Former Ensemble manager rejects 'crunch' claim

Former Ensemble manager rejects 'crunch' claim
Michael French

By Michael French

March 16th 2010 at 11:50PM

Game designer Ian Fischer rejects claims by supposed creative director made at GDC

One of the former staff of Ensemble Studios has hit back at suggestions made by a colleague that the now-closed Microsoft-owned team was striken with crunch issues.

Last week at GDC, 12-year Ensemble employee Paul Bettner defended Microsoft’s decision to shut down the group – placing blame on the studio’s own toxic crunch culture and unrealistic targets.

Bettner said that in his view as creative director, the studio was on course to self-destruct. Microsoft shut the studio down in late 2008.

"The reality is that every single game we shipped took twice as long as we said it was going to take, and cost twice as much to make,” Bettner said.

"This is a horrible vicious cycle,” he added. “We burn out all our best people. We destroy these precious artists, we wreck their families and we sacrifice their youth. So they leave, and they take all their experience with them."

But former colleague Ian Fischer isn't having any of that.

Writing on his blog, Fischer refutes all of Bettner's claims - right down the fact that Bettner says he served as creative director.

"I take issue with the manner you have decided to speak about your displeasure with “crunch culture” at the 2010 GDC," says Fischer, adding that Bettner seems to have told him privately that media reports following his GDC talk (including Develop's) misrepresent him - a claim which Fischer rejects.

Fischer denies that Ensemble was inefficient: "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."

He also denies that the studio burnt out its staff: "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”."

And he rubbishes the idea that crunch became the norm at Ensemble: "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."

He also offers his own take on the path the studio took by chosing to work in house with Microsoft: "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."

Click here to read Fischer's full open letter to Bettner