people who were once in the studio, the vast majority are still in the games business.  Of the people who worked at other developers prior to Ensemble, the most common complaint was that the studio was too lax, that we allowed our people too much freedom and did not hammer individuals for playing games or not being at their desks by the official start of the workday.  There were certainly people at Ensemble who did not like working long hours for extended periods (all of them, in fact) but your implication that it was a place that used people up is wholly untrue and contrary to all evidence.  

You have given people the impression that Ensemble accepted crunch. 

The leadership of Ensemble Studios saw crunch as a failure.  While it was certainly used, it was never “institutionalized” or accepted.  Tony Goodman, Harter Ryan, Chris Rippy, and David Pottinger, in particular, worked to eliminate or at least reduce it constantly and we improved this with each game. 

Prior to Halo Wars, which required what it did for the circumstances surrounding the closure of the studio, we had crunches that were scheduled in advance, typically for two weeks in duration, with extra hours (usually 10 until 10) four days a week, normal Fridays and weekends off, with chefs who came in to cook meals for the team twice a day, usually a family night during one of the weeks, with a month or so of extra paid vacation after a game shipped.  That was a far cry from the do-or-die conditions during Age of Empires and the leadership was still upset about having to ask people to do it. 

You have given people the impression that the closure of Ensemble was somehow a “fiscally responsible decision” and that Ensemble is to blame for the closure. 

Every single game Ensemble Studios made, across more than a decade, paid for it’s development and made a profit.  Microsoft had it’s reasons for closing the studio but to imply that it was because we cost too much is fiction.  ES enjoyed a long relationship with Microsoft (as many ex-Studios people now at Robot or Bonfire still do), first as a partner and then as part of the corporation after 2001 – if, at any point, the leadership in Redmond wanted to reduce the cost of making games in Dallas, they could have done so with a phone call.        

You have given people the impression that you speak with authority.

By apologising for your inactions “as a manager”, you suggest that you were a manager and therefore imply that you have some insight into the operation of the studio or into the justifications for our closing.  You were never a member of the management team at Ensemble Studios.  For that matter, neither you, nor anyone else, was “Creative Director” at our studio.  You were in no way involved in any of the conversations between Ensemble’s and Microsoft’s leadership regarding the closure of the studio.

As I said, I respect your right to have and state your opinion.  I would request that you not suggest or allow people to assume that you speak from a position that you did not hold.    

Since we’re on the topic of looking back on mistakes we made, I will leave you with this:

All of us knew what Ensemble was and we signed on for it willingly (including Microsoft, who purchased us in the middle of developing our third game with them and who knew what we were like).  Of the “old timers”, none of us wanted to work at a factory, beholden to a rigid schedule, cranking out mediocre games to keep the lights on and we did our best to attract like-minded individuals.  We wanted the freedom to try things, to experiment, and to set our sights on unreasonable goals (an attitude very similar to the “65% of the impossible is better than 100% of the ordinary” espoused by Google). 

We exercised that freedom and certainly valued it far more than efficiency.  With that independence came the responsibility to actually get things done on occasion so, yes, sometimes after we had steered hard left into the weeds, we needed to work long hours to get the car back on the road. 

If you want to find mistakes with what we did, I’d suggest that those trips into the weeds, looking for new territory, with a partner who wasn’t fond of being there, was more our error.  Had we decided to crank out RTS after RTS instead of chasing after the MMOs and FPSs and RPGs and RTS-differents we constantly had in prototype, I’m sure we would have been a more efficient studio that could have operated with zero crunch. 

The vast majority of us didn’t want to do this.  I’m glad for that.

Regards,

Ian M. Fischer

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3 replies
  1. logicle says:

    For the record, the Ensemble described in the blog coverage does not resemble the Ensemble I worked for until it’s closing early last year. Ian is right on many counts. What Paul said doesn’t compute with the Paul I knew.

  2. Verbinator says:

    Despite our time at Ensemble crossing by over 6 years, I never really worked closely with Paul Bettner or even got to know him that well. But apparently, even though we worked in the same offices, we must have worked for different companies. That’s not the Ensemble I remember and had not Microsoft decided to close us down for “financial reasons” I would be working there still.

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